Avoid the Typical Bodybuilding Workout Split. What to Do Instead!

December 27, 2008

The traditional Bodybuilding Workout Split has unfortunately become the default routine in most gyms. While a 3 or 4 day split is great for building mass, it is an inferior way to look slim and defined. This site is dedicated to the lean and slim Hollywood look, so of course I am going to recommend an alternative to the typical routine. An athlete in peak condition can teach you much more than a sluggish bodybuilder.

floyd mayweather knock out

[Boxers in the lower-to-mid weight classes are a great example of being functionally fit and lean. This look is built upon a foundation of gaining strength without putting on extra mass.]

Bodybuilding = Break Down the Muscle + Rest and Nutrition

If you think about bodybuilding in simple terms, the goal is to lift with enough volume and intensity to break down the muscle fiber in a muscle group. Following the workout, the muscle then needs to rest to repair itself. Adequate protein and nutrients need to be present to insure a full repair of these fibers. Done properly the muscle fibers grow in size. Over time this leads to visible muscle growth.

Training the Entire Body Each Workout?

This would be bad for bodybuilding. The problem would be that the workout would have to be extremely long to insure enough volume of lifts to break down the muscle properly. Another problem would be that the muscles worked last in the routine would get neglected due to fatigue.

Bodybuilding is About Blitzing the Muscle Then Resting

The approach to bodybuilding is working a muscle as hard as possible for many sets until that muscle is obliterated…and then avoiding any direct work to that muscle for days. The way to do this is to setup a workout that works the entire body over a period of days. This is called a split workout (yeas I know you already know this). A 3 day split would take 3 different workouts to hit each body part. A 4 day split would take 4 days to work the entire body.

An Outline of a Typical 3 Day Split…

Day 1) Chest, Shoulders, Triceps (“pushing muscles”)

Day 2) Back, Biceps (“pulling muscles”)

Day 3) Legs, Calves, and Abs

Day 4) Rest

Functional Training is the Opposite of Bodybuilding

Bodybuilding is more about blitzing a muscle with high volume and training that muscle infrequently. Functional¬† training is the opposite…frequently training the muscle without blitzing and damaging the muscle with an excessive amount of volume.

Train the Muscle Frequently to Get Stronger

Certainly bodybuilders get stronger, but they do so while adding mass. The problem with adding mass when you get stronger is that it doesn’t make as big of an impact on athleticism. To get stronger without adding mass, the volume of sets and reps need to be kept low, but the tension needs to be high. As long as the muscles aren’t damaged, they can be trained many times each week.

black maserati

[I like to think of functional training and athletic performance like a sportscar. A Maserati and an over-sized SUV may have the same horsepower, but the Maserati displays that horsepower in a much more impressive manner…and looks better in the process. Increasing your output while slimming down is the way to go!]

Athletes in Peak Condition Work Their Muscle Groups Often

Most athletes don’t have any choice but to work their entire body daily. Take that picture of the the boxers up above. When they are 1-2 months away from the fight, they are sparring daily. All of the muscles in their bodies are getting worked on a frequent basis. Same thing with soccer players, basketball players, gymnasts, etc. They are all working their entire body many times per week.

Frequent Strong Muscle Contractions Increase Muscle Tone

Again…take the example of the boxers above. If they only fought once per week they wouldn’t display that amazing muscle definition in their arms shoulders and chest. Muscle tone isn’t just a result of low body fat (although that is needed to display the muscle tone) …muscle tone is increased by increasing your ability to contract a muscle. Increasing strength without adding size is the route to achieving this type of “true” muscle tone. Here is an article I wrote about the subject of true muscle tone.

A Non-Traditional Body Part Split I Have Used

You can train the whole body in one workout. Especially if you just want to maintain muscle and burn fat in a circuit type manner. If you want to do a split that allows you to train each muscle group many times per week, I have developed a solid one that works well for a number of reasons.

The 2 Day Split…

Day 1) Chest, Back, Abs

Day 2) Shoulders, Biceps, and Triceps

End each workout with 1-2 sets of “planks” for the abs.¬† After the planks, do dome form of Interval Cardio or Circuit Cardio for 20-30 minutes. The total workout including cardio should take 1 hour or just slightly longer. I don’t do direct leg work, because I believe that tough intervals build better looking legs and butt for both men and women.

