The Ultimate Training Split

by: Kelly Baggett

One of the most frequent questions I get asked is the topic of training splits. When putting together non-personalized routine samples that can be applicable to most people I have some basic beliefs and principles I follow:

1. I believe in the athletic world we're on the verge of something similar to what happened in the bodybuilding world some 15-20 years ago with the popularization of Stuart McRobert and Hardgainer training. If you're not familiar with hardgainer training, it evolved in natural bodybuilding as a philosophy that most people simply did not have the ability to make muscle gains following the popular routines promoted in the muscle magazines due to an inability to recover from such high volumes of work.

2. Even today in the sport of bodybuilding there is an abundance of information that is unsuitable for the majority of natural lifters, but 15 or 20 years ago it was much, MUCH worse. There was no internet and the information given in the popular books and periodicals never stated that the information contained within would only work for those with one in a million genetics using massive amounts of steroids. The majority of the general public is under the assumption that those with the biggest muscles must know the most about how to build an awesome physique. However, the fact is the popular training methods that have created most of the world class physiques don't work for the average trainee.

Today natural bodybuilders are much more educated - we have the internet and acquiring solid information is not a difficult task. Yet back 15 or 20 years ago most bodybuilders didn't have a chance.

3. As an example, like a lot of people when I first got involved with lifting I trained primarily to improve my appearance. At the time all the magazines promoted the theme that if you were serious about bodybuilding you should train each muscle group twice a week for 20 to 25 sets for a total of 6 training days each week with only one day off. This was back in 1991. At the time the one bodypart per day with high volume was just coming into vogue. This is currently similar to what most pro bodybuilders follow, but at the time it was considered a lower volume split ideal for natural trainers and those with less than optimal recovery ability. To give you an idea a typical split might look something like this:

mon: chest - 20 to 30 sets

Tues: hamstrings - 20 sets

Wed: shoulders - 20 sets

Thurs: Quads- 20 sets

Fri: back 20 sets

Sat: arms 20 sets

Sun: off

Now, keep in mind, in 1991 that was considered a LOW VOLUME bodybuilding routine!

Obviously most people won't be able to progress on that set-up. The volume is simply too high.

4. Finally a man by the name of Stuart McRobert started writing about "Hardgainer" training. I first read about Stuart McRobert in IronMan magazine. Stuart wrote routines that catered to natural athletes with less than optimal genetics. The basic maxims of hardgainer training are:

1. Train less frequently and with less volume

A typical hardgainer routine might have 2 to 3 workouts per week for a total of 6 to 8 hard sets per workout.

2. Focus on making strength gains in big compound movements.

The mindset of a hardgainer is to get up to a 300 pound bench press 400 pound squat and 500 pound deadlift.

3. Focus on full recovery between sessions

A hardgainer should not train until they can go in the gym and make progress.

A sample 2 day per week hardgainer routine might look like this:

Day one:

Squat- 2 x 5, 1 x 20

Stiff-legged Deadlift 1 x 15

Pull-up or Pull-down 2 x 6-8

Barbell Curl 2 x 6-8

Day Two: (3-4 days later)

Bench Press or Incline Press- 2 x 6-8

Dip- 1 x 15

Military Press- 2 x 6-8

Abs- 2 x 15

Repeat workout one 3-4 days later.

A 3 day per week hardgainer routine might look like this:

Day One - Mon

Dips or Bench Press 2 x 6-8

Incline Press 2 x 10-12

Military Press 2 x 6-8

Tricep extensions 2 x 10-12

Day Two - Wednesday

Squats 2 x 10

Deadlifts 1 x 10

Leg curl - 2 x 10

Day Three - Friday

Pull-Up 3 sets to failure

Barbell Row 2 x 8

EZ-Bar Curl 1 x 10

Abs 3 x 10

Quite low volume isn't it? However, there are few people who can't make consistent strength gains on that routine.

5. Although some now argue that the hardgainer philosophy went a little extreme with extremely low volume and excessive recovery recommendations (and I agree), most natural bodybuilders to this day will make better gains focusing on strength gains with a more moderate volume setup than any routine that they pull out of a standard bodybuilding magazine.

