post Best Upper-Lower Workout Split: Complete Program Guide

Best Upper-Lower Workout Split: Complete Program Guide

Connor Sellers
Published by Connor Sellers | Senior Coach
Last updated: January 27, 2024
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As a personal fitness and strength coach, I often recommend an upper and lower body split as the best approach to achieving a more balanced, sculpted appearance.

But a lot of people oversimplify this approach and don’t bring in enough variation to target different muscle groups for maximum effect.

So, our team set up a meeting with a dozen other fitness coaches, and we spent four hours discussing the ideal approach to a lower and upper body workout split.

Here’s what we found.

Quick Summary

  • The upper-lower workout split is a strategic training method alternating focus between upper body muscles (arms, chest, shoulders, and back) and lower body muscles (glutes to calves) for balanced muscle growth and a toned physique.
  • It's important to have a diverse range of exercises to train the entire body, adding variety to prevent boredom and enhance muscle building, as supported by a study in the PLOS One journal.
  • Research in the Asian Journal of Sports Medicine highlights that compound exercises in upper-body workouts effectively target multiple muscle groups simultaneously.
  • In my view, the upper-lower split is an excellent choice for athletes seeking even muscle growth and for those who enjoy working with free weights and cable machines for targeted muscle development.

What Is An Upper-Lower Workout Split?

A coach at the gym helping a person with upper-lower workout

An upper-lower workout split is a strategic training method where you alternate between focusing on upper body muscles (arms, chest, shoulders, and back) and lower body muscles (glutes to calves) across different days.

This approach allows one part of the body to rest while the other is trained, reducing fatigue and enabling more intense workouts for balanced muscle growth and a toned physique.

More on this shortly.

What Exercises Should You Plan?

A gym coach writing down on a clipboard

The important thing you need to keep in mind is that you want a long enough list of exercises to train your entire body while adding some variety.

A study published in the PLOS One journal has shown that the more you change your workout routine, the better the effects on motivation and muscle building [1].

Horizontal Push Exercises

You’ll find that these upper-body push workouts are predominantly compound exercises, which can be an excellent way to target more than one muscle group at a time, as stated in the research published in the Asian Journal of Sports Medicine [2].

Incline Bench Press

For this exercise, you want to set up your workout bench at about a 30-degree angle so that you’re pushing the barbell slightly upwards. This is a great way to isolate the upper pecs and shoulder muscles.

Decline Bench Press

A decline bench press might feel strange at first, and I would recommend starting with a decline angle of about 15 degrees to get used to it. The concept here is that you specifically target your lower pecs to get that more rounded and toned appearance.

Dumbbell Flys

To do dumbbell flys, you need to set your workout bench up flat and lay down with a dumbbell in each hand. Hold these above your chest with your arms slightly bent.

Lower the dumbbells down to each side of your body without changing the angle of your arms. Then push them back up and feel that burn across your chest.

Horizontal Pull Exercises

A coach helping people at the gym do horizontal pull workouts

These exercises will target multiple major muscle groups with a mix of isolation and compound exercises.

Cable Rows

These are one of my favorites for an upper-lower split approach. You’ll need a good cable machine or some resistance bands attached to your door.

Pull the handle slowly towards your chest, hold it for a second, and then slowly release the tension again.

Reverse Flys

My favorite approach for these is to lie down on my stomach on a flat bench and hold a dumbbell in each hand.

Then pull them slowly up, perpendicular to your body, until you reach shoulder height. According to the Cleveland Clinic, it’s a great way to build muscle in your traps [3].

Bent Over Rows

These have a similar effect as cable rows and will suit people who prefer working with free weights.

Place a heavy dumbbell on the ground, take one step forward towards it, and then bend forward with a straight back. Pull the dumbbell up to your chest while keeping your shoulder parallel to the ground.

Biceps Curls

And you can’t plan an upper-lower split without including some good old-fashioned biceps curls. Mix these up between hammer curls, barbell curls, and preacher curls to introduce some variety for motivation.

Vertical Push Exercises

A person doing vertical push workouts at the gym

Now it’s time to switch your angles a bit more so that each muscle group is challenged in multiple ways.

