A Simple Strength and Muscle-Building Program and the Death of Bro Splits

Here’s a science-based strength and muscle-building program for anyone looking for a change in their old routine. If you’re completely new to using weights, this might be a good program to use after about 3-6 months. This program is suitable for advanced beginner to upper intermediate. It’s not meant for competitive or aspiring competitive bodybuilders since it’s built primarily from compound movements; there are virtually no isolation exercises. The program aims to balance fitness, strength, muscle growth, and aesthetics.

First, I’ll present the program then, for the keeners, I’ll explain some of the principles behind being successful in the gym. Finally, I’ll introduce you to some trends in 21st century exercise science which are signaling the demise of bro science.

I need to say one more thing. You’ll notice that each routine is a full-body workout. As I was putting this program together, I thought I’d do a little digging on the state of affairs in the bro-splits vs full-body debate. It turned into a several-day journey down a rabbit hole of surprising science. For those unfamiliar with these terms, bro splits means you assign a different workout day to each major body part. E.g., Monday is chest, Tuesday is legs, Wednesday is back, etc…. With bro splits each body part only gets trained 1x/week. This is by far the favored method for gym bros and professional bodybuilders alike.

A full-body workout routine, on the other hand, usually trains each body part per workout allowing one day rest between each workout. This typically amounts to training 3x/week, although programs vary from 2x to as many as 6x per week.

It’s a core bodybuilding dogma that bro-splits are superior to full-body workouts with respect to building mass and strength. This dogma has been so firmly entrenched that for at least 3 or 4 decades no one even bothered to do a comparative study. Well, in 2014, the Norwegian powerlifting team committed sacrilege: Rather than act on faith and tradition alone, they decided to put dogma to the test.

The results of the Norwegian Frequency Project sent shock waves through the weight-lifting world.

Experienced powerlifting athletes following higher frequency programs outperformed those in lower frequency programs with respect to strength and mass. A flurry of studies followed and continue to follow. I’ll discuss more below but the upshot is that science destroyed bro science. Carefully measured and controlled studies eclipsed anecdote, tradition, and dogma [gasp!]. Bro splits, despite a ton of cultural inertia, are on the demise.

Reporting on a follow-up study, Baysianbodybuilding.com offers what I consider to be the best explanation of the decades-long unquestioned reign of bro splits:

An additional finding was that the bro split group experienced significantly greater levels of muscle soreness throughout the study. This suggests they experienced greater muscle damage and tentatively supports that muscle damage is not a mechanism of muscle growth. It is probably also the reason bros prefer bro splits: they feel like they work better and because they experience this amount of soreness, they also think they can’t train with higher frequencies. Bros typically base everything they do on how they feel and then rationalize with pseudoscience AKA broscience.

This is enough preamble for now. More science-y stuff later. Let’s get to the routine…

The 3 Day/Week Program: Full Body

If you’re a beginner or any of the movements in the routine are new to you, pleaseplease consult with a personal trainer or experienced friend before attempting them. You will learn to do the exercise effectively, avoid potential injury, and save yourself from being “that guy/girl” in the gym that everyone rolls their eyes at. I see so many beginners who don’t think they’re beginners doing all manner of wrong things when working out. Lifting with poor form virtually guarantees injury and no gainz. Also, it’s entirely appropriate in gym culture to ask someone who looks like they know what they’re doing. Almost all experienced lifters are as enthusiastic as Mormons to share their knowledge with you.

Trigger Warning!

Biological Sex and How it Affects How You Train: TL;DR version. For most exercises, men should do 6-10 reps for mass/strength gains *(sort of–I’ll mention something about this later in the post). Women should do 8-15. Men should use longer rest periods. Women should use shorter periods. For the most comprehensive article on the topic: BayesianBodybuilding.com I suggest all women read it.

Day 1:
1. Deadlift

  • 2 warm up sets (more if needed).
  • 3-4 sets x 5-8 reps (men), 8-12 reps (women).
  • I use all 3 kinds (standard, sumo, Romanian) of deadlift depending on how my body is feeling. Go with whatever you like on that day or stay with the same one each Day 1 (muscle confusion principle is fake news). 
  • Go heaviest on your 3rd set. Back off on the fourth to preserve strict form (if necessary).

