Finding The Ideal Training Split

by Frederick C. Hatfield, Ph.D.

One of my favorite lines is, “I can pass by the weight room, smell the iron inside, and instantly begin to grow.” Simply, some people tend to thrive on very little exercise, while others seem to be incapable of making gains no matter how hard, long and frequently they train. This was referred to as one's "tolerance to exercise," a term coined by Arthur Jones years ago. One’s “tolerance” is high if more exercise is needed, and low if less is needed. There are many variables that can affect your exercise tolerance. Of course, “genetics” ranks highest on the list below, and you’ll notice several such factors. Others, on the other hand, are able to be manipulated in various ways.

  • Red vs White Fiber Ratio
  • Tolerance To Pain
  • Level Of “Psych”
  • Amount Of Rest Since Last Workout
  • Perceived Exertion
  • Amount Of Eccentric Stress (Which Causes Connective Tissue Microtrauma)
  • Incentive Level
  • Strength-To-Weight Ratio
  • Time Of Last Meal (Energy)
  • Type Of Foods Eaten At Last Meal (Glycemic Index)
  • Use Of Ergogenic Techniques Or Substances
  • Musculoskeletal Leverage Factors
  • Motor Unit Recruitment Capabilities
  • Skill Level At Exercise Being Performed (If Such Is Required; e.g., Cleans)
  • Equipment Quality & Design
  • Environmental Factors (e.g., Heat, Cold, etc.)
  • Size Of Muscle Being Exercised
  • Various Intra- and Extracellular Biochemical Factors
  • How close you are to your maximum potential in size or strength

All these factors, and perhaps several more as yet undreamed of, will variably affect how frequently you should train each body part and how best to split your routine.

Several years ago, after chatting with Arthur and reading some of his thinking on the topic, I began charting other lifters' reps at 80 percent max. I found that guys who were so-called "fast" gainers were only able to do 4-6 reps at 80 percent, while lifters who seemingly never made great gains were able to rep out at around 15-20 reps with 80 percent of their max. Apparently, so-called "fast gainers" have rather poor anaerobic strength endurance. This is explainable in part by the fact that they're probably mostly white muscle fiber, which has fast twitch/low oxidative capabilities. Conversely, slow gainers are probably mostly red muscle fiber (slow twitch/high oxidative) and therefore may possess greater ability for rapid during-set recovery.

The problem is, however, that each muscle group's tolerance to exercise probably differs. Each exercise you do for each body part can - and often does - possess an entirely individual rep ability at 80 percent max. To discern your specific tolerance level for each body part, follow these simple instructions:

  1. Determine your approximate one rep maximum (1RM) for each exercise.
  2. Load 80 percent on the bar (machine) & rep out with it for one all-out effort to see how many reps you can do.
  3. Apply this information to the table below to determine each body part's exercise tolerance.
  4. Take into account ALL of the factors listed above that can affect your exercise tolerance.
  5. Critically evaluate whether your predicted exercise tolerance levels stand up to what you know from experience to be true. Remember, “low tolerance” means that you probably make easy gains for that body part, and “high tolerance” means that you’re probably a hard gainer for that body part.

Here is an example of what I've found in regards to exercise tolerances for fast gainers, average gainers and slow gainers. Perhaps you'll find these figures and estimations to be pretty close estimates. But perhaps you won't. One thing is clear, you must look! Your continued progress toward your maximum potential may well depend on it!