Let's say you took a natural bodybuilder and built him up to the following lifts:

Incline Bench Press: 400 x 10
Squat: 405 x 20
Stiff Leg dead: 375 x 20
Pullup: BW + 75 x 10 reps
Dips: BW + 100 x 10 reps
Curl: 135 x 20 reps

Do you think the bodybuilder that could achieve those lifts would have built a significant amount of size? Heck yeah! Now what if those were the ONLY lifts that he did and he simply focused on each of them in a progressive fashion? Well, that is what powerlifters do and there are no shortage of muscular powerlifters out there. But the average bodybuilder will get lost in the details (the pump and volume), and shortchange himself in the long run.

The point is, in the bodybuilding world there are those with the genetics to be pro bodybuilders and then there is everybody else. (Hardgainers). Those with less than optimal genetics will not get great gains training on routines that work well for the elite people and do better focusing on basics.

So How Does This Relate To Sports Training?

7. Along the same lines of what I just covered, I believe that in the athletic world there is a wide range of recovery ability between different people and the average trainee does not recover that well using volumes that work just fine for typical high level athletes. Basically, there are Division I and Pro athlete type genetics and then there is everybody else. Those D-1 or pro athletes are essentially the "pro bodybuilders" of the performance world. Based on my experiences and observations over the past several years, I believe many more people screw up by adding things to their program and overcomplicating things than they do by keeping things simple and focusing on a few basic factors. We get so caught up in the "how's" and the millions of various pertubations of putting things together that we forget to focus on the "what's".

An athlete has to worry about conditioning, skill work, mobility, nutrition, strength, reactivity, movement work and a ton of other things. By the time you have all that factored in you have a lot of room for over-complication and little room for recovery. If you don't recover you will not progress. There are some people out there who really love to capitalize on the cutting edge seeking mentality of the public and they can make sitting on the pot as complicated as the Pythagorean Theorem. When in doubt I tell people to go to a powerlifting meet and turn off the computer. The Primal atmosphere will remind you what it takes to make progress.

8. Average athletes that try to emulate what works for genetic wonders or doped up athletes will be met with less than satisfactory results until they've been training a long while and have built up their recovery ability. It's better to undertrain a little than it is to overtrain at all. If you overtrain progress will be ZERO, NADA, ZILCH. If you undertrain your gains may not come at lightning speed but at least they will come consistently.

8a. This is not just true for beginner and intermediate athletes either. To give you an example, over the past couple of years I've had the opportunity to work with or advise quite a few college level track and field athletes. All of them were either from high level university track programs or were advanced in their knowledge and following popular well thought out templates. Even though there were a few individual differences, they all seemed to have the same basic problems. All of them showed me what they were doing and I aproached each in the same general manner - I made a few minor adjustments but for the most part I just cut down on their volume and gave them a few basic goals to shoot for. Not a single one failed to note impressive improvements.

9. Here are a few basic principles I believe most people could benefit from with regard to regulating training volume:

A: I believe 3 hard training days per week is optimal for most people.

B: I believe most people should have a day off after every hard training session.

(Neither of these tenets means that a person should do absolutely nothing on off days, it just means that anymore than 3 tough hard workouts per week is pushing it for a lot of people.)

C: I believe full body workouts will over-tax the recovery ability of most athletes except very raw beginners who aren't yet able to train at a high level of intensiveness.

D: The more recovery days you have between intensive weight training sessions, the more "extraneous" sport-specific and conditioning work you can tolerate. A recipe for disaster for most athletes is to come in the weight room and train lower body hard on mon, wed, and fri and do conditioning or sport specific work on tues, thurs, and saturday.

E: Many athletes get good results training upper body on monday, lower body on wednesday, and upper body on friday. However, the upper body muscles don't really get optimal recovery since they are trained each week on both Monday and Friday. That leaves only 2 days between intensive training sessions.

F: We can spend days talking about absolute strength, reactive strength, explosive strength, rate of force development, agility, flexibility, and ever other advanced scientific performance topic under the sun, but 90% of improvements in all that can be summed up with the following:

1. Lift weights to get stronger
2. Do plyos to jump higher
3. Run sprints to run faster
4. Stretch consistently to get flexible

If your weights are getting heavier, your jumps are getting higher, your sprints are getting faster, and you're moving and feeling well, you're on the right track.

