It is never enough to just go to a gym, or buy equipment for home workouts. The most important part of a fitness journey is the plan. How should you lay out your training regimen once you’re at the gym? I remember the first time I used a proper gym, it was in my hostel in Mumbai where I was attending college. On day one, I used all the machines. I did a bench press, I did some biceps work, I performed leg curls and squats and shoulder presses. I wanted to use everything that was available. This is clearly not advisable. But we must understand that most people don’t end up hiring personal trainers. And in any case, if you don’t opt for personal training, trainers at gyms lose any interest in guiding you after the first few days. Which means having to coming up with a plan all by yourself. A plan, a routine, or, as they call it in gym jargon, a split.
Choosing a workout split depends on a wide variety of factors, but most importantly, and this cannot be stressed enough, it’s all about your goals. What you are in the gym for will define what you do when you’re there. You must also take into account your schedule, your gym experience, and the amount of time you need to recover. A split is basically how you divide your week at the gym. Most newbies fall for the body-part workout split: chest and triceps, back and biceps, legs and shoulders, rest, repeat. While these can be great for gains, body-part splits can end up taking more time and a missed day can disturb the muscle-building process.
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Sometimes you will see people use the single muscle group split as well. Shoulders, chest, triceps, back, biceps and legs followed by a rest day. But here’s the problem with that: you will be using some part of your triceps on chest day, and some of your biceps on back day. That is just how the mechanics of the body work—and a single muscle group split may not allow for sufficient recovery, which should ideally be 48 hours.
This brings us to simpler and more effective methods of creating a split. The most popular one in recent times is the push-pull-legs-rest cycle. Your push workout will include chest, shoulders, triceps and quadriceps. A pull workout will hit your back, biceps, hamstrings, and glutes. A leg day would involve squats and calves and other ancillary exercises.
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“I have been using the push-pull-leg split for a while now,” says Shalak Nelson, a personal trainer based out of Baroda, and has been working out for the last nine years. “In this split, your muscles will be worked twice a week, which is ideal for strength and size growth. As you slowly progress, you can go for two-muscle or single muscle splits but I’ve always believed that the key to choosing a split is to experiment and see what works best for your progress. Also, the two push days in a week won’t be the same. One push day will be heavy lifting for strength training, the other push day will include supersets and be hypertrophy based.”
A 2018 study called Effects Of Resistance Training Frequency On Measures Of Muscle Hypertrophy found that working out a muscle twice a week resulting in greater muscle thickness and a better overall body composition. This can also be achieved with the more regular chest/triceps, back/biceps, and legs/shoulder split. One can play around with this split to work on weaker muscles by adding some extra sets to target them at the end of every workout. An example would be to do three sets of waiter curls for your biceps at the end of each day rather than do 12 sets of the same exercise on bicep day.
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Another split that people tend to do is the upper-lower split. That means you will train your upper body, then your lower body, then rest. And repeat. This way you get two days of rest, and you still get to work on your muscles twice a week, which seems to be the sweet spot for training. The advantage of this split is that this is perfect if you’re on a tight schedule, and it can help you focus on your compound movements. The disadvantage of this is that the workout volume isn’t high enough for those looking to bulk up.
So before going to a gym, irrespective of whether you’re going to opt for a personal trainer or not, make sure you establish your goals. Accordingly choose a split that fits into your schedule, allows enough recovery, and make sure you’re working out those muscles at least twice a week for enough growth. Also measure your progress, which is something most people forget to do. Your fitness journey may not be entirely dependent on a good split. But it would make all the difference between wasting your time at the gym or making the most of it.
Pulasta Dhar is a football commentator and writer.