Split Routines: The Death of Productive Training?
by Kurt J. Wilkens
I have come to the following conclusion, after considerable research and study of much of the available material regarding the training methods and results of the so-called ‘old timers’, as well as current training methods and results: the ‘split’ routine has been the death of productive strength training and muscle building. Allow me to explain the reasoning behind this possibly shocking revelation…
First, I shall clarify what I mean by ‘split’ routine. As most of us are probably aware, the conventional use of the phrase split routine comes from bodybuilding; it refers to structuring ones training routine around the individual body parts/muscle groups. One example: Working chest, shoulders, and triceps one day, back and biceps the next, and legs the third day. Another, even worse (and you‘ll understand why by the end of the article), example: Legs one day, back one day, chest one day, shoulders one day, and arms one day. As I said, these are conventional examples of split routines, the type of things you would invariably find in what have been referred to as the “muscle comics” -- because what you find inside these ‘comics’ is so far-fetched and ridiculous, it has absolutely no resemblance to reality!
Another, more practical, type of split routine, would be to split the lifts -- take a handful of the big, compound, multi-joint exercises and work two or three each time you train. As you will soon see, this type of split can be very effective. For example: squats, pull-ups, and overhead presses one day, deadlifts and bench press another day, and maybe snatches and cleans-and-jerks on another day. It should be obvious, I hope, that the type of split routine that I have a problem with is the former, body part type.
It might not be the end of the world if the use of body part split routines were limited just to bodybuilding, but their insidious influence is found everywhere. Many amateur and professional athletes (in football, baseball, basketball, etc.), World’s Strongest Man competitors, powerlifters, and combative and tactical athletes of all types can be seen using the cursed split routine in their training. These are people who, in my opinion, should know better -- and whose athletic needs require a totally different approach to strength training and conditioning.
When the ‘average’ guy took up weight training in the early days of the 20th Century, he was almost assured of making good gains from his training. He could count on adding considerable size and strength to his body, while also vastly improving his health. Today’s average trainee is not afforded that same luxury/opportunity -- and much of the blame should fall at the feet of the muscle magazines, for it is the muscle mags that promulgate the absurd split routines to the unknowing masses of eager, yet gullible, young men. In defense of these magazines, though, it may not be entirely their fault. You see, it all started back in the early 1920s …
A Little History for Yourself
When Milo Steinborn came here from Germany, he brought with him the heavy, flat-footed squat. Prior to this, most lifters in this country were doing their squats with fairly light weights, up on their toes. This produced a certain degree of muscularity in the thighs (though not necessarily a lot), but didn’t contribute much in the way of startling total-body size and strength. With Steinborn’s version of the squat, that all changed -- and a revolution was founded! The heavy, flat-footed, high-rep squat would eventually become the cornerstone of most lifter’s routines, thanks in large part to the efforts of Joseph Curtis Hise and Peary Rader. Along with the squat, you would find many other heavy, multi-joint lifts being suggested by the top physical culturists of the time. This trend -- whole-body routines with an emphasis on heavy leg and back work -- would continue into the 1960s, but only barely.
Perhaps some examples through the years are in order.
Alan Calvert, from his ‘First Course in Body-Building and Muscle-Developing Exercises’, 1924, included the following drills in his program: Standing Curls, Bent-Over Rows, Standing Press Behind Neck, Stiff-Arm Pullovers, Weighted Situps, Overhead Press while seated on the floor, Straddle Lifts, Shrugs, Squats up on the toes, One-Arm Press/Side Press, One-Arm Swings, and a strange type of Supported, Bent-Over One-Arm Reverse Curl.
Mark Hamilton Berry, from his ‘First Course in Physical Improvement and Muscle Developing Exercises’, circa ~1936: Standing Curl, Floor Press, Bent Rows, Standing Press Behind Neck, Two-Arm Pullovers, Squats, Shrugs, Straddle Lifts, Weighted Situp, One-Arm Press/Side Press, One-Arm KB Swing, Wrist Roller, Wrestler’s Bridge, Reverse Curl, Military Press.
