Ultimate Upper/Lower Body Split Routine for Mass

Updated on September 20, 2018
dwelburn profile image

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

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

Use an Upper/Lower Split to Build Muscle

If you are past the beginner stage and looking for the ideal workout routine to build muscle size and strength, the upper/lower body split is it.

A routine of this sort will work for just about anyone - young or old, male or female, those looking to develop the maximum possible muscle size and those who just want to get "toned". But if you want to get the best possible results from it, you will of course need to know how to set it up in the right way.

So in this article, I’ll explain why this sort of trainining is so effective, and I'll also give you what I believe to be about the best upper/lower body split routine there is.

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 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 about the best upper/lower body split routine you are ever likely to find.

Day 1

  • Bench Press 3 X 5 – 7
  • Bent-Over Row 3 X 6 - 8
  • Lateral Raise 3 X 10 - 12
  • Lying Triceps Extension 3 X 8 – 10

Day 2

  • Squats 3 X 5 – 7
  • Leg Curl 3 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 8 – 10
  • Incline Dumbbell Press 3 X 8 – 10
  • Triceps Pressdowns 3 X 10 – 12

Day 4

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

*(3 X 8 – 10 = 3 sets of 8 – 10 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: You'll notice that this is a 4-day-per-week plan, and the best way to train is day on, day off, day on, day off, two days on, day off. So that would normally 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 couple more 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 training 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.

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
  • Bent-Over Row 3 X 6 - 8
  • Close Grip Bench Press 2 X 8 - 10
  • Pull-Ups 3 X 8 – 10
  • Seated Dumbbell Shoulder Press 3 X 8 – 10

Workout 2

  • Squats 3 X 5 – 7
  • Romanian Deadlifts 2 X 10 – 12
  • Leg Press 3 X 8 - 10
  • 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 now got five exercises per workout instead of four. 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. We've introduced the close grip bench press because it works both the chest and the triceps hard. And we've also introduced the dumbbell shoulder press, in order to reduce the number of big barbell lifts, whilst still keeping an overhead pressing movement in our routine.

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). And all other pressing movements should be taken right down to shoulder/chest level so that you feel the stretch at the bottom. 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 may 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 8 – 10 reps, when you can do 10 reps on all 3 sets, increase the weight a little for your next workout. 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 the weight you are using by at least 10% on 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), complex carbohydrates, some healthy fats, and a good amount 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 recommended.
  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 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?

See results

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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    • dwelburn profile imageAUTHOR

      David 

      6 weeks ago from Birmingham, UK

      The program I outlined in my Stronglifts review article is a beginners routine. The one here is more for intermediates. As you have been training for a year, but not very disciplined, and as the routine you have been doing is not ideal for beginners, I would probably follow the routine on the Stronglifts article for a few months and then transition to this one after that.

    • profile image

      Kartikay 

      6 weeks ago

      Hi David,

      Among the many articles I have read about strength training, this article seems to be the most balanced.

      I am 38 year old male, 170 cm, 65 kilos. I have been working out for the past 1 year, but with not so much discipline. I have been loosely following a chest/tri; back/bi; shoulders/abs program. If I manage a workout more than 3 times a week, I just repeat.

      Why no legs? I cycle to work (~ 120 - 150 kms per week) and naively used that as an excuse to not train my legs. I cycle at high-resistance chain setting, at an average of 25-30 km/h.

      My goals are to not necessarily gain tons of strength, or to become huge. I am more interested in staying fit while building a good looking physique.

      The 4 day plan you mentioned above looks easy to follow. Would you recommend to follow this, or the program you outlined in your very nice review of the Stronglifts 5x5 .

      Many thanks,

      Kartikay

    • dwelburn profile imageAUTHOR

      David 

      2 months ago from Birmingham, UK

      Just continue to progress in weights for as long as you can, including deloads when appropriate, and switching some of the exercises occasionally. You will likely need to add more volume (and volume cycling) when you are more advanced, but for most intermediate lifters this should be enough.

