If you want to gain muscle, which training split works best? The Arnold split or a push/pull/legs (PPL) routine? Let’s find out.
Is there a big difference between the Arnold split and a PPL routine when it comes to putting on muscle?
Not really. The main difference between the two is that the Arnold split involves training the chest and back on a separate day to the shoulders and arms. But on a PPL routine, the chest, shoulders and triceps are trained together, as are the back and biceps.
This gives the Arnold split a slight edge when it comes to building muscle in the shoulders and arms. That’s because those muscles are being trained when they’re relatively fresh.
However, lifters in the late intermediate and advanced stages of training can expect to see solid gains with both workout splits, and should pick the one they’re most likely to stick with.
What is the Arnold Split Workout?
The Arnold split is a 6-day workout routine that involves training your chest and back, shoulders and arms, and legs on separate days. It’s one of several split routines detailed in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding.
- Monday: Chest/Back/Abs
- Tuesday: Shoulders/Arms/Abs
- Wednesday: Legs/Abs
- Thursday: Chest/Back/Abs
- Friday: Shoulders/Arms/Abs
- Saturday: Legs/Abs
- Sunday: Off
Shoulders and arms day will include exercises like the overhead press, barbell curls and triceps pressdown, with lower body exercises, such as the deadlift, lunge, squat, leg extension and calf raise, performed on leg day.
Arnold also recommended training the abs every day, alternating between incline sit-ups and leg raises from one day to the next.
What’s a Push/Pull/Legs (PPL) Split?
A push/pull/legs routine is a training program that devotes one day to upper body pushing movements (chest, shoulders and triceps), a second day to upper body pulling movements (back and biceps), and a third day to leg exercises (quads, glutes, hamstrings and calves).
Here’s what a 6-day PPL split looks like:
- Monday: Push
- Tuesday: Pull
- Wednesday: Legs
- Thursday: Push
- Friday: Pull
- Saturday: Legs
- Sunday: Off
Arnold Split vs Push/Pull/Legs (PPL): Which is Better?
Both the Arnold split and PPL routine have a number of things in common.
For one, both involve a similar training frequency, in the sense that you’re lifting weights 6 days a week. Each muscle group is trained directly twice a week.
Both routines also dedicate an entire workout to the legs.
The main difference between the two is that on the Arnold split, you train the chest and back together in the same workout. But on a PPL routine, the chest is trained on a separate day to the back.
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As a result, the Arnold split hits the biceps and triceps four times a week. They’re trained directly on shoulders and arms day. But they’re also worked indirectly when you train your chest and back.
It’s the same story with the deltoids, which are trained directly twice a week on shoulders and arms day. However, they also get some indirect work when you train your chest and back.
The way the Arnold split is structured does give it a few benefits over a PPL routine.
First, training your chest and back together feels good, giving you an extremely satisfying pump in your entire upper body.
This is especially true if you’re doing supersets, where you do a set for the chest, then a set for the back, followed by a set for the chest, and so on. One group of muscles has a chance to rest while you do a set for the opposing muscles.
Not only do supersets keep the back and chest pumped at the same time, they also cut down on the amount of dead time you might spend sitting around resting between sets.
The second upper body day on an Arnold split also lends itself well to supersets, because you’re training the biceps and triceps on the same day. This means you can do a set for your biceps, followed by a set for your triceps, and so on.
Again, you get a great pump in your arms while simultaneously cutting down on the amount of time you’d otherwise spend resting between sets.
Agonist-antagonist supersets like this aren’t an option with a PPL routine, because you’re working the same muscles in each workout.
The chest, triceps, and anterior deltoids, worked during the bench press, get to rest while you train the back, biceps and posterior deltoids, worked by the seated row.
However, you wouldn’t want to superset exercises like the bench press and overhead press, (typically included in a push day workout), because there’s an overlap in the muscles being worked.
That is, both exercises involve the shoulders and triceps. Fatigue from one exercise is going to bleed into the other, which is likely to impair your performance.
It’s the same story on pull day, where you’re training back and biceps. Most exercises for your back also involve the biceps. If you fatigue your biceps by doing curls between sets for your back, it limits your ability to train your back effectively.
The Arnold split may well do a better job of stimulating hypertrophy in the shoulders and arms, mainly because those muscles are being trained when they’re relatively fresh.
Here’s what I mean.
On a PPL routine, you typically train the chest first, followed by the shoulders and then the triceps.
This means that your triceps, and to a lesser extent your shoulders, are already going to be partially fatigued by the time you train them directly.
It’s the same story on pull day. You’re training your biceps when they’re partially fatigued after working back.
Because of that, you’re not going to be able to lift as much weight, or do as many reps as you could have done had those muscles been trained when they were fresh.
Spreading your training out across multiple weekly sessions has been shown, in some studies at least, to build muscle faster than compressing the same amount of work into longer, less frequent workouts.
That’s mainly because it allows for higher quality workouts, which in turn generate a much stronger stimulus for hypertrophy.
Arnold Split vs PPL: Final Thoughts
Overall, both an Arnold split and PPL routine are solid choices for late intermediate and advanced lifters who want to build muscle.
You can expect identical results in terms of lower body gains, as both programs involve training the legs twice a week, on separate days to the upper body.
The Arnold split does have the advantage of training the shoulders and arms when they’re fresher. It’s also a better fit for agonist-antagonist supersets, allowing you to condense the same amount of training into a shorter period of time.
If I had to choose one routine over the other, the Arnold split would be the one I’d go for. However, both will produce good results if you train hard, eat right and stay consistent.
Frequently Asked Questions
What was Arnold Schwarzenegger’s workout split?
Arnold Schwarzenegger didn’t follow the same workout split for his entire bodybuilding career. Rather, it evolved over time as he learned what worked best for him and his body.
The training routine Arnold used as a beginner was different to the type of training he did with a few Mr Olympia contests under his belt.
Arnold’s workout split would also change depending on whether he was in the off-season or training for a competition.
That is, his pre-contest workout split would involve a very high volume of training, with each muscle group being trained directly three times a week with lots of exercises and sets. He’d often be in the gym twice a day, six days a week in order to fit all that training in.
Which split is better for bodybuilders?
Both the Arnold Split and push/pull/legs are a good fit for bodybuilders, who typically need a large amount of training to ensure that every region of every muscle is developed to its full potential.
Competitive bodybuilders will often hit the gym six days a week, sometimes twice a day, simply because that’s the only way to fit in all the exercises and sets they need to make their muscles grow.
Even if you have no plans to step on stage in a bodybuilding contest, but you’ve moved past the beginner and intermediate stages of training and the gains have dried up, a 6-day split can get things moving in the right direction.
For advanced lifters, increasing your weekly training volume (which I’m defining here as the number of hard sets you do for a muscle group) is sometimes all the stimulus your muscles need to start growing again.
Are these training splits suitable for beginners?
Believe it or not, Arnold actually designed this training split for beginners.
However, the overall volume is way more than most beginners need, or can even recover from.
As an example, the chest and back workout in his Level I Exercise Program, which he claims is suitable for beginners, comprises 33 sets. For shoulders and arms, it’s a whopping 51 sets.
That’s not 51 sets per week. That’s 51 sets in a single workout.
For the average beginner, that’s going to be too much. Lack of time and issues with recovery mean that many beginners who start off with the intention of going to the gym six days a week will fall off the wagon before too long.
If you’re a complete beginner who wants to focus on hypertrophy, you’re better off with a training program that involves lifting weights 3 or 4 times a week, such as a 3-day full-body workout, a 4-day upper/lower split or a 4-day push/pull routine.
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