Harry Barton Paschall, ‘The Bosco System of Progressive Physical Training’, 1954: (Program 1: Bodybuilding) Upright Rows, Standing Press, Standing Curls, Bent Rows, Squats, Pullovers, Calf Raise, Stiff-Legged Deadlift/Shrug combination drill, Side Bends, DB Circles, Weighted Situps, and Leg Swings; (Program 2: Weight Gaining) Clean and Press, Standing Curls, Bent Rows, Bench Press, Squat, and Chest Lifts.
John McCallum, from his Keys to Progress series, circa the mid-1960s: (An article titled ‘For Size and Strength’) Prone Hyper-Extensions, Squats and Pullovers, Front Squats, Bench Press, Power Cleans, Rowing, Press Behind Neck, Incline Curls.
You will notice that none of these programs are split routines; more often than not, it was expected that the routine would be performed on three non-consecutive days per week. Please note, there is nary a fly nor lateral raise nor leg extension in the bunch. (Apparently, however, curls have always been included as a concession to man’s preoccupation with big biceps.) Another thing you may notice is that, over the years, the routines tended to get a little shorter -- programs of 10-15 or more drills were becoming routines of 6-8 exercises, as they minimized any redundancy and eliminated some of the drills that were not maximally productive. Thus, they found it possible to develop whole-body size and strength without having to train each individual muscle with its own exercise. All of these programs -- both the longer ones and, especially, the shorter ones -- resulted in considerable increases in size and strength for anyone who tried them.
The same cannot be said for the drivel and BS that passes for training advice in this day and age. Show me an ‘average’, drug-free, genetically-typical trainee today who has made any real progress in his training; a modern lifter who continues to make progress steadily, even if somewhat slowly; a trainee who is not lifting the same amount of weight for the same number of reps week after week, year after year. I’ve seen it myself time and time again, first when I trained in a gym, then when I worked in one.
In fact, I experienced it for myself. Allow me a brief digression to illustrate my point with some personal history. Years back, when I used to train in the gym with a training partner, we always used split routines -- typically chest/shoulders/triceps on Monday and Thursday, back/biceps Tuesday and Friday, and legs on Wednesday. My partner was a thick little mesomorph who made some progress on whatever program we were using; I, on the other hand, did not. It may also be worth noting that my partner made his progress while missing a good eight out of ten leg workouts, while I made virtually no progress while never missing a leg session. In each chest workout we would do the bench press, working up to a max each time (the idea that you need to max in each workout -- that’s a rant for another time), and I would always take a shot at the big ‘two wheels’, 225. Only on one or two occasions was I actually able to bench that 225 by myself, for a shaky, ugly rep -- and this was over the span of more than two years time. (While I constantly struggled with that 225, my partner went on to push 315, damned mesomorph …) Shortly after I quit the gym, I went on a ‘Hard Gainer’ type routine, training the whole body in each workout, and using only three or four lifts per session to do so. And after no more than about six months I was benching the sacred two wheels for reps -- three or four or five -- at home, by myself, with confidence, thank you very much.
By now, you are probably wondering when I’m going to get to the point. Well, here it comes. The whole-body type programs that were used in the old days offered many benefits not afforded by the elaborate split routines of today, and these benefits may help explain why it is that old-time lifters could excel while we flounder in a sea of mediocrity. (It may also explain why our Olympic lifters have lost to the cursed Commies year after year -- since the 60s; it’s an opinion apparently shared by none other than the great Olympic lifter Tommy Kono, at least according to his excellent book, “Weightlifting, Olympic Style”.)