My Thinking Behind This 2 Day Split

I like to work opposing muscle groups in the same workout because it helps maintain posture. A common muscle imbalance problem is shoulders pulling forward after a chest workout. Working the back right after, prevents this from happening (especially cable rows). I also like it that the small muscle groups like biceps and triceps get worked each workout. They are worked indirectly with the back and bicep workout and directly on shoulders and arm day. Bigger muscle groups recuperate at a slower rate (even with brief workouts like this)…but small muscle groups can get worked a bit more often. Your arms will look better than ever with this split!

No Need To Blitz A Muscle Group

Many people need to change their idea of a good workout. The idea should be to work up a sweat while getting stronger and burning off body fat. This can be done with just a few quality sets and 1-2 different lifts per body part…blitzing a muscle group will just force you to rest more days in between workouts and will lead to slower strength gains. Also blitzing a muscle group will make you sore and you will be less likely to want to hit circuits or HIIT.

Enjoy Various Physical Activities Without Fear

Back in my clueless days when I was trying to build as much muscle as possible, I would skip out on fun activities if a muscle group was sore. I remember not wanting to go water skiing because my legs were too sore from doing squats. Another time, I couldn’t play tennis because my pecs were too sore. Bodybuilding style workouts really screw you up, if you want to do activities outside of the gym. I’m glad I came to my senses!

Note: For those of you who do want to add a bit of mass, follow the bodybuilding technique of blitzing a muscle followed by rest…just make sure you don’t go overboard…you don’t want to get so big that you give off that cheesy vibe. Put on a bit of muscle, but aim for that GQ look if you are a guy or Victoria Secret (Shape Magazine Look) if you are a woman. If you want to get the huge bodybuilder look that went out of style in the late 80’s…then you are on the wrong site.

Important Message: Although this site has received 25+ million visitors, I am starting from scratch and abandoning it. This site is dated and old school looking, terrible to read on mobile, etc.

It's like a Ford Pinto compared to my new site...which is like a Ferrari. Click the link to head over to my new site.

Starting Over...R.I.P. Fitness Black Book!

Thanks for reading all these years!


----> (New) Facebook Comments..."Cause all the cool kids are doin' it!"

{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

Anferney January 10, 2009 at 9:21 pm

Hello Rusty

Nice Post i really learnt lots of things from reading this.
Am also trying to go for that GQ look but i have more of a Running Back physique, for some strange reason i cant loose the mass on my thights and legs. am going to start The 2 Day Split work out you posted so at what rep and set should a 210 pound individual work with and also do i use light weights or heavy thats the only part that i get confused with.

Thank you.

Mark Thomas January 16, 2009 at 5:10 am

You say that you dont train legs directly? Surely to train your back muscles but to then leave your legs to tone through cardio would lead to muscle imbalances? The back muscles would become a lot stronger than the hamstrings, which would lead to back trouble. Or maybe i’m missing something here?

admin January 20, 2009 at 6:15 pm


Being functionally fit is what makes the body look good. Also, training like a bodybuilder, even without roids, create a bulky look that is not only unappealing, it slows you down. Being slim and defined is a way to not only look better now, but look better as you age. Anyway, it seems you have a different opinion and that is cool.


If I was you I wouldn’t do direct leg lifts. Stick with heavy weights, but try to drop overall body weight while you maintain strength. Thing low reps, without training for “the pump”…then hit cardio hard after that. If you are already lean, but still too muscular, you may have to focus a bit more on “marathon cardio”. This is steady state cardio done for 30-40 minutes at a moderate jogging pace. If you just need to lose fat and have the right amount of muscle, then do more HIIIT (Intervals). Either way, watch your food intake.


I know that my advice of “avoiding direct leg lifts” is my most controversial piece of advice. Even a decent amount of the regular readers of this site disagree with me here. I still argue that HIIT, sprinting, running stairs, and bodyweight circuit activities build the ideal legs…lean and defined without excessive mass (similar to male and female professional soccer players). Intense HIIT keeps the legs strong, but in a different way than lifting.


Goonie - Easy Weight Loss January 21, 2009 at 10:01 pm

Great Tips Samuel, This workout split would be better for people who want to get the best result on bodybuilding with proper ways. Slow but scheduled!

Hunter February 7, 2009 at 5:58 am

Hi Rusty,

So if it’s a 2 day split to you do it 3 times a week?

