Best Workout Splits to Build Lean Muscle

  • Home
  • /
  • Blog
  • /
  • Best Workout Splits to Build Lean Muscle

Last updated on January 8, 2023

In this article, we will cover the best workout splits to train for lean muscle gain at the various stages of your training life.

Beginner Level

As we established in the last article in this lean muscle series, you should follow a full body workout schedule for the first three months of your training life. During this time, you will be doing three sets of 20 reps per set for a total of about 30 sets. That will take about 90 minutes to complete.

If you have the circumstances and the ability to train for an hour and a half, you should do all 30 sets in one workout. Spread your days out so that you are training every four days. If you don’t have the circumstances to train for 90 minutes at a time, split your body into two, so that you work half your body on Day One, then the other half on Day Two. Rest on Day Three and then repeat the first day’s workout on Day Four and the other half on Day Five.

Here is what that would look like …

Mon Tues Wed Thurs Fri Sat Sun
Workout A Workout A Rest Workout  A Workout A Rest Rest

From the fourth month onward, you should begin adding a set to each body part per month and change your set scheme as detailed in the previous article [link to sets, reps and frequency article].

Here is how I recommend splitting your body into two workouts as a beginner:

Day One:

  • Chest
  • Back
  • Shoulders
  • Hamstrings
  • Abdominals

Day Two:

  • Quads
  • Glutes
  • Biceps
  • Triceps
  • Calves

For specific exercises for each body area check out our SFR homepage.

Intermediate Level

Once you reach the six month level of your training, you will have added sets to the workout to the extent that your workouts will become too long to be sustainable. This is the point where you need to move into a split routine.

Focus on split training

Split training allows you to put more focused attention into two or three body parts per workout. With a full body workout you will naturally be more exhausted when you work the last body part in a sequence than when you work the first. As a result, you will have less focus and intensity on the last muscle group.

The training split cycle is normally based on a seven day schedule, where you train on the same day every week. But it doesn’t have to. For instance, you could do a three on / one off system which will see you training on different days every week.

The 3-way split

I recommend doing a three way split as an intermediate level trainer. This involves dividing your muscles into three parts and having three separate workouts. This can be done either five days or six days per week.

Here is an example of a five day per week training split:

Mon Tues Wed Thurs Fri Sat Sun
Workout A Workout B Workout C Workout  A Workout B Rest Rest
Mon Tues Wed Thurs Fri Sat Sun
Workout C Workout A Workout B Workout  C Workout A Rest Rest

As you can see above, your workouts for each body part are on different days of the week. However, you are still getting in two workouts for that body part over a seven-day period. In the example above, Workout A has a two-day gap and then a four-day gap between workouts.

Forty-eight hours between workouts is the minimum length of time that you should have. Ninety-six hours, or four days, is better as it coincides with the peak super compensation of the muscle. For that reason, your second workout for a muscle group in every two weekly cycle (which in the above case would be the Thursday Workout A), should be more intense than the first one.

Example workout on 3-day split

Let’s now have a look at an example of six workouts a week on a three-day split:

Mon Tues Wed Thurs Fri Sat Sun
Workout A Workout B Workout C Workout  A Workout B Workout C Rest
Mon Tues Wed Thurs Fri Sat Sun
Workout A Workout B Workout C Workout  A Workout B Workout C Rest

By adding the extra day on Saturday, you are able to get in two workouts per body part each week. This means that you will be training the same body parts on the same days each week.

Some people find this a tidier schedule that is easier to follow. However, it means that you are only getting 48 hours rest between every single workout for a body part. That’s okay, but it means that you need to really be on top of your workout recovery. That means getting a solid seven to 8 hours of sleep each night and consuming a high-protein /moderate complex carbohydrate and moderate fat diet.

On this three-way split, I recommend doing twelve sets per body part for large muscles and eight sets for your smaller muscle groups, with rep ranges between 30 and six reps.

Here is how you should split your body parts:

  • Workout A: chest, back, abs
  • Workout B: shoulders and arms
  • Workout C: legs

Advanced Level

 You should continue training on a three way split for 8 to 12 months. During that time you will progressively increase the weight you are using on each set. Over this time, you will build a foundation of strength and muscle mass.

The four-way split

By moving into a four-way split, you will then be able to give more focus to the details of your physique.

A four-way split will have you doing four separate workouts. All the muscle groups of your body will be divided into four parts. This workout can be done over five or six workout days per week.

Here’s an example of what a five workout day per week split would look like:

Mon Tues Wed Thurs Fri Sat Sun
Workout A Workout B Workout C Workout  D Workout A Rest Rest
Mon Tues Wed Thurs Fri Sat Sun
Workout B Workout C Workout D Workout  A Workout B Rest Rest

As you can see, this split will have you working each body part every three days, and then every five days. While a three day rest between workouts is around ideal, a five-day gap is a little long. For that reason, it would be ideal to add in another workout on Saturday, so that you are training six days per week.

Here’s what a six-day training week would look like over a two week cycle:

Mon Tues Wed Thurs Fri Sat Sun
Workout A Workout B Workout C Workout  D Workout A Workout B Rest
Mon Tues Wed Thurs Fri Sat Sun
Workout C Workout D Workout A Workout  B Workout C Workout D Rest

Now we are working each body part every three days and then every four days. That allows for the ideal amount of rest between workouts.

Your workouts should involve doing 12 sets on larger muscle groups and 8 sets on smaller muscle groups, the rep range between 30 and six reps per set. Each set, you will increase the weight as you drop the reps. Here’s an example of an ideal rep scheme for a large muscle group:

  • Set One: 30 reps
  • Set Two: 20 reps
  • Set Three: 15 reps
  • Set Four: 12 reps
  • Set Five: 12 reps
  • Set Six: 10 reps
  • Set Seven: 10 reps
  • Set Eight: 10 reps
  • Set Nine: 8 reps
  • Set Ten: 8 reps
  • Set Eleven: 6 reps
  • Set Twelve: 6 reps

On a four way split, I recommend dividing your body up as follows:

Day One: Chest, Latissimus Dorsi, Middle Trapezius

Day Two: Shoulders (front, side and rear delts), Upper Trapezius

Day Three: Arms and Midsection

Day Four: Legs (quads, glutes, hamstrings, calves)

A note about the exercises:

One thing you may have noticed with the set and rep examples that I have used in this article is that they are based on doing one exercise only per body part. So, where I say that you are doing 12 sets in total for a large body part,such as the chest, you are doing all 12 sets on just one exercise.

I realize that the idea of doing just a single exercise per body part is very foreign to most people. Trainers have been instructing people to do three or four different exercises for each part of the body for decades. This is often done in the belief that you can target different areas of the muscle with different exercises.

For the most part, however, this is untrue. That’s because most muscle fibers have the same origin and insertion point, so they all follow the same line of direction. I will go into this in more detail in the upcoming article in this series on exercise selection.

The key point to grasp here is that, as long as you are choosing the best exercise, you only need to do that one exercise to maximally stimulate your muscle group. That’s why we will identify the ideal exercises for each muscle group and then do either 12 or eight sets with just that exercise.

Wrap Up

In this article I have out the ideal training splits for beginner, intermediate and advanced level trainers in order to build lean muscle mass. In the next article in the series, we will build upon that foundation to create the ideal program at each level.

Steve Theunissen has qualified from the International Sports Sciences Association (ISSA) and is a certified Personal Trainer and Nutritionist. He has over 30 years experience in fitness and nutrition and currently working with famous fitness professionals. He is currently living in New Zealand with is wife and daughter.

Your Signature