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The Best Training Split For Athletes?

A typical conversation I have with an athlete the first time we chat about training history:


Me - "Have you trained before?"

Athlete - "Yes."

Me - "What did it consist of?"

Athlete - "Push, pull, legs."

Me - ".... okay. Do you sprint or do anything explosive?"

Athlete - "No."


Listen, if you want to become more athletic and/or improve your sport performance, you should probably stop training like a "bro" and start training like an athlete. There are a ton of ways you can set up your weekly training split, and I have my preferences, so I'm going to cover the 3 most popular splits (what the break down is and the pros/cons of each) and give my opinion at the end. How you choose what split to follow comes down to two simple words:


Adherence & Consistency

If you're unable to adhere and stay consistent to the training split, I'm talking for weeks and months, it probably isn't the best split for you. No matter how good it is on paper and with all the scientific evidence of how effective it can be, if you can't stick to it you won't get the results you want.


Push/Pull/Legs

This is a very common, yet advanced, body building style training split. If you Google "best training split" the PPL will pop up on the first page. Because of its popularity, young athletes dive right in without thinking much about it. In reality, the amount of volume is pretty intense for a new lifter. If an athlete is training this split while trying to play a sport, their sport performance often declines because of how demanding it is, not to mention the lack of explosive activities involved.


This split can be 6 days in a row or on a 7-8 week microcycle (your weekly training block). Most people view a training block as a typical 7 day week, but this can extend to 8-14 days depending on how you program. Below is an example of how you would program a typical 7 day week:

Sunday

Rest

Monday

Push

Tuesday

Pull

Wednesday

Legs

Thursday

Push

Friday

Pull

Saturday

Legs

Pros:

- It's a lot of volume! This amount of training maximizes 3 big factors to seeing results: intensity, frequency, and volume. Each muscle group is trained 2x/week and can be organized as strength and hypertrophy days.

- By setting up your training by muscle groups vs specific muscles, you start to think about and train the body by function. People learn about joint function, muscle orientation, and what muscles support what function.

- Staying on the muscle group vs specific muscle topic, this usually allows a better "mind-muscle" connection when training. This allows people to focus a little better in the gym and keep the blood flow all to one area.


Cons:

- It's a ton of time in the gym. Realistically, one hour a day in the gym, 6 days a week, on top of practices and games, just doesn't make sense for a lot of athletes.

- It can cause a tremendous amount of DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness) in some people. The recovery time for this split is small and can really fry the nervous system. Both of these are a recipe for disaster for athletes and lead to a decrease in athletic performance.

- If you're not following a well structured/designed program, this puts a lot of stress on the joints, especially the shoulders. With so much pushing (shoulder protraction) on one day, this can lead to impingement and just excess joint stress. It'll be important to add in high amounts of pulling (shoulder retraction) in the warm up.


4 Day Upper/Lower Split

One of my favorites that I personally use and recommend that athletes do in their off season (depending on the time of year and sport). It's simple, effective, and can be modified to fit your training week. What more could you want?


Something to remember: this is when sports games/practice is at its lowest. Athletes might still have practice, so they can schedule their weight room sessions appropriately. Lower on days when they have practice, upper on days they don't (high days high, low days low). A potential weekly setup could look like the following:

Sunday

Rest

Monday

Lower

Tuesday

Upper

Wednesday

Rest or Conditioning

Thursday

Lower

Friday

Upper

Saturday

Rest or Conditioning

Pros:

- Allows you to have one max effort and one dynamic effort day, for your upper and lower body, each week. Speed one day, strength and hypertrophy the other. In my opinion, this is the best split to run in the off season to optimize gainz. Research shows that training like this is great for improving speed, strength, and hypertrophy simultaneously.

- More easily and effectively increases total volume. When building muscle, there's a minimum and maximum amount of volume needed. Having 2 days a week to hit each muscle group helps achieve that requirement.

- Following the 2 days a week theme, this is the ideal amount of frequency according to science. If we want to maximize the anabolic response as well as recovery, it's recommended to have ~48 hours (2 days) between training sessions.

- 4 days a week isn't too overwhelming for most peoples schedules, and the flexibility of this program allows you to switch the days around if need be.


Cons:

- For someone new to lifting, isolating the upper and lower body can create some serious DOMS.

- If your schedule changes so frequently that you never really know when you'll be able to hit the gym, this might not be the best option since you'll go days at a time without training certain muscle groups.


Full Body 3-4 Day Split

Otherwise known as "old reliable" and another one of my favorites. Why? Because it WORKS. Like the 4 Day, its effective and adaptable. It's what I recommend in season and what I use most with my athletes.

Sunday

Rest

Monday

Full Body

Tuesday

Rest or Conditioning

Wednesday

Full Body

Thursday

Rest or Conditioning

Friday

Full Body

Saturday

Full Body, Rest, or Conditioning

Pros:

- It's pretty fun! You train each body part every session, so it always feels fresh.

- Just like the upper/lower, with a full body you're getting the optimal amount of frequency because you're training each body part 3x/week. You also have optimal recovery in-between sessions.

- It manages total volume, making it very hard to over train and experience DOMS. For performance goals and purposes, this ideal to get faster and stronger. Both qualities (speed/explosiveness and strength) are very neurologically driven, so sprinting/lifting multiple times per week increases the speed at which our nervous system communicates to your muscles, making them fire faster.

- It's the most adjustable program out there.


Cons:

- Blood flow isn't localized to one body part so it can be harder to have a "mind-muscle" connection.

- Depending on goals and times of year (off-season, pre-season, in-season, post-season) the amount of volume can vary. If muscle growth is your goal, this might not be the best option in the off-season.

- Programming has to be on point. There's not much wiggle room for error, so make sure you're following a program and/or have a coach that knows what they're doing (cough, cough, Maine Gainz).


Training Splits Not Mentioned

The Split

The Reason

Bro Split (Body Parts)

The classic bodybuilding split where you train one muscle group per day. The frequency is simply too low (1x/week) to get optimal results.

CrossFit

​CF is more of a modality and sport to be classified as a training split. This deserves an article by itself.

To Summarize

As you can see, my favorite options are the 4 Day and Full Body (I think for pretty obvious reasons). Like I said in the beginning though, if you can't adhere to the program, it's not the program for you. And with any of these programs, train to be athletic. Sprint, throw things, be explosive, then lift the heavy weights.

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