What Are The Major Differences Between 3 And 4-Day Splits?

What are the major differences between 3 and 4-day splits? Workout routines can have an incredible amount of variety; however these splits seem to be the standard. Increase your training success now as the benefits of each are explained.


TOPIC: What Are The Differences Between 3 And 4 Day Splits?

The Question:

Workout routines can have an incredible amount of variety, however 3 and 4 day splits seem to be the standard for most weight training regimens.

What are the major differences between 3 and 4 day splits?

Is one better than the other for building strength? Muscle? Burning fat? Why?

Is one better than the other for a beginner? Intermediate? Advanced?

Bonus Question: Do you use 3 or 4 day splits? Which has been most effective for you?

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What Are The Major Differences Between 3 And 4 Day Splits?


Qualifications

      Throughout this article, I will assume a fixed time of exercise sessions for both types of splits (after all, if a person on a 3-day split trains for 2 hours and their 4-day counterpart trains for 1 hour, then 3-day splits would have a greater total training time).

Additionally, I will assume similar rest periods between sets, for the same aforementioned reasons. Finally, each split will finish its cycle once a week, as opposed to two 3-day cycles per week, equating to 6 total training days.

Also note that the intensity of each session will play a great role in determining the effectiveness of one's split. If someone utilizes drop sets, 21s, forced reps, etc., they will experience much better results than someone who walks through the motions of their exercises and stops a set at the first sign of failure, regardless of the split they choose.

      And, with that taken care of ...

The two primary differences between 3-day and 4-day splits are muscle specificity, and amount of rest days.


Muscle Specificity

      4-day weight training splits are better than 3-day splits for targeting individual muscle groups and for achieving optimal balance in a specific body part.

When exercising on 3-day splits (assuming the individual will exercise every body part, as opposed to excluding a muscle region for injury-related reasons), a trainee can hit a muscle in much fewer ways because their intensity and energy will be spread out across a broader scope of exercises in one day.

On 4-day splits, each training session can be more fully devoted to each body part because they are partitioned over a greater time span, thereby ensuring that "no muscle is left behind."

      Here are some example splits:

3-Day

      • Day 1: Legs
      • Day 2: Chest/Shoulders/Triceps
      • Day 3: Back/Abs/Biceps

      • Day 1: Back/Calves/Abs
      • Day 2: Chest/Quads/Hams
      • Day 3: Biceps/Triceps/Shoulders

(Push-Pull)

      • Day 1: Chest/Abs/Back
      • Day 2: Biceps/Triceps
      • Day 3: Legs/Shoulders

4-Day

      • Day 1: Chest/Triceps
      • Day 2: Back/Biceps
      • Day 3: Shoulders/Abs/Calves
      • Day 4: Quads/Hams

      • Day 1: Back/Abs
      • Day 2: Biceps/Triceps
      • Day 3: Chest/Shoulders
      • Day 4: Legs

      • Day 1: Chest/Back
      • Day 2: Biceps/Shoulders
      • Day 3: Triceps/Abs
      • Day 4: Legs


Number of Rest Days

      The major benefit of 3-day splits is the increased number of resting days (or cardio days, given that cardio doesn't tax one's muscles in the way a hardcore weight-training session does). Since each muscle is given more time to heal, the chances of overtraining are greatly reduced. Risk of injury is also lowered, as a muscle will not be fully exhausted in each workout and taxed to its limits.

Risk Of Injury Is Lowered In A 3-Day Split.
+ Click To Enlarge.
Risk Of Injury Is Lowered In A 3-Day Split.

      Here are some example splits:

3-Day

      • Monday: Workout
      • Tuesday: Rest/Cardio
      • Wednesday: Workout
      • Thursday: Rest/Cardio
      • Friday: Workout
      • Saturday: Rest/Cardio
      • Sunday: Rest/Cardio

      • Monday: Workout
      • Tuesday: Workout
      • Wednesday: Workout
      • Thursday: Workout
      • Friday: Rest/Cardio
      • Saturday: Rest/Cardio
      • Sunday: Rest/Cardio

4-Day

      • Monday: Workout
      • Tuesday: Rest/Cardio
      • Wednesday: Workout
      • Thursday: Rest/Cardio
      • Friday: Workout
      • Saturday: Rest/Cardio
      • Sunday: Workout

      • Monday: Workout
      • Tuesday: Workout
      • Wednesday: Rest/Cardio
      • Thursday: Workout
      • Friday: Workout
      • Saturday: Rest/Cardio
      • Sunday: Rest/Cardio


Is One Better For Building Strength? Muscle? Burning Fat?


