Bodypart Split Q & A

I received this question via email from a friend I had been helping out with some programming. I realized it would be best turned into a blog post, as his question can be quite a hot topic of debate. I do apologize in advance, as this blog post is a bit more geeky and *circumlocutious than other posts. So, for those of you interested in the video-based and picture-based entries, you may need to skip through a bunch of science to get to such things. My apologies.

*Yes, I used that word. It means "wordy." I learned it in a C.S. Lewis book club in college. Did I mention I'm cool? Anyway, moving on....

Question: I wanted to ask you if you could point me in the direction of any studies showing that training as you have shown [to me] is more effective in training strength, size, endurance...anything...when compared to bodypart split routines. I have some friends who insist that the only way to achieve mass/strength gains in your chest (for example) is to do 3x10 incline, 3x10 decline, 3x10 flat, 3x10 flies, etc. all one day a week (or the whole inverted pyramid with five sets where you start with 10 reps and end with 2-3).

I want to disprove them and convert them to this marvelous new's like a burning fire within me, but me saying things like "it makes more sense based on how you move on a daily basis or during sports", or "if you train your whole body three days a week it's ostensibly the same as doing 3-4 exercises per muscle group per day" doesn't cut it for them.

…coming from neuroscience/psychology I have very little understanding of general terminology for pubmed searches in exercise physiology and other such related fields which could be useful in disproving my friends. Just kind of looking for some 'pointing in the right direction', is all.

Answer: First things first, I don't necessarily think that bodypart splits are good for nothing. Most training methodologies can produce results given they are within the proper context and executed appropriately. My particular training philosophy is heavily influenced by the nature of my job, on top of the consistent results I've seen in my work. I don't necessarily think there is a 100% superior way of training, but I will share what I've found to work for the majority of people, the majority of the time.

Moving on, yes, I can point you to a few studies. However, I wouldn’t allow research to solely dictate your stance on this topic (or any other, for that matter), but more on that later. Here are two studies:

1. McLester et al., “Comparison of 1 Day and 3 Days Per Week of Equal-Volume Resistance Training in Experienced Subjects” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research; 2000, 14(3), 273-281

This study compared the SAME volume of training per muscle per week (ex. 3 sets performed once per week, as you see in a typical split routine…Vs. 1 set performed three times per week.

Results: the one day per week group achieved only 62% of the strength improvements of the 3 day group and a lesser increase in muscle.

Take home point: This study showed that training a muscle three times per week resulted in significantly more lean body mass and strength gains compared to doing the same volume once per week (in other words, three sets, three times per week is a superior stimulus to nine sets performed once per week). Also, note that the subjects in this study were experienced lifters, which is an important point (with beginners, almost anything will elicit strength gains).

2. Wernbom et al., "The influence of frequency, intensity, volume and mode of strength training on whole muscle cross-sectional area in humans." Sports Medicine 2007; 37(3): 225-64. Review.

As you can see, this one is a review. What they did was looked at several studies on strength training and hypertrophy (increasing muscle size) across a bunch of populations.

Take home point: Their conclusion was that, for increasing muscle size, it’s better to train each muscle group three times per week, as opposed to once per week.

As for the rest of my answer, I’ll go ahead and make a list, as it will be a bit easier to follow:

A. Note that what these studies are basically saying is that FREQUENCY IS KING. When looking at a number of exercises to perform in a given week to reach your goal (mass gains, fat loss, sport performance, etc.) it is better to space out a given number of exercises throughout the week, as opposed to clumping the same number of exercises in one session.

When you look at other areas of life, the same rule usually applies. When the doctor hands you prescription medicine, is it better to take the entire bottle at once, or take a couple pills each day, spread throughout the course of the week? Clearly, you’ll reap the benefits better if you space out the doses, instead of taking them all at once.

Look at the leg development of sprinters. Most of these men/women have legs that the majority of the population would kill to have, and these sprinters train every single day.

Heck, take bodybuilders, too. Most bodybuilders that wish to “bring up” a lagging bodypart will increase the frequency they train that bodypart. So, why not increase the frequency to begin with?

B. Even though I gave you some studies that supported my particular training philosophy, I must make an important point. While studies can definitely be useful, they are far from foolproof, and are nearly always performed in a “closed-loop” setting, aka a predictable scenario in which nearly all the variables are controlled in some fashion.


So, instead of using the labs of researchers, in which nearly everything is controlled, I prefer to use the data based off the results of our own “lab,” or the results of people that have trained under our watch at SAPT. This is an “open-loop” setting, in which hundreds of real people walk through our doors on a weekly basis; all of whom have their own eating habits (good and bad), sleep habits, activities and stressors outside SAPT, all of which we have no control over. In my personal opinion, this is a much more appropriate scenario in which one can determine if a particular method “works” or not.

C. Bodypart splits are simply not a practical choice for the majority of trainees, athletes and non-athletes alike. Most bodypart split routines require four, and even up to six, days a week of training about 90-120 minutes each session. Why spend this much time training, when you can usually accomplish the same results by training just three times a week, at 75-minutes a session?