Regina February 8, 2009 at 4:55 pm

Hey Rusty,

So as you’re not a fan of bodybuilding type of training then what do you think of Bodypump? (http://www.lesmills.com/global/en/members/bodypump/bodypump-group-fitness-program.aspx) Would it be a good way for females to achieve the perfect shape of body by doing Bodypump? I mean it’s not going to bulk you up because of the really high reps, just give you some muscle tone. I’d like to know your opinion about this kind of training.

Al S February 18, 2009 at 12:04 pm

Rusty, i agree with everything you said in the article (along with the entire website), but i am confused with the 2 day split routine. DID YOU MEAN THAT I SHOULD ONLY LIFT 2 DAYS A WEEK OR DID YOU MEAN TO REPEAT THE 2-DAY SPLIT AGAIN DURING THE WEEK?

charlie February 19, 2009 at 10:16 pm

This is a great site. I don’t even know how I came across it, but I’m hooked. My question to you is…I’m 6 ft. 160 lbs. I’m not really looking to lose weight, in fact I’d like to gain maybe 5-10 lbs but I really want the look you promote here on your site. Right now my routine is similar to the bodybuilding routine you mention in this site, although I do your HIIT 2 days a week and also play hockey 3 nights a week. What’s your take on this routine for a skinny guy that’s trying to gain a little weight but achieve your look?

peter j March 13, 2009 at 12:30 pm

Hi Rusty-

Thanks for this great site – I’m very new to the gym and working out, so I’ve been reading and taking tips from you nonstop.

I like this split and it seems to get me where I want to go. I’m 6’2″ and weigh 150. Got so skinny because I was hit by a car a while back and loss all sorts of stuff in my recovery. Feeling good now, but want to get some strength and tone back.

I’m just about 4 weeks in, 5 days a week. I do this split and just a HIIT on Wednesdays. Problem is, I’m LOOSING weight! Haha, seems like a good thing, but I don’t want to waste away. What would you think about cutting the HIIT from my splits and just doing the weights? I bike 15 miles roundtrip to work everyday, about 25 mins each way with enough change to keep the heart pumping. I eat plenty, though never really had a massive appetite. I’m hoping more of this sort of training will just bring the tone out of my skin and bones…

Tim April 4, 2009 at 2:26 pm

So, with each set, do you increase the weight? I’ve been doing compound exercises for back, chest, and legs on Monday. Wednesday, I’ll do isolated exercises for biceps, triceps, shoulders, etc. Friday, I’ll do compound exercises again, but at inclines or declines depending on the week. For each excerise, I do four sets:
Warm up set: 12 reps, 50% of 1 RM
Acclimation set: 8 reps, 75% of 1 RM
Working set: 5 reps, 90% of 5 RM
Final set: 3 reps, 95% of 5 RM
I just started this routine last week, and I’m wondering if I have the wrong idea. Obviously, in reading this article, my objective is to gain strength and not bulk. Please advise. Thanks.

MB May 18, 2009 at 12:38 pm

Hey Rusty,

First of all, I can’t tell you how glad I am to find your site. Such good advice, written in a simple straight-forward easy-to-understand style is extremely rare on the Web! Keep up the GREAT work!

I’m 5’10” and weigh around 195 lbs with around 20% body far!!! I want to get down to 165 lbs and around 10% body fat.

I currently follow a “whole-body” workout routine 3-times a week, working with one exercise per body part. I do 3 sets per exercise of 8 reps each.
Following your advise, I’ve dropped leg exercises in favour of a 20-min HIIT session on a stationary bike afterwards. My routine is as follows:
Mon, Wed, Fri: “whole-body” followed by 20-min HIIT session followed by 2×1 min planks.
Tue: 30-min HIIT followed by 15-min steady state.
Thu: 45-min of squash
Sat-Sun: OFF (time with family)

I’m also trying my level best to eat a healthy low-carb diet.

Do you see anything in my exercise program that I need to change to achieve my goal??? Please adivce.

Many thanks.

MB May 18, 2009 at 6:26 pm

Also, how does a 3-day whole-body workout (1 exercise per body par) compare with a 2-day split (2 or 3 exercises per body part) like you’ve outlined above?


MB May 19, 2009 at 4:23 am

Yet another question regarding your 2-day split; doesn’t it lead to overtraining of the biceps and (specially the) triceps…because these are being trained on successive days, and even more so if the 2-day split is done “back to back” for 4 consecutive days?

