A routine of this sort will work for pretty much anyone – men and women, young and old, people looking to build a large amount of muscle and get “big”, or those who only want to build a small amount of muscle and get “toned”.
However, if you want to get the very best results from it, you will of course need to know how to set it up in the right way.
So in this article, I’ll explain why upper/lower splits are so effective, and I’ll also give you what I believe to be about the best upper/lower body split routine you are ever likely to find.
What Is an Upper/Lower Body Split Routine?
An upper/lower split routine is one in which you train your upper body (chest, back, shoulders, biceps and triceps) in one workout, and your lower body (quads, hamstrings, calves, lower back and abdominals) in another workout. Normally you would have two of each type of workout, and perform each one once per week – so you would be training four times per week (alternating upper/lower/upper/lower) in total. However, if you can only get to the gym three times per week, you can simply alternate the four workouts over these three weekly sessions. It will still work just fine.
There is room for some variation in the theme, however, and you don’t need to stick strictly to the above format. For instance, you could do chest, back and shoulders in one workout, and legs and arms in the other. Or perhaps chest, back, shoulders and triceps in one, and legs and biceps in the other. Personally, I find this latter method suits me very well, and it’s the one I most often recommend.
Why Use an Upper/Lower Split?
An upper/lower body split routine is by far the most effective method of training for the vast majority of people. The main exception to this is beginners, who tend to do better with a full body workout routine. But once you have made some good gains with that, and have progressed to the intermediate stage, this type of training will beat anything else you can do for packing on muscle as fast as possible.
The main reason for this is that an upper/lower split allows you to train each muscle group at the ideal frequency range of between once every 3–5 days. This workout frequency has been shown to work best for anyone past the beginner stage.
If you train four times per week, you will be working each body part once every three or four days. Whereas, if you train three times per week, you will be working each body part every four or five days. And whilst training four times per week will probably work slightly better for most people, it won’t make that much difference, so just choose whichever suits you best.
If you train four days per week, you can do Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday; or Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday. Or choose whatever days you want – it doesn’t matter as long as you never train more than two days in a row.
Another reason this type of workout regimen works so well is that, like the full body workout, it tends to have a big focus on compound exercises. And as I’ve said previously, compound exercises are by far the best muscle builders, due to the fact that they work more total muscle when you perform them, and you can use more weight, which gives a much stronger growth stimulus.
However, with upper/lower splits you can also incorporate some assistance/isolation work, which will help to balance out your physique and bring up any weak points you may have.
Upper/lower splits also allow for the ideal amount of volume to be used, both per workout and per week. So if you plan it right, this type of training will bring together all of the factors and components that work best for building muscle, so allowing you to get the best possible results from your efforts.
The Ultimate Upper/Lower Body Split Routine
So how should your workouts be arranged in order to give you the best results? Well, you need to program sufficient volume for each body part, whilst guarding against overtraining. And you also need to take into account other factors, such as spinal loading and joint health. So, with all that in mind, here is what I believe to be the ideal upper/lower body split routine for building muscle mass:
Upper Body Workout A
- Bench Press 3 x 5–7
- Bent-over Row 3 x 5–7
- Close Grip Bench Press 2 x 10–12
- Close Grip Pulldowns 2 x 10–12
- Lateral Raise 3 x 10–12
Lower Body Workout A
- Squats 3 x 6–8
- Romanian Deadlift 2 x 10–12
- Bulgarian Split Squat 2 x 10–12
- Calf Raise 3 x 8–10
- Barbell Curl 2 x 8–10
Upper Body Workout B
- Overhead Barbell Press 3 x 6–8
- Pull-Ups 3 x 6–8
- Incline Dumbbell Press 3 x 10–12
- Seated Cable Row 2 x 10–12
- Parallel Bar Dips 2 x 10–12
Lower Body Workout B
- Deadlift 1 x 5
- Leg Press 3 x 10–12
- Leg Curl 3 x 10–12
- Seated Calf Raise 3 x 10–12
- Dumbbell Hammer Curl 2 x 10–12
(3 x 5–7 = 3 sets of 5–7 reps)
The sets listed above are your work sets, but you should always do warm-up sets first, in order to properly prepare your body for the heavier work.