Strength

      Without a doubt, a 4-day training split should be preferred for increasing one's strength over a 3-day split. The aforementioned reasons apply here, as well - specifically targeting the body part in which a strength gain is desired is much more beneficial than trying to increase strength for multiple body parts on the same day.

      Also, performing more exercises in a workout will weaken stabilizer muscles, resulting in a decrease in overall strength on a certain exercise.

For example, say a trainee is attempting to increase strength on a 3-day split, and he walks into the gym on a chest/triceps/shoulders day. After lifting the maximum amount of weights he can handle on the bench press, his military press and skull-crusher will suffer in total weight, because both the triceps and anterior deltoids are synergists in the bench press movement.1


Overall Mass

      A 4-day training split gets the honors in the muscle-building category, as well. In order to ensure total balance of one's physique, a variety of exercises need to be utilized for each body part.

A Variety Of Exercises Need To Be Utilized For Each Body Part.
+ Click To Enlarge.
A Variety Of Exercises Need To
Be Utilized For Each Body Part.

      For example, to fully develop the triceps, the lateral, medial, and long heads all need to be trained equally. Otherwise, the result of one's efforts will be an unbalanced, awkward-looking muscle group. 4-day splits allow for those extra exercises that guarantee a fully developed muscle belly to be used in every training session.


Burning Fat

      3-day weight training splits take the cake for maximal fat burning. The extra "off-days" that result from compacting ones training into fewer days allow for an increased number of cardio sessions. These cardio sessions, coupled with the after-burn of recent weight training, are excellent for melting adipose tissue away.

      Additionally, weight training increases the fat-depositing hormones, and so less frequent resistance training will lead to a drop in [those fat producing hormones], 2 and consequently a reduced amount of fat that is stored.


Endurance

      Let's not overlook another factor that 3-day splits have going for them: overall muscular endurance. Cycling through multiple body parts in one session forces blood to shoot from one body part to the next, leading to a more all-around burn.

      Also, compound exercises will fatigue assisting muscles - as stated in the example above, performing bench presses and military presses back-to-back will produce extra strain on the anterior deltoids (not to mention the stabilizing effect they exert during skull-crushers), thereby working those muscles for a longer period of time. The extra little pump of blood to the muscles that occurs when they act synergistically in a movement increases the muscles' threshold of fatigue - thus increasing their endurance.


Is One Better For A Beginner? Intermediate? Advanced?


Beginner

      Beginners to bodybuilding should probably stick with 3-day splits. Their raw, untrained muscles need extra time to heal from the radically new stimuli. Risk of injury is greatly increased in beginners and people of low fitness levels,3 so new trainees should start off with the lower-volume 3-day splits.
      Regardless of one's goal, basic movements that recruit that maximum number of muscles should be utilized. Here are my favorite such muscle-building moves for each body part:

      • Chest: Bench Press
      • Back: Deadlift
      • Legs: Squats
      • Biceps: Barbell Curl
      • Triceps: Weighted Bench Dips
      • Shoulders: Dumbbell Overhead Press
      • Abs: Weighted Hanging Leg Raise


Intermediate

      Once an individual has had a few months or years of experience, then he/she may experiment with higher-volume splits. By now, they should be more familiar with the mechanics and motion of the various exercises, so risk of injury resulting from improper form is decreased.

Risk Of Injury Resulting From Improper Form Is Decreased.
+ Click To Enlarge.
Risk Of Injury Resulting From
Improper Form Is Decreased.

      Nevertheless, anyone who ups the number of days they weight train needs to listen to their body's response - if signs of overtraining surface, they should back off and lower the amount of days in the training split.


Advanced

      Advanced bodybuilders can use virtually whatever split they choose and make it work - years of exercising have conditioned their muscles and they are in tune with what their body responds to. It's on an individual basis here - some bodybuilders are able to utilize an upper-lower body split to their advantage, while others feel they need to partition their muscles over 7+ different workouts.


Additional Factors

      A few other variables that should determine a trainee's split:

Supplementation (Specifically Pre-Workout):

Caffeine-containing supplements

        will lose their effect after prolonged use, due to the increased regulation of adenosine receptors in the brain.

4

        Consequently, those with a longer training split who use pre-workout stimulants (assuming they consume the supplement before every workout) will develop an increased tolerance, leading to less noticeable benefits.

Schedule:

        Naturally, whatever split a person chooses needs to fit into their weekly life. If someone wishes to use a 4-day training split, but they can barely make it to the gym 3 days out of the week, they will need to make adjustments.