Reps Performed With 80% Max Standard Deviation From Mean Tolerance Level Ability To Make Gains
4 or less -3 Very Very Low Fast Gainer (20-25% of total population)
4-6 -2 Very Low
6-10 -1 Low
10-13 Mean Average Average Gainer (50-60% of total population)
13-17 +1 High
17-21 +2 Very High
21-more +3 Very Very High Slow Gainer (20-25% of total population)

Slow Gainers (usually predominantly red muscle fiber):

Days Of Recovery Required For Each Body Part Before Training It Again
"Light Day" "Medium Day" "Heavy Day"

Large Muscle Groups:

Upper Legs
Lower Back

3 Days Rest 4 Days Rest 5 Days Rest

Medium Size Muscle Groups:

Chest
Upper Back
Biceps
Triceps
Shoulders

2 Days Rest 3 Days Rest 4 Days Rest

Smaller Muscle Groups:

Midsection
Calfs
Forearms

1 Day Rest 2 Days Rest 3 Days Rest

Slow gainers often benefit most from 10 or more sets of 15-20 reps

Average Gainers (usually a mix of red and white muscle fiber):

Days Of Recovery Required For Each Body Part Before Training It Again
"Light Day" "Medium Day" "Heavy Day"

Large Muscle Groups:

Upper Legs
Lower Back

4 Days Rest 5 Days Rest 6 Days Rest

Medium Size Muscle Groups:

Chest
Upper Back
Biceps
Triceps
Shoulders

3 Days Rest 4 Days Rest 5 Days Rest

Smaller Muscle Groups:

Midsection
Calfs
Forearms

2 Days Rest 3 Days Rest 4 Days Rest

Average gainers often benefit most from 5-8 sets of 10-12 reps

Fast Gainers (usually predominantly white muscle fiber):

 

Days Of Recovery Required For Each Body Part Before Training It Again
"Light Day" "Medium Day" "Heavy Day"

Large Muscle Groups:

Upper Legs
Lower Back

5 Days Rest 6 Days Rest 7 Days Rest

Medium Size Muscle Groups:

Chest
Upper Back
Biceps
Triceps
Shoulders

4 Days Rest 5 Days Rest 6 Days Rest

Smaller Muscle Groups:

Midsection
Calfs
Forearms

3 Days Rest 4 Days Rest 5 Days Rest

Fast gainers often benefit most from 3-5 sets of 4-8 reps done explosively

By critically evaluating your individual muscles' tolerance to exercise, you can more easily "fine tune" your training regimen to provide maximum gains in the shortest possible time. But don't forget the other factors that may affect your recovery rate. Look at the list again (above). How have you accounted for each of these variable's effect on your progress? Have you raised or lowered your reps and sets accordingly? Have you increased or decreased the frequency of your workouts commensurably?
Training intensity? Have you taken into account your ratio of white versus red fiber, and adjusted your exercise load and movement speed accordingly?

Why Can’t You Just Copy The Pros?

Why is it that most newcomers to bodybuilding, and even most intermediate level bodybuilders, can’t make continued gains using a split they copied from one of the pros? It’s quite simple, really. First of all, you must be truthful with yourself in answering some basic questions. Are you as fastidious as the pro you seek to emulate in all that you do? Your supplement schedule? Your diet? Have you as much time “in the trench” as the pro? How long have you been forcing your body to adapt to stress? Most pros have forced adaptations to their muscles and other bodily systems that have taken years to accomplish. As your body changes over time, your susceptibility to further change does as well. New forms of stress force different adaptive processes to occur, and each adaptation requires that different stressors and training schedules be devised in order to take your body one more step closer to its maximum potential.

So, as you change your body, your body demands different scheduling for further adaptation to take place. It isn’t simply a matter of piling on more pig iron to satisfy the progressive overload principle. It’s more complicated than that. One of the biggest mistakes all bodybuilders tend to make is that they do not build their programs with this important fact in mind. As you change, so must your training because your body’s “tolerance” to that level or type of stress has changed. And, how you split your training can be an important source of new adaptive stress to which you have not yet adapted.

Most bodybuilders are not “hard gainers” or “fast gainers” in all body parts. Further, as you get closer to your maximum potential -- where all professional bodybuilders are -- you may become a hard gainer, whereas earlier in your career your gains seemed to come easy. Or, maybe you’ve remained an easy gainer but have yet to discover the type of stress your body now requires to force continued growth.

Through experimentation, I assure you that finding your own level of "tolerance" (body part per body part) will make a big difference. Where to begin? Here are a few examples of how you can split your training program. Adjust them at will.

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