Fitness Tips

This Total-Body Split Workout Makes Choosing Your Next Sweat Sesh a Piece of Cake

Kells McPhillips

Photo: Getty Images/PixelsEffect

One of the hardest parts of starting a strength training routine is learning how to organize your weekly workouts. Should you go for two leg days or one? Do you really need a full day dedicated to strengthening your back? And is there any way to avoid Bulgarian split squats—because they’re the absolute worst? Finding a total body split workout you can stick with week-after-week removes a lot of this decision fatigue from the workout equation, so I asked a trainer to break down how to divvy up a week’s worth of strength training.

“Split body training or split routine is the act of breaking up the training program by engaging specific muscles and their synergists or by movement patterns,” says master trainer Prentiss Rhodes, NASM. “A split routine may be effective for athletes who engage in other activities. The split routine allows the athlete to practice skills while still getting an effective resistance training program.” For example, a swimmer may sandwich a workout in the pool between two lower body workouts so their arms feel fresh for that backstroke, butterfly, or breaststrokes. A runner who wants their legs to be road-ready, by contrast, may do the same thing with arm workouts.

In general, a total body split workout schedule requires a minimum of two days of strength training per week. “Essentially anyone can split body train. This is effective for athletes who practice sports as well as people who have limited time to spend in the gym. Depending on one’s needs and abilities, you can do split body training for at least two sessions and up to four sessions per week,” explains Rhodes. If your primary sport isn’t strength training, then you may use those two days to train the upper body and lower body separately. That’s that. But if you do have more time to dedicate to the weight room, you could break up a week’s worth of movement into four days of strength training (more on how to do that below.

The difference between a total body split workout and a full-body workout

There’s a fairly contentious debate in the fitness community over whether split body training or full-body training (where you work your whole body in each strength training session) yields better results—but Rhodes says it really comes down to how much time you have to give to your workouts. “One scheme is not better than the other, but rather they become useful in different situations. If you only have two days that you can dedicate to the gym, and your goal is just wellness or general fitness, then doing a total body routine is a great option. If you’re planning your training around other athletic activities or if you’re entering a particularly intense training cycle that requires more energy, then split training may be a preferred method,” says Rhodes. As always, it’s all about what works for you.

Four-day total body split workout

Some of the workouts in Rhode’s total body split contain supersets, or two strength exercises performed back-to-back with no rest in between. For those, alternate between the two moves until you’ve completed four rounds of each. Take a one- to two-minute break between completing each set of both workouts. In between supersets, feel free to take a longer break of two to five minutes. Got it?

Because we want to make sure our workouts don’t end in injuries, don’t skip that complete a full warm-up before diving into the moves. “It also bears remembering that when doing a split routine, especially when you have other athletic endeavors, it is important to plan your training so that you aren’t too tired for those activities. Choose a weight that is challenging but also allows you to maintain good form,” says Rhodes. With all that in mind, let’s get sweaty—shall we?

Day 1: Horizontal push-pull

Dynamic Warm-Up With Traci Copeland 

Superset 1

Dumbell incline chest press: Lie down on an incline bench with two dumbbells. Keep the shoulders in a neutral position and abs braced. Press the dumbbells up to the sky. Lower under control and repeat.

Complete four rounds of eight reps at 75 percent effort.

Scapular push-up: Come into a plank position on the floor. Make sure that the body is in alignment from head to toe and that the pits of the elbows are pointing forward. Lower the body slowly, pause at the bottom of your range, and press up until the elbows are straight and the shoulder blades begin to rotate up.


Complete four rounds of 12 reps. 

Superset 2

Cable row: Stand facing the cable machine with your feet staggered. Make sure the body has good posture. Grab the handle on the cable machine so that the arms are parallel to the floor. Pull the handle into the trunk. As the handle approaches the chest, tighten the muscles between the shoulder blades. Return to the starting position slowly.

Complete four rounds of eight reps.

YTA with stability ball: Lie face down on a stability ball. Brace your feet against a wall for support. Make sure that the posture is in alignment. With the elbows straight and thumbs up, lift arms up until the biceps are in line with the ear (forming the “Y”). Lower under control and repeat. Keeping the elbows straight and thumbs up, lift the arms at a 90-degree angle from the torso (forming the “T”). Lower under control and repeat. Keeping the elbows straight and thumbs up, lift the arms at a 30-degree angle from the torso (forming the “T”). Lower under control and repeat.

Complete four rounds of 12 reps. 

