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.

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