- A workout split is a way or organizing your workouts throughout the week so that you train some muscle groups or exercises on some days, and other muscle groups and exercises on other days.
- No workout split is inherently better than another, and the best workout split for you depends on your schedule, your experience level, and which muscles you want to develop the most.
- Keep reading to learn the four most effective training splits for women.
Here’s a ground truth about getting in shape:
The same principles that drive muscle growth in men also work just as well for women.
In fact, if you look at the differences between most men’s and women’s workout programs, you’ll find they’re mainly due to men’s women’s preferences, not physiological differences between the sexes. (There are a few small exceptions, which you’ll learn about in this article).
For example, if you want to build muscle, you have to make your muscles work harder over time by forcing them to lift heavier and heavier weights, and this is just as true for women as it is for men.
Thus, the best workout split for (most) women really just boils down to training the same way guys do while focusing on a different set of muscles.
Of course, this opens the door to more questions:
What muscles should you focus on?
How many times per week should you train them?
What exercises should you use to train them?
And how should you work cardio into your workout split, if at all?
All good questions, and you’re going to learn the answers to all of them in this article.
Keep reading and you’ll learn . . .
- What a workout split is
- How to choose the best workout split for your goals
- How often you should change your workout split
- And more . . .
A workout split refers to the way you organize your training throughout the week.
The reason it’s called a workout split is because it splits up your workouts so you train different muscle groups or exercises on different days of the week.
In other words, a workout split is just an exercise schedule that has you doing the same exercises, in the same order, on the same days each week.
For example, an upper/lower split involves dividing your workouts into upper body and lower body workouts, and alternating between these workouts throughout the week. This way, one half of your body rests while the other half gets trained.
In other cases, workout splits are organized based on what exercises you’ll be training throughout the week. For example, many powerlifting workout splits have a day dedicated to squatting, a day for bench pressing, and a day for deadlifting (and often another day or two for isolation exercises).
Once you know what workout split you’re going to follow, you can pick what exercises you want to do and on what days. Once you know you’re doing to do a lower body workout on Tuesday, for example, you might decide to do squats, Romanian deadlifts, and some calf exercises.
Using a workout split, as opposed to just doing whatever exercises you want on whatever day you make it to the gym, has a few major advantages:
- Knowing exactly which exercises you’re going to do before you step foot in the gym ensures your workouts are focused and purposeful.
- Doing the same exercises in the same order in each workout makes tracking your progress much easier.
- Repeating the same workouts each week guarantees you train all your major muscle groups so you don’t develop muscle imbalances.
Summary: A workout split refers to the way you organize your training throughout the week, and the reason it’s called a workout split is because it splits up your workouts so you train different muscle groups or exercises on different days of the week.
Although there are many workout splits to choose from, only a handful are really worth following.
When choosing a workout split, the questions you want to ask yourself are:
- What’s going to fit my schedule? What can I consistently do every week?
- What suits my experience level?
If you’re a beginner, you can make great progress following a fairly low-frequency workout split of just three or four workouts per week. As you become more advanced, you’ll likely make more progress by following a higher-frequency workout split of four to five workouts per week.
- What muscle groups do you most want to develop?
Different workout splits prioritize different muscle groups, and you want to follow one that will develop the muscle groups you’re most concerned with building.
For example, a 3-day per week push pull legs split is a great way to develop your upper body, but not as effective for building your lower body.
With these questions in mind, let’s look at the best workout splits for women, the pros and cons of each, and how to decide which one you should follow.
The body-part split—affectionately known as the “bro split” by some because it’s associated with bodybuilding magazines, fitness gurus, and the bros who follow both—is perhaps the most well-known workout split.
As the name suggests, a body-part split has you train each major muscle group—or body part—on a separate day each week.
Here’s a common body-part split:
Thursday: Arms and Abs
Generally, body-part split workouts tend to be high volume. This is because each time you train a muscle, you do a lot of sets and reps in each workout, thoroughly training each body part until it’s swollen, sore, and pumped.
The pros of the body-part split are that it’s simple, and depending on which one you follow, it can be effective.
The cons of this workout split, though, are that it doesn’t provide the optimal training frequency or volume for all of your muscle groups, especially when it comes to women.
Research suggests that rates of muscle protein synthesis—the process by which the body uses protein to build new muscle—peaks about 24 hours after a workout and returns to normal after around 36 hours.
This means that after two to three days, your muscles have gained all of the muscle they can in response to that workout, and they’re ready to be trained again.
A typical body-part split has you training each muscle group just once per week, which means you’re waiting a full seven days before training a muscle again. That’s a lot of time spent not building muscle each week.
