Death To Bro Splits: The Outdated Method Holding You Back
~10 min reading time, 2134 words
Tell me if you’ve seen this before…
One of the most common workout programs you will see is the body-part split, often referred to as the “bro split” by those of us who’ve been in the lifting scene a while.
Each day is dedicated to training a single muscle group where you absolutely annihilate that one muscle with several exercises until it’s sore to the touch, let it rest a full 7 days, and repeat the process again next week.
But why has this method been crowned the most BRO of them all, you ask?
Well, because it’s an outdated method that’s robbing you of time and energy in the gym, and only exists on the basis of tradition and ignorance, as with most “bro” methods.
Now before you come at me with your angry keyboard fingers, I’m not saying a bro split is bad, there may even be some situations where it works best. Particularly if you have been lifting and making steady gains for years and have found that FOR YOU, it seems to work best, then fair enough.
But for 99% of people out there, especially those that aren’t veterans in the gym, the popularity isn’t justified. Better options exist that should be the new norm.
With some changes, supported by recent scientific research, you can make more results in less time and be that much closer to building a physique that commands attention from others.
Before addressing the research, let’s first dive into what we can gather from theory and practice.
The Issue With Bro Splits
The fact of the matter is that your muscles don’t need a full week to rest and recover, barring some exceptions.
If you’re pretty new to lifting, then your muscles may regularly take 4-5+ days to recover from a workout, but that quickly improves if you’re consistent. Within a few months you won’t get sore nearly as easily or stay sore for as long, and you’ll be ready to go again much sooner, around 2-3 days.
That is unless you totally overdo it, which is what bro splits often do. Instead of doing a few sets of 2-4 exercises for a muscle, bro splits often entail an hour of undivided attention to a single muscle, which can add up to 25, 30, or even 40+ sets done to a single muscle.
That starts stepping into the zone where you’re overdoing it, or in technical terms, overreaching. That’s when your body can barely handle recovering from the stress you’re throwing at it, so much so that there’s less room to actually grow and improve – it’s enough work just trying to catch up.
A little overreaching just means you’re not growing as much as you could. Enough and you don’t grow at all. Too much and you actually damage your tissues and get injured!
The thing is, the body is smart. It doesn’t like overdoing it, and will start working against your intentions to get what it wants. You’ll find it harder to push yourself with much intensity past the first handful of sets. Unless you show considerable amounts of resolve, this will progress until you’re just going through the motions and not really challenging your muscle.
This is referred to as “junk volume” – unproductive work not really providing a strong stimulus to the muscle.
This often leads to developing bad habits of chronically undertraining with sub-par efforts, where the lifter is never really challenging themselves and giving the muscles what it needs to grow, even at the start of the workout.
With enough junk volume, you’re not going to push into that zone of overdoing it, even with a full workout dedicated to just one muscle.
So here exists the two possibilities I most often see.
Either you’re completely overdoing it and you’re not even giving your muscles the ability to grow because they’re too busy playing catch up, or your workout is filled with a bunch of fluff and you’re spending an hour accomplishing what you could in 20 minutes.
Which even then, if you stubbornly decide to commit to fluff-filled workouts, that well will soon run dry and you’ll begin making no progress because your muscles respond best when you’re challenging yourself, not going through the motions.
By doing less and making sure the work you do is quality, you’ll save both time and make better progress.
Additionally, you’ll recover within a matter of 2-3 days, which provides an opportunity to train the muscle again and restart the cycle of stress > recovery > growth, and make more gains within the timeframe of a week.
And there is some science to back up this idea, as well.
I don’t expect you to take my word for it. I only know this because the subject has been researched to death. In 2016, Brad Schoenfeld, otherwise known as the Jesus of scientific research on building muscle, pooled together all the available research on the subject and had this to say:
“… the current body of evidence indicates that frequencies of training twice a week promote superior hypertrophic outcomes to once a week. It can therefore be inferred that the major muscle groups should be trained at least twice a week to maximize muscle growth.”
You can take a look at the analysis for yourself with this link.
Now, I don’t mean to imply this single study is the end-all be all on the discussion. That said, it wasn’t just some randomly controlled trial with a small sample group. This was a meta-analysis of all available research on the subject. So, while perhaps not conclusive evidence, you can be pretty damn sure that training a muscle at least twice a week or more will be best.
He does make a note to mention that it is unclear whether training a muscle 3 times or more per week is better or worse than 2. That is currently still a topic of debate.
Additionally, if you’re someone that prefers a bro split, 1x a week frequency didn’t perform that bad compared to 2x a week or greater.
By far the most important aspect of long term gains is doing something, ANYTHING consistently. If you enjoy body part splits more than others and it keeps you training more consistently, then do your thing.
But if you’re looking to make the best results possible, there may be better options.
Here’s Some Workout Splits That Could Work Better:
So now you know you should be training your muscles at least twice per week, but what’s the best way to do that?
