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Time for a Split Routine?

In resistance exercise, many people start with a circuit routine. This allows the body time to become accustomed to hard work, but when a plateau has been reached, or when someone is looking to move in a specific direction, it might be time for a split routine.

For all their benefits (and there are many), circuit routines have their tradeoffs. For example, working different muscle groups in the same session doesn’t allow as much time and energy to be focused on each muscle group as one can with a split workout. In most cases, when someone who is in good physical condition wishes to increase in size and strength, a low-intensity split routine is the more effective way to go. 

First, a caveat: The client in question should move on to a split routine only after the trainer is confident with increasing the intensity of the newly learned individual exercises that have been performed at extremely low levels of intensity for the purpose of developing form and control. 

Let’s use the example of two-day split routine. That is to say, half the muscle groups should be worked on day #1, then the other half on day #2, followed by rest on day #3. In lay terms, the major muscle groups to be considered when programming these routines are the chest, back, triceps, biceps, shoulders, trapezeus, hamstrings, and quadriceps (performing exercises for abdominals, forearms, and calves as needed).

There are many ways to program split workouts. One example is to split them into upper body and lower body segments. Another way is divide a workout according to motion type, such as pushing and pulling.

Pushing exercises typically involve the chest, shoulders, and triceps in the upper body and the quads and calves in the lower body.

Pulling exercises typically involve the muscles of the back, the hamstrings, and the abs and biceps. Some exercise examples include lat pulldowns, hamstring curls, crunches, and bicep curls.

So How Much?

In terms of reps, 12-15 per set, to unassisted failure, is a range recommended by the National Federation of Professional Trainers. This range allows for lean weight maintenance and energy depletion in roughly equal measure. Variations to this basic pattern should be based on the client’s goals. For example, while the resistance athlete would focus more on heavy training (4-6 rep range) to experience increases in size and strength, the aerobic athlete would focus more on light training (20-25 rep range) for increased aerobic energy levels.

Therefore, the 12-15 rep range represents a balance, or compromise, between heavy and light training, and should allow someone to achieve more quickly his or her general fitness goals.

Points for the Beginner

Remember to have the client take shorter rest periods between sets. A recovery heart rate--the level to reach before continuing with the next set--should be somewhere in the vicinity of 115 BPM. 

It is important to bear in mind that the faster someone trains, the more reps he or she will "drop" in each subsequent set. This is particularly noticeable among beginners. With time, the individual will reach a point at which he or she is increasing fewer reps.

Remember, wastes accumulate in the muscles after high rep sets, while at the same time blood presses against the muscles (the so-called "pump" phenomenon). For this reason, wastes cannot be removed quickly enough, thus causing the muscle to fail sooner in the next set.

The two main ways the muscle will adapt to this type of training is by learning to remove these wastes more efficiently, and by learning to store more energy--a highly desirable effect for general fitness.

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