2. Bench Press

  • 2 sets warm up.
  • 3-4 sets x 5-8 reps, 8-12 reps (women).
  • Your 3rd set should be your heaviest set. Come back down a bit on the 4th set to preserve strict form.
3. Lateral Shoulder Raises
  • 1-2 sets warm up.
  • 2-3 drop sets–each to failure. 
  • E.g., 20 lbs to failure, 15 lbs to failure, 10 lbs to failure. Cheat on the last 2 or 3 reps of each increment. 
4. Standing Barbell Curls
  • 1-2 warm up sets
  • 3-4 sets x 7-10 reps, 8-12 reps (women)..
  • Your 3rd set should be your heaviest. Come back down a bit on the 4th to preserve strict form.
  • Use either straight bar or ez-curl bar. Whatever feels best to you.
5. 3 Sets of Any Ab Exercise
Day 2
1. Squat (or Leg Press if your back is having a bad day)
  • 2 warm up sets (more if you still don’t feel warmed up)
  • 4-5 sets x 5-8 reps, 8-12 reps (women).
  • Your third set should be your heaviest set. If doing 5 sets, make your 4th set the same as the 3rd before backing off to preserve strict form.
2. Bent-Over Dumbell Row or Seated Cable Rows (med to narrow grip)
  • 3 sets x 7-10 reps, 8-12 reps (women).
  • I use higher reps here because most people’s technique really suffers on this exercise when they go heavy. Use a weight that allows you to squeeze your shoulder blade to your spine.
  • For judoka: Modifying bent-over dumbbell rows mimics one of the core movements in judo. To do this, flair you elbow out as though you are doing uchi komi with your hikite (pulling arm). “Look at your watch” for each rep as you would with uchi komi.
  • Use the negative on this exercise and be sure to hold a full contraction at the top of each rep.
3. Incline Dumbbell Bench Press 
  • 2 warm up sets.
  • 3-4 sets x 5-8 reps, 8-12 reps (women)..
  • Your shoulders are one of the easiest areas to injure so be sure to be well-warmed up before going into your working sets.
4. Calves
  • Do 4 sets of any kind of calve raises if you like. 
  • I’ve given up on ever growing my calves and do 10 minutes of skipping instead. It’s better for the kind of muscle I need for judo anyway.
  • If you believe in miracles and haven’t given up on growing calves yet: 3 sets of one kind then 2 sets of another kind of calve exercise.
5. 3 Sets of Any Ab Exercise. Superset with back-hyerextensions. 

Day 3
1. Lunges
  • 2 warm up sets
  • 4 sets of ~16 reps, ~20 reps (women).
  • 1 set = 8/10 reps for each leg. Alternate legs with each rep.
  • I prefer to either hold dumbbells on my shoulders or use a bar for lunges. It helps keep good posture and engage my core. Holding dumbbells at my side doesn’t seem to engage my core as much. This is a matter of preference.
2. Dumbbell Shoulder Press (seated or standing–your preference)
  • 2 sets warm up
  • 3-4 sets x 5-8 reps, 8-12 reps (women).
3. A. Wide-Grip Pull Down
  • 2 sets with a medium light weight x 12-15 reps.
  • This is just a warm up for pull ups so don’t tire yourself out here. We’re just warming up to prevent injury.
3. B. Wide-Grip Pull-Up
  • 3-4 sets x 7-10 reps, 8-12 reps (women)..
  • If you’re not used to doing pull ups, use the pull-up assist machine. If you don’t have one, put a box/bench under you and use your legs for help to complete at least 7. Use your legs to push yourself up but fight gravity on the way down (i.e., use the negative).
4.  Dips
  • 2-3 sets to failure.
  • When doing dips, bend your knees, cross your lower legs, and pitch your body forward. If you do dips straight up and down, you put yourself at higher risk of shoulder injury.
  • Use a dip assist machine if you’re not used to doing dips to build up to unassisted dips.
5. 3 Sets of Any Ab Exercise
Principles and Tips:

The First Rule of Exercising/Sports/Weigh-lifting: Avoid Injury!
Always warm up. If you’re feeling off one day, ease up on the weight. Learn and use strict form. Have an experienced friend or trainer check your form every once in a while. Learn correct breathing technique. Learn to distinguish good pain from bad pain. If you get injured, you’re out for at least two weeks. That sets your fitness in reverse. 
Another good tip for avoiding injury is to always “leave one in the chamber.” This means end your set when you fell like you might still be able to do one last rep but that it would require you to break form. In other words, do as many reps as you can with strict form. There’s a time a place for breaking form, but as a general rule, avoid it as it increases the odds of injury, which in turn will set you back.

For a more detailed account of how to prevent injury, read my more detailed post here.

