Ultimate Upper/Lower Body Split Routine for Mass

Updated on January 24, 2018
dwelburn profile image

David is an army-trained biomedical scientific officer, writer, and lifelong health and fitness enthusiast.

Upper/lower split workouts build muscle fast.
Upper/lower split workouts build muscle fast. | Source

If you are past the beginner stage and looking for the ideal workout routine to build muscle mass and strength, the upper/lower body split is it. But, if you want to get the best results possible, you need to know how to set it up in the right way, of course. So in this article, I’ll describe what I believe to be about the best 4-day-per-week upper/lower split you can get. And I’ll also give a 3-day-per-week version for anyone who can’t get to the gym 4 days a week.

Why an Upper/Lower Split?

An upper/lower body split routine is by far the best workout routine for the vast majority of people. The main exception to this is beginners who would do better on a full body workout routine. But, once you've made some good gains on that and are at the intermediate or advanced stage, this type of training beats anything else you can do for packing on muscle as fast as possible.

The main reason for this is that an upper/lower split allows you to train each muscle group with the optimal workout frequency. It’s different for beginners – they will be using lighter weights and can recover quickly, so they do best by training each body part more often, with 3 times per week being ideal.

But, when you've made some gains and are using heavier weights you’ll start to find it becomes more difficult to recover. So you need to train each muscle group less often. However, training a body part just once per week, as many people do, is far from optimal. In fact, all the research out there shows that training each muscle group once every 3 to 5 days is the most effective way for an intermediate or advanced person to train. And an upper/lower split allows you to do this in the most effective and efficient manner.

Also, as with full body workouts, the focus of upper/lower split workouts tends to be on compound exercises. And compound exercises are, by far, the most effective exercises to build muscle as they work more total muscle when you perform them, and they also elicit a much higher degree of hormonal response than the smaller isolation or assistance exercises. However, in upper/lower body split training there is still room for some isolation exercises, and this will help to add more balance and symmetry to your physique.

The Ultimate 4-Day-per-Week Upper/Lower Body Split Routine

So how should you arrange your workouts to give you the best results? Well, you need to work each body part hard and with sufficient volume, but you also need to guard against overtraining. And there are other factors to take into account too, such as spinal loading and joint health. So with all this in mind, here is what I believe to be the very best upper/lower split routine you are ever likely to find.

Day 1

  • Bench Press 3 X 5 – 7
  • Close Grip Bench Press 2 X 8 – 10
  • Barbell Row 3 X 6 – 8
  • Seated Dumbbell Shoulder Press 3 X 8 – 10

Day 2

  • Squats 3 X 5 – 7
  • Leg Curl 2 X 8 – 10
  • Calf Raise 4 X 8 – 10
  • Barbell Curl 3 X 8 – 10

Day 3

  • Overhead Press 3 X 5 – 7
  • Pull-Ups 3 X 6 – 8
  • Incline Dumbbell Press 3 X 8 – 10
  • Parallel Bar Dips 2 X 10 – 12

Day 4

  • Deadlift 1 X 5
  • Leg Press 2 X 8 – 10
  • Seated Calf Raise 4 X 10 – 12
  • Dumbbell Hammer Curls 3 X 8 – 10

*(3 X 6 – 8 = 3 sets of 6 – 8 reps)

The sets listed are your work sets. But, you should always do at least two work-up sets with lighter weights first in order to properly prepare your body for the heavier work.

Schedule: The best way to train is day on, day off, day on, day off, two days on, day off. So that could be Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday. But, arrange the days as you want as long as you never train more than two days in a row.

Chest is trained heavy on Monday and lighter on Friday, whereas shoulders are trained lighter on Monday and heavy on Friday. Back thickness is trained on Monday and back width on Friday; but deadlifts also work back thickness, as well as the entire posterior chain (lower back, glutes, and hamstrings). Only one top weight set of deadlifts is required. You will find that your strength will increase greatly with just this amount.

Balance: There are a number of things you should note about the above workouts. Firstly, biceps are done on lower body days. This is to even it out to four exercises per workout, otherwise the upper body workouts would be much longer than the lower body workouts. Also, I think four exercises per workout is about optimum for most people as it allows you to give full focus to them all, and you don’t leave the gym feeling too drained. In fact, you should feel good when you leave the gym. Apart from that, it just works well that way anyway.

