Illustration of a bodybuilder doing a 4-day training split to build muscle.

The Best Training Splits for Building Muscle

In this article, we’ll cover how often to train your muscles, how to spread those training sessions out, and which training splits are best for building muscle. There’s no one right answer. There are plenty of good training splits. We’ll go over the pros and cons of each so you can pick the one that suits you best.

Illustration of a skinny guy bulking up and building muscle.

The Ideal Training Volume & Frequency

Before we delve into training splits, we need to talk about how much and how often you should train your muscles. Once we know that, we can figure out how to divide up your workouts into a split that gives you the best training volume and frequency.

How Many Sets Should You Do?

Let’s start with how much you should train your muscles. If we look at a meta-analysis by Schoenfeld et al., we see that your rate of muscle growth increases with every additional challenging set you do, at least to a point. If we look at another study by Aube et al., we see that by the time you’re doing 6 sets per muscle per workout, we start building less muscle with every extra set that we do.

Graph showing how many sets we should do per muscle group per week to build muscle.

That gives us a relationship that looks something like this, with 9–18 sets per week yielding a maximal amount of muscle growth. The catch is that we need to spread that volume out so that we aren’t doing more than around 6 sets per muscle per workout. For instance, doing 3 sets of bench press on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday gives us 9 sets per week to bulk up your chest, which is perfect.

Now, there’s a caveat here. We’re assuming that you’re doing hypertrophy training, lifting in a way that’s ideal for building muscle. If your sets are too heavy (1–5 reps per set) or too light (40+ reps per set), you won’t stimulate muscle growth as efficiently, and so may need more sets. If your rest times are too short, your muscles won’t be able to do as much work, and so you may need extra sets. And if you aren’t choosing good exercises, you may not be challenging your muscles in as deep of a stretch, and so you may need extra sets. Conversely, if you were taking each set to total failure, you wouldn’t be able to recover from as many sets, and so you’d benefit from doing fewer.

9–18 sets per muscle group per week is a good default, but a little more or less is fine, and everyone is a little different. For beginners, 9 sets per muscle per week is a great place to start. For more, we have a full article on training volume.

How Often Should You Train Your Muscles?

The next thing to consider is how often you should train your muscles. We’re aiming for at least 9 sets for each muscle each week. But if we do more than 6 sets per muscle per workout, it stops being effective. In fact, it may begin to reduce your muscle growth. So ideally, you want to split those 9+ sets into at least two workouts.

Graph showing muscle growth with different training frequencies and workout splits.

If we look at another meta-analysis by Schoenfeld et al., we see that the logic holds. If we train our muscles at least twice per week, we gain muscle quite a bit faster than if we only train them once. When we’re training more than twice per week, though, it stops mattering.

Training your muscles at least twice per week is ideal for building muscle. For more, we have a full article on training frequency.

How Long Should You Rest Between Workouts?

One of the main purposes of training splits is to let your muscles grow and heal between workouts. It usually takes around three days for a muscle to finish growing and healing. But it can take even longer if you’re new to training, taking your sets to failure, or doing a ton of sets for each muscle (study).

Here’s the part that few people talk about:

  • Some parts of your body are stressed each workout, even if you aren’t training them directly. You hold the barbell in your hands whether you’re doing deadlifts or bench presses. You’re putting weight on your spine whether you’re doing squats or overhead presses. Even if you split your workouts up into different muscle groups, you may still be hammering some areas every single workout.
  • Even if your muscles have recovered, your tendons and joints may not have.

If you’re desperate to build muscle, it can be tempting to go all-in. It can be tempting to lift in lower rep ranges, to bring every set close to failure, and to train as often as possible. That can be risky. It’s fine for building muscle in the short term—neither better nor worse than a more sensible approach—but it can take a real toll on your body in the longer term.

Everyone has different predispositions for injury. Many people get away with reckless training. But many people also wind up injured, aching, and nursing chronic injuries. It often helps to start with full rest days between workouts, only 3 sets per exercise, and only 3 workouts per week. That’s enough to stimulate a maximal amount of muscle growth but not so much that it starts truly beating you up.

Your muscles will usually recover within 1–3 days, especially once you get used to your training routine. Some training splits are designed to allow you to train every day, alternating between different muscles. Those can be great, but as a beginner, it’s often best to take full days of rest between your workouts.

A Breakdown of the Best Training Splits

To build muscle at full speed, we need to do at least 9 sets per muscle per week and we need to train each muscle at least twice per week. That gives us a ton of freedom when designing our training splits. There are many different workout routines that are perfect for building muscle.

So, how do you pick your training split? It depends on your experience level, your goals, and your preferences. Each split has its own advantages and disadvantages.