What if we took and athlete and in 3 years we did the following:

Squat: 135 max to 450 pound max

Deadlift: 155 max to 500 pound max

Vertical Jump: 20 inch vert to 35 inch vert

20 yard dash: 3.15 seconds to 2.55 seconds

Box Jump: 2 feet to 5 feet

Bench Press: 95 pounds to 350 pounds

Pull-up: 0 to 20

Would anyone complain about those numbers? Probably not. But what if THOSE WERE THE ONLY LIFTS AND MOVEMENTS WE DID AND WE SIMPLY TOOK THE MINDSET OF BUILDING THEM UP IN A PROGRESSIVE FASHION?? That way each workout we would have a direct gauge as to our ability to lift more weight, jump higher, and run faster. Now, that might get a bit boring, but the point is it would work well for many because they have clear cut objectives each and every workout.

10. The above points led me to the development of what I call my Ultimate Split. The ultimate split is a 3 day per week cyclical scheme that can work great for just about anyone. The reason I call it "The Ultimate Split" is for the following reasons:

A: It allows one to focus on the main objectives

B: It eliminates (in my mind) the main reasons people fail

C: It is very easy to implement

D: It is easy to teach and recall

D: It is easy to adjust

F: It can be easily modified to fit any advanced philosphy (dual factor, concentrated loading, etc.)

If I could sum up the ultimate split in a few points I'd say:

1. Set up 2 upper body workouts and 2 lower body workouts.

2. Train every monday, wednesday and Friday and rotate through the 4 workouts.

3. Take a mindset of making strength gains in something each time you repeat a particular workout. If you are training effectively within your ability to recuperate you should be seeing progress in the form of strength or performance increases from workout to workout or week to week. These don't have to be big increases.

4. Do some movement, plyo, or speed work prior to each workout and choose movmeents that can easily be monitiored for performance increases. Examples include jumps for max height, timed sprints, timed shuttles, box jumps etc.

5. Treat your movement, plyo, and speed work just like you treat your lifting - don't do it just to do it, do it to make progress each time you repeat a workout.

Here is an example of how to organize weight training workouts that most athletes can use to push their strength numbers way up:

Foundational Split

Set up 2 upper body workouts and 2 lower body workouts and alternate between them on an every other day basis with weekends off.

Workout 1: is Chest, Chin-ups, and arms in that order

Workout 2: is Squats, hamstrings, calves and forearms in that order

Workout 3: is Shoulders, Rows, chest, and arms in that order

Workout 4: is Deadlifts, squats, calves, and forearms in that order

Monday (workout 1)

Bench Press or Board press variation 4 x 3-5

Wide Grip chin 4 x 6

Incline Dumbbell Bench Press 3 x 8

Barbell or Dumbbell Curl 3 x 8

Skull Crushers 3 x 10

Wednesday (workout 2)

Squat or box squat 4 x 5

Glute/Ham Raises or pullthroughs 3 x 10

Ab work 3 x 10

forearms 2 x 20-30

Friday (workout 3)

Incline bench press or Shoulder Press 4 x 5

Rows 4 x 8

Tricep pushdowns 2 x 10

Preacher curl 2 x 10

Ab work 3 x 10

Monday (workout 4)

Deadlift or rack deadlift 4 x 5

Single leg squat variation 2 x 10

Calf Raises 3 x 15

Forearms 2 x 20

Wednesday (Repeat workout 1)

Friday (Repeat workout 2)

Sets should be terminated at the point right before form starts to break down. Rotate the lifts about every 4-8 weeks or whenever a lift stalls. You can use different exercises if you like.

Here are some examples of exercise choices

Workout #1

Chest: Bench press or dumbell press, incline press, DB incline press, decline DB press

Chinups: Wide, medium, or close grip overhand, neutral (palms facing), or under-hand

Shoulders: Side lateral, front lateral, incline lateral

Biceps: Curl variation

Triceps: Dips, pushdowns, triceps extensions. overhead extensions

Workout #2

Squats: Back squat, box squat, front squat

Single leg deadlifts: Bent leg variation, straight leg variation

Hamstrings: Glute Ham, Reverse hyper, leg curl

Workout #3

Shoulders: Military press, Neutral grip DB press

Rows: T-bar row, cable row, single arm row

Chest: Crossover or flye variation

Arms: Dips, extensions, pushdowns, curl variant

Workout #4

Deadlifts: Deadlifts, Wide-grip deadlifts, Rack pull

Single leg squat: Bulgarian split squat, single leg pistol squat

Hamstrings: Glute ham, leg curl, reverse hyper

Choose one exercise for each body-part or movement. Stick with whatever exercise you choose for at least 3 workouts.