Why are body-part splits particularly bad for women?
A recent meta-analysis conducted by researchers at the University of New South Wales Sydney reviewed 24 studies involving almost 1,000 women. They wanted to better understand the effect weight training had on females in terms of strength and muscle building, and how long, often, and intensely women should train to gain muscle and strength.
When it came to building a strong, sexy lower body, the researchers concluded that most women should do lower body exercises two to four days per week, doing exercises that train their quads, hamstrings, glutes, and calves multiple times each week. Their volume recommendations were a bit wacky, though—advising women to do a total of 250 reps per week spread across all four lower body muscle groups.
You don’t necessarily have to follow these exact volume recommendations (for one thing, it’s better to track your weekly volume by counting sets, not reps), but the overall takeaway is sound: women can benefit from doing a lot of lower body volume several times per week.
There’s quite a lot of research (not included in this meta-analysis) that suggests the sweet spot for weekly volume for both men and women is about 10 and 20 hard sets per week for each major muscle group, which can be hard to pull off following a body-part split. A hard set being a set taken close to the point of failure (not warm-up sets).
Other research also shows women are able to recover their strength faster than men after a difficult workout, which means it may make sense for them to follow a slightly higher frequency workout split (training the muscle groups they want to develop more often throughout the week).
Again, this is going to be difficult to pull off if you’re only training each body part once per week.
All of that said, when you’re new to weightlifting, you can make excellent progress on just about any workout routine, including a body-part split. After your first year or so of weightlifting, though, you’ll probably want to switch to a workout split that has you training at least some muscle groups (your lower body, mainly), more than once per week.
What’s more, you can always organize a body-part split so that you train your lower body muscles more often than your upper body muscles.
For example, you could do something like this:
Monday: Legs and Glutes
Tuesday: Chest and Back
Wednesday: Legs and Calves
Thursday: Arms, Shoulders, and Abs
Friday: Legs and Glutes
Here’s the bottom line on body-part splits: there’s nothing inherently wrong with body-part splits, but the traditional “one-body-part-once-per-week” protocol isn’t going to produce results as fast as other options after your first year of weightlifting.
You can still organize your workout split around different muscle groups, but you’ll probably want to put more emphasis on your legs, glutes, and calves, and less on your upper body muscles.
Body-part splits are simple to follow, and most include enough volume and frequency to make steady progress when you’re a beginner.
What you don’t want to do, though, is follow the typical “one-body-part-once-per-week” split that many guys use. Unless, that is, you want to put 80% of your time in the gym into building a bigger chest and back and shoulders and arms.
If you’re like most women, and you want to put most of your time into developing your lower body, you’re better off following a modified body-part split that has you training your lower body multiple times per week.
Here’s a great body part workout program for women:
In case you aren’t familiar with “1RM” and “RIR,” allow me to explain.
1RM stands for one-rep max, and it’s the maximum amount of weight you can lift for a single repetition of a given exercise through a full range of motion with proper technique.
Once you know your 1RM for an exercise, you can use that number to decide how much weight you should use in your workouts.
Check out this article to learn how:
RIR stands for reps in reserve, which is how many more reps you could do in a set if you absolutely had to.
If you’re like most experienced weightlifters, this is how you talk about your weightlifting sets. After a set of hard barbell curls, for instance, you might say, “Man, that was a grinder—I had maybe one rep left in the tank,” which would be an RIR of 1.
Thus, an RIR of one means you could do one more rep if you absolutely had to.
Summary: The traditional body-part split is simple and reliable, but it doesn’t provide as much lower body volume or frequency as most women need or want. That said, you can modify the traditional body-part split to include more lower body volume, like Legion’s body-part split program does.
As you can probably guess from the name, the upper/lower workout split divides your workouts into upper-body and lower-body workouts.
Most upper/lower workout splits involve two upper- and two lower-body workouts per week, for a total of four workouts per week.
In most upper/lower workout splits, you’ll train all of the muscles of your upper body (including your chest, back, shoulders, and arms) on your upper days and all the muscles of your lower body (including your quads, hamstrings, glutes, and calves) on your lower days.
The basic idea is simple, but you can set this up in many different ways.
For example, on your first lower-body day of the week you could do your quad-dominant exercises, like squats and then do your hamstring-dominant exercises, like deadlifts, before finishing with some calf or glute exercises.
On your second lower-body day of the week, you could reverse the order and start with hamstring-dominant exercises like deadlifts, then do your quad-dominant exercises like squats, and then wrap things up with glute or calf exercises.
