With over 10 years in the fitness game, it’s fair to say I’ve tried a lot of different workout splits. I’ve done the full body split, the 5-day bodybuilder split and even dabbled with the push, pull, legs split.
However, amongst it, all the upper/lower split has been a favourite of mine, especially when I’m training to build muscle.
This is because it’s as versatile as it is effective and can be used to not only build muscle and strength but also to manage your recovery in a way that fits with your lifestyle and training needs.
In this article, we’ll cover in detail what the upper/lower split is, why it works and how to create your own version. I’ll also provide a sample workout and different training schedules you can use to plug and play your fitness.
Let’s start the logical beginning and look at what this type of workout split involves.
When doing an upper/lower split you alternate between an upper body workout and lower body workout, meaning each part of the body gets a dedicated training session.
This type of workout split offers a lot of flexibility in its scheduling which makes it ideal for a lot of people and whilst it typically sees you working out 4 times per week, it can be adjusted so you’re only doing 2 or 3 workouts per week if needs be.
The typical workout schedule looks like this:
As I mentioned before this is the most typical setup but there is a lot of flexibility which means you could move Friday’s workout to Saturday instead, allowing a day of rest on Friday.
I’ll cover this and several other scheduling options a little later on, but now let’s look at which muscles you’ll train in each session.
As you already know this workout split has you train your upper and lower body on separate days which allows you to exclusively focus on that part of the body. This means you’ll train the following muscles on your upper body day:
Then on your lower body day, you’ll train the:
Sometimes people like to train their abs on the upper body day instead, but I prefer to leave it with the lower body workout to balance the length of the workouts.
To train these muscle groups you will want to focus on using compound exercises and building strength over time with the addition of isolation exercises to directly train the smaller, stubborn muscles like calves and arms.
Before we look at how to create your own upper/lower workout let’s cover the benefits of this type of workout.
Not all these benefits are unique to this type of workout, however, I feel the combination and scope of these benefits help set this workout apart.
Hopefully, by this point, you’re pretty clued up on upper/lower splits and are excited to give one a try. To help you do this let’s go through how you’d build your workout before looking at possible training schedules.
Putting together your workout involves creating 4 different workouts. This means 2 workouts for the upper body and 2 for the lower body.
However, if you wanted to you could just create 2 different workouts, 1 for the upper body and 1 for the lower body. This would also work.
If you decided to do this, then you must change the emphasis of your workouts from session to session. This means you might start 1 upper body workout with a chest exercise but the next one with shoulder or back exercise.
The below shows you how to create your workouts as well as the type of exercises to include and in what order to do them.
Ok, let’s see how this might look once you’ve chosen your exercises and added set and reps requirements for each exercise.
Remember that with the plan below although I’ve recommended certain exercises you can change these provided the workout follows the same pattern and you replace it with a like for like switch i.e. compound chest exercise for another compound chest exercise.
With this workout, you want to use a weight that allows you to do at least the minimum number of reps prescribed i.e. if you needed to do 6 – 8 reps you want to choose a weight that allows you to do at least 6.
If you can’t do 6 then you need to lower the weight, but if you can do 3 sets of 8 then you want to increase the weight in your next session. This is called progressive overload it is key to building muscle.
As for rest times you want to rest 3 minutes between sets of 4-6 reps, 2 minutes between sets of 8-10 reps and 1 minute for anything more than that.
We’ve been talking a lot in this article about the flexibility of this type of workout and this is important as not everyone can commit to regularly doing 4 workouts a week.
Or perhaps 4 weekly workouts are not something you can recover from and will grind you down over time.
It might even be that you simply don’t want to workout 4 times a week for whatever reasons and that’s ok too.
I get it.
We are all different, and to this end here are all the possible schedule options for the upper/lower split whether it’s 2, 3 or 4 workouts a week.
When doing the 2-day upper/lower split you can put your workouts on any days you choose, making it perfect for people who need to scale back their workouts through a busy period but don’t want to stop training altogether.
When doing this you could just use one version of each workout or alternate between the 4 as you do it. It’s also important to realise that with such low training frequency the 2-day split is aimed at muscle and strength maintenance, not growth.
With the 3-day split, you’ll be using a rotating schedule where you do one workout twice and one once per week.
The above schedule is, in my opinion, the best way to structure the 3-day split as it gives you the weekends off which generally tends to be when most people are busy and therefore more likely to skip a workout.
This split is also more favourable from a frequency and recovery standpoint which means it’s possible to maintain and build muscle with this setup without struggling with recovery.
Again, with the 3-day split, you can choose whether to just alternate between 2 workouts or incorporate all 4 in a rotating pattern.
When it comes to the 4-day split the usual set up is 2 back-to-back workouts twice a week. However, there are other options.
Whichever way you decide to schedule your workouts you will always be doing 2 workouts back to back. The main decisions you need to make are, do you want to do all your training during the week, and can you recover effectively for 2 back to back workouts?
The 4-day split is great for building muscle due to the additional frequency of 4 weekly workouts and if other factors (sleep and diet) are managed recovery shouldn’t be a problem for most people.
Again, with several different scheduling options, it’s flexible enough that those who want to train 4 times a week can find an option that works for them.