Number of Reps:
Fact: You can’t get stronger without lifting weights heavier than what you’re used to lifting. The way to lift heavier weight is to drop the number of reps. This is why, for strength training, you shouldn’t be doing more than 8 reps. Once you can do 4 sets of a weight at 6-8 reps, you should increase the weight, or better yet… (For women, work in the 8-15 rep range. See article linked at the beginning of the program).

What I’ve said above isn’t entirely true. There’s still some conflicting literature but it seems like the most important variable for muscle hypertrophy is total training volume for a body part. This means 3 sets x 8 reps of 100 lbs (= 24 000 lbs) should give you the same results as training 2 sets of 12 of 100 lbs (= 24 000 lbs) or 6 sets x 2 reps of 200 lbs (= 24 000 lbs). Same volume = same results regardless of how you got there. My guess is that this is only true within a certain range of combinations as, were it possible, lifting 24 000 lbs once probably won’t give you the same results as the above possibilities.

Level of Resistance:
In a standard pyramid progression, you start off with a relatively lower weight but relatively higher reps. For each set, increase the weight but decrease the reps. 
  • Set 1: 70 lbs x 8 reps.
  • Set 2: 80 lbs x 7 reps.
  • Set 3: 90 lbs x 5 reps.
  • Set 4: 100 lbs x 1 rep.
The benefit of standard pyramid progressions is that, when you reach your heaviest weight, your muscles, tendons, and ligaments are really warmed up. The downside is that you can exhaust your muscles by the time you get your heaviest weight so your technique suffers.
In a reverse pyramid, you start off with a heavy weight and low reps. With each set you decrease weight and increase reps.
  • Set 1: 100 lbs x 5 reps.
  • Set 2: 90 lbs x 7 reps.
  • Set 3: 80 lbs x 8 reps. 
The downside of a reverse pyramid is that you risk injury when you lift heavy before the body part is fully warmed up. The upside is that you’re at full strength when you do the heaviest set.
My solution is to combine the methods. This way I get the benefits of both while diminishing the downsides of each. I do a standard pyramid up to and including my third set. At my third set, I’m still close to full strength but fully warmed up. On my fourth set, I bring the weight back down slightly below my third set. This way I preserve strict form on my last set. If I’m doing 5 sets, I might stay at the higher weight for set 4 but do one less rep then come down for the last set.
  • Set 1: 70 lbs x 8 reps.
  • Set 2: 80 lbs x 6-7 reps.
  • Set 3: 100 lbs x 4/5 reps.
  • Set 4: 90 lbs x 6-7 reps.
Rest intervals:
I like to rest around 90 seconds- 2 min between sets but if I’m really focused on building strength I might even increase rest times up to 3 minutes. Science says, for men, longer rest periods are better for muscle hypertrophy (for women, it seems like short rest periods are likely better).

If I’m close to a judo tournament, I reduce rest time to 1 minute: I want the workout to more closely mimic the explosion-recover intervals of a match and to keep my heart rate up. 

Number of Sets:
You’ll notice that for many of the exercises, I’ve given a range of possible sets. This is to allow flexibility in the program.  If you’re more on the beginner end of weightlifting or are restarting after a break, you’ll want to use the lower number. If you’re more in the intermediate or higher range, you’ll want to use the higher number of sets.

Also, regardless of where you stand, some days you have more energy than others in the gym. Build flexibility of sets into your routine to accommodate the variation in how you feel on any given day. Why leave an exercise early if you still have lots of energy? Why do one more set if you’re already exhausted? Nothing good will come of it except an increased risk of injury.

Rest Days:
By most standards–especially evolutionary standards–our daily lives are sedentary. For this reason, just cuz you’re not in the gym lifting on your off days, it doesn’t mean you should be sitting on your butt watching Netflix. You were probably already sitting in your office all day. At least go out for a walk. Better yet, participate in a physical group activity. Take a dance class. Do a martial art. Coach a kids’ sports team. Just do something to get off your butt!

Summary: Personalizing your Program
Recall that volume is the dominant variable for muscle and strength gains. Think of all the above variables (including rest period) as means of individualizing a program in a way that maximizes total training volume for your body. There are 4 variables to play with: number of reps, number of sets, weight (% of max), and duration of rest period. What you should do is play with each to find the combination that results in the highest total volume per exercise.

For example, I find that pretty much no matter the weight (in the working weight range), I have trouble going above 8 reps. My power drops off significantly after the 6th rep. So, for me to do the most volume, I use low reps (5-7) and high weight. I also find that I recover fairly quickly between sets, so I use moderate rest periods. This allows me to get more sets done in a workout.