Also, there is no abdominal work here. I see direct abdominal work as being optional because your stomach will firm up just fine if you brace it during most of your other exercises (which is what you should be doing anyway). And, if you want to get a six pack, this is created mostly in the kitchen rather than the gym. But, if you really want to do some abdominal work, you could add in a couple of sets at the end of your lower body days. Good options for this are hanging leg raises, ab wheel roll-outs, or any of the various types of plank.

The parallel bar dips are mostly for triceps, but they do work the chest hard as well (the same applies to the close-grip bench press), so you could replace these with triceps press-downs if you prefer to work more on bringing out the horseshoe shaped muscle on the side of your arms (lateral head of the triceps).

So that’s it for the ultimate 4 day plan. But what if you can’t get to the gym 4 days per week? Or you just prefer not to? In this case you have two options.

Alternative Routines

The 3-Day-per-Week Plan

If you’d rather train just 3 days per week, that’s fine. The program will still work almost as well. In fact for some people it will work better – it depends on what else is going on in your life and how well you recover.

Your first option for a 3-day-per-week training plan is to simply use the above program, but alternate the workouts over three weekly visits to the gym. So, you’ll be working each body part every 4 or 5 days instead of every 3 or 4 days. But as this is still within the optimum workout frequency range it still works very well. Or, you could of course train alternate days if this fits into your schedule, and this is in fact a great way to do it.

Do Two Workouts Instead of Four

Alternatively, your second option is to do just two different workouts instead of four (one upper body and one lower body) and alternate these over your three weekly gym visits. In this case, I’d recommend the following program:

Workout 1

  • Bench Press 3 X 5 – 7
  • Close Grip Bench Press 2 X 8 – 10
  • Barbell Row 3 X 6 – 8
  • Pull-Ups 2 X 6 – 8
  • Seated Dumbbell Shoulder Press 3 X 8 – 10

Workout 2

  • Squats 3 X 5 – 7
  • Romanian Deadlifts 2 X 6 – 8
  • Calf Raise 4 X 8 – 10
  • Barbell Curl 3 X 8 – 10

Obviously, we've had to remove some of the exercises and focus on the most important ones, and we've also now got five exercises in workout 1 instead of four. But, since you don’t really need warm-up sets for the close-grip bench press (since you've just been doing the bench press), it’s not that much different. Also we've replaced the deadlift with Romanian deadlifts because these work the hamstrings better and they are also less taxing than conventional deadlifts, which is important because you are doing them on the same day as squats.

Other Factors to Consider

  1. Exercise Performance: Ensure you perform all the exercises with good form (i.e. no bouncing or jerking) and through a full range of motion. For example, in the squat you should go down until the tops of your thighs are parallel to the floor (most people don’t – so have someone check you if you are unsure). In the bench press, the bar should touch your chest at nipple level or just below with elbows tucked (not flared). All other pressing movements should be taken right down to shoulder/chest level. Don’t follow the common practice of stopping when your upper arms are parallel to the floor as this will not fully engage the target muscles.
  2. Rest Periods: You should rest only as long as you need to be ready for the next set. With the smaller exercises this should be no more than 2 minutes, but 90 seconds may be better if you want to maximize muscle growth. With the bigger exercises you will want to rest longer — up to about 3 minutes, but take more if you need to.
  3. Progression: You should increase the weights you are using when you reach the top end of the suggested rep range for all the prescribed sets of a given exercise. So if it says to do 3 sets of 6 – 8 reps, when you can do 8 reps on all 3 sets, increase the weight a little for your next workout. Ideally, when you do your first work set, you should still have a rep or two left in you at the end of the set. The second set will be more difficult, and the last set should be pushing close to your limit.
  4. De-Loading: At some point you will reach a plateau; it’s inevitable. A plateau is defined as three workouts in a row with no improvement in a particular exercise. When this happens, there’s no point trying to ‘push through’ the plateau. Instead, you need to de-load. That means you reduce by at least 10% the weight you are using in the exercise(s) you have stalled on and then work back up again. The idea is to have at least a couple of sessions that are not particularly challenging in order to let your body catch up. When you’ve done that, you’ll usually find you’ll be able to make progress again.
  5. Nutrition: It’s important to eat a good muscle building diet with plenty of protein (about 0.8 - 1.0 grams per pound of bodyweight per day), some good complex carbohydrates, healthy fats, and plenty of fruit and vegetables. If you want to minimize fat gain, or even lose a little body fat, you should follow some sort of carb-cycling plan.
  6. Supplements: These are not essential, but they are helpful. Whey protein is great to use as a post-workout shake. Have an easily digestible source of carbs with it, such as a ripe banana. You can also use whey protein after or between meals to boost your daily protein intake, if required. Other worthwhile bodybuilding supplements include creatine monohydrate, branched-chain amino acids (BCAA’s), and omega 3 supplements. A good whole-food multivitamin or greens supplement is also worthwhile.
  7. Rest & Sleep: You grow when you are resting, not when you are training. So, it’s important to get plenty of rest and sleep if you want to get the best results. Try to get at least 8 hours of sleep per night – more if you can. Keep the cardio down to a minimum, as too much jogging will certainly hinder your muscle building efforts. And, don’t do too much in the way of extra activities, such as playing sports, dancing, etc.