This way, both your quads and hamstrings get trained at the beginning of your workouts when you’re feeling freshest at least once per week.
You can use this same strategy for your upper body, too.
On the first upper-body day of the week, you could start your workout with exercises that train your “pushing muscles” like the bench press and the military press, and then finish with exercises that train your “pulling muscles” like the barbell row and pull-up.
Then, on your second upper-body day of the week, you could reverse the order and start your workout with exercises that train your “pulling muscles,” and then finish with exercises that train your “pushing muscles.”
For example, you could do something like this:
The pros of the upper/lower split are that it’s simple, easy to remember and implement, and highly effective. It includes a great mix of volume and frequency, training each major muscle group at least twice a week while allowing plenty of time for recovery between workouts.
The classic upper/lower split also devotes more time to lower body exercises than the standard bro split (although as you now know, you can set up a bro split to include plenty of lower body volume, too).
The standard upper/lower split also only involves four workouts per week, which is very doable for most people.
The cons of this workout split, though, are sessions can be on the longer side—especially upper body days. Trying to train your chest, back, shoulders, biceps, triceps, and core in the same session ( with adequate volume) can make for very long workouts.
Of course, you don’t necessarily have to train all of these muscles on both upper body days.
For example, on your first upper-body day you could do your chest and back exercises, and then on your second upper-body day you could do your shoulder, arm, and core exercises.
You also don’t need to spend the same amount of time training your upper-body as you do your lower-body. That is, the number of exercises and sets you do for your upper-body and lower-body don’t have to be equal.
If you’re more concerned with getting shapely legs and a gravity-defying butt than you are with building your upper body, it makes sense to make your lower body workouts longer and your upper body workouts shorter.
One potential downside to the upper/lower split is some people like to be in the gym more than four days per week. The easiest fix for this problem, though, is to just add another upper or lower body day to your weekly routine.
For example, you could do three lower body days and two upper body days, like this:
The upper/lower split makes a lot of sense for a lot of women.
You’re training each muscle group at least twice per week and you’re doing a fair amount of lower body volume. It’s also very easy to stick to, since you only have to be in the gym four days per week (if you follow the standard upper/lower split I’m going to outline below).
Here’s a great upper/lower workout split for women:
Summary: The upper/lower workout split is a great workout split for women because it dedicates half the weekly workouts to the lower body, which most women prefer. Workouts can be long, though, unless you follow a well-designed program like the Legion upper/lower workout split.
The push pull legs split has been around for decades and is one of the most proven workout splits of all time.
While it’s often used by gals who are new to working out, it also works well for more advanced female weightlifters looking to gain muscle and strength.
The idea of push pull legs is simple:
- On push days you train all the pushing muscles in the upper body, like the pecs, delts, and triceps (and typically shoulders, since they’re trained during many of the same exercises).
- On pull days you train all the pulling muscles of the upper body, like your back muscles and biceps.
- On leg days you train all the muscles of the legs, including quads, hamstrings, glutes, and calves.
The reason push pull legs splits work so well is because muscles generally work in pairs.
When you press a barbell off your chest like in the bench press, you mainly use your pecs, shoulders, and triceps, while your back and biceps are less active. When you perform a barbell row, though, your back and biceps are the prime movers, while your pushing muscles get a break.
Thus, by alternating between pushing, pulling, and leg muscles, you can train one part of your body effectively while the other two recover. Thus, you should be going into each workout feeling fairly rested.
Here’s how most women plan a push pull legs split throughout the week:
The pros of this workout split are that it’s simple, time-tested, and since you’re only in the gym three days per week, time-efficient. Some women also like the fact that each workout has a very simple goal.
The main con of push pull legs, though, is that you’re spending about twice as much time training your upper body as your lower body, which isn’t what most women want.
Another downside to the traditional push pull legs workout split is you’re usually limited to three workouts per week.
Not only does this mean your workouts will consist almost entirely of compound exercises that become increasingly grueling as the weights go up, it’s at odds with what most ladies want to focus on.
That said, you can still modify the push pull legs workout split to include more lower body volume.
Here’s an example of how this might work:
If you’re new to weightlifting and just want to strengthen your entire body from head to tail, the push pull legs split might be a good option. You don’t have to spend day after day in the gym, it gives you plenty of time to rest, and you’re still able to do a lot of heavy compound lifting.
That said, if you’re mainly concerned with improving your leg strength and definition and getting a bigger butt, you’re better off following a different program.