Set 3

Tricep press downs: Return to the cable machine and position it directly above your head. Pull the ropes down so you’re holding your arms at a 90-degree angle from your chest with an upper hand grip. Pull down on the bar until your hands almost come to your hips. Slowly release back to that 90-degree starting position.

Complete three sets of 12 reps

Set 4

Dumbbell bicep curls: With a dumbbell in each hand, extend your arms down toward the ground while keeping them engaged. Bend both elbows to curl the dumbbells in toward your chest. Slowly release back down to the start.

Complete three sets of 12 reps.

Day 2: Squat

Follow the same rules as day one—don’t forget to warm up!

1. Front squat: Stand with feet shoulder-width apart. If you’re squatting with weights, place the bar across the collar bones. Maintain good posture. Squat to a level in which the crease of the hip is in line with the knee or to chair level. Drive through the center of the foot and stand up keeping the abs and glutes tight.

Complete four sets of 10 reps.

2. Clamshells: Assume a side-lying position on the floor with the legs stacked, the hips slightly bent, and the knees bent so that the heels are in line with the buttocks. If necessary, use head support so that good posture is maintained in the body. Tighten the abs. Keeping the feet together, perform a side leg lift. Lower the leg under control to the starting position and repeat.


Complete four sets of 15 reps. 

3. Walking lunge to balance: Stand with good posture. Step forward with a natural stride length (not too narrow nor long) into a split stance, forward lunge position. Lower the body into a split squat position. Drive through the center of the forward foot and begin to return to a standing position. As you return to the standing position, shift the weight completely onto the stance leg, while allowing the free leg to float slightly above the floor. Maintain good posture and pause in this position for three to five seconds. Swing the floating leg forward with control to the split stance or forward lunge position. Repeat the steps for the lunge.

Complete four sets of 10 reps. 

4. Cable hamstring curl: Attach the cuff of the cable machine to one leg. Stand facing the cable machine in a narrow split-stance with the cuffed leg positioned in the back. Maintain good posture and keep the abs and glutes tight. Bend the knee of the cuffed leg. Return to the start position and repeat.

Complete four sets of 12 reps. 

Day 3: Rest with some hip-opening yoga

Day 4: Vertical push-pull

Warm up and let’s get started.

Superset 1

Dumbell shoulder press: Stand holding two dumbbells. Maintain good posture and keep the abs and glutes tight. Curl the bells to the rack position at the shoulders. Press the dumbbells up to the sky, keeping the forearms vertical. Lower the bells with control and repeat.

Complete four sets of eight reps. 

Single-arm cable fly low to high: Adjust the pulley on the cable machine so that it is on a lower setting. Stand sideways to the cable machine with the working arm positioned away from the weight stack. Grab the handle and pull the cable until the arm is slightly above shoulder height. The palms should face forward. Return to the start position with control and repeat.

Complete four sets of 12 reps. 

Superset 2:

Suspension trainer pull-up: Adjust the suspension trainer handles so that you can assume a deep squat position with the arms vertical. Pull the body up until you have reached a standing position. Lower the body under control and repeat.

Complete four sets of eight reps. 

Single-arm cable fly high to low: Adjust the pulley of the cable machine so that it is positioned slightly above shoulder height. Stand sideways to the cable machine with the working arm positioned away from the weight stack. Grab the handle and pull the cable until the arm is below the waist level. The palms should face forward. Return to the start position under control and repeat.

Complete four sets of 12 reps. 

Cooldown with a foam roller

Day 5: Deadlift

You know the drill by now: Warm up and get ready to work out.

1. Deadlift: Stand with the feet shoulder-width apart and the feet pointing straight ahead. Hinge at the hips, maintain a neutral spine, and grip the barbell. Pack the shoulders by moving them away from the ears (anti-shrug) and keep the abs tight. Drive through the centers of the feet and stand up. Maintain good posture and keep the abs tight.

Complete four sets of eight reps.

2. Single-leg deadlift: Stand with the feet shoulder-width apart and the feet pointing straight ahead. Shift the balance to one leg and hold a dumbbell opposite of the stance leg. Hinge at the hips, maintain a straight spine and lower until the trunk is almost parallel to the floor. Keep the abs tight. Drive through the center of the foot and stand up. Maintain good posture and keep the abs tight. Repeat.

Complete four sets of 12 reps. 

Day 6: Active rest or your activity of choice, like this 15-minute hill run

Day 7: Active rest with a little more yoga

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