CES Recovery

Upper/Lower Splits Explained: How to Get the Workouts Right

Brad Dieter
Brad Dieter

All roads lead to Rome. This saying refers to the world thousands of years ago when most of the roads that were built eventually led to Rome. In today’s parlance, it means that there are many ways to achieve the same outcome. This idea holds when we think about exercise and trying to improve our body composition through weight training. There are a lot of ways to structure your workout routine and many of them can and do work. However, one of the most common ways of structuring exercise is an idea called a “split”. You may have heard the term "bro split" thrown around and that is too a split.

Put simply, a split refers to how you break up your workouts over a week to allow your body to recover between exercise sessions and maximize your results.

While there are many different types of splits, one of the most common ones is known as an Upper/Lower split. Knowing these splits is indispensable as a fitness enthusiast or NASM-CPT.

What is an Upper/Lower Split?

An Upper/Lower split refers to breaking workouts into the upper and lower portions of the body. One example of this is doing a leg day and then an upper-body day. There are a lot of different ways to structure an Upper/Lower split, but one of the most common ways is to structure it into a 4-day split which allows for 3 days of rest during a week.

When structuring a 4-day Upper/Lower split that are a few different ways to structure your weekly schedule. Three main approaches are commonly used.

Option 1

Sunday Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday
Upper Lower Rest Upper Lower Rest Rest

 

Option 2

Sunday Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday
Upper Lower Rest Rest Upper Lower Rest

 

Option 3

Sunday Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday
Upper Rest Lower Rest Upper Rest Lower

 

Each option should allow for roughly the same amount of training volume and stimulus to elicit similar adaptations to training. Which option a person chooses will likely depend on the following factors:

• Their work schedule
• Their recovery capacity
• The training preferences

Exercises Broken Down by Lower and Upper Days

As with there being multiple different ways to structure the split throughout the week, there are also multiple ways to structure the exercises on given days.

Here is one example of what a split might look like. It is structured to address each of the major muscle groups throughout a week.

The goal with breaking training like this is to have each day have a specific focus but also get some additional work from antagonist muscle groups. This allows each muscle group to get some stimulus twice a week but have one day of much higher volume and one day of lower volume.

Upper Day 1 (Push Focus)

  • DB Bench Press
  • Seated Military Press
  • Low Cable Row
  • Incline DB Fly
  • Overhead Dumbbell Tricep Extension
  • Single Arm DB Row
  • Narrow Grip Push Up

Lower DAy 1 (Push Focus)

  • Goblet Squat
  • Leg Press
  • Hex Bar Deadlift 
  • Lunge
  • Seated Calf Raises

Upper Day 2 (Pull Focus)

  • Chest Supported Row
  • Lat Pulldown
  • Decline Dumbbell Press
  • Narrow Grip Row
  • Hammer Curls
  • DB Shoulder Flys
  • Reverse Flys

Lower Day 2 (Pull Focus)

  • Hamstring Curls
  • Romanian Deadlifts
  • Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat
  • Single Leg DB Deadlift
  • Hip Abduction
  • Standing Calf Raise

What Are the Benefits of the Upper/Lower Split?

There are a lot of benefits for splitting up workouts into upper and lower. While they may not be attributed only because of the split, they are good benefits, nonetheless. The main benefits are weight loss, muscle growth, and recovery.

Weight Loss

When paired with a smart nutrition plan that has an individual in a moderate deficit, an Upper/Lower split can increase the total calories expended in a week and provide enough stimulus to help someone maintain their lean mass as they lose body weight. It also likely provides enough rest to reduce the likelihood of injury.

Be sure to track all calories burned with a calorie calculator!

Muscle Growth

An Upper/Lower split can effectively target each major muscle group and can provide enough stimulus to elicit muscle growth. A recent study found that an appropriately designed Upper/Lower can lead to muscle growth in as little as 8 weeks.

See Hypertrophy: Back to The Basics for more on muscle development.

Recovery

One of the major benefits of an Upper/Lower split is that, in theory, it allows for substantial rest and recovery during a week.

Depending on how it is structured, there is an average of ~48 hours of rest between sessions or there are two full days off between training sessions allowing for adequate recovery.

What Are the Cons of an Upper/Lower Split?

There are few true cons to a well-designed upper/lower split, and most of the cons are only applicable to specific situations or circumstances. For example, if someone's schedule only allows 3 days of exercise per week, an Upper/Lower split may not provide enough stimulus to elicit proper muscle growth.

Another situation where Upper/Lower splits may not be the best strategy is for advanced lifters who need very high training volume and require more frequent and heavier training; they may need to adopt a much different split to allow.

Both split-style training and full body workouts can be effective tools for seeing results. In many cases, splits often allow for more frequent training, better recovery, and more volume per muscle group in each session than full-body workouts. However, full-body workouts can provide a good training stimulus in a more time-efficient manner over a week. It depends on exactly what your goals are, what your schedule is, and what type of training you enjoy.

The Author

Brad Dieter

Brad Dieter

Brad is a trained Exercise Physiologist, Molecular Biologist, and Biostatistician. He received his B.A. from Washington State University and a Masters of Science in Biomechanics at the University of Idaho, and completed his PhD at the University of Idaho. He completed his post-doctoral fellowship in translational science at Providence Medical Research Center, Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center and Children’s Hospital where he studied how metabolism and inflammation regulate molecular mechanisms disease and was involved in discovering novel therapeutics for diabetic complications. Currently, Dr. Dieter is the Chief Scientific Advisor at Outplay Inc and Harness Biotechnologies and is active in health technology and biotechnology. In addition, he is passionate about scientific outreach and educating the public through his role on Scientific Advisory Boards and regular writing on health, nutrition, and supplementation.