Besides, most trainees simply don't have the time to train six days per week and stay in the gym for 90 minutes. Sure, if you're in college, and/or single, this may be possible. But what about if you have a wife, kids, and a full-time job? Not to mention, many adults' jobs create a very unpredictable schedule in which it would be illogical to train with bodypart splits.

Case in point: Ron (from The Ron Reed Project) was frequently called by his work, spur-of-the-moment, to travel across the United States on a business trip. Many times, these trips would come up at barely 24-hours notice. If I was writing him a bodypart split, and trained only his chest on Monday, then what would he do when he was called out of town and had to miss his "back" day, or his "arm" day? It was obviously much more practical to work his entire body using compound lifts. Then, if he was spontaneously called away, we wouldn't have to worry as much about "missing" a particular body part.

So, yes, a bodypart split - on paper - may be a decent way of doing things for a while, but it would be foolish for me to program this type of training for people who may only have three to four total hours in a week to get in the gym.

D. Speaking of compound lifts, I really don't get why people waste valuable time on bicep curling when they can't do a single chinup. And, if you can do chinups, then I still dare you to drop bicep curling for a month and focus on a healthy dose of weighted chinups and 1-minute chinups, THEN tell me if you absolutely need to bicep curl to experience arm growth!

E. Bodypart splits often ignore the "movement" side of things. I don't know about you, but I prefer to at least have a little bit of "Go" with the "Show." I remember, after a semester of using bodypart splits in college, I returned home to play some backyard football with a group of guys. I was astounded at how clumsy I felt. It was if I could barely change directions without falling over.

I recommend the majority of people include at least some movement training in their routine, as it has benefits for athletes and non-athletes alike.

F. Remember that bodybuilding is a SPORT. Their lifting style is specific to their sport at hand. If you were a tennis player, would you utilize a lifting program written for a wrestler? Absolutely would be asinine, right?

Now, I can't help but admire top bodybuilders. What they accomplish really is a phenomenon (drugs or no drugs), and you can't help but at least respect the dedication and meticulous attention to detail it requires to successfully step out on that stage. Just remember that it often makes little sense to take their program and try to make it your own. More times than not it will be like trying to shove a square peg into a round hole.

G. It is beyond the scope of this post to delve into, but something worth noting is that that bodypart splits became popular along with the rise in use of pharmaceutical drugs in bodybuilding. Up until the spike in drug use, the majority of bodybuilders used full-body routines. Most people wouldn't be able to actually tolerate, and experience success from, the voluminous bodypart split training days without drug assistance. The volume increases came after the drugs, not the other way around.

H. Compound lifts excite a hormonal release in the body that doesn't occur with most single-joint lifts. It's still up for debate if these hormonal changes have a lasting affect, but no one will deny that the changes happen, even if it's just a response to the exercise. For example, a military press or weighted pushup will cause a greater spike of testosterone, growth hormone, etc. in the blood stream than a tricep pressdown will.

I.  Something I'd generally suggest is to avoid taking training advice from people unless they’ve had to train people for a living. With a quick glance at my “SAPT Program” folder on my computer, I tallied up over 700 programs I’ve written over the past year alone at SAPT. And this is just one year’s worth of programs. If Chris and Sarah (who founded SAPT) counted up their programs, they’d be well into the thousands. If you ask me, this is a lot of data. We have quite a few “test subjects,” and have very easily been able to see the methods that work, and the methods that fail. Not to mention, if we fail to deliver results to our clients (increased sport performance, looking and/or moving better, etc.), then we go out of business.

I would ask your friends: Where did they receive the advice to follow a “one bodypart per day” split routine? Was it from someone who trains people day in and day out, and has to deliver results in order to put food on the table? OR, was it from a random bodybuilding magazine (most of those routines are quite humorous and belong in a fairytale land, I might add), or from a random guy at their local gym who told them that in order to achieve massive pecs they’d have to blast them into oblivion one day per week?

J. I think it's a bit amusing that your friends suggest "3x10 incline, 3x10 decline, 3x10 flat, 3x10 flies, etc." as it reminds me of my gym routine in high school. I think almost every male has been there, but let me ask you something: Is doing twelve sets of a chest-dominant exercise in a single session really four times superior to doing three sets? (Hint: Start with researching the law of diminishing returns :) ).

K. Don't worry, there is no K, and I'm not going to go all the way to Z!

To conclude: I am NOT saying that a bodypart split is impractical for everyone. And I am admittedly biased because of my work and the population I work with. However, it's just a shame that most teenage guys look at successful bodybuilders and decide that the routine of a professional at a very specific stage in training must be the routine they should do, too.

Yes, the majority of successful bodybuilders use a split routine. However, the majority of unsuccessful bodybuilders also use a split routine! We must look at the entire spectrum to arrive at an objective conclusion. I personally feel that, for the majority of trainees, a movement-based (ex. upper/lower) or full-body routine is best.

Based off the data we've collected through training people, I've seen that it works time and time again. Coming from my personal experience, I think it would be tomfoolery to neglect providing a tried and true system to the people I work with.