Many Thanks,

Jonz June 30, 2009 at 3:40 am


I’m new to your site and i’ve been reading non stop for the past 2 days or so. I am currently caught in the “gym body” category for quite some time and recently took much time to hit more cardio to get leaner. Loads of ppl are sayin that i’m getting bigger – aint something I want coz i’m 5’11” and weighin in at about 185lbs and about 19% body fat mostly on the trunk.

I’ve just tried out your workout routine for the first time – to me it feels weird to churn out those low high intensity, controlled reps compared to the 8-12 reps i’ve been used to. I’ll keep this goin on for a month or so to test it out as your site has open my eyes to exactly what I’ve been goin after for so long. Hopefully i’ll be reaping off positive results from this.

Cheers for all the great write up.

fitness1st February 10, 2010 at 6:37 am

nice post!are manny pacquiao do this workout?are all boxer player do this?helpful topic.

Boxing Routine May 31, 2010 at 9:56 am

I agree. Among all athletes, I think boxers have some of the most impressive physiques.

carlos August 8, 2010 at 7:04 pm


Just wanted to let you know of the progress I’ve made over the last two months. I’ve lost 30lbs, down to 34″ jeans that are starting to feel loose around the waist, my strenght has greatly improved and I’m saving money on groceries!

I used to be in the military back in the day and was always a bit more fit than my non-military buddies. On our ten year reunion I was the only one who could still fit inside our class shirt.

Fast forward a couple of years and things had changed, I’m 5’9″and wal already up to 230lbs with a 37″-38″ waist. I was feeling like crap needless to say.

I made a comitment to get back into shapeon 6/6/10 and I’m chugging along nicely , next step is to get down to 190 and then re-evaluate where I go from there.

I’ve been thinking about trying this out, tell me what your think.

incline press 3×3
incline fly 3×3
db press 2×3
pull ups 2×3 add 5lbs every week
standing press 2×3

standing presse 3×3
db press 3×3
side lat 2×20
db rows 2×3
incline press 2×3

pull ups 3×3
rows 3×3
pull downs 2×20

thxs for everything!
incline flyes 2×3
standing press 2×3

Each bodypart has a day where it is prioritized and the others have a lower volume. i would do strategic cardio on the three weight training and go for walks or 65-70% cardio on “off” days. EST would be doneon sundays and thursdays.

Joe C June 7, 2012 at 4:02 pm

If you want to build mass you do 6-8 reps (a former Mr. Universe says so), where do you get the idea that low reps doesn’t build mass? You need to do a little more research.

brian July 22, 2012 at 9:15 pm

Hello, my years of trial and error and being around “lifters” has taught me the word “bulky muscles” is just well….SILLY.See, you ever hear girls say ” I don’t wanna lift weights cause ill GET BULK muscles ??? Your silly for thinking muscles get bulky, when they simply ADD LEAN MUSCLE MASS, remember you will not wake up and look down and say to yourself DARN THOSE SQUATS GOT ME BULKY AND ALL I WANTED WAD MUSCLE TONE

sam July 26, 2012 at 5:52 pm

Hey Rusty,
I’m a soccer player and am not new to working out. Its just that im very inconsistent because i don’t see results like i want to. Anyways you mentioned that some athletes train their whole bodies everyday. I was trying to do a full body workout for three days but i want to know if i can do a full body workout every day(obviously it wont be intense). I want to workout in the mornings so i can do cardio/soccer in the afternoon with friends. What do you think? Also i know how you emphasize on toning so much, but i feel as though some of my muscles need to be a bit bigger.(ex i don’t have any back muscles but my chest is ok, i want bigger lats than my chest.) so is there a way to make all my other muscles stronger, while at the same time enlarging other desired muscles for a more proportional body?

bulk up fast September 20, 2014 at 5:08 am

If you bring together the latest scientific principles for training, the best
foods for achieving muscle growth, fast recovery and low fat levels,
and get the right amounts of rest, then you can totally transform your
body. As an advanced bodybuilder, protein should probably be the number one food in your diet as it will
help to build additional muscle while generally not add to your waistline the
way an over abundance of carbohydrates do.
It’s best that you purchase these from the reliable sources over the Internet.
Doing so would set your bodybuilding plan back by days, if not weeks.

Endomorph bodies are typically large, soft, and round, and men in this class will usually have trouble losing weight and slimming down their stature.

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