Overhead Press

For this chest and shoulder workout, stand up with a barbell at shoulder height and be ready to push it up over your head.

Look up at the ceiling to avoid catching your chin, and then push it slowly up and lower it back down again.

Related: How to Overhead Press: Proper Form and Technique

Dips

Even if you can’t complete a dip yet, I recommend adding these to your upper-lower split workouts. Use your feet to support some of your body weight if you can’t complete at least three of these.

Getting into the routine of this movement will build up the precise muscles needed to achieve full sets in a few months. 

Lateral Raises

Now it’s time for some targeted shoulder exercises. Stand up straight with a dumbbell in each hand beside your thighs, palms facing inward.

Slowly raise each dumbbell perpendicular to your body without bending your elbows. Hold at the top for a second, and then release the tension back down.

Front Raises

A slight variation in lateral raises that will also target your chest is doing some front raises.

Stand up straight while holding a dumbbell in each hand in front of you, palms facing your thighs. Then lift them up to shoulder height and hold them there for a second.

You could also create another variation by alternating lateral and front raises in one set.

Vertical Pull Exercises

A person doing vertical pull workouts at the gym

Now we’re heading for that large muscle group in your upper back to broaden out your shoulders and traps.

Pull-Ups

I would recommend doing wide-grip pull-ups, as they will trigger a broader range of muscles in your back and shoulders.

If you can’t complete a full pull-up, then allow your feet to touch the ground or a chair to support your weight.

Chin-Ups

Your upper-lower split workouts should also include some chin-ups in order to target your biceps and shoulder muscles. These are also a bit easier than doing standard pull-ups.

Also Read: Chin-up vs Pull-up: Key Differences

Lat Pulldown

You should also consider some lat pulldowns at your cable machine. These can be a great option for people who really struggle with pull-ups to gradually build up more strength.

Upper Leg Exercises

A person doing upper leg workouts

Now it’s time to get started with some lower-body workout options, and we’ll look at your glutes, hamstrings, and quads first.

Back Squats

Squats are one of the best ways to work on your lower body and core.

Set up your barbell in the squat rack and balance it on your shoulders. Then slowly lower your buttocks down as far as possible before pushing back up again.

Great form will be more important than a higher weight load.

Lunges

If you don’t feel comfortable with squats, then add some weighted lunges to your upper-lower split plan.

Hold a dumbbell in each hand, take a large step forward, and bend your forward knee. Push back up and step forward with the other foot.

Leg Extension

Leg extensions should also be part of your lower body workouts, and many amateurs will prefer using a machine over balancing a barbell during squats.

Deadlifts

And to target your lower back, core, and glutes, do some deadlifts on a regular basis. Make sure you have a fitness coach check your posture on these, as a curved back during a deadlift can cause significant back injuries.

Lower Leg Exercises

A person doing lower leg workouts

The final part of a lower-body workout should also look at your calf muscles.

Calf Raises

Calf raises will target a lower muscle group that many people forget and then end up with a bulky upper body and skinny legs.

Use a heavy barbell and do calf raises on almost every leg day of your upper-lower split plan.

Rep Ranges And Weight Loads For Lower And Upper Body

A couple doing lower and upper body workouts at the gym

The key to this workout routine isn’t just the upper-lower split.

You also need to make a clear plan for your training volume in terms of reps and weight loads you pile on.

For people who have goals of losing fat for general weight loss or during a cutting phase, I would recommend lowering the weight loads and doing more reps per set.

Aim for 12 to 15 reps in each set, and you should be able to maximize your calorie burn.

But if you’re in a bulking phase or want to get more toned, then reduce the rep ranges to about eight per set.

The rest time between sets depends on the individual, but compounds usually rest for 4-5 minutes, while smaller muscles rest for around 3 minutes.

“The low-rep zone can be defined as anything between 1 rep with near-maximal effort and 5 reps in a set. They're often viewed as being geared more for powerlifting or Olympic lifting.”

- Mike Robertson, C.S.C.S. at bodybuilding.com

Remember that applying periodization to your upper-lower split by cycling through phases of hypertrophy, strength, and endurance can significantly boost your training results, allowing for structured progression and preventing training plateaus.