An average woman might find she can reach higher total volume when she does high reps of med-low weight with short rest periods. So, this is what they should do.

The key idea here is that as you get to know your body, you should individualize this or any program to suit your body. Use a pre-made program as a general template but the exact combination of sets/body part, rest periods, reps, and weight (% of max) aren’t going to be optimal for everyone. No program can be optimal for everyone given human diversity. Learning to customize your program comes with experience and experimentation. 

More on Bro Splits vs Full-Body Programs
Let’s talk a little bit more about the bro splits vs full-body workouts. Recall that with bro splits, you assign a day to each major body part and maybe train a minor muscle on that same day (e.g., chest and biceps; back and triceps). In each workout you try to “destroy” that particular muscle group with the idea that it will take a long time to recover. 
With a full-body program we usually train all (major) muscle groups during each individual workout. Two implications follow: First, you will train each major muscle group several times a week (3 in a standard program). Second, your muscles won’t get “destroyed” after each work out since you’re only doing 3-5 sets for a particular muscle group as opposed to the 14-18 (or more) in a standard bro-split. It follows, that you can train each muscle group more frequently.
Why do full-body programs seem to be outperforming bro splits? First, (on average) protein synthesis mostly occurs over the first 48 hours from your workout. This means that the majority of muscle growth/repair occurs only in the first 48 hours, post workout. After that period, resting your muscle has minimal mass/strength gain benefit. After 48 hours, your muscle is, in effect, ready to be trained again .

Understanding this allows us to properly conceptualize the debate between bro splits and full-body programs. It’s not really that training your full body in a session has some magical powers, it’s that a full body program allows you to increase each muscles’ training frequency over a given period. In a standard bro split, each major muscle group is trained only 1x/week, but muscle growth only happens for the first 48 hours. In a (standard) full-body program, each major muscle group is trained 3x/week. This means there are 3x the growth periods compared to a bro splits program.

Hold On a Second…
If you’ve been lifting for any reasonable amount of time, your spider senses should be tingling from what I’ve said. Something’s not quite right. Anyone who’s an experienced lifter will tell you that for muscle growth you simply can’t push a muscle group hard enough in just 3-5 sets of a single exercise. To really get that drained, quivering-jello-muscle feeling, you need to work that muscle over at least 3 or 4 different exercises of 3-5 sets each. That is, you need a minimum of 14-18 sets on each muscle group to truly damage it in order to get the gainz you’re after.

What am I getting at? When we compare full-body to bro splits programs, total training volumes will differ. And the research is clear on one thing: Training volume is a primary driver for mass and strength gains. The whole point of bro splits is to increase training volume over what one could do in a full-body program. That’s why bro splits became the gold standard for weightlifting. Let’s look at that more carefully.

Assume a standard bro split program:

Day 1: Chest 16 sets.
Day 2: Legs 16 sets.
Day 3: Rest
Day 4: Shoulders 16 sets.
Day 5: Back 16 sets.
Day 6: Rest
Day 7: Arms 16 sets.

Compare that to a 3x/week full body program where each body part gets 3-4 sets x 3 times/week (9-12 sets/body part/week).

When we compare the two programs head to head, for each body part, the bro splits program does an additional 4-5 sets of volume each week (assuming we hold reps constant). That’s a big difference. Take chest for example. Even if I’m only benching 150 lbs x 6 times, for 4 sets that’s 3 600 lbs (900 lbs x 4 sets) of volume difference in just one week between the programs. Now add together the volume difference for each body part between programs. That’s a massive difference in total volume between the programs in just one week. Imagine over a year.

No thanks, Mr. Science Man, I’m keeping my bro splits. Keep your stupid “science” away from my precious gainz!

What’s going on here? In a lot of the comparative studies they have to hold training volume constant across the two types of programs. Without this control, volumes are different and there’s no way to can point to frequency as being the differentiating variable. Great for controlled science but this doesn’t translate well outside of the lab since the whole point of bro splits is to increase training volume. I’ll bet my last scoop of protein powder that if you compare training volume between any real-world full-body program vs any bro split program, there will be a significant difference in total weekly training volume (favoring bro splits).  If total volume drives gainz, it’s bro splits all the way.

Hold on a tick. We started this whole article citing the trend in the literature, across various studies and study designs, that full-body training generates results superior to bro splits. But the studies are a sham. They’re comparing apples to oranges. Bro splits have higher volume. If volume drives gainz, how can a lower volume program produce moar gainz than a higher volume program? The meat in my head is getting overtrained with all this!

