The Rise of Split Training in Bodybuilding

Chest/Triceps, Back/Biceps and Legs/Shoulders. The Holy Trinity of bodybuilding split routines. Nowadays the idea of split routines is so ingrained in the fitness community that the idea of whole body training for anyone other than a beginner is scoffed at. This is despite the fact that men like Eugen Sandow, George Hackenschmidt right up to Reg Park built their physiques using whole body routines. Something that begs the question…When did bodybuilders start using split training routines and why did they become so popular?

The Importance of Competition

320px-US_Army_51253_U.S._Forces_Europe_bodybuilding_champions_crowned_at_Wiesbaden_competition Despite their modern day ubiquity, for many decades split routines were the preserve of the bodybuilding elite. Indeed, when one looks back at the physical culturists of yore, we’re struck by their impressive physiques and their even more impressive strength. Yet with a few notable exceptions very few physical culturists would find themselves on stage in today’s bodybuilding competitions. This is because very few of these men and women in the 1800s and early 1900s focused entirely on their physique in the way that today’s modern bodybuilding elite do.

This meant that today’s current obsession with vascularity and low body fat percentages was not the norm. And whilst we have evidence of bodybuilding shows dating back to the early 1900s, it wasn’t until the advent of mass bodybuilding shows from the 1940s onwards that bodybuilders began to adhere to stricter regimes in the pursuit of shredded abs. This resulted in a move away from whole body routines to split training, although admittedly this was normally down by those competitors who had spent years building their physiques through whole body routines. With a show in sight, trainers would begin to utilise split training in the belief that the slight overtraining brought on by this form of sequencing would help lower their body fat.

Once the competitions were finished, they would return to normal eating patterns and full body routines. Some like Leo Robert, used to train 6 days a week using this method whereas others like Steve Reeves stuck to 3 days a week. It is interesting to note that the idea of slight overtraining right before a bodybuilding contest has remained in today’s climate as many of us will train at least once a day in the run up to the stage.

Whilst split routines were used by the creme de la creme of the bodybuilding circuit in the 40s and 50s, whole body routines were still the order of the day. After all, for the aspiring muscle fanatic, 3 days a week hitting the entire body combined with adequate nutrition would go some way to adding on the pounds. It wasn’t until bodybuilding’s magazine mogul Joe Weider began writing about the advantages of split routines that the average lifter began to take notice.

The Weider Effect


In 1954 Joe Weider published his “Muscle Building Courses of the Champions”. Taking the aspiring muscle man by the hand, Joe laid out a simple programme that advanced from beginner to advanced. So what did it consist of? Beginners were given a 3-day per week, full body workout course to be followed for 3 months. Interestingly Weider would have the beginner effectively doing a whole body routine.

However once the beginner had gotten a feel for things, Joe advocated a 4 day split routine that trained the upper body twice a week (e.g., on Mon and Thu) and lower body twice a week (e.g., on Tue and Fri) – resting on Wed, Sat, and Sun. This split routine was to be followed for another 2 to 3 months (or until the gains stopped). After this, they were put on a Power & Bulk Course. Joe pointed towards the dozens of Weider athletes he had under his employ as evidence that split training routines worked and worked better than whole body routines.

The fact that a) many of these men had built their physiques using whole body routines and b) that many of these men had the genetics of a Greek God never made it into the magazines. Although Joe’s courses were targeted more towards the intermediate lifter than the outright beginner, the idea of split training as advantageous began to take hold. The next decade would see Weider continue to spread the message of split training routine and as the years went on, Weider would advocate more and more volume. This was most likely a means of separating himself from his competitors, as being the shrewd businessman that he was, Weider was well aware of the importance of having a ‘hook’ or selling point. Lots of sets and lots of reps became Weider’s hook.

When the Weider golden boy Arnold Schwarzenegger began to promote split training through Weider’s magazines and his own Encyclopaedia of Bodybuilding, split training slowly but surely became the norm in gyms across the world. So influential was Arnold in the popularisation of the split routine that other famous bodybuilders such as Frank Zane often refer to the ‘Arnold Split’. So without the publishing might of Joe Weider, we may never have encountered a world in which every top bodybuilder swears by a split routine, a world in which the terms Chest/Triceps, Back/Biceps and Legs/Shoulders are instantly understand, a world where we spend 4-5 days a week in the gym. Whether or not this is a good thing is a different story.