Sample Split For Upper-Lower Body Workouts

A gym coach talking to a person at the gym

Personalizing exercises, volume, and intensity ensures your routine directly supports your unique fitness objectives and lifestyle.

Let me now show you some examples of how to structure your training volume.

2-Day Upper-Lower Split Workout

This is the most basic split for upper and lower body workouts, and it’s suitable for people who have limited time for training.

  • Monday:  Lower Body
  • Tuesday:  Rest
  • Wednesday:  Rest
  • Thursday:  Upper Body
  • Friday:  Cardio
  • Saturday:  Rest
  • Sunday:  Rest

3-Day Upper-Lower Split Workout

For a 3-day split, you’ll need to switch around the upper and lower workouts from week to week so that you have the same number of workouts over a two-week period.

  • Monday: Lower Body
  • Tuesday:  Rest
  • Wednesday:  Upper Body
  • Thursday:  Cardio
  • Friday:  Lower Body
  • Saturday:  Rest
  • Sunday:  Rest

4-Day Upper-Lower Split Workout

This is the ideal split for maximum impact on these muscle groups.

  • Monday:  Upper Body
  • Tuesday:  Lower Body
  • Wednesday:  Cardio
  • Thursday:  Upper Body
  • Friday:  Lower Body
  • Saturday:  Active Recovery
  • Sunday:  Rest

Benefits Of This Approach

A coach helping a person workout

There are a few important benefits you get from doing this kind of upper-lower split.

Training Variety

I advise clients to mix up their training days and sets. It keeps things interesting and boosts motivation.

Plus, varying your routine can significantly enhance muscle growth. Remember, from your first upper-body workout, switch up sets and change the order.

Research, like that in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, demonstrates the substantial impact of this varied approach [4].

“By creating variation and changing exercises in your routine, you can create a new stimulus, which creates more progress over time.”

- Brian Magat, PT at uhhospitals.org

Efficient Use Of Time

A gym coach talking to a person

With this split, different muscle groups get more days to recover before you hit them again.

For instance, after Monday's upper body workout, you won't train those muscles again until Thursday in a 4-day split.

This approach ensures efficient use of your gym time.

Balanced Muscle Growth

By actively training all muscle groups equally, you'll achieve better body proportions. This way, you avoid the 'lollipop effect' of having a bulky upper body and skinny legs.

Are There Downsides?

A gym coach helping a person workout at the gym

Before diving in, be aware of a couple of downsides.

First, an upper-lower split demands serious dedication and meticulous record-keeping of your training sets to ensure variety.

Second, since the upper body has more muscle groups, upper-body training involves more sets and takes longer. Factor this into your workout schedule.

Who Should Consider an Upper-Lower Workout Split?

Athletes who want to make sure they have very even muscle growth should consider an upper-lower split for their workouts.

It's great for those who prefer free weights and cable machines, allowing focused isolation for optimal growth.

It's also ideal for those seeking toning while efficiently using limited training time.

Who Shouldn’t Do An Upper-Lower Workout Split?

A gym coach talking to a person while holding a clipboard

People who can’t commit to such a strict training frequency shouldn’t consider an upper-lower split for workouts.

Missing sessions could lead to uneven muscle development.

Also, if your goal is primarily weight loss and cardio, this split might not be the best fit, as it leans heavily on free weights and cable machines.

FAQs

Is Upper-Lower A Good Workout Split?

Yes, upper-lower is a good workout split. It’s the ideal way to ensure that your muscle growth is evenly distributed. It also allows you to extend the amount of rest your muscles get while still working out four or five days a week.

Is A 4-Day Upper-Lower Split Good?

Yes, a 4-day upper-lower split is a good training option. I would also recommend adding a cardio day to the plan and having some active rest plans for the weekend. This can help you achieve maximum results for fitness and muscle growth.


References:

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6934277/
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4592763/
  3. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/body/21563-trapezius-muscle
  4. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/262385387_Changes_in_Exercises_Are_More_Effective_Than_in_Loading_Schemes_to_Improve_Muscle_Strength
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