Full-Body Workout Routines

A full-body workout is one where you train most of the muscles in your body. You don’t need to train every muscle in your body. For instance, if you do a goblet squat, bench press, Romanian deadlift, and chin-up, you haven’t trained your neck or calves, but it still counts as a full-body workout. These big compound lifts are incredibly good for packing on muscle mass, and so if we’re doing all of them every 2–3 days, we can gain muscle at a tremendous pace.

Illustration showing how to do chin-ups to build muscle in the upper back and biceps.

Full-body workout routines aren’t always training splits. Some full-body routines will have you repeating the same exercises every workout. Every workout, you’d do the goblet squat, bench press, Romanian deadlift, and chin-up. That’s not a split. Every workout uses the same exercises to train the same muscles. These routines are amazing for practicing the big compound exercises, less good for building muscle.

Most full-body workout routines are splits. Each workout trains the entire body, but each workout uses slightly different lifts. Maybe one workout you’re doing the goblet squat, bench press, chin-up, biceps curl, and triceps extension. And then the next workout you’re doing Romanian deadlifts, push-ups, rows, lateral raises, and crunches. This is less good for practicing the big compound exercises, but it gives you greater exercise variety and more balanced muscle growth.

Most popular beginner routines try to get the best of both worlds. If you look at a program like Starting Strength, you’ll see that they repeat the back squat every workout, but they alternate between different pressing and pulling movements. That gives more practice on the hardest lift (the squat) and less practice on the easier lifts (such as the row). We take a similar approach. We practice the difficult movements (like squats, push-ups, and chin-ups) while alternating the isolation movements (like biceps curls, triceps extensions, and lateral raises).

Most full-body routines are done 3x per week, like so:

  • Monday: full-body workout.
  • Tuesday: rest.
  • Wednesday: full-body workout.
  • Thursday: rest.
  • Friday: full-body workout.
  • Saturday: rest.
  • Sunday: rest.

Full-body workout routines boast several advantages:

  • There’s a huge emphasis on the big compound lifts. If you need to train your entire body in a single workout, you need to rely on compound lifts. These compound lifts are incredible for building muscle.
  • Full-body workouts are the most efficient way to build muscle. Every workout, you’re stimulating growth in every muscle. Even with just three workouts per week, you can build muscle at full speed.
  • Full-body workouts are amazing for gaining strength. Frequent practice is a huge aspect of improving your coordination. If you’re squatting, benching, and deadlifting three times per week, your strength and skill will improve extremely fast.
  • There’s plenty of emphasis on recovery. There’s a full day of rest between each workout, giving your muscles, joints, and tendons plenty of time to recover. This is especially important for beginners, who may not have built up much toughness yet.

Full-body workouts also have several disadvantages:

  • They leave less time for isolation lifts. After doing compound lifts for all your major muscle groups, you won’t have much energy left for isolation lifts. For beginners, this doesn’t matter very much. For intermediate and advanced lifters, getting stronger at isolation lifts is an important part of developing all of your muscles.
  • As you get stronger, lifting weights becomes more tiring. You need to do more warm-up sets, lift more weight, do more sets, and add in more isolation lifts. Trying to fit all of that into just three workouts per week gets hard.
  • Full-body workouts don’t suit higher training frequencies very well. You could do five full-body workouts per week, choosing different exercises each workout. But at that point, it’s hard for your joints and tendons to recover. If you want to train more often, training splits are usually better.
  • The workouts can be long. Most full-body workouts take at least 45 minutes, and 90-minute workouts aren’t uncommon.

Overall, full-body workouts are usually ideal for beginners who are trying to build muscle, gain strength, and improve their health. They’re a great default during your first couple years of lifting. (I gained my first 40 pounds with full-body workouts.)

Upper/Lower Split Workout Routines

An upper/lower split has you dividing up your workouts into upper-body and lower-body workouts. For instance, maybe you do squats, Romanian deadlifts, and calf raises during your lower-body workouts, and bench presses, chin-ups, and arm exercises during your upper-body workouts.

Illustration of a man doing a barbell sumo deadlift.

The classic upper/lower split will have you training 4 days per week, like so:

  • Monday: upper-body workout.
  • Tuesday: lower-body workout.
  • Wednesday: rest.
  • Thursday: upper-body workout.
  • Friday: lower-body workout.
  • Saturday: rest.
  • Sunday: rest.

This is a great training split for intermediate lifters who are beginning to struggle with full-body workouts. It spreads the workload out a bit more, making each workout a bit easier. It also allows them add extra emphasis to their lower-body training, which can be helpful for a lot of sports. When Marco was a strength coach working with college, professional, and Olympic athletes, these routines were very popular with his clients.

Advanced bodybuilders often prefer the 6-day version:

  • Monday: upper-body workout.
  • Tuesday: lower-body workout.
  • Wednesday: upper-body workout.
  • Thursday: lower-body workout.
  • Friday: upper-body workout.
  • Saturday: lower-body workout.
  • Sunday: rest.