    • profile image

      Emanuel 

      2 months ago

      Thanks for your reply .

      I've just started this program .

      It's seems to be little short , should i had more exercises or just continue to progress ( Sets , weight)?

    • dwelburn profile imageAUTHOR

      David 

      2 months ago from Birmingham, UK

      Yes; just replace the triceps pressdowns with dips.

    • profile image

      Emanuel 

      2 months ago

      Hi david

      I been working out for 3 years , fbw routine .

      It's been hard to recover over time so i will try this program .

      I wonder what about dips on upper day? How can i add dips to the first routine ?

      Thanks alot

    • dwelburn profile imageAUTHOR

      David 

      3 months ago from Birmingham, UK

      Glad you like the routine Kris. Yes, you can keep it as it was before. I changed it in order to balance out the amount of work for the chest and upper back, and to reduce the number of big pushing movements. But the original version does still have its advantages.

      Also, if 90 seconds is not enough rest, just use two minutes instead. What's optimal for one person is not always optimal for someone else.

    • profile image

      Kris 

      3 months ago

      This is my favorite routine I've found on the internet! I see that it has been updated from the previous version. For instance it used to have 2 sets of close grip bench presses, but now it has 3 sets of triceps extensions instead. Minor changes I know, but I'm obsessed with details. Is there any important reason why you changed it? Can I just keep it like it was before?

      Also I find it very difficult to progress with only 90 seconds rest between isolation exercises. Wonder why would that be considered optimal? I always need long rest periods.

    • dwelburn profile imageAUTHOR

      David 

      3 months ago from Birmingham, UK

      Upper/lower splits are probably the best method for a combination of size and strength, and you can train upper body twice per week and lower twice per week, giving you 4 training days.

      Push/pull/legs may be slightly better for hypertrophy. Possibly. But you can't train each body part twice per week unless you train 6 days per week, and that would be too much. You can do the rotating 5 day cycle though. Or you could do push/pull, rather than push/pull/legs. In this case you would train quads on your push day and hamstrings on your pull day. So again you can train each body part twice per week with 4 weekly sessions.

      All of these are very good methods, and the best way may be to simply do a few months on one and then a few months on the other.

    • profile image

      Sam 

      3 months ago

      Hi,

      I exercise 4 times a week and at the moment I do upper / lower body program. However, I’ve tried push/ pull/leg program one month ago, which I liked a lot. As you have both upper and lower body in the same program it makes it more diverse.

      Is there any difference between the upper/lower ans push/pull leg? Better/Worse?

      My goal is muscle hypertrophy and that each muscle group is trained at least twice a week. (And a minimum of 4 training days).

      Thanks for your help!

    • dwelburn profile imageAUTHOR

      David 

      3 months ago from Birmingham, UK

      Most people would actually grow better if they reduced their volume, because you can only recover adequately from so much. However, I have erred on the side of caution with these workouts in order to make them suitable for hard gainers or the genetically average. If you are a relatively easy gainer you could probably benefit from a bit more volume for chest, back, quads and hamstrings. The other body parts should still have sufficient though.

    • profile image

      Jprok50 

      3 months ago

      Hi David, Been working out for a long time with 2 body parts a day over 4/5 days and I do a lot of exercises each day. I’m pretty close to my potential. I’ve been thinking of changing to upper/lower split to grow. This and other workouts I’ve read don’t seem like enough work. Am I just being stubborn and resistant to change? What am I missing? Thanks, Jeff

    • dwelburn profile imageAUTHOR

      David 

      6 months ago from Birmingham, UK

      You are welcome Conner; glad you liked it.

    • profile image

      Conner 

      6 months ago

      This stuff is golden. Thank you!

    • dwelburn profile imageAUTHOR

      David 

      23 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 

      23 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 imageAUTHOR

      David 

      4 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 

      4 years ago

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

    • profile image

      Matt 

      4 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 

      4 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?

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