19 thoughts on “The Rise of Split Training in Bodybuilding

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  1. Interesting!! I got started lifting about two years ago and I’ve been self taught so the most part. The only time I worked with a trainer was in crossfit class that I took so that o could learn accurate form and not hurt myself. But when I’m in the gym I always do a full body routine simply because I thought it would keep me in proportion. I knew most would have specific days that they worked particular areas but I just assumed I wasn’t at that level yet. I’m working with a trainer now and am beginning to split training days but it almost feel unnatural since I’ve accustomed myself to full body training. I’m glad I came across this I’ll look into the Weider effect and do some research.

    1. Hi Dulita,

      Many thanks for stopping by. Always good to find out what works best for your own body, be it full body routines or split training. Please come back when you’ve figured out what suits best as I’d be interested to hear how you get on 🙂

    1. Interesting I had never heard that but certainly the rise of steroids is a part of this as well. Do you have any more information on the influence of PIP as I’d love to learn more?

  2. This is an older post, but I felt the need to add another angle to the concept, presented in earlier comments, that split training was designed for “enhanced” trainees. I have heard this idea before, often with the reasoning that the body is meant to be worked all together as an entire unit, and then the entire body needs to rest for at least a day before repeating.

    However, a strong indication that split training can work well for advanced natural trainees is the fact that trainer Vince Gironda, who vocally condemned steroids, leaned heavily in favor of split training instead of full-body training. He had his trainees split the entire body into separate training sessions over the course of two or three days. In fact, he considered “working upper body and legs on the same day” to be one of the “common errors in bodybuilding,” although in some of his articles he allowed for whole-body workouts for those who were pressed for time and could only work out a couple days a week.

    1. Hey Josh,

      In the time since I’ve written the article I’ve done a little bit more digging around the subject and as you mentioned Gironda was in favour of this style of training for his trainees. I suppose it comes down to individual time and preference as well. Out of interest have you come across the Norwegian Study that is often promoted by Bayesian Bodybuilding to advocate hitting muscle groups several times a week? It makes for some interesting reading

  3. I’d have to come down on the side of split training. Yes, when I first started bodybuilding (many many moons ago) I followed a full body routine 3 days a week However as I got stronger it became more and more exhausting…especially as I was (and remain) a firm advocate of compound lifts such as the deadlift, squat, dip, chin, bent rows and bench. Try doing a set of 20 reps squats (classic style) and then deadlift afterwards? It doesn’t work that well…your later lifts tend to suffer. So I split the body. Chest/back/arms one day and thighs/abs/calves the other. Basically an upper/lower body split. I’d train four days a week on this program with Wednesdays and weekends off. This allowed for greater recuperation time since each bodypart was only getting hit twice a week as opposed to three and greater focus/intensity on the targeted muscles since there was less of them to train.

    I’d also switch it around. On one day I would do chest first and the other back first. Same with thighs and abs. Calves and arms always came at the end of the workouts…following the larger to smaller bodyparts progression.

    But I agree that whatever works for the individual be it whole-body or split training s/he should keep on doing.

    1. I follow the same progression as you Reilly – began with full body programmes and switched to a split. I mentioned the Norwegian study to Josh – on the back of that I’ve switched my split so that I’m hitting the bodypart every 5 days instead of 7 – I’ve found myself getting stronger on this system.

      One gripe I have with splits is that beginners often jump straight into them when a full body programme would serve them better.

      Indeed even when I’m stuck on time I do a full body 2 or 3 times a week. As you say there’s a need to be clever in this instance. So if I load up on Squats I back away from deadlifts etc.

  4. Hey professor, how are you?
    I’m Wellington from Brazil, congratulations on the text.
    I would like to study more on the subject, please, can you give me the text reference.
    I’ll be very thankfull.

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