So that’s my ultimate upper/lower body split routine for mass fully explained. Stick with it and follow all the advice given here and you will be certain to make exceptional gains.

Which method of training works best for you?

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    • dwelburn profile image

      David 5 months ago from Birmingham, UK

      Providing you are only on a slight calorie deficit it should be fine. But if you are trying to cut up faster I would reduce the volume a bit, as recovery is compromised when calories are reduced.

    • dwelburn profile image

      David 8 months ago from Birmingham, UK

      Yes; it's just because I have done it based on body parts (chest, back, shoulders, triceps) rather than pushes/pulls. However you could add a second back exercise to the upper body workouts if you wish. That would be something like pulldowns on day 1 and cable row on day 3. And bearing in mind that deadlifts are also pulls, that would pretty much even it out for the week. This is how I personally do it, but I did it this way here because people have asked me for a routine with just 4 exercises per workout.

    • profile image

      Gpap 8 months ago

      Hi David,

      I like the looks of your 4 day plan, but is there a reason that pressing/pushing movements outnumber pulling movements by quite a bit?



    • dwelburn profile image

      David 14 months ago from Birmingham, UK

      Thanks for your comment Martino, but biceps in particular do respond favorably to more frequent training and this program works well for them.

    • profile image

      Martino 14 months ago

      I dont think its a good idea to put bicepts with lowerbody becaus the day before you already trained back. If you follow a 4 day split this means you train bicepts 4 times per week.

    • dwelburn profile image

      David 3 years ago from Birmingham, UK

      You are classed as a beginner for at least your first 6 months of regular consistent training. Some would say a year. I would stick with a full body workout for at least a year and perhaps as much as two years. It really depends on how you feel you are responding to it, but if you are making good strength gains you are on the right track.

      If you are not making the size gains you want however, there could be a variety of reasons for that. It could be you are not eating enough, or not getting enough rest and sleep. Or you might need a bit more training volume and higher rep training for a while. 5x5 training will build size when you first start, but later on you will need higher rep training (at least some of the time) to keep the gains coming. Hope that helps. Best of luck.

    • profile image

      Matt 3 years ago

      My question is, when am I no longer considered a beginner?

    • profile image

      Matt 3 years ago

      And when I say I'm not getting the size gains I really expect, I doubt it's my diet. I have a very disciplined diet with plenty of protein carbs and good fats.

    • profile image

      Matt 3 years ago

      Hi! Thanks for the article. I have been doing full body workouts for 4-5 months. While my strength in the majority of exercises have been increasing, I'm not getting the size gains I really expect. This wasn't the case at the beginning, as I was getting bigger, but I feel I have stopped making size gains even though my strength is still for the most part increasing. Is this the time to transition to upper/lower split? If so, should I finish my current cycle first?