Chest Monday. Back Tuesday. Leg Wednesday. Shoulders Thursday. Triceps/Biceps Friday. This is what is called the “Bro Split” by those familiar with weight training workout programs. It’s been popularized by bodybuilders for decades and replicated just as much by novice lifters. While recreational lifting is better than sitting on the couch it is important to highlight why the traditional “bro split” should not be used. It will save you time and speed up the growth potential of your muscles……so, you’re welcome!
I want to first point out that if you adhere to a bro split and have seen results, congratulations. Unfortunately, you are an exception or, more than likely, you started from an exceptionally weak level of strength. That means any lifting program would’ve stimulated muscle growth. But why do people do it if it’s not as effective as other programs? For starters, bodybuilders of the past did do these routines. However, there are two reasons why it worked for them and not for most. First, they used steroids. Second, they would do so much volume in their workouts that their bodies needed 5-7 days to heal a particular muscle in order to train it again. So, if you’re not taking steroids and obliterating your muscles when you workout (and eating the right amount of protein, carbs, and fats….and getting good sleep….and stress management…you get the idea) then don’t expect to see the same results as a roided out bodybuilder.
Time for the science! Don’t worry. I’ll keep it simple so you don’t get lost. Here’s a step-by-step process as to what happens to your muscles when you strength train:
Step 1 à Lift weights
This is where you are breaking down muscle fibers. Yes, you are literally and figuratively destroying (more like “breaking down”) your muscles. In addition, when you stress the body your cortisol levels go up. Cortisol is our stress hormone and it’s necessary in a “fight or flight” situation. We’ll categorize lifting as “fight” situation. Cortisol is catabolic meaning it “eats” at muscle tissues.
Step 2 à Eat. Sleep. Recover
From the time you finish your last rep for the day your body goes into healing mode. The muscles have experienced a new stimulus and they wan to be better prepared to handle that same stimulus the next time it happens. In order to do that you need to feed your muscles plenty of protein and carbohydrates. In addition, you need sleep! This is where the magic truly happens. When you get good quality sleep your cortisol levels drop. Low cortisol levels enables the body to heal faster and better than when they are elevated.
Step 3 à Wait 2-3 days. Repeat Steps 1 and 2
Depending on how much total weight you lifted (weights x sets x reps) and which muscles you trained you’ll need to wait 48 to 72 hours before training those same muscles or movement patterns again. Ideally, you’ll be able to handle more weight than the prior session (or at least do an extra rep or two).
That’s it! Seems simple and for the most part it is. Now, you’re probably wondering how often you should train a particular muscle group or movement pattern. This is where things can get a little tricky because of several factors: age, sex, lifting experience, training volume, diet, sleep, stress, genetics, etc. While we are all different there are simple guidelines which apply to all of us and we can make deviations based on our own experience. You might heal faster in some areas than someone beside you and that means you can train that muscle or movement more frequently. To help get you started here are some suggestions for how much rest you’ll need depending on the muscle group:
Large Muscle: 3-4 days
Pectorals (chest), latissimus dorsi (bac), quads (front of legs), hamstrings (back of legs), and glutes (butt) need more time to recover. Why? They’re larger muscle groups. They’re the strongest muscles in your body and do most of the hard work. The cost is a longer rest period between training days so you are fully healed for the next workout.
In addition, the exercises where these muscles are used (bench, squat, deadlift) have a higher tax on your central nervous system (CNS). That means your bodies ability to send the signals to muscle and make them work won’t perform properly. You’ll feel tired and not have the energy to push harder. The crazy part is that your muscle might be perfectly fine and ready to work! But, your CNS won’t be ready. This is a good reason for why you shouldn’t train to maximum effort every workout. Train hard but keep it submaximal (ex. stopping 1-2 reps shy of max reps on each set). It’s better for long term growth and health of the body. Once in a while you can go “balls to the wall” but not often.
Another advantage of larger muscles is that you don’t need to perform a high volume of sets to stimulate growth (most of the time). So, if you were to train your chest for growth then you might only need 12 sets of chest work per week. Here’s an example of how you weekly chest workout routine would be….
Monday: 6 sets (2 exercise, 3 sets each)
Thursday: 6 sets (3 exercises, 2 sets each)
Small Muscles: 1-2 days
Medial/rear deltoids (shoulders), biceps, calves, and forearms are small muscles. They don’t need as many nutrients or time to recover. Also, training these smaller muscles is far less taxing on your CNS which means the moment your muscles have recovered (24-48 hrs) you can train them again without negatively impacting your neural drive on the bigger muscles. Again, total volume is an important factor.
Let’s say you want to grow your biceps and in order to do that you need to perform 16 sets per week of bicep exercises. Since the bicep is a smaller muscle you can train it ever 2 days. So, your bicep training schedule would look like this…..
Monday: 6 sets (2 exercises, 3 sets each)
Wednesday: 6 sets (3 exercises, 2 sets each)
Saturday: 4 sets (1 exercise, 4 sets)
Use this information and your experience to design out your lifting protocol. Remember, focus on the large, compound movements (bench, squat, deadlift, pull-up, row, overhead press, and lunges) and then the isolated exercises (curls, extensions, etc.).
STAY FIT MY FRIENDS!