There are a few advantages to upper/lower training splits:

  • You get an extra 1–3 days in the gym, giving you more freedom to do shorter workouts or add in more isolation exercises. It also spreads out the effort, making each workout easier.
  • Upper/lower splits put more emphasis on the lower body, which is great for athletes who need a ton of lower body power. Think rugby or football players. It’s also great for bodybuilders who are trying to build huge legs. And for powerlifters who are eager to gain squat and deadlift strength.

There are a few disadvantages, too:

  • You need to spend 1–3 extra days in the gym.
  • Some areas of your body are stressed each workout, including your hands, your core, and your spine. Mind you, you can mitigate this by choosing lighter lifts with less axial loading (like split squats instead of squats) or by using exercise machines (like the leg press).

Overall, upper/lower splits are ideal for intermediate and advanced athletes, bodybuilders, and powerlifters who want to spend 1–3 extra days lifting weights and want to put extra emphasis on leg development.

Push/Pull/Legs Workout Routines

The push/pull/legs split divides our body up into the push muscles (chest, shoulders, and triceps), the pull muscles (back and biceps), and the leg muscles (glutes, quads, and hamstrings). These muscles tend to work together, such as the bench press working the chest, shoulders, and triceps, or the chin-up working both the back and biceps.

There are two common variations of the push/pull/legs workout. The first is the 3-day variation:

  • Monday: chest day.
  • Tuesday: rest.
  • Wednesday: back day.
  • Thursday: rest.
  • Friday: leg day.
  • Saturday: rest.
  • Sunday: rest.
Illustration of a man doing a barbell bench press.

These workouts were extremely popular back in the day, but they aren’t a great way to build muscle. They only train each muscle once per week, and the volume is far too high in each workout. If you’re only training 3 days per week, it’s better to do full-body workouts.

There’s a 6-day push/pull/legs variation, though, and it solves all of these problems:

  • Monday: chest day.
  • Tuesday: back day.
  • Wednesday: leg day.
  • Thursday: chest day.
  • Friday: back day.
  • Saturday: leg day.
  • Sunday: rest.

Each muscle is trained twice per week with a reasonable volume. It’s a much better way to train, and it’s very popular among advanced bodybuilders who eager to bulk up their upper bodies.

Push/pull/legs splits have a few notable advantages:

  • Push/pull/legs splits put proportional emphasis on the upper body, which is great for improving your appearance. A chest day can include the bench press, overhead press, and triceps extensions. Back day can include chin-ups, rows, and biceps curls. Leg day can include squats, Romanian deadlifts, and calf raises. All of the big movements and muscle groups can be trained with equal fervour.
  • They also spread out the effort, giving you more freedom to do shorter, easier workouts or add in more isolation exercises.

There are a few disadvantages, too:

  • You need to spend 3 extra days in the gym.
  • Some areas of your body are stressed each workout, including your hands, your core, and your spine. With that said, if you’re careful, you can choose a mix of lifts that won’t have you overdoing it. Think of leg presses instead of squats and one-arm dumbell presses instead of barbell overhead presses.

Overall, 6-day push/pull/legs splits are ideal for advanced lifters and bodybuilders who are trying to fully develop their physiques. They’re also ideal for recreational lifters who prefer doing short workouts every day instead of longer workouts every second day.

Bro Splits (Push/Pull/Legs/Arms)

Bro splits are similar to 3-day push/pull/legs splits, except that there’s an extra day dedicated to arm training (and sometimes another extra day dedicated to shoulder training). They look like this:

  • Monday: chest day.
  • Tuesday: rest.
  • Wednesday: back day.
  • Thursday: rest.
  • Friday: leg day.
  • Saturday: arm day.
  • Sunday: rest.
Illustration of a bodybuilder flexing his arms.

3-day push/pull/legs splits aren’t ideal for building muscle, but this solves some of those problems in an interesting way, and I’m actually quite fond of this approach. I don’t use this approach, but I’m fond of the idea.

Bro splits have a few advantages:

  • The upper body muscles can be trained twice per week, which is ideal for muscle growth. To do this, you’d need compound lfits on your arm day. Think of chin-ups for your biceps and the close-grip bench press for your triceps. The arms are emphasized, but you’re still training your chest and back.
  • Your arms get extra emphasis, which is great for skinny guys with lanky arms (like me!). It’s very common for skinny guys to have their arms lag behind. These routines solve that problem by adding in a dedicated arm day. On these arm days, we prioritize smaller lifts that are ideal for building bigger arms: close-grip bench, skull crushers, biceps curls, and forearm exercises.
  • The workouts are slightly easier. Because of the extra training day, we aren’t trying to cram quite as much work into each workout.