Resolving the Paradox
Wait! There’s more! There’s another training dogma that’s come under increasing scrutiny: that muscle damage is the mechanism for muscle hypertrophy. Bro splits seek to maximize volume because it is the best way to guarantee maximum muscle damage. The reasoning goes like this:

Moar muscle damage leads to moar bigger muscles. And moar volume leads to moar muscle damage. So, moar total volume leads to moar muscle damage which leads to moar bigger muscle growth. By transitivity, moar volume leads to more bigger muscles. Therefore, bro spliz all the way.

But what if muscle damage isn’t the primary driver of muscle growth? And what if, like everything else in the world, the law of decreasing marginal returns also applies to training volume?
I’m not going to rewrite an already excellent article so I’ll summarize. Short term spikes in inflammation (signaled by interleukin 6; IL-6) trigger the metabolic pathway for muscle repair. But long-term/chronic inflammation (also signaled by IL-6) interferes with muscle growth. IL-6 serves a dual role depending on its intensity and duration.
See where we’re going with this?
Bro splits lead to long-term inflammation since there is massive muscle damage. But what does this do to the potential for muscle growth? Recall, it undermines it (relative to a short and intense IL-6 signal). What does high frequency training do? It leads to short-term spikes in IL-6 which…(say it with me) activates the muscle-growing metabolic pathways three times a week.

Pair this with what we observed above, that most protein synthesis (muscle-building) usually only occurs over the first 48 hours post work out, and we’re on our way to resolving the volume-frequency paradox.

Let’s walk through it. The law of decreasing marginal returns tells us that there’s some upward bound to the gainz we can make by adding more volume to our workout. At some point, more volume isn’t going to translate to moar units of gainz. We can see this by imagining extreme ends of a continuum of volume training. At one end I lift one pound/week. Surely adding one more unit of training volume will lead to a better  rate of gainz. At the other extreme, all I’m doing is lifting weight, from the time I wake up, until the time I go to bed. In fact, I sleep with a 45 lb plate on my chest so that with each breath I exert force x distance. Adding another 45 lb plate on my chest at night (i.e., increasing volume) isn’t going to add more units of muscle gain. In fact, adding more volume at this point probably decreases my total gainz and negatively affects rate of gainz.

Somewhere between the two ends of the continuum, there’s a point where adding more volume doesn’t increase units of muscle gain (i.e., the marginal rate). I’m still making gainz but the amount of gainz/unit of additional volume starts to drop. And somewhere beyond that point, adding volume will actually undermine muscle growth.

Bro splits push us past the point where we make optimal gainz from volume. The additional units of volume in bro splits are actually detrimental to growth rather than beneficial (relative to lower volumes). The kind of inflammation we get undermines optimal growth whereas frequency training gives us the amount of volume much closer to the goldilocks zone–and we get that optimal volume 3x/week.

There’s another lesson here. If, after training, you experience short-term soreness and you want to preserve your precious gainz, don’t suppress it with anti-inflammatories or anti-oxidants. You’re interfering with the muscle-building signal.

EDIT: I just discovered this interview with  Firas Zahabi, George St. Pierre’s (GSP) coach, who is widely regarded as one of the best MMA coaches in the world–he also happens to be a philosophy major! I can’t recommend watching this interview strongly enough. It summarizes everything in this article

To summarize, two main dogmas of bro science are under serious attack from non-bro science (aka, science): First, contra bro science, full-body training (i.e., high-frequency training) is superior to bro splits for muscle hypertrophy.* Second, contra bro science massive muscle damage and subsequent soreness don’t guarantee optimal gainz. The amount of muscle damage and inflammation matters. A third take-away is that for any weightlifting program, experiment with reps, sets, weight, and rest periods to maximize total program volume for your body.
*Note: It may be the case the bodybuilders using steroids will still do better on bro splits because the steroids allow their bodies to recover faster from massive muscle damage. It’s also what allows pros to train twice a day. This should not be read as an endorsement of steroid use!

Caveat: Pretty much all of the studies that show superiority of higher frequency training over lower frequency training used cohorts of advanced lifters or athletes. There was little or no difference in the results of studies that used beginners to compare different relative training frequencies. This is probably explained by the fact that beginners will make significant gainz no matter what they do. For advanced athletes, the low hanging gain-fruits have already been plucked. Different training methods will matter more.

Additional Sources Consulted: 

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