Benefits of Whole-Body Routines vs. Split Routines
First, the endocrine response. According to modern sports science, the more muscle mass one uses in a training session, the greater the endocrine response; in other words, the more hormones that your body will release in response to your training. The old-time programs trained all the muscle groups in each workout; that’s a lot of muscle mass. Consider the gush of hGH and testosterone that would be sent coursing through the body after a workout that included heavy squats, deadlifts, standing presses, bent-over and upright rows, bench presses, DB swings, snatches, etc. And consider the muscle-building and fat-burning effects of all this hGH and test free-flowing through your system. Now, try to imagine how very little the squirt of hormones would be after a shoulder workout of seated DB presses (at least standing you would be getting some leg work, however minimal), lateral raises to the front and sides, bent laterals, and maybe some cable laterals for a little extra striation-training. Or worse, a ‘heavy’ arm workout: preacher curls, incline DB curls, maybe 21s to get a good burn; then ‘skull crushers’, seated French presses, and some pushdowns for the outer head, man. Diddly in the way of muscle-building and fat-burning! The training effect upon the endocrine system may also explain why the trend in full-body routines went from as many as ten or more drills down to half that: The abbreviated routines allowed the lifter to finish the session within 45-60 minutes, which maximized hGH and testosterone while minimizing the catabolic hormone cortisol. The old-timers may not have fully understood why the shortened routines seemed so much more productive than the original two-plus-hour marathon workouts, but they knew what worked and they stuck with it!
Second, bone and joint strength. Again, modern sports science tells us that the bones in the body are strengthened best when subjected to a heavy load. This is where the big, multi-joint lifts come in, lifts like squats, deadlifts, cleans-and-jerks, snatches, standing presses, etc. It is quite impossible to put the skeletal frame under significant resistance when using so-called isolation exercises; as far as I’m concerned, these type drills are little more than ‘poor-leverage’ drills. Lateral raises, flyes, cable cross-overs, leg extensions, etc, all put the weight at the end of a relatively long lever, making it more difficult to lift that weight -- even a very light weight. And at no point in any of the isolation exercises does any real resistance actually fall fully on the bone structure; the skeletal system does little, if any, real supporting of the weight. The same applies to the connective tissues: To fully strengthen the tendons and ligaments, it is necessary to subject them to tremendously heavy weights, often through a partial range-of-motion. Again, this is not something that is adequately accomplished with the isolation-type, poor-leverage drills. Clearly, split routines and the accompanying isolation drills are not the most efficient way to build strength in the bones and connective tissues.
The talk of strength leads us to the next point: muscular strength. Maximum muscular strength is best developed via the lifting of very heavy weights. The heavier the weight, the greater the tension generated in a muscle, and the more tension generated by a muscle, the more force it can apply -- thus, it gets stronger! And while isolation drills -- aka, poor-leverage drills -- may generate what appears to be a lot of tension (even with very light weights), it is typically far less than would be required with whole-body exercises. The goal of strength training, after all, is -- or should be -- to lift the heaviest weight possible. Think of it this way: Would you have more confidence and more pride from doing a set of ten reps in the lateral raise with 25 pounds, or five reps in the clean-and-press with 205? Which drill do you really think would do more for your bodily size and strength? The answer, I hope, is obvious.
Finally, we come to the issue of functionality. The isolation exercises that are the staple of most split routines are not functional in the least (beyond, perhaps, for training around an injury, or for rehab). When was the last time you needed to put something heavy on a shelf above your head and you chose to lift it at the end of your stiff, outstretched arm? Hopefully never. You would, I have to believe, do something that would resemble a continental clean and press -- deadlifting the load to waist height, struggling it up to the shoulders, and finally pressing it up overhead and sliding it onto the shelf. Whole-body routines using the big, multi-joint drills train the whole body as a unit -- as the name might imply. They teach your many muscle groups to work together in a unified, athletic fashion, and in the proper sequence: typically from the ground up, transferring force from the lower body, through the midsection, into the upper body, and out through the arms (more often than not, anyway). These drills also teach the muscles of the legs and core to stabilize the upper body against resistance, which is especially important not only in lifting but in many combative/contact sports.