You’ll notice that in this program I’ve put biceps on lower body days, in order to even it out to five exercises per workout, as this seems to be about optimal for most people. And also, as I said above, that’s the method I most often recommend anyway, as biceps tend to respond better to more frequent training stimuli than most other body parts.
Also, there is no abdominal work specified here. Direct abdominal work is useful, but not essential, as your stomach will firm up just fine if you simply brace it tight during most of your other exercises (which is what you should be doing anyway). But if you do want to do some, simply add in a couple of sets at the end of your lower body days. Some good options for this include cable crunches, hanging leg raises, ab wheel roll-outs, planks or side planks.
You’ll also notice that chest is trained heavy in Upper Workout A and lighter in Upper Workout B, whereas shoulders are trained lighter in Upper Workout A and heavy in Upper Workout B. There is a heavy row and a lighter vertical pull in Upper Workout A, and a lighter row and heavier vertical pull in Upper Workout B. The close grip bench press and parallel bar dips are mostly for the triceps, but they also serve as a secondary chest exercise as well. Quads are trained with a higher volume in Lower Workout A and a lower volume in Lower Workout B, and lower back is trained lighter in Lower Workout A and heavy in Lower Workout B.
Other Factors to Consider
Some other factors that should be considered in order to get the best out of your training include the following:
- Exercise Performance – Always ensure you perform your exercises with good form (i.e. no bouncing or jerking), and through an appropriately full range of motion in order to fully engage the target muscles. For example, in the squat you should go down until the tops of your thighs are at least parallel to the floor (most people don’t, so have someone check you if you are unsure). In the bench press, the bar should touch your chest at nipple level, or just below, with your elbows tucked (not flared). And all other pressing movements should be taken right down to chest/shoulder level, so that you feel the stretch at the bottom.
- Rest Periods – Rest as long as you need to be ready for your next set. With the smaller exercises, this will normally be around 90–120 seconds, but with the bigger exercises, you’ll want a little longer, perhaps around three minutes, but take more than that if you need to.
- Progression – You should increase the weight you are using when you reach the top end of the suggested rep range for all of the prescribed sets of a given exercise. So if it says to do three sets of 6–8 reps, when you can do eight reps on all three sets, increase the weight a little for your next workout. When you do your first set, you should still have a rep or two left in you at the end of the set. Your second set should be a bit more difficult (depending on how long you rest), and on your last set, you should be pushing close to your limit.
- De-Loading – At some point you will reach a plateau – it’s inevitable. A plateau can be defined as three workouts in a row with no improvement on a particular exercise. When this happens, there’s no point trying to “push through” the plateau. Instead you need to de-load. That means you reduce the weight you are using, on the exercise(s) you have plateaued on, by 15–20%, and then build back up again. By having a few workouts that are less demanding than normal, you’ll allow your body to recover more fully, and you’ll usually find you’ll then be able to make further progress.
- Diet – Your training is only one half of the equation; it’s equally important to eat the right diet if you want to make real progress. You need a calorie surplus, with plenty of protein (about 0.8–1.0 g per pound of bodyweight per day), complex carbohydrates and some healthy fats, as well as a good amount of fruits and vegetables.
- Supplements – Although many so-called “bodybuilding supplements” are a waste of money, there are a few that are very useful. These include whey protein, which is ideal for use as a post-workout shake, but can also be used at other times of the day if required, creatine monohydrate, and omega-3 fish oil. A good multivitamin or greens supplement is also recommended.
- Rest & Sleep – You grow when you are resting, not when you are training, so it’s important to get plenty of rest and sleep. Try to get 8–9 hours sleep per night. Don’t do too much cardio, and keep other activities (such as dancing, playing sports etc.) down to a minimum.
So that’s it; the upper/lower body split routine described here will give you exceptional gains in muscle mass if you stick with it. But if you’d like a complete, fully periodized 12 week program that’s been specifically designed to pack muscle on even the skinniest of hardgainers, the one I’d most recommend is Muscle Gaining Secrets 2.0 by Jason Ferruggia. Check out my review of it here.