Overtraining / Injury:

        If an individual has overtrained or sustained an injury, then by necessity he/she will need to reduce their workload. Frequently, a decrease in the number of days in a trainee's split will have to be reduced to allow for recovery time, forcing someone who has been training with a 4-day split to cut it back to 3 days or fewer per rotation.


Do You Use 3 Or 4 Day Splits?

I started out experimenting with an upper-lower body split performed twice a week (4 working days total), and I wasn't getting much results. When I amped it up to a 4-day split, I started seeing much more growth and muscle definition. Now I am currently using a (bulking) 5-day split, which looks like this (exercise day order may differ depending on my schedule):

    • Monday: Abs/Calves/Forearms
    • Tuesday: Rest
    • Wednesday: Chest/Triceps
    • Thursday: Back
    • Friday: Rest
    • Saturday: Biceps/Shoulders
    • Sunday: Legs (or skiing, in the winter)

This split has definitely worked the best for me. I've seen significant results out of it and the muscle groups are spread out evenly throughout the week, which ensures that my muscles aren't fatigued by a previous workout before I even enter the gym. However, I must reiterate a final time that what should determine the length of a split should be the body's response to that split - no two individuals are the same.

Good luck, and happy training!

~TwinIam

Citations:

  • "Barbell Bench Press." ExRx (Exercise Prescription) on the Net. 06 Feb. 2009 http://www.exrx.net/.

  • Hill, E. E., A. C. Hackney, Zack E, C. Battaglini, M. Viru, and A. Viru. Exercise and circulating cortisol levels: the intensity threshold effect. Tech. no. 18787373. 31 July 2008. Endocrine Section, Applied Physiology Laboratory, Department of Exercise & Sport Science, North Carolina. 6 Feb. 2009 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/.

  • Knapik, Joseph, Philip Ang, Katy Reynolds, and Bruce Jones. Physical Fitness, Age, and Injury Incidence in Infantry Soldiers. Rep. June 1993. ARMY RESEARCH INST OF ENVIRONMENTAL MEDICINE NATICK MA. 7 Feb. 2009 http://www.stormingmedia.us/.

  • Chou, D. T., S. Khan, J. Forde, and K. R. Hirsh. Caffeine tolerance: behavioral, electrophysiological and neurochemical evidence. Rep. 17 June 1985. Life Sci. 7 Feb. 2009 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/.


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The week may have seven days, but since the dawn of bodybuilding, man has acknowledged that there is only so much abuse one's body can take. As a result, 3-and-4 day splits have become popular, probably due to the fact that hitting the gym every other day would result in either three or four workouts per week.

Whatever the reason, these frequencies persist and can allow as much or as little flexibility as desired by the individual.


What Are The Major Differences Between 3 And 4 Day Splits?

The first, most obvious difference between 3- and 4-day splits is the number of workout days and rest days. And while one might assume that a 4-day split is going to provide an opportunity for harder work, this is not necessarily the case. An extra day in the gym does not automatically translate into more mass, either. Intensity is the deciding factor there.

Often, the difference between the 3- and 4-day splits is the level of experience associated with each. Usually, 3-day splits are considered to be 'beginner' routines, and indeed one of the most popular 'beginner' routines, Starting Strength, is composed of three workouts per week.

Four-day workout splits tend to be considered more advanced and often focus on hitting different body parts each day, while 3-day splits focus on full-body workouts. In addition, 4-day workout splits often have two days on, followed by one day off, while three day splits have one day on, one day off. However, none of this is written in stone and depends on the individual.

The only concrete difference is that 3-day splits provide more rest than 4-day workouts and entail less of a time commitment. As a result, 3-day splits may be better for very busy individuals or more casual lifters who do not want to dedicate four days to the gym.


Is One Better For Building Strength? Muscle? Burning Fat?

Due to the endless combination of possible exercises, neither is absolutely better for building strength, muscle and burning fat - they both have advantages and disadvantages.

Three-day splits, for example, offer muscles a long time to rest and recover, which one could argue promotes better growth. In addition, one is likely to incorporate a lot of compound movements on a 3-day split. These are exercises that recruit a lot of different muscles in different capacities; while there is agonist, or one prime mover, driving the motion, there are also stabilizing muscles and synergists at play.

So while frequency is somewhat limited on a 3-day split, there is a lot of intensity. Also, 3-day splits can provide a surprisingly high level of fat burning, as the "big" lifts that tend to be included in such splits - squats, deadlifts and bench press, for example - raise one's metabolism more than isolation exercises. So while the big lifts are taxing on the body, burning calories during performance, the action of a raised metabolism helps one burn more calories when not in the gym as well.

