The end of the “Bro Split”?

The “bro split”

The “bro split”.  The typical “one body part per day” training schedule that maybe 99% of gym “bros” are following.

I’d say that it is also what most professional bodybuilders are following too. However, while the “bro split” might be popular, it doesn’t mean it is therefore “the best” training routine for you to follow.

And keep in mind that professional bodybuilders, like all professional athletes, are in the genetically gifted tiny minority of the population.  You could argue that it wouldn’t matter what routine the professionals followed.  They would grow anyway!

bro split

But is it “optimal”?

While the one body part a day routine is highly popular, it would seem that if your goal is to have bigger muscles, and in as short a time frame as possible, then you might want to reconsider your split.

Just to clarify that we’re on the same page here, what I’m saying is that blasting each body part just once a week is probably NOT optimal for muscle growth. Yes, it does clearly “work”.  But there are “better” ways to go about doing it.

bro split

A typical routine

As it stands, most gym-goers will follow a training routine that goes something like this:

Monday – Chest (of course!  International Chest Day!) and Triceps

Tuesday – Legs

Wednesday – Off

Thursday – Shoulders

Friday – Back and Biceps

Saturday and Sunday – Off

So, each body part only gets trained directly once per week.

(Note: I am aware that body parts often get trained again “indirectly” through the week.  E.g. shoulder training will probably still involve using your triceps and maybe your chest.  But that’s the point here).

Therefore, each body part gets a whole six days to recover after each workout. But ask yourself, does each body part really need six days before it’s ready to train again?

bro split

Recovery time

The answer to the previous question is normally “no”.  But often, the answer might be: “it depends”.

If for example, you absolutely annihilate your legs in a workout.  And do so with many many hard sets to failure.  Then yes.  Your legs may very well need a full six days before you stop walking funny!

But another question is do you really need to be destroying your legs like that in a session just to simulate growth?  And think about it.  More opportunities across the week to stimulate growth, equals more opportunities for your legs to grow bigger!  So, they will grow over a shorter period of time!

For example, if you trained every week in a year:

1 x Leg sessions per week = 52 opportunities to grow in a year

2 x Leg sessions per week = 104 opportunities to grow in a year

3 x Leg sessions per week = 156 opportunities to grow in a year!

Train body parts more often

If you were to train each body part twice a week, three times a week, or maybe even four times a week, that’s a lot more opportunities for growth!  Anything more than four times a week may be overkill. But then again there are powerlifting routines and Olympic weightlifting routines that incorporate very high training frequencies.  Some of these programs can involve training the same “lifts” / body parts six times a week, and sometimes multiple times a day too!

Tapering the number of sets

Of course, to be able to train “more often”, it means that training “volume” and “intensity” have to be adjusted to cater for this.  Which means that marathon sets per workout have to stop. So, you then need to ask yourself how many sets are really necessary to stimulate growth?  And how much of your current workouts are just “fluff” or “overkill”? And how much time do you “really” need to recover from training?

The research

Let’s look at some of the research here.  Disclaimer: all research has its limitations, but this is what we at present assume to be true…

Muscle Protein Synthesis

Firstly, it seems that an increase in muscle protein synthesis (as a result of resistance training) only lasts between about 24 hours to 48 hours.  Though for those “new” to resistance training, it can be up to 72 hours.

Cuthbertson DJ, et al (2006) Anabolic signaling and protein synthesis in human skeletal muscle after dynamic shortening or lengthening exercise. Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab 290(4):E731–8.

Miller BF, et al (2005) Coordinated collagen and muscle protein synthesis in human patella tendon and quadriceps muscle after exercise. J Physiol 567(Pt3):1021–33.

Phillips SM, et al (1997) Mixed muscle protein synthesis and breakdown after resistance exercise in humans. The American Journal of Physiology273(1Pt1):E99–107.

Tang JE, et al (2008) Resistance training alters the response of fed state mixed muscle protein synthesis in young men. Am J Physiol Regul Integr Comp Physiol294(1):R172–8.