Sets and Reps

There are a multitude of ways to regulate the sets and reps and many that I use. Here is an easy way to do it and what I call the "money-set" method. This is a lot like the max-effort method. The basic tenet of the money set method is each time you repat a particular workout you work up to at least ONE SET where you lift either more weight or do more reps then you did for your best set the last time you did the workout. Generally speaking, you'll do between 2-5 sets per exercise adding weight each set and working up to at least one maximum effort for a given number of reps. For example, say my last workout on incline dumbell press looked like this and my target rep range was 8:

pushups x 15

feet elevated pushups x 10

50 pound dumbells x 8

60 pound dumbells x 8

70 pound dumbells x 9 * money set

70 pound dumbells x 8 (tried to beat 9 but couldn't)

So, you can see I did 4 pretty hard sets but only one was a real money set. Next time i do that exercise I gotta beat 9 reps with 70 lbs.

As soon as you can do 3 more reps than your target rep range increase the load by 2-5%. So, if I did 200 pounds for 6 reps on squat the last workout and 200 pounds for 8 reps this time, the next workout I'd increase the load by 5-10 pounds and once again do as many reps as possible building back up to 8 reps.

Another method I use is the sub-maximal volume method. With this method you do all sets with the same weight starting with a weight that will not be quite an all out effort. Each workout you reduce the reps and increase the weight by about 5%.

So it will look something like this:

workout 1: 4 sets x 6 reps with 100 lbs.

workout 2: 4 sets x 5 reps with 105 lbs.

workout 3: 4 sets x 4 reps with 110 lbs

workout 4: 4 sets x 6 reps with 105 lbs (use at least as much weight as you used during the 2nd workout)

For most people I prefer the working up to a daily max method but either progressive resistance method will work fine. The idea is you're consistently adding weight to the bar.

The repetition range you choose for various exercises is basically up to you but here are some guidelines:

Rep Ranges

1-3 reps deadlifts

4-6 reps bench press variations, squats

6-8 reps single leg squats and deadlifts, glute hams, leg curls

8-12 reps curls and triceps

12-15 reps reverse hypers, laterals, crossovers, flyes

Keep a Log Book

Ultra Important! This is the most important part of the program. Each time you do a workout write how many reps you did the last workout and how many reps you did this workout and try to beat it each time.

What about making the routine into an athetically oriented routine? we're talking about getting into the good stuff that really makes the Ultimate Split work so well. To do that all you'd need to do is add some movement and plyo work. Here is how you might do that:

1. Do it either prior to or after your upper body workouts

2. Do it at a separate time of day

3. Do it on days after your upper body workouts

4. Do it prior to your lower body workouts

I generally recommend you do it prior to your workouts. What are some examples of movement and plyometric work? Good question.

Movement efficiency exercises:

1. single leg box jumps (sets of 3-5)

2. single leg lateral hops (sets of 5-10 seconds)

3. low squat hops (sets of 5-10 seconds)

4. Drop jumps (sets of 3-5)

5. Lateral barrier jumps (sets of 5-10 seconds)

6. Knees to chest tuck jumps (sets of 5-10 seconds)

7. Ankle jumps (sets of 5-10 seconds)

Plyometric and speed work:

1. running jumps for height

2. standing jump for height

3. on-box jumps

4. broad jumps

5. sprints (choose distances from 10-40 yards)

6. shuttle drills

7. single leg triple jump

8. resisted sprints

9. Depth jumps for height

10. Bounds for distance

Pick one movement efficiency exercise and 1 plyometric and speed exercise each workout and hit the speed/plyo movements hard JUST LIKE YOU DO YOUR WEIGHT ROOM WORK and try to beat your performance each time. Very Important! Treat the speed and plyo work just like you would the weights and try to improve on your performance and make progress each and every workout.

