If you want a highly effective 5-day workout split you can use to build muscle, the upper/lower/push/pull/legs routine will get the job done better than most. Let’s jump right in.
There’s a link between training volume and hypertrophy. That is, the more hard sets you do for a particular muscle group, up to a point at least, the faster that muscle will grow.
Problem is, more sets typically means longer workouts, particularly if you’re getting enough rest between sets (which you’ll need to for best results). If you’re limited in terms of time, there’s always going to be an upper limit on the number of sets you can fit into a workout.
And even if you do have the luxury of spending as long as you want in the gym, you’re eventually going to get tired and run out of steam. As a result, the muscles being trained at the end of the workout aren’t going to get as much attention as the ones trained at the start.
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The solution is to train more often. Rather than hitting the gym 3-4 times a week, you add an extra training day so that you’re training five days a week.
Once you’ve moved past the beginner and early intermediate stages of training, that extra volume is sometimes all the stimulus your muscles need to start growing again.
Here’s what the 5-day upper/lower/push/pull/legs split looks like.
The 5-Day Upper/Lower/Push/Pull/Legs Split
Monday: Upper Body
Tuesday: Lower Body
So, why does this particular workout split work so well?
For one, each muscle group is trained twice a week. This works better than hitting each muscle group once a week.
There’s a limit on the amount of stimulation your muscles can respond to in any given workout, which is somewhere in the region of 6-10 hard sets per muscle group. Doing more than that will end up creating large amounts of muscle damage (which is going to prolong recovery time) without necessarily stimulating any additional growth.
While bombing your muscles with lots of sets gives you much more of a pump, as well as generating a high level of post-exercise muscle soreness, it’s no guarantee that muscle is going to be built any faster.
Rather than doing 12-20 sets per muscle group in a given workout, then waiting a week to do the same thing again, you’re better off splitting that workout in two. That is, you’d do 6-10 sets in workout one, wait a few days, then do another 6-10 sets for the same muscle group.
When you look at it over the course of the week, the total number of sets is still the same, it’s just being distributed differently.
There’s no rule that says each workout has to be identical either. For example, Monday’s lower body workout might revolve around compound lifts and heavy weights, while the second lower body workout could involve lighter weights and higher reps.
Monday: Upper Body (Heavy)
Tuesday: Lower Body (Heavy)
Thursday: Push (Light)
Friday: Pull (Light)
Saturday: Legs (Light)
You can also use different exercises in each workout. For example, in the first lower body workout of the week, you might do squats for 3-4 sets of 5-8 reps, while in the second you’d do the leg press for 3-4 sets of 15-20 reps.
You’re still training the same muscles, but incorporating different exercises, weights and rep ranges will lead to more complete development of each muscle group.
While the 5-day upper/lower/push/pull/legs split works well for growth, there are some effective alternatives out there that do the job just as well. Here are some of my favorites.
The Push/Pull/Legs Split
If the 5-day upper/lower/push/pull/legs split doesn’t appeal, you could also try the regular push/pull/legs split.
This 5-day workout split involves three different training sessions: a push workout, a pull workout and a legs workout.
The push workout is focused on the pushing movements for the upper body, which involve the chest, shoulders and triceps.
The pull workout is centered around pulling movements for the upper body, which work mainly the back and biceps.
With the legs workout, you train the quadriceps, glutes, hamstrings and calves.
You train for three days, then take a day off. This is followed by two days of training, followed by another day off.
You keep on rotating the workouts in the same order – push, pull, legs – making sure to insert rest days where appropriate. Each muscle group is trained twice every seven days.
Here’s what the 5-day push/pull/legs workout split looks like over a three-week period.
In the fourth week, the push workout ends up back on Monday, and you start the whole cycle again.
The Upper/Lower Split
With an upper/lower split, you train the muscles in your lower body and upper body on separate days.
An upper body workout will hit your chest, back, shoulders, biceps and triceps, while the lower body workout trains your quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes and calves
Most upper/lower workout splits involve training four days a week, where each muscle group is hit twice a week.
However, there’s no reason why you can’t ramp up the training frequency and train five days per week.
In the first week, you’d do three upper and two lower body workouts, then two upper and three lower body workouts the following week. This way, you’re hitting each muscle group an average of 2.5 times per week.
Here’s what it looks like.
Monday: Upper Body
Tuesday: Lower Body
Thursday: Upper Body
Friday: Lower Body
Saturday: Upper Body
Monday: Lower Body
Tuesday: Upper Body
Thursday: Lower Body
Friday: Upper Body
Saturday: Lower Body
In week three, the upper body workout ends up back on Monday, and you start the cycle all over again.
The Push/Pull Split
A push/pull workout split involves two different workouts: a push workout and a pull workout.
The push workout is focused on the pushing movements for the upper body, which involve the chest, shoulders and triceps. The pull workout is based around pulling movements for the upper body, which involve the back and biceps.
The push training sessions also include some quad-dominant exercises, while the pull workouts include some work for your hamstrings.
The push/pull workout split is perfect for people who don’t want an entire day devoted to legs. Rather than train your lower body separately, you do a bit of leg work every time you train.
Like an upper/lower split, a push/pull split is normally done four times a week. But you can also bump up the training frequency to five days. This means each muscle group is worked an average of 2.5 times per week rather than twice.
In week three, the push workout ends up back on Monday, and you start the cycle all over again.
The 5-Day Upper Body Emphasis Split
Let’s say you want to focus on building muscle in your upper body, and you’re less concerned about making your legs grow. In which case, this 5-day workout split, which emphasizes the chest, back, shoulders and arms, will do the job.
It involves hitting the muscles in the upper body across two separate days, rather than one. The legs are trained just once a week.
Monday: Chest & Back
Tuesday: Shoulders & Arms
Friday: Chest & Back
Saturday: Shoulders & Arms
With this type of training program, you do need to be careful with exercise selection, especially when it comes to training your shoulders and arms.
Training the chest does involve the shoulders, particularly the anterior deltoid (the front part of the shoulder). If the exercises you’re doing on shoulders and arms day also involve the anterior deltoid, such as dips and overhead pressing exercises, it’s easy to overdo it and end up with some kind of shoulder injury.
See Also: The Muscle Building Cheat Sheet
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About the Author
Christian Finn is an exercise scientist and former “trainer to the trainers” based in the UK. He holds a masters degree in exercise science, and has been featured in or contributed to major media on two continents, including the BBC and Sunday Times in the U.K. and Men’s Health and Men’s Fitness in the U.S.