More sessions per week are better than just one

Next, we see that if training for size and strength, when total training volume is matched (i.e. number of reps / sets), three sessions per week are better than one a week.  And training twice a day is better than once a day.

Hakkinen K, Kallinen M (1994) Distribution of strength training volume into one or two daily sessions and neuromuscular adaptations in female athletes. Electromyogr Clin Neurophysiol 34(2):117–24.

Three to four working sets is adequate

We also see that just three to four working sets per body part per workout appear to be “enough” to stimulate muscle growth – showing that marathon sessions aren’t necessary!

Henneman E (1957) Relation between size of neurons and their susceptibility to discharge. Science 126(3287):1345–7.

Mitchell CJ, et al (2012) Resistance exercise load does not determine training-mediated hypertrophic gains in young men. Journal of applied physiology113(1):71–7.

Staples AW, et al (2011) Carbohydrate does not augment exercise-induced protein accretion versus protein alone. Med Sci Sports Exerc 43(7):1154–61.

Takarada Y, et al (2005) Rapid increase in plasma growth hormone after low-intensity resistance exercise with vascular occlusion. J Appl Physiol (1985)88(1):61–5.

bro split

The take-home message

So, the take home message here would be to train each body part once every two days or so, and for three to four working sets at a time.  You could divide these working sets over several exercises if you wanted.

E.g. Four working sets for Chest in a single workout could be:

1 x set of Bench Press to failure

2 x sets of Machine Chest Press to failure

1 x set of Flat Dumbbell Flyes to failure

Or you could just use one exercise if you preferred.

E.g. Four working sets for Chest in a single workout could be:

4 x sets of Incline Bench Press to failure

Other factors

You would still have to consider other factors like:

CNS fatigue

Mental fatigue

Wear and tear on your body’s connective tissue (ligaments, tendons)

Getting adequate sleep and nutrition

Controlling stress levels

And how to go about balancing your life with your gym schedule!  E.g. although twice a day training might be superior, for 99% of us it just isn’t practical!

bro split

The optimal training routine doesn’t exist

There are probably numerous ways for you to implement everything I have outlined into altering your training split.  And to be frank, there is no “one size fits all routine” that will be best for everyone!

In fact, if you preferred, you could continue to follow a “bro split”, training each body part just once a day. And you probably will still end up with the same results had trained differently.  It’ll simply take longer, that’s all.

An example

But just to give you an example of how you could train for faster muscle gain, one way could look like this:

Monday:

Chest – 4 sets

Shoulders – 4 sets

Back – 4 sets

Legs – 4 sets

Arms – 4 sets

Wednesday:

Chest – 4 sets

Shoulders – 4 sets

Back – 4 sets

Legs – 4 sets

Arms – 4 sets

Friday:

Chest – 4 sets

Shoulders – 4 sets

Back – 4 sets

Legs – 4 sets

Arms – 4 sets

TOTAL ACROSS THE WEEK = 12 sets per body part

Another example

Or another example could look like this:

Monday:

Chest – 4 sets

Back – 4 sets

Arms – 4 sets

Tuesday:

Legs – 4 sets

Shoulders – 4 sets

Wednesday:

Chest – 4 sets

Back – 4 sets

Arms – 4 sets

Thursday:

Legs – 4 sets

Shoulders – 4 sets

Friday:

Chest – 4 sets

Back – 4 sets

Arms – 4 sets

Saturday:

Legs – 4 sets

Shoulders – 4 sets

TOTAL ACROSS THE WEEK = 12 sets per body part

bro split

Conclusion

As I said previously, there are probably numerous different ways of splitting up your routine.  You just have to find what suits you best.  Also, it comes down to what you enjoy the most too!  If you don’t enjoy it, you probably won’t stick to it!  And just to reiterate again, just about ALL training splits will produce results if you train hard enough, rest enough, and if your nutrition is on point.  It’s just that for some splits, the results may take longer than for others.

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