One question that seems to pop up on a weekly basis comes from readers who want to know what is the best training split for building muscle as fast as humanly possible.
Unfortunately, there is no single “best training split,” as the effectiveness of a given program depends a lot on the person who’s doing it.
The length of time that someone has been training, their age, schedule, injuries, and genetics will all have a big impact on how muscle you gain.
The best training split for someone in their 40’s with a few years of training behind them, for example, isn’t necessarily going to be the best training split for someone who is 21 and has never lifted a weight before.
However, there are a few things that effective training splits have in common:
From a frequency point of view, you want to hit each muscle group at least twice a week. Someone who’s been lifting weights for a few years may be better off hitting a muscle group more often (3-4 times a week rather than twice a week).
In terms of the number of sets for each muscle group, you can build muscle with a relatively low number of sets (5 sets per muscle per week). But, if you want to maximize your rate of muscular growth, 10-20 sets per muscle group per week is about right.
By “muscle group” I’m not talking about an area of the body like the arms or the legs. Specifically, I’m talking about groups of muscles that work together to create movement at a joint, such as the quadriceps, hamstrings, biceps, triceps and so on.
For example, if you do 4 sets of squats, 3 sets of leg presses and 3 sets of leg curls over the course of a week, you’ve performed a total of 10 sets for the legs. But most of the work has been done by the quadriceps (the muscles on the front of your thigh).
Although the hamstrings are doing some work during the squat, for instance, it’s not equivalent to the work done by the quadriceps. That’s to say, doing 10 sets of squats each week wouldn’t count as 10 sets for the quadriceps and 10 sets for the hamstrings.
As far as reps are concerned, anywhere between 5 and 20 reps will get the job done. You can go higher or lower and still build muscle, but I don’t think there’s much point in doing so.
Go too low and it can leave your joints sore and tender. On the flip side, high rep sets tend to last longer and be more painful than lower rep sets. But they don’t deliver any additional benefits in the muscle growth department.
If a training split ticks the right boxes in terms of frequency, sets and reps, then it’s going to be an effective one.
A full-body workout 2-3 times a week would do the job… so would a push/pull/legs split done 5 days a week… so would an upper/lower split done 4 days a week.
Ultimately, the one that works best is going to depend on the individual, and there’s no single best training split that works equally well for all people, all the time.
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ABOUT THE AUTHORChristian Finn is the nation’s leading authority on science-based, joint-friendly ways to build muscle. A former "trainer to the trainers," 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.