There’s a lot of different ways to break it down and I’ll explain why in a minute so you can choose what will work best for you.
If you’re brand new to lifting, you should just do full body 2-3x per week, doing a few sets of each compound movement like squats, rows, and bench press every workout. Start with 2 and if you’re not too sore do a 3rd. Once you’re handling that no problem you can progress to these more advanced splits.
Monday- Chest, Upper Back, Delts, Lats, Traps.
Tuesday- Quads, Hamstrings, Glutes, Biceps and Triceps.
Thursday- Repeat Monday
Friday- Repeat Tuesday
Sat & Sun- Rest.
[I tend to pair arms with legs just because if you do them after all the other upper body stuff, the workout drags on pretty long. Also, I didn’t list abs or calves. I’ll often put these at the end of either workout, or do them on rest days. Can easily be done at home.]
Monday- Chest, Quads, Delts, Triceps, Calves
Tuesday- Upper Back, Hamstrings, Glutes, Lats, Traps, Biceps
Thursday- Repeat Monday
Friday- Repeat Tuesday
Sat & Sun- Rest.
[For this one, you’re basically doing all pushing or pulling movements on a given day, and doing extra exercises to train the associated muscles further. So on a push day, you’ll do squats and bench press for quads and chest, with rows and pull ups for upper back and lats on a pull day.]
These two splits are pretty common and basic that will serve you well, but there are endless ways to switch it up from there and make it your own.
There’s more than one way to crack an egg.
I’ll let you in on a lil’ secret:
Specifically how you organize your workout split doesn’t matter too much. there’s a lot of different ways to do it that will more or less be the same at the end of the day. What matters is how much stress you’re putting on your muscle per workout and over the course of the week, not if you’re training chest with back or chest with legs.
As long as you’re allowing your muscles the time to recover between workouts and providing roughly equal amounts of stress over the course of the week, the result will be more or less the same.
Instead of training a muscle group twice a week, you could do proportionally less per workout and train it 3 or 4 times instead. When you train less in each individual workout, it allows you to train more frequently as you can recover faster.
As long as the total amount of work is equal by the end of the week, the response will be more or less the same.
Now, I was very specific in my wording when I said more or less the same response.
As mentioned earlier, whether training frequencies of twice per week is better than 3, or 3 better than 4, or any other combination is still up for debate. I can’t give you an exact answer, but what I do know is that everyone is a bit different. Some people will respond better to higher frequencies while some people will respond better to lower frequencies. You may even find some of your muscles grow better with different frequencies.
Individual response seems to vary quite a bit when it comes to this stuff, so you’ll just have to test it out and see what works best for you. (Speaking of, you should read this article about testing your program and tracking your progress)
Although I will go ahead and say, most experts agree that you shouldn’t go too crazy with high frequencies. The higher the frequency, the less you’re doing per workout, and most tend to agree that there’s probably a minimum threshold of work you need to do within a single workout to stimulate the muscle enough to grow.
Managing recovery becomes increasingly difficult as well, so you’re best off sticking to training your muscles 2-3x per week until you’re more experienced and comfortable testing things out for yourself.
(There are instances where very high frequencies of 6x a week or more would work great, such as an overload week/phase, but that topic is outside the scope of this article).
All in all, experiment, try different things, and find what works best for you.
Some people that really want to focus on their lower body development find that splitting their leg workout up over two days works better than all on one day. Vice versa for upper body.
A popular strategy among bodybuilders running some sort of 2x/week frequency program like an upper lower is to add in one additional day just to train their lagging muscle groups, so those get one more day of attention. This is something that has worked great for me.
There’s infinite possibilities, really. The takeaway here is that you should experiment and find what works best for you and fits your preferences, just don’t become one of those people that hops from program to program every other week.
Regardless of your training frequency, what really matters is pushing your limits.
Remember that graph, from up above? Here it is again.
Your goal is to spend most of your training in that optimal zone. Occasionally dipping into the overreaching zone to give your body the incentive to grow, and pulling back into the “no gains” zone to deload, or in other words, fully rest and recover.
Look at the big picture of what’s going on in your workout program, and the total stimulus your body is receiving, not the individual parts.
Now that you’re more informed, go make some real gains.
Bro splits became popular with the golden age bodybuilders like Arnold, Frank Zane, etc. A time when we were still figuring things out. Since then, those traditions have passed down from one gym bro to another, and are still often followed today.
But as time goes on, traditions and methods naturally die out as we learn more about the world and how things work. Meanwhile, a shrinking minority still clings to their “conventional” wisdom.
Just as these bodybuilders used to believe eating tilapia “thinned the skin” and made you look leaner and more vascular on stage, or that getting a crazy pump and time under tension is the most important thing in a workout (and not progressive overload), soon enough the belief that a body part split is superior will fizzle out, as the results of those who subscribe to more modern methods speak for themselves.
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