There’s a popular saying, something to the effect that “Form Follows Function”. How you train will determine how you look, that’s true enough; but it will also determine how you perform. Training for functionality will dramatically improve your performance, first and foremost, and your ‘form’ right along with it. Cosmetic-oriented training -- bodybuilding -- may improve how you look, but it will not, I submit, do much to improve your performance in any endeavor. Besides, what will be more valuable to you in your life: looking puffed-up and pretty, or having high levels of strength and work capacity? Train like an athlete, not a bodybuilder! To train any other way is to invite injury and weakness.
Split Routines, Steroids, and ‘Isolationism’
Split routines first began to rear their ugly little heads sometime in the late 50s or early 60s, around the time that steroid use was really becoming widespread in the bodybuilding and lifting communities. A coincidence? I think not! Heavy, often high-rep, leg and back work is absolutely essential for making size and strength gains drug-free, but let’s face it: heavy leg and back work, properly performed, is positively brutal. Thus, it may not be a complete surprise that when lifters found they could achieve significant increases in muscular size and strength without subjecting themselves to the brutally heavy lifting, they did so. (In their defense, though, it’s worth noting that they didn’t know of the dangerous side effects of the drugs at that time; also, they were taking much lower doses and much fewer varieties of the drugs than are the lifters and bodybuilders of today.)
Of course, one rationale for the use of split routines is that it allows the lifter to train the individual muscle groups with greater focus and intensity, thus developing greater size and strength in those muscles. Well, I would submit that this logic only really applies to a lifter using exogenous pharmaceutical enhancement -- Dianabol, Winstrol, etc. A natural lifter with your so-called ‘average’ genetics is not going to receive much in the way of results from such a program since he will not be getting much in the way of an endocrine response. I wonder, in fact, if it’s not necessary for a ‘juicer’ to train every day in the isolation fashion because he or she needs to keep the drug-carrying blood “pumped into” the separate muscles to feed them the hormones and facilitate growth. I don’t know; it’s just a thought …
Another argument for the use of split routines is that they will allow one to train more frequently because you are training different parts of the body each time. Well, to my thinking, this is only partly accurate. Yes, you may be training different muscles each time, but there is so much more to the body than just the muscular system. Let’s not forget the many other systems: nervous, endocrine, skeletal, etc. If one were to -- as many bodybuilders do -- train to the point of muscular failure several times in a workout -- and do that several times in a week -- even if you are training different muscle groups, you are still causing considerable systemic fatigue; “wiring up” the nervous system, for example, as well as draining the various energy systems, depleting the endocrine system, etc. With proper nutrition and recover strategies, it may be possible for the drug-free, average trainee to mitigate some of these factors -- but for a steroid-using lifter, it becomes a no-brainer; steroids are known to considerably accelerate the recovery process.
One of the biggest problems that I have with split routines is that it results in an ‘isolation mentality’. Every effort is made, more often than not, to try to isolate each individual muscle. This practice, by definition, results in a loss of some of the very best drills one could do. The clean-and-press, for instance; should it be trained on back day or shoulder day. But wait, what if you do squat-snatches; is that a leg drill or a back drill; and doesn’t it also involve the shoulders to an extent? The bent press; where do you start with that? Deadlifts; back or legs? High pulls? One-arm dumbbell swings? Dumbbell cleans? Sots presses?
Whole-body routines, if considered at all today, are thought to be appropriate only for beginners. After the first 3-6 months -- perhaps as much as a year -- you have to switch to a split routine if you want to continue to make progress -- or so we‘re led to believe. This is quite absurd. “Back in the day”, as the saying goes, most of the strongest and best-built lifters trained on whole-body routines for the duration of their careers, and made relatively steady progress the entire time -- even setting lifting records that have yet to be broken to this day!
Laying Blame at the Feet of the ‘Muscle Comics’?
Anyone who is familiar with Dinosaur Training will recall Brooks D. Kubik railing against today’s crop of trainees lifting their “pigmy weights” because they were afraid to train heavy. I believe that this is mostly inaccurate (and I’m aware that much -- but not all! -- of Brooks’ writing was done sort of tongue-in-cheek), because I was one of those young guys who couldn’t seem to get strong -- because I was following the programs in the muscle mags. Because I didn’t know any better; who knew that there was a so-much-more productive way to train for size and strength? Certainly not me and my friends, I can tell you. After all, how could we know? My friends and I slaved away with those “pigmy weights” workout after workout because we were misinformed.