Here’s a great push pull legs workout program for women:
And here’s what this would look like if you opt for the 4-day per week version:
Summary: The push pull legs workout split is a great workout split for women because it’s highly effective at improving your whole-body strength and muscularity in just three workouts per week. That said, you’ll probably want to follow the 4-day per week version, which includes two leg workouts per week instead of one.
Full-body workouts have been around forever.
They’re the basis of many great strength training programs, including Starting Strength, StrongLifts 5×5, and the Texas Method.
Full-body workouts are now in vogue again, though, especially for female trainees.
Well, part of the reason has to do with the research you learned about earlier in this article: women seem to be able to recover faster from their workouts than men, so theoretically they may benefit from higher frequency training programs. And full-body workout splits are as high frequency as they come.
New iterations of full-body workout splits have the same core idea as older ones—hit every major muscle group in the body in every workout. However, instead of sticking rigidly to exercises like the squat, bench press, and deadlift, newer routines typically involve more exercise variations.
Full-body workout splits have you training anywhere from three to five days per week, depending on your experience, goals, and schedule.
Here’s an example of a typical 3-day per week full-body workout split:
Monday: Full Body
Wednesday: Full Body
Friday: Full Body
Saturday and Sunday: Rest
The biggest pro of the full-body workout split is the frequency—it trains all major muscle groups multiple times per week. As we’ve already seen, this jives with the most recent research into optimal training for women, and makes it easier to accrue a high training volume.
What’s more, because of the high frequency, daily volume needn’t be high, which also means you’re unlikely to be extremely sore on any given day, you’ll likely perform higher quality reps each workout, and thus make progress even faster.
Full-body splits also fit into busy schedules very well.
Miss a leg workout due to a work snafu or a school function for your kiddos?
With a body-part split this might throw the rest of the week into scheduling turmoil, and leave you shoehorning a leg workout into a shoulder workout.
When you follow a full-body workout split, this isn’t an issue—if you can’t shuffle the generous number of rest days around to accommodate your scheduling conflict, you can simply continue on as normal when you eventually get back to the gym without missing a beat (or muscle group), since every day hits more or less all of the same muscle groups.
The biggest con of the full-body split is that it’s easy to “mess up.”
Because of the high frequency, if you don’t manage your volume and exercises properly, you run the risk of doing too much work while getting too little rest, which can quickly lead to overtraining or injury.
Much like the upper/lower workout split, full-body workouts can be slightly longer, mostly because you may want to perform multiple warm-up sets for several different exercises.
For example, if you’re doing the bench press and the squat in the same workout, you’ll probably want to do a few warm-up sets for both exercises, which can add another 5 to 10 minutes to your workout.
Full-body workout splits are a solid option for a lot of ladies because they offer a great mix of frequency and volume, with ample focus on the legs and butt.
If you’re a beginner, a three-day-per-week full-body workout split should be more than adequate, whereas you may make faster progress using a four- and five-day full-body workout split if you’ve got more than a year or two of training experience under your belt.
Programming a full-body split can be more complicated than other splits, though. Make sure you choose a full-body split wisely, and pay attention to how your body responds. If your joints start crying uncle and you feel like you need a shot of pre-workout just to hobble into the gym, you may be doing too much.
Here’s a great full body workout program for women:
Summary: The full-body workout split is a great workout split for women because it allows you to train every major muscle group multiple times per week, it includes lots of volume for your lower body, and you only have to be in the gym three days per week.
Over the course of your weightlifting journey, work schedules will vary, family responsibilities are prone to change, and interest in training may wax and wane.
Knowing you can get in a solid workout three days a week when you’re busy or unenthused, or five or six days a week when you have boundless energy and free time, is useful.
However, aside from knowing you have options if you need them, are there any other benefits to varying your training in this way?
Well, you may want to consider changing your workout split as you become more advanced.
As your newbie gains fade into distant memory, some aspects of training have to change if you want to continue to make progress.
One of the best ways to do this is by increasing volume.
That is, as you approach your genetic potential for muscle growth, one of the best ways to keep making progress is by doing more hard sets throughout the week.
You don’t want to add sets to your workouts willy nilly, though.
You only want to increase the number of hard sets you do during each week if you’re recovering from your workouts well, when you’re making use of deloads, and when your sleep and nutrition are on point, but your progress has otherwise plateaued.
If you’re checking all those boxes, but adding more volume into your daily workouts would make them too long, you may want to transition from a three-day to a four-day split, or a four-day to a five-day split, assuming your schedule allows.
The only other time changing your workout split might be a good idea is when you get tired of doing the same old routine.
There’s nothing wrong with changing your training to keep it interesting, so long as you don’t do this too often.