The movement efficiency stuff will be easy and is more of a warm-up - the number of sets you do on that is variable. You might do as few as 1 or 2 or as many as 6-8. But on the plyo and speed work stop the workout as soon as it's obvious you're not going to improve on your best effort of the day. The might take only a few sets or it might take 50. But as long as you're improving keep at it. As for exercise choice, you can either stick with a given movement each workout for a given length of time or you can rotate through them at your convenience. You're generally going to have better results if you stick with a given movement for at least 3-6 consecutive workouts. Use a stopwatch, tape measure, or some other tool and really try to get after it.

Alright, so let's take a complete trial run through the entire program complete with exercises, sets, and reps for all movement, plyo, and weight work. On the weight room work, work up to at least one hard set for the rep range listed.

Workout 1- Monday

dynamic warm-up

Lateral Barrier Jumps - 3 x 10 seconds

20 yard sprints- repeat until times drop-off

Upper body warm-up: Pushups, band external rotation

Dumbell Bench press- sets of 5 (work up to 5 rep max)

Weighted Pullups - sets of 8 (work up to 8 rep max)

Side incline laterals- sets of 15

Preacher curl- sets of 10

Close grip decline bench press - sets of 8

Tuesday: off

Workout 2- Wednesday

dynamic warm-up

single leg lateral hops - 4 x 10 seconds per leg

Plyo/Speed work

Standing broad jumps- stop when distances drop-off

Squats- sets of 6

Single leg bent leg deadlift- As many reps as possible (if more than 10 add weight)

Glute ham raise- sets of 8

wrist curl- sets of 50 reps

Reverse wrist curl - sets of 50 reps

Pulldown Abs- sets of 20 reps

Thursday- off

Workout 3- Friday

Dynamic warm-up

Movement efficiency

low squat hops - 3 x 10 seconds


40 yard sprints- stop when times drop off

Upper body warm-up pushups, band external rotations

Military Press- sets of 6

T-bar row- sets of 8

Flat cable crossover- sets of 15

Incline DB curl- sets of 8

Decline triceps extension- sets of 8

Sat and Sun: off

Mon- Workout 4

Dynamic warm-up

Movement efficiency

single leg box jumps- 3 x 3 front, medial and lateral


single leg triple jump (take 3 consecutive hops on one leg - work towards getting the distance up to 3 x the distance of your regular broad jump)

Deadlift- sets of 3-5 reps

Bulgarian split squat- sets of 8 reps

Reverse hyperextension- sets of 15 reps

Wrist curl- sets of 50 reps

Reverse wrist curl - sets of 50 reps

weighed swiss ball abs- sets of 20 reps

Modifying The Routine Into More of An Explosive Set-up

Now what if we were training an athlete that already had a great base of strength in place and only needed to work on getting more explosive?

That would be very simple. You would leave the movement and plyo stuff exactly like it is now. All you'd need to do is, depending on the extent of your deficiencies, either modify one or both of the lower body weight training workouts to more speed oriented movements so they look like this:

Workout 2- Wednesday

dynamic warm-up

single leg lateral hops - 2 x 10 seconds per leg

Plyo/Speed work

Standing broad jumps- stop when distances drop-off

Jump Squats with pause x 30% x 5 reps

Rythmic 1/4 Jump Squats x 15% x 10 reps

Single leg bent leg deadlift- As many reps as possible (if more than 10 add weight)

wrist curl- sets of 50 reps

Reverse wrist curl - sets of 50 reps

Pulldown Abs- sets of 20 reps

Mon- Workout 4

Dynamic warm-up

Movement efficiency

single leg box jumps- 3 x 3 front, medial and lateral


single leg triple jump (take 3 consecutive hops on one leg - work towards getting the distance up to 3 x the distance of your regular broad jump)

Snatch Grip high pull x 3 reps

Jump Squat x 20% x 10 reps (repeat sets until performance starts to drop-off)

Wrist curl- sets of 50 reps

Reverse wrist curl - sets of 50 reps

weighed swiss ball abs- sets of 20 reps

I will be putting up another article with an Ultimate Split FAQ where I'll talk about concentrated loading, back-off weeks and other various troubleshooting questions.