I never considered the possibility that there might be an alternative method out there, even though the split routines didn’t do diddly for me. Just enough people made just enough progress on split routines that I assumed the fault for my lack of gains lay within myself -- I must be doing something wrong. And of course I was -- just not what I had thought.
It seems to me that people have always had an interest in the way the super-strong have trained, and the muscle mags have answered that call. In the old days, the big one was Alan Calvert’s ‘Strength’ magazine giving us the goods on Saxon and Sandow and Hackenschmidt, etc. The next big one was Peary Rader’s ‘Ironman’ with Hise, Peoples, Boone, Davis, Anderson, Hepburn, et al. Then came Bob Hoffman’s ‘Strength and Health’ and Park, Grimek, and the champion Olympic lifters of the era: Kono, Schemansky, the George Brothers, and on and on. These physical culture periodicals published the training routines of all the stars, and the information was invaluable to the average lifter because the training methods were based on what worked. Gradually, as the use of steroids became more pronounced, the routines that the champs were using began to change -- and the magazines published those programs. And, as you might expect, the average reader started to emulate these new ’split’ routines, and didn’t get the results that the champs were getting. The problem was that the champs didn’t make it known to the magazines that they were ‘pharmaceutically-assisted’. Thus, the editors of the time were likely as duped as the poor reader. And if the editors did in fact know, it seems that they weren’t telling.
Today, of course, they’re still not talking. Even though it’s a big open secret in the muscle mag industry that most -- okay, probably all -- of the physiques you see pictured in the ‘comics’ were ultimately built with steroids. And the mags are still publishing those split routines, and not mentioning the prerequisite need for boatloads of drugs to make those programs work. And for that, I most certainly do blame Joe Weider and Bob Kennedy and all their ilk. They are selling unattainable dreams to kids and wide-eyed young men; they are selling these poor bastards supplements that won’t work, and cheating them of something that could otherwise have been a very fulfilling and worthwhile pursuit, and they are leading them to failure and disappointment -- and they know it! I personally wasted precious years of my life -- perhaps what might have been my most productive training years, with a system pumped full of raging teenage hormones -- on those ineffectual and pernicious routines. To think how much bigger and stronger I might have been today is almost enough to move me to tears. Would that I knew then … Oh yes, I am still holding this grudge after all these years!
There are precious few periodicals and books out there that are telling you the truth about physical training; you would do well to go out of your way to find them. IronMind’s MILO magazine tops the list, of course. And a couple of now-defunct magazines you should make an effort to get back issues of: Dinosaur Files and HardGainer. (These are just the few that I have personal experience with; there may well be others of which I’m unaware.) To me, it seems very much a shame that some of the most honest and useful magazines are not more well-known, and many typically fold after a relatively short time, while the newsstand ‘glossies’ continue to churn out the same nonsense, month after month!
In terms of books, most of the stuff by Stuart McRoberts is excellent, if a bit conservative. Look for ‘Brawn’ especially (the book that finally got me gaining in size and strength), as well as ‘Beyond Brawn’; his ‘Insider’s Tell-All Handbook on Weight-Training Technique’ is invaluable for learning proper lifting technique. Brooks D. Kubik’s ‘Dinosaur Training’ is outstanding, and a personal favorite; it compelled me to completely re-evaluate my approach to training. Without question, get Pavel’s ‘Power to the People!’ for a ‘simplex’ approach to building strength -- with or without size. Bill Starr’s ‘Strongest Shall Survive’ is also quite good, and has aged very well, thank you; as I’ve been saying -- the methods that work don’t change much. Check out William F. Hinbern’s website Super Strength Books - Bill Hinbern - www.superstrengthtraining.com for a wide assortment of very valuable reading materials: books by and about Saxon, Hackenschmidt, Goerner, Paschall, Berry, Calvert, et al. Almost any of these books would be eminently valuable to you; a wealth of productive training wisdom.
