After high school and before I made the decision to major in Exercise Science in college, I started to seek more information about the most effective strategies of building muscle. The most logical sources at the time were muscle magazines and whoever the most jacked guy at the gym was. The more I read the mags or tried to copy routines from other muscular guys, the more it seemed like the holy grail of strength programming was the traditional bro split. This strategy refers to splitting up a training routine into specific muscle groups and dedicating one session a week to those muscles. Chest day, back day, leg day, shoulders day, and arm day were the split and made up the typical muscle building calendar for years.
What I didn’t research however, were the other variables that led top bodybuilders in magazines or the massive guy bicep curling the weight I use for squats next to me to their physiques. Could genetics, nutrition, or some “extra sauce” (read: PEDS) play a role in the size of some of these dudes? Nah, it’s gotta be the program.
Especially when I was reading them in the early 2000s, muscle mags would have (insert top bodybuilder name here) write a program and send it in. Journalists that may or may not have ever seen the inside of a weight room would then write about that bodybuilder and how this program is how they built their obscene levels of mass. At the end of most of these articles would also be a supplement or fat burner of some type that you needed to buy to look as jacked as the guy in the picture, as if that’s all he was using. Damn was I naive. Due to a lack of better information at the time, those programs became the standard and were performed in gyms across the country.
Training Volume and the Bro Split
Training volume refers to the number of reps, sets, and weight performed for a specific muscle group in each session. For example, many protocols in popular training magazines still prescribe over 20 sets of intense, high rep work for a single muscle group in one workout. That same muscle group is then “recovering” for an entire week before it receives the same blitzkrieg via 20+ sets again. This is considered a very high volume for a single training session by any standard. Training this way will crush the targeted muscles and allow a week of recovery until they are crushed again. The pump will be huge, the muscles will be sore, an obvious ticket to gainzville right?.............maybe not!
The Death of the Bro Split
There are a couple major issues that arise when employing a training split that hits each muscle group once per week with tons of volume (sets and reps):
· Accumulating “junk volume”: If you are hitting 20 sets of chest in a single training session, how strong do you think you’ll be on sets 16-20? How intense will the stimulus be? Do you think you would be stronger if you were fresh? Probably so. Continuing to trash a muscle when it’s already trashed doesn’t necessarily ensure more growth. You’re usually better off when you can perform a movement with 100% of your capabilities and at this point in the workout, that ain’t happening.
· MPS vs MPB: When trying to grow muscle, triggering muscle protein synthesis (MPS) is priority #1. MPS is the bodies process of repairing, building, and strengthening muscle fibers. It occurs in lifters when they send a training stimulus to a muscle. Once MPS has been triggered by a stimulus, the repair process begins. More volume after MPS has been triggered doesn’t lead to more MPS, it leads to muscle protein breakdown (MPB). MPB is the process of breaking down amino acids (muscle tissue) for energy. The optimal time for a lifter to stop training a muscle would be after MPS has been triggered and before MPB gets underway. While that’s a line that varies from person to person, you can be sure it lies somewhere before the 20th set!!
A More Frequent Approach
We know at this point that training volume is the major factor in muscle growth, it's clear when looking at the data that the more training you provide a muscle, the more growth you'll get. A great way to split your hypertrophy (muscle growth) style training to accumulate quality volume and trigger MPS while avoiding MPB would be to use more training frequency over the week and less volume per session. Each session would stimulate a group of muscles with 1 or 2 exercises and allow at least 48 hours of recovery before hitting them again. There are 2 options I recommend when employing a frequency-based training split:
Option A: 3 training sessions per week with a 4th optional day. “Total Body Split”
This is a program that has produced some great results with a large portion of my clients. It only requires 3 days in the gym with a 4th optional day that is 30-45 minutes long. Each session will train total body. The entire protocol is detailed down to every rep, set, tempo, rest period, abs, and cardio. Each exercise is demonstrated on video to ensure proper form. Click here to learn more about The Ignition Protocol, available now on Amazon.
Option B: 6 short training sessions per week. “Push/Pull Split”
This is a program I have used personally with great success. I stole it from Christian Thibideau a few years back (click here for Thibs' article). While this program is 6 days of training per week, the sessions can be as short as 30 minutes thanks to requiring only 3-4 sets of 4 exercises per session. Half the body will be hit each day. Below is the split and some sample exercises that could be used across the week. Most of these exercises can be found here on my YouTube channel.
Monday: Push Day
1) Quad Focus Legs- leg press
2) Chest- bench press
3) Shoulders- lateral raise
4) Triceps- triceps pushdown
Tuesday: Pull Day
1) Hamstring Focus- Romanian deadlift
2) Lats- prone grip pull up or lat pulldown
3) Upper back/rear delts- rear delt flyes
4) Biceps- barbell or ez bar curl
Wednesday: Push Day
1) Quad Focus Legs- leg extension
2) Chest- chest flye variation
3) Shoulders- overhead press
4) Triceps- db skull crusher
Thursday: Pull Day
1) Hamstring Focus- lying or seated leg curl
2) Lats- neutral grip pulldown
3) Upper back/ rear delts- prone grip row
4) Biceps- hammer curl
Friday: Push Day
1) Quad Focus Legs- heel elevated squat
2) Chest- dumbbell incline press
3) Shoulders- front raise
4) Triceps- close grip bench press
Saturday: Pull Day
1) Hamstring Focus- 45-degree back extension
2) Lats- straight arm pulldown
3) Upper back/ rear delts- neutral grip row
4) Biceps- zottman curl
Choose a rep range (6-8 reps, 8-10 reps OR 10-12 reps) and perform that for 3-4 sets of each exercise for the duration of the program.
This program should be done for 6 weeks. After the 6 weeks, take a deload week (lift using the same exercises but slash the weight in half to allow your muscles to recover). Next, either use a different program (option A: Ignition Protocol would be a great choice) or perform this program again with different exercises and rep ranges.
Especially if you’ve been stressing volume in your workouts with a bro split for a while, try switching to a frequency-based program to maximize the benefits of MPS and avoid excessive MPB. It will also provide a nice psychological break to hit a muscle with 100% intensity with 1 exercise and then move to a different muscle instead of thrashing the same muscle for an entire session.