Benefits of an Upper/Lower Split
The purpose of this article is to explain to you what an Upper/Lower split is, and why it’s my preferred training system when training new individuals. I love using this system for both athletes and non-athletes, as it provides training results that both populations initially require. In this article I’ll reveal that an Upper/Lower split increases metabolic demand, decreases the need for muscular recovery time, increases kinetic linking, and increases overall weekly training volume.
Before we take a look at the benefits of an Upper/Lower split, we need to understand what a “split” means. In the training world, a “split” refers to the weekly workout structure, and the focus of the lifts for each day. Essentially, a split is the breakdown of muscle groups worked per day.
For example, a traditional 4-day split may look like this:
Day 1: Chest (upper push)
Day 2: Legs
Day 3: Back (upper pull)
Day 4: Legs
While this structure does hit all the major muscle groups, I find there is a more efficient and effective method for training. An Upper/Lower Split provides a difficult weekly layout that shocks the physiology of my clients and foundationally builds them for the following phases.
An Upper/Lower 4-day split looks something like this:
Day 1: Upper Push/Lower Pull
Day 2: Lower Push/Upper Pull
Day 3: Lower Pull/Upper Push
Day 4: Upper Pull/Lower Push
As you can see, this is quite different from traditional methods. The first muscle group refers to the primary focus, and the second group refers to the secondary focus. The primary and secondary exercises will be performed back-to-back, using a superset method.
It’s important to state that these are not “double” workouts. A traditional split includes one primary lift, plus four or five auxiliary exercises to support that primary lift. An Upper/Lower split will include one primary lift, one secondary lift, and two or three auxiliary lifts to support each. Each workout will still be similar in duration to traditional formats.
Now that we know what an Upper/Lower split is, how it’s defined, and how it looks, we can take a look at the finer benefits of this training system.
Increased Metabolic Demand
The most important benefit for using an Upper/Lower split is the increased metabolic demand that the exercise sequence demands. During an Upper/Lower structured workout, an upper body exercise is followed immediately by a lower body exercise. From a physiological standpoint, blood is constantly being pushed from the upper body to the lower body, and vice versa. This constant shunt greatly increases the demand on the heart and the cardiovascular physiology of the body.
As you can imagine, this constant blood shunt can cause a brutal conditioning effect. This is great for both athletes and non-athletes alike, especially if they are relatively untrained. For my athletes, increasing their conditioning is one of the biggest priorities of the first phase. The demanding split is an efficient way for me to increase their overall conditioning levels, without taking time to add sprints or other conditioning components at the end of the workout. For non-athletes, this effect increases caloric expenditure, and they leave the workout feeling gassed and accomplished. This split serves their physical needs as it accelerates their results, and their psychological needs as it mentally challenges them.
Decreased Muscular Recovery Time
Contrary to traditional “chest,” or “back” days, an Upper/Lower split does not require additional rest time for muscular recovery between exercises. As the lower body muscle groups are working, the upper body groups are resting. This creates a smooth flow to training sessions, as clients and athletes are constantly moving and engaged.
Now, it is important to remember that athletes may still need rest during sets. An Upper/Lower split may not need structured muscular recovery, but as we have already discussed there may be a need for cardiovascular recovery. As a coach, I need to keep this in mind and program exercise sequences that provide a challenge without becoming impossible. I would much rather see individuals maintain a steady training pace than stop and rest due to an unrealistic workload.
Increased Kinetic Linking
Kinetic linking is a term used to describe the transfer of energy from one muscle group to another. Generally speaking, kinetic linking refers to optimal performance of the core. For example, a baseball player at bat will translate the rotational force from his hip through is core, torso, shoulders, and through his arms into the bat. Most athletes don’t necessarily understand that kinetic linking is trainable, and they chalk up the phenomenon as natural ability.
The truth is, however, that during an Upper/Lower split it is common for individuals to feel the same core muscles working during separate upper and lower body movements. Since these movements happen back-to-back, individuals can compare in real time the way their core responds to completely different motions. For example, the same core stabilizers will be firing during an inverted row and front squat. Kinetic linking awareness is a point I strongly emphasize during training in the Upper/Lower split.
This connection is important for both athletes and non-athletes. Regardless if clients are picking up boxes in the garage, lifting and playing with their children, or making a tackle on an NFL field, they need to understand how all their muscle groups link together. The body is made to work as one unit, and improperly compartmentalizing muscle groups during training can ultimately lead to imbalance and dysfunction.
Increases Overall Volume per Week
During an Upper/Lower split, each major muscle group will be worked twice a week. Each major movement will be trained once as a primary lift, and once as a secondary lift. This is drastically different to the traditional “Monday is chest,” “Tuesday is squat,” style of training. In an Upper/Lower split, muscles will have adequate time to recover, but they won’t have to wait a full seven days to be stressed again. Combining this high weekly volume with the high metabolic demand of each workout accelerates results during a single three or four week phase.
The second crucial benefit to the high training volume is that new clients have multiple opportunities to learn new movements. While we won’t necessarily be performing the exact same exercise multiple times in a week, we will be using the same overall technique and firing patterns for a number of similar movements. Exposing individuals to repeated themes accelerates their body awareness, which in turn will accelerate their results. Once a client understands HOW to move, my attention is free to concentrate on finer details and other priorities of the workout. Furthermore, when my clients progress to their next phases, proper technique should be fully engrained.
An Upper/Lower split is a bear. The underlying demands make this format a great intro to my training philosophy. An Upper/Lower split is an effective training method for quickly progressing new individuals, educating them on their own body awareness, and building them in a balanced way. I highly recommend experimenting with your training to include three or four weeks of this structure. Prepare yourself for the challenge!
I’ve included the backbone for a sample phase below. Feel free to modify. I would recommend sticking to these lifts for three weeks. You may add one or two of your favorite auxiliary exercises to each workout.
Day 1: Primary/Secondary = Bench Press – Dumbbell/RDL – Barbell
auxiliary = Overhead Press/Hamstring Curl
Day 2: Primary/Secondary = Bulgarian Squat – Dumbbell/Single Arm Row – Dumbbell
Auxiliary = Reverse Lunge – Dumbbell/ Pull-down
Day 3: Primary/Secondary = Deadlift/Incline Press – Dumbbell
Auxiliary = Glute bridge/pushup
Day 4: Primary/Secondary = Pull-ups OR Pull-downs/Front Squat – Barbell
Auxiliary = Reverse Fly/Step-up
3 sets of 8-12 reps should be adequate for all exercises. Increase weight slightly each week.
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