If You Insist on ‘Splitting’…
In my humble opinion, there is really only one type split routine that might be worth discussing -- beyond the lift-splitting example offered in the opening paragraph of this treatise, of course. If you insist on using a split routine, I implore you to consider the upper body/lower body split. This type split was favored by none other than the gargantuan powerhouse Paul Anderson.
One of the very first ‘body part’ split routines, the upper/lower split offers some significant benefits that aren’t found with most of today’s popular splits. First is a much more equal division of the body’s musculature. With the upper/lower split, you are able to emphasize the back and the shoulder girdle in one session, and the hips and legs in the other. The core/midsection could conceivably be trained in each session. In both of these workouts you are training a considerable portion of the body’s muscle mass with heavy weights.
Which leads us to perhaps the most notable and beneficial perk: the potential to use some of the really BIG lifts: the clean-and-press/jerk, the snatch, the one-arm swing all fit nicely into the upper body workout (not necessarily all in one session, of course); the various squats and deadlifts are the obvious choices for the lower body day. Using these big lifts will offer many of the advantages of whole-body routines -- if you use the big lifts. An upper/lower split is fairly worthless if you just fill the program with wimpy little isolation exercises. Naturally, there may occasionally be some overlap of the muscle groups being trained in each session, but this is okay because you probably won’t be training every day (although with proper variation of the intensity and volume, you certainly could; I just wouldn’t recommend it). Typically, if you are training for some size along with your strength, and/or if you are involved in other physical activities, you will do best lifting only two to four days per week. Also, by using the big, multi-joint drills, you are able to get more work done in less time; in other words, you can train all of the involved major musculature with only a small handful of lifts. For example, one-arm dumbbell swings, cleans-and-presses, and the pullover-and-press for the upper body; squats and stiff-legged deadlifts for the lower. Or, even more streamlined for less wasted time and energy: snatches and one-arm standing presses for the upper body, bent-leg deadlifts for the lower.
The above routines are just a couple of ideas for yourself, as a place to start. Alternatively, you could simply pick a few of the drills from each list below -- perhaps two or three for the upper body and one or two for the lower -- add an ab and/or oblique drill or two, and put together your own program. (These lists are far from comprehensive, of course.)
Upper Body Drills (Back and Shoulder Girdle Emphasis)
- Bent-Arm Pullovers
- Snatch, one arm or two
- Clean-and-Press, one arm or two
- Clean-and-Jerk, one arm or two
- Bench Press
- Incline Press
- One-Arm Swings
- Weighted Pull-Ups/Chins
- Bent-Over Rows, one arm or two
- Weighted Dips
Lower Body Drills (Hip and Leg Emphasis)
- Back Squats
- Front Squats
- Straddle Squats
- Deadlifts, one arm or two
- Stiff-Legged/Romanian Deadlifts
- One-Legged Deadlifts
- Hack Squats, with a barbell, of course
- Reverse Deadlifts
- One-Legged Squats
- Spider/Zercher Squats
If you are a young guy -- or even a not-so-young guy -- whose sole desire is to get bigger and stronger, drug-free, I beg of you: Do not fall for the popular hype that you’ll find in nearly every one of the muscle and fitness magazines and Internet websites today! Reference the materials cited above (MILO, Brawn, Dinosaur Training, PTP, etc.). With any or all of these books and magazines to guide you, you can’t go far wrong with your training. Please, don’t waste your time trying to prove that you are an exception, that your genetics are ‘good’ -- chances are they’re not. Do yourself a BIG favor and stick with what works, what’s been working for over 100 years -- hard and heavy training on full-body routines using the big lifts. The results may amaze you!
this guy is right, about the muscle comics!!
Interesting, but it is curious that natural bodybuilders use splits and don't seem to be suffering.
Great article, took me a while to work through it, busy, busy, but well worth it.
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