Thursday, August 2, 2007

What's Your Split? Pt. 1

When most people start working out at a gym, they just kind of mess around. They walk from machine to machine, giving little thought to what muscles they are working, and less to the optimal strategy for working them. The day eventually comes when they realize that wasting time in the gym isn't what they really want to do, and that they could spend half the time there if they went in with a game plan. This is the time to implement a split.

In weightlifting, a split is the way you divide your muscle groups, the sequence you organize those groups in, and the number of lifting days versus recovery days. The phrase is usually "# day split." Most people who say this mean the number of workouts in a seven day week. Some lifters will use a shorter cycle, such as a four day. A four day cycle with a three day split would look like this:

Day 1 - Chest, Shoulders, Triceps
Day 2 - Back, Traps, Biceps
Day 3 - Legs, Core
Day 4 - Rest

A person lifting on this split would do Day 1 on Monday, and then again on Friday. This sort of schedule has no regard for whether it's a workday or a weekend. Most people who use a split like this are experienced lifters who know exactly what their recovery time is, and don't want to limit their progress by conforming it to the calendar.

Most people prefer to maintain a regular schedule, and if no cycle length is given, you can assume a split occurs in the course of seven days. An example of a five day split would be:
Monday - Chest, Shoulders
Tuesday - Upper Back, Traps
Wednesday - Legs, Lower Back
Thursday - Recovery
Friday - Arms
Saturday - Core (focus on abs)
Sunday - Recovery

which is actually the split I'm using right now. That's not to say this describes all the exercise I'm doing in a week. It doesn't include kickboxing on Saturday, or evening shadowboxing or heavy bag workouts. It's the number of days I spend weightlifting.

Five days a week is a lot. It's something I would only recommend for an experienced lifter who knows his or her body. I've been lifting a long time and I find five full days a bit much, but my Saturday core day is really only a half of a workout, as my core already gets a good amount of work on Wednesday leg day.

There are a number of issues that need to be considered when planning your split: frequency, placement of recover days, secondary muscle soreness, and how many days you want to work each muscle group.

1. Frequency
If you are a true beginner, always start low in order to judge your recovery time. Two days of lifting a week will let you know how soon you can work a muscle group again after you've hit it once, and how well your body handles the stress put on it. You wouldn't start your bench press at 300 lbs, so don't start by lifting six days a week.

On a two day cycle you could do your entire body twice a week, or upper body one day and lower body another. Beginners can often see strength improvements in full body workouts. Experienced lifters generally can only maintain strength with a full body workout unless they have genetics that simply favor that system. Most need more sets per muscle group to see gains than can be fit into a full body workout that is sub-three hours.

A three day split based around compound movements is a great workout for a busy person wanting to gain more strength than size. A four day split is good for size or strength lifting, or cycling between both.

(To be continued…)

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