Changing exercises or workout splits every 12 to 16 weeks is a great way to keep boredom at bay, so don’t be afraid to switch from a full-body workout split to a push pull legs split, or from a body-part split to an upper/lower split, and so on.
I recommend you don’t change your workout split more than once every 12 to 16 weeks, though, as changing plans too often makes it more difficult to master different exercises and measure your progress.
Summary: There’s nothing wrong with changing your workout split every 12 to 16 weeks to keep your training interesting. As you become a more advanced weightlifter, you’ll probably want to switch to a higher volume, higher frequency training program.
There’s no such thing as a perfect workout split—it all comes down to which is best for your goals, training experience, and preferences.
The main options you have to choose from are:
- The Body-Part Workout Split
- The Upper/Lower Workout Split
- The Push Pull Legs Workout Split
- The Full-Body Workout Split
Which one you should choose largely boils down to how much time you have available to train, whether you’re new to weightlifting or an old hand, or which one you prefer.
You can’t really go wrong with any of these approaches, but here’s a helpful rule of thumb for picking which one you should try first:
- If you’ve been weightlifting for less than a year, start off with a 3-day per week full-body workout split or the 4-day per week push pull legs workout split.
- If you’ve been weightlifting for more than a year, try a 4- or 5-day full-body workout split or an upper/lower workout split.
And if you’re looking for a good way to get started with any of these approaches, check out these articles:
+ Scientific References
- E R Helms 1, P J Fitschen, A A Aragon, J Cronin, B. J. S. (n.d.). Recommendations for Natural Bodybuilding Contest Preparation: Resistance and Cardiovascular Training – PubMed. Retrieved June 10, 2020, from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24998610/
- Judge, L. W., & Burke, J. R. (2010). The effect of recovery time on strength performance following a high-intensity bench press workout in males and females. International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, 5(2), 184–196. https://doi.org/10.1123/ijspp.5.2.184
- Monica J Hubal 1, Heather Gordish-Dressman, Paul D Thompson, Thomas B Price, Eric P Hoffman, Theodore J Angelopoulos, Paul M Gordon, Niall M Moyna, Linda S Pescatello, Paul S Visich, Robert F Zoeller, Richard L Seip, P. M. C. (n.d.). Variability in Muscle Size and Strength Gain After Unilateral Resistance Training – PubMed. Retrieved June 10, 2020, from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15947721/
- James Fisher, James Steele, Pat Mckinnon, S. M. (n.d.). (PDF) Strength Gains as a Result of Brief, Infrequent Resistance Exercise in Older Adults. Retrieved June 10, 2020, from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/265864786_Strength_Gains_as_a_Result_of_Brief_Infrequent_Resistance_Exercise_in_Older_Adults
- Abe, T., DeHoyos, D. V., Pollock, M. L., & Garzarella, L. (2000). Time course for strength and muscle thickness changes following upper and lower body resistance training in men and women. European Journal of Applied Physiology and Occupational Physiology, 81(3), 174–180. https://doi.org/10.1007/s004210050027
- Dorgo, S., Edupuganti, P., Smith, D. R., & Ortiz, M. (2012). Comparison of lower body specific resistance training on the hamstring to quadriceps strength ratios in men and women. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 83(2), 143–151. https://doi.org/10.1080/02701367.2012.10599844
- F M Ivey 1, S M Roth, R E Ferrell, B L Tracy, J T Lemmer, D E Hurlbut, G F Martel, E L Siegel, J L Fozard, E Jeffrey Metter, J L Fleg, B. F. H. (n.d.). Effects of Age, Gender, and Myostatin Genotype on the Hypertrophic Response to Heavy Resistance Strength Training – PubMed. Retrieved June 10, 2020, from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11078093/
- Hagstrom, A. D., Marshall, P. W., Halaki, M., & Hackett, D. A. (2019). The Effect of Resistance Training in Women on Dynamic Strength and Muscular Hypertrophy: A Systematic Review with Meta-analysis. In Sports Medicine (Vol. 50, Issue 6). Springer. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-019-01247-x
- MacDougall, J. D., Gibala, M. J., Tarnopolsky, M. A., MacDonald, J. R., Interisano, S. A., & Yarasheski, K. E. (1995). The time course for elevated muscle protein synthesis following heavy resistance exercise. Canadian Journal of Applied Physiology, 20(4), 480–486. https://doi.org/10.1139/h95-038
If you enjoyed this article, get weekly updates. It’s free.
Great! You’re subscribed.
100% Privacy. We don’t rent or share our email lists.