Hi Swole Woman,
First off, thank you very much for writing your column! For several years I thought I would never succeed in being fit/strong/whatever because I couldn’t motivate myself to work out in the morning or multiple times a day, etc. Your column helped me realize that most people do not know what is best for me and that lifting is an excellent way to get stronger and feel better about yourself, so in January I got myself a trainer and am now lifting three times a week and gaining muscle mass, and it’s great!
Here’s my question: I’m leaving my gym in a few months because I’m going back to school and they have a gym I can go to for FREE. I feel pretty good about being able to use resources from you/my trainer to keep it up on my own, but I want to know: What are your thoughts on training splits? Is there a good reason to work your upper body and lower body on different days or do push/pull on different days, or whatever? Or is this just a trap to make me feel like I need to go to the gym and lift for an hour six days a week, which is something I aggressively do not want to do? Any advice is appreciated!
—Still Relatively Clueless About Fitness
react-text: 216 I’m so happy for you that you’re building muscle and getting stronger because it rules, and working with a /react-text trainer react-text: 218 is a great way to get the fundamentals down. As far as program structure goes, debates rage on about the best way to divide things up and why and how. Quick terminology note: A split is how programs are broken down by days. An upper body/lower body split might have two days where you only do upper-body training and two days where you only do lower-body training; a push-pull split may have a “push” workout focusing on moving things away from your body, like bench press, a “pull” workout where you move things toward your body, like rows. /react-text
react-text: 220 The idea behind splits isn’t so much about making you go to the gym more often as opposed to less. Splits serve distinct training purposes and can actually feel more /react-text time-efficient react-text: 222 , which I’ll talk more about in a sec. But before I do, I want to talk about two traps in the fitness industry when it comes to splits, and they’re both about trying to get the consumer to buy workouts. The first trap is that a program that is more complicated (as many splits tend to be) rather than less, will feel highly specific, which means you may feel more dependent on whoever makes it to tell you to do the “right” thing. (Because why else would a program be so complex and specific other than because its creator invented the world’s most effective programming?) And then you feel like you have to continue buying their programs forever to get their promised results. /react-text
The second, less common trap is that with a program that is more intense if you can’t achieve what’s being laid out, you’ll assume it’s your fault, not the fault of the person who wrote it. Consider if there was a program—let’s call it 3IEX—that circulated workout videos of gaggles of extremely jacked and tan people doing hundreds upon hundreds of burpees, air punches, starfishes, and jumping lunges for, let’s say, 90 minutes at a time, the implication being if you can only complete it, you can be as jacked and tan as they are. If you can’t, you won’t be, but whose fault is that? After all, the people demo’ing the workouts can do it!
The real answer is it’s their fault because their program is so ludicrously difficult, only a very athletic person who is already quite jacked and tan could ever expect to complete it. But you, the person who has a normal amount of knowledge about structuring workouts (basically none), don’t know that, so you blame yourself. This is bad; do not fall for this trick. All that is to say, when you’re choosing what kind of program to follow between splits and full-body, one isn’t inherently better or worse than the other. Think about basing your decision on whether the workouts are simple enough to understand and keep doing in the long term, and whether the intensity is appropriate for you.
react-text: 226 As far as how much you should work out, most beginning barbell strength programs (like what strength coach Mark Rippetoe lays out in his seminal book on weightlifting, /react-text Starting Strength react-text: 229 ) have you doing 45-minute sessions (with lots of rest in there) three times a week, and per Rippetoe, that is enough time to get stronger every session. As far as splits, it doesn’t super matter to your progress what your splits are, whether it’s upper/lower or push/pull. You should do /react-text what you enjoy react-text: 231 , what makes you feel good, and what you get results from. /react-text
Another consideration is time; certain kinds of splits can cut down on the amount of warming up and equipment setup you have to do, so you can spend overall less time in the gym. For instance, when I was last doing an upper/lower split, my upper-body days could go super fast because I didn’t have to set up and warm up squats or deadlifts and upper-body equipment, overall, is lighter and easier to work with. It may be easier for you to schedule two long days and two shorter ones than three or four days of all roughly the same amount of training.
Part of the problem, of course, maybe that you are so new to this that you don’t know what you like. You should feel free to make your best guess, but whatever you pick you should stick with for at least a few months to give it time to work and to get used to it; skipping from program to program every few days or weeks is generally agreed upon to be bad.
react-text: 235 This is all to say too you don’t have to do a split; almost all beginning programs hit the whole body every workout. “In general you’re probably better off spending most of your time or a larger percentage of your time doing full-body routines,” explains Greg Nuckols, C.S.C.S. is a /react-text YouTube video on full versus split routines react-text: 237 . /react-text
react-text: 239 There are some program splits, known as /react-text “bro splits,” react-text: 241 where each day is highly focused—a shoulder day, a back and biceps day, a chest and triceps day, etc, so you only work out each part once a week. Most coaches agree that your body parts can be trained more than once a week and you only get benefits from doing so, so it doesn’t make sense to do things like this. (If you want to learn more about why, watch this /react-text video react-text: 243 from Mike Israetel, Ph.D., head science consultant at Renaissance Periodization, who breaks it all down.) Secondarily, these programs tend to be more about hammering a body part in a nearly masochistic way to /react-text “chase the pump” react-text: 245 (a feeling and look of swollenness), but this has no real benefit beyond stroking your own ego. /react-text
react-text: 247 One thing you could do is ask your trainer to write you a program you can continue to use; some will do this (which would admittedly be out of the goodness of their heart, mostly) and some won’t, but since they know you and what you like and benefit from, it’s worth asking.
But even if they don’t, or they do and you try it and get bored with it, there are /react-text lots of different programs react-text: 249 out there that are free and good for any level of experience. What matters most is that you enjoy it, it works with your schedule, and you feel like you are getting stronger and better. /react-text
Casey Johnston react-text: 253 is the editor of the Future section at The Outline and a competitive powerlifter with a degree in applied physics. She writes the column Ask a Swole Woman for SELF. You can find her on Twitter: /react-text @caseyjohnston react-text: 255 .