What is the No. 1 killer of motivation in the gym? Boredom. Boredom means spending more time checking your Instagram likes than you do leg pressing, half-assing it through your cardio just to make the time go by, and losing your inspiration to continue when seemingly nothing is happening to your physique. Eliminating boredom, then, is essential to success, and the biggest culprit lies in your training split: You do the same bodyparts together in the same order, using the same exercises on the same days every week, month after month, and even year after year.
These five training splits are a great way to deliver a wake-up call to your brain and your physique. “We get stronger by constantly challenging the body and overloading it with resistance,” says IFBB Fitness pro Tanji Johnson, 2015 Fitness Olympia and Fitness International runner-up. “Once the body adapts to the load, it begins to plateau, so switching up your training split helps prevent that adaptation from occurring.”
So even if you love your routine, change things up every four to eight weeks to keep progressing, avoid overuse injuries and, most of all, prevent the brain blahs.
Programming Your Splits
When switching up your training split, go for something as different from your current split as possible. “It’s best to totally keep your body guessing,” says Nathaniel Oliver, owner of New York City’s Type A Training. “If you do a split that is similar to your last, it’s easy for your body to say: Oh, this again?” Here are a few ideas on how to make the most drastic change and push results into the foreground.
The Split: Upper/Lower
With this split, your workouts will either hit the upper or the lower body on alternating days. This breakdown means your bodyparts are fresh, not fatigued or sore from a training session the previous day, and can push harder and lift heavier or longer during your session.
“The classic split would be an upper-body day, a lower-body day, then a rest day before repeating,” Johnson says. This would leave you three days of rest or active recovery per week. Choose moves that hit each muscle group in the half you’re training at least once within the workout. For example, an upper-body workout would train shoulders, back, chest, biceps, triceps and even the abs, and a lower-body session would hit the glutes, hamstrings, calves, hips and abs.
Sample two-week upper/lower split
Monday: Upper body
Tuesday: Lower body
Wednesday: Rest or active recovery
Thursday: Upper body
Friday: Lower body
Saturday: Rest or active recovery
Monday: Lower body
Tuesday: Upper body
Wednesday: Rest or active recovery
Thursday: Lower body
Friday: Upper body
Saturday: Rest or active recovery
Sample Upper-Body Split
Sample Lower-Body Split
The Split: Intuitive
If you’ve been going to the gym for a while, you may want to try training intuitively. This means you don’t really have a definitive plan of action or set schedule but rather an idea of what bodyparts you want to train according to how you feel and what you think needs work. For instance, a seasoned gym-goer won’t pound her tired and sore legs into submission just because the calendar says “leg day.” Instead, she gives extra attention to her arms or abs, or does cardio instead, and lets her legs rest and recover properly.
Playing things by ear can be very productive, but you should still practice some consistency, according to Nathaniel Oliver. “If you change every exercise every workout, you will have a hard time seeing if you’re getting stronger,” he says. So stick with the same moves for three to four weeks and chart your progress and gains, then switch things up.
In addition, Oliver suggests playing with your intensity intermittently, programming intense days versus more moderate days. This prevents overtraining and injury while also allowing you to bring up lagging parts. For instance, if your goal is to get a stronger lower body, your weekly training split may look like the following:
Sample Intensity-Cycling System
The Split: Push/Pull
This split groups all the muscles involved in the pulling action (back, biceps, hamstrings, rear delts, abs) into one workout and all the muscles involved in the pushing action (chest, triceps, shoulders, quads) into the other. Because a muscle can take 48 hours or more to completely recover, a push/pull routine can help you avoid overtraining and minimize your risk of injury. It also helps eliminate strength imbalances, improves posture and facilitates symmetry. And because you’re training more bodyparts per session, you’ll burn more calories, save time and actually get to the gym more often.
Some people like to move their leg training onto a separate leg day, making a push/pull/leg split. This works well if you’re shooting for total leg power in your lower half and muscular balance and detail in your upper half.
Sample Push/Pull Workout Week
Day 1: Quads, chest, shoulders, triceps
Day 2: Back, biceps, abs, hamstrings
Day 3: Off
Day 4: Repeat Day 1
Sample Push/Pull/Legs Split
Day 1: Legs
Day 2: Chest, triceps, shoulders
Day 3: Back, biceps, abs, rear delts
Day 4: Rest
Day 5: Repeat Day 1
Sample Pull Workout
The Split: Pre-Exhaust
We all have muscle groups that are stronger and that outperform others. Typically, these are the larger muscles — back, quads, chest — and these muscles often commandeer an exercise and do the brunt of the work. This leaves the smaller, assisting muscle groups less trained as a result and ultimately means you lift less weight because your smaller muscles peter out before the large ones do.
In a pre-exhaust split, you’ll work these larger, stronger muscles first in isolation, then move into the compound movements. By pre-exhausting your main muscles like this, they will be that much closer to failure when you do the compound exercise. For instance, let’s say your triceps give out before your chest: Do three sets of pec-deck flyes first, then follow with a machine chest press. When it comes time for the press, your pecs are already tired and thus should give out before — or at the same time as — your triceps.
Sample Pre-Exhaust Pairings
The Split: PHA Training
Originally devised by Dr. Arthur Steinhaus in the 1940s, the idea of this system is to maintain blood circulation throughout the entire body instead of solely focusing on one muscle group — in other words, the exact opposite of the “pump” coveted by bodybuilders. With PHA (i.e., peripheral heart action), you work a large muscle group followed by a smaller one, shunting blood back and forth between the two. To make your heart work even harder, choose muscles in opposing halves — upper versus lower.
“This method may be 75 years old, but it’s still very valid,” says Dan Roberts, CSCS, a U.K.-based personal trainer and creator of the exercise program X Combat (danrobertsgroup.com). “Your heart will work extra hard, which is great for circulation and cardio benefits.”
Sample PHA Workout
Do each move one minute using fairly heavy weight. Rest minimally between exercises. Rest one minute between sets.