There are a few disadvantages to bro splits, too:

  • You have to spend an extra day in the gym.
  • Your legs aren’t trained often enough. One leg day per week isn’t enough to maximize the rate of muscle growth in your legs.
  • It’s not quite ideal for your torso muscles. Your chest and back can be trained a little on arm day, but if you’re eager to grow your chest and back, full-body workout routines will do a slightly better job of it.
  • The compound lifts are only done once per week. Each exercise is only trained once per week. That’s not ideal for improving your coordination and strength. As a result, these splits are a poor choice for beginners.

Overall, the bro-split is ideal for intermediate lifters who want to put a bit of extra emphasis on their arms at the cost of their legs. It’s not a fully ideal way to train, but it can be fun to try nonetheless.

Hybrid Workout Splits

There are a million different workout splits, and you can invent any style that you want. For instance, my favourite 4-day workout routine is a split that combines a full-body split with an upper/lower routine, like so:

  • Monday: full-body.
  • Tuesday: rest.
  • Wednesday: full-body.
  • Thursday: rest.
  • Friday: deadlifts and squats.
  • Saturday: upper-body lifts.
  • Sunday: rest.

The heavy squats and deadlifts get their own day, keeping that work short, focused, and heavy. That frees up room for a fun Saturday where I can do my favourite upper-body lifts without worrying about my lower body. This is one of the options in our Outlift Intermediate Bulking Program, and it’s how I gained my last 10–15 pounds of muscle.

Summary

As a general rule of thumb, beginners benefit from fewer sets and more days of full recovery. This biases them towards full-body workouts. Intermediates, on the other hand, are lifting more weight, their training is more tiring, and they benefit from doing slightly more sets. As a result, they can benefit from splitting their work up over more days, which is where upper/lower splits, push/pull/legs splits, and bro splits come in.

  • Full-body workouts: ideal for beginners who want to get bigger and stronger. A good default is to do these full-body workouts three times per week with 1–2 days of rest between each workout.
  • 3-day push/pull/legs splits: not ideal. Full-body routines are better if you’re only working out 2–3 times per week.
  • 4-day upper/lower splits: ideal for athletes and intermediate lifters who want to emhasize their legs.
  • 4-day bro splits: ideal for intermediate recreational lifters who want to emphasize their arms.
  • 6-day upper/lower splits: ideal for advanced lifters who want to emhasize their legs.
  • 6-day push/pull/legs splits: ideal for advanced bodybuilders who know how to manage their recovery. Also ideal for experienced recreational lifters who enjoy doing short daily workouts.
Illustration of a skinny guy bulking up leanly.

There are a million other splits, and many of them are perfect for building muscle. All you need to do is make sure you’re training each muscle at least twice per week, that you aren’t doing more than around 6 sets per muscle per workout, and that you’re letting your body (including your joints and tendons) recover properly between workouts.

Illustration showing the Bony to Beastly Bulking Program

If you want more muscle-building information, we have a free bulking newsletter for skinny guys. If you want a full foundational bulking program, including a 5-month full-body workout routine, diet guide, recipe book, and online coaching, check out our Bony to Beastly Bulking Program. Or, if you want a customizable intermediate muscle-building program, check out our Outlift Program.

Shane Duquette is the co-founder and creative lead of Outlift, Bony to Beastly, and Bony to Bombshell, and has a degree in design from York University in Toronto, Canada. He's personally gained sixty pounds at 11% body fat and has nine years of experience helping over ten thousand skinny people bulk up.

Marco Walker-Ng is the co-founder and strength coach of Outlift, Bony to Beastly, and Bony to Bombshell, and is a certified trainer (PTS) with a Bachelor's degree in Health Sciences (BHSc) from the University of Ottawa. His specialty is helping people build muscle to improve their strength and general health, with clients including college, professional, and Olympic athletes.

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4 Comments

  1. Spencer on July 29, 2021 at 10:26 am

    I just found this site and there is so much great info!

    What do you think of having an “A” workout and a “B” workout and alternating between the two, with a rest day on between? A, rest, B, rest, A, rest, B etc.

    Workout A: 4×8 bench, 3×15 row, 3×6 deadlift, 3×12 skullcrushers, 3×10 hanging leg raises.

    Workout B: 4×8 chinups, 4×8 OHpress, 4×8 squat, 3×12 curls, 3×12 lateral raise.

    I love the simplicity but would like to hear your thoughtsin regards to optimizing hypertrophy.

    Thanks!

    • Shane Duquette on July 29, 2021 at 3:34 pm

      Hey Spencer, thank you so much!

      Yeah, totally. A/B workout routines can be perfect. Your version of it looks absolutely killer, too. You’ve got great full-body workouts there, both are balanced, your exercise selection is great, and both workouts complement each other well. That’s exactly how to do it 🙂

      • Spencer on July 29, 2021 at 3:40 pm

        Thanks Shane. This site and Outlift are like a two-stop shop for all of my hypertrophy training needs!

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