However, 4--day splits can be just as, if not more, effective as 3-day splits. Frequency is often stressed as a way to boost strength in lagging muscle groups, and 4-day splits offer more frequency than 3-day splits.

The 4-day split also allows for a larger variety of lifts due to the increased time in the gym, so muscle groups can be hit from multiple angles, spurring growth as the body is constantly being challenged.

As you might expect, hitting the gym four times a week can have a significant effect on fat burning; it doesn't take a genius to figure out that more time in the gym equals more caloric expenditure.

Here, I believe 4-day splits do have a definite advantage over 3-day splits; while raising one's resting metabolism through big lifts is significant, the extra workout trumps that effect. Also, one may be performing many compound, taxing lifts during a 4-day split, so if burning fat is your primary goal, a 4-day split is probably better.

Though it may seem disappointing that neither workout scheme is a magic bullet in terms of building mass or burning fat, this should actually be a reassuring fact. It means that people have an opportunity to reach their goals no matter what split is used or how flexible their schedule may be.


Is One Better For A Beginner? Intermediate? Advanced?


Beginners

      Those not familiar with weight lifting should probably begin with a 3-day split. There are many reasons for this, the first being that beginners will have an easier time learning the smaller number of lifts involved in three-day splits. Big lifts such as squats and bench press are also more likely to tire someone who is not used to lifting weights, so the extra day off is a nice cushion.

The 3-day split also allows the beginner to have more time to rest, which is necessary as an inexperienced boy will need more recovery time.

The lower frequency of training is a great way to battle against a common novice mistake - overtraining. It is less likely that one will train too much with only three workout days per week. A lesser acknowledged, but equally relevant, issue that is alleviated by 3-day splits is burnout.

      A beginner, who has yet to fully cultivate a love of weight-lifting, may be overwhelmed by training too frequently and lose interest. However, a 3-day split provides a nice balance between going to the gym and doing other things, so this threat is somewhat neutralized.

Lastly, the tendency of 3-day splits to focus on the big lifts aid beginners in developing a solid base that more advanced lifters already have built through experience.


Intermediate And Advanced

      Four-day splits are a logical progression for more experienced lifters. The knowledge that comes with months or years of work will translate into a variety of exercises that a 3-day split may not allow time for. Also, more advanced lifters will have an established base and can afford to incorporate specialization and isolation exercises to target specific muscle groups. The extra workout day means that major lifts don't have to be the focus all the time, so a wide exercise selection can be used.

      Often, instead of focusing on full-body workouts, intermediate and advanced lifters like to use body-part splits, targeting just a few muscle groups each day. These splits usually entail hitting the gym two days in a row, which is not ideal for beginners.

Unlike beginners, intermediate and advanced lifters will have the capacity to exercise more and recover on less time, so the loss of a rest day should not hold them back. The more experienced lifters have better muscle development than beginners and thus overtraining is not as much of a threat.

The 4-day split also caters to the extra enthusiasm of more advanced lifters. One who has been dedicated to lifting for a while will probably cherish every minute in the gym, so an extra workout day is great.

The Four-Day Split Also Caters To The Extra Enthusiasm Of More Advanced Lifters.
+ Click To Enlarge.
The Four-Day Split Also Caters To The Extra
Enthusiasm Of More Advanced Lifters.

      In addition, to have spent enough time to become an intermediate or advanced lifter, the individual must logically be dedicated to the pursuit. And a dedicated person is more apt to be willing to sacrifice other items in his or her schedule to accommodate lifting, so the 4-day split is a solid option.


Do You Use 3- Or 4-Day Splits?

Although I like to switch up my routines every so often to prevent a plateau, I have had more success with 4-day splits than three. At this point, I am not overwhelmingly busy, so finding time to work out four days each week has not been a problem. Perhaps more importantly, I absolutely love lifting, so I like to do it as often as possible, within reason, without negatively impacting my goals.

My favorite split is a relatively simple one: Push/Pull/Off/Push/Pull/Off/Off. Because I'm working different muscle groups on each of the days, I can afford to hit the gym twice in a row and not hinder my recovery or performance. I don't like to over complicate things by breaking down into too many different days devoted to just a few muscles, so the push/pull system works for me. The broad categories allow me to perform a wide variety of exercises each day so if the gym is busy or I am in the mood for certain lifts, I have a lot of flexibility.

For me, the 4-day split is effective because I've been lifting for a while and my recovery has improved since I started. I like to work my body hard and attack it from a variety of angles rather frequently, so a 4-day split makes sense for me at this point. By now, I don't feel as though a 3-day split would promote as much growth and development as the four-day split.