Split routines tend to be sub-optimal for beginners

There’s been numerous questions about slow progress with various split routines. There’s also a reason that the Recommended Routine and most Beginner routines are a 3x a week Full Body routine. Here’s why.


The importance of frequency

Consider a full body routine that is 3x a week versus a split routine such as push/pull, upper/lower, or even push/pull/legs (PPL can be done 1x or 2x a week). In a year, at 1x a week versus 2x a week versus 3x a week frequency you will have:

  • 1x a week frequency with ~50 weeks a year = 50 workouts with an exercise
  • 2x a week frequency with ~50 weeks a year = 100 workouts with an exercise
  • 3x a week frequency with ~50 weeks a year = 150 workouts with an exercise

Who do you think will have the most improvement?

The person doing 150 times a year will typically have much more improvement than then 100 times a year who will have more improvement than 50 times a year. This highly increased frequency is why programs like grease the groove (GTG) can be so effective. You’re working the exercise at very high amounts of frequency which gives your body lots of chances to practice the movement.

The progress with increased frequency is not exactly linear. Namely, the one doing 150 workouts with an exercise will not typically make 3x the progress as the one who only does 50. However, they will definitely make somewhere in the range of about 2-2.5x the progress as the one who does about 50 because they have much more chances for progress and the fact that eventually 1x a week is not enough stimulus to keep improving.


The specificity of strength

  •  Strength = neuromuscular adaptations X muscle cross sectional area

Some neuromuscular factors are specific to the exercise such as various motor learning and inter-muscular coordination. However, other neuromuscular factors are non-specific which means they apply broadly to the muscle groups which is why strength with dips can have some overlap with pushups, planche, and handstand pushups. These non-specific neuromuscular strength factors include rate coding, motor unit recruitment, motor unit synchronization, golgi tendon organ disinhibition, and so on.

In general, this is why switching up your exercises a lot is a bad idea and this goes for too few frequency with exercises from excessive split routines as well.

This is not to say that split routines are bad or anything. Split routines have various pros and cons themselves. Upper/lower is great for sports where you may need to have volume split up on various days to improve recovery. Straight arm/bent arm can help you progress with the gymnastics/bodyweight isometrics well. Push/pull is quite effective for stacking sufficient volume for more intermediate and advanced athletes.

However, the main trade off with splitting exercises into separate routines is frequency. This is the main reason why the RR and almost all beginner routines are full body: a beginner benefits the most from higher frequency with exercises than any other type of program because they’re working with the exercises often and can apply the method of progressive overload quickly and efficiently.


Conclusion

  • In general, don’t do a split routine if you’re a beginner.
  • If you do select a split routine, make sure you’re getting at least 2x frequency with your exercises a week. If you’re only getting 1x, you might stall really fast and not make a lot of progress.
  • GTG or high frequency with a movement if programmed correctly can lead to quick progress.

Much of this is from Overcoming Gravity 2nd Edition Chapter 2 and 7, but is highly relevant to the huge beginner population we have since rocketing up from 300k to 500k+ subscribers since several months ago. Hope it helps.

Original post on reddit here. Cover image from youtube.

Author: Steven Low

Steven Low, author of Overcoming Gravity: A Systematic Approach to Gymnastics and Bodyweight Strength (Second Edition), is a former gymnast who has performed with and coached the exhibitional gymnastics troupe, Gymkana. Steven has a Bachelor of Science in Biochemistry from the University of Maryland College Park, and his Doctorate of Physical Therapy from the University of Maryland Baltimore. Steven is a Senior trainer for Dragon Door’s Progressive Calisthenics Certification (PCC). He has also spent thousands of hours independently researching the scientific foundations of health, fitness and nutrition and is able to provide many insights into practical care for injuries. His training is varied and intense with a focus on gymnastics, parkour, rock climbing, and sprinting.