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Upper Lower Routines

The Benefits of Upper-Lower Training Routines

By far the most popular way people have split their routines is with a two-way split routine. The most common of these is a classic upper-lower split routine with the entire upper body being trained in one day and then the whole lower body the next session.

What is an Upper/Lower Routine?

An upper/lower weight training routine is one that instead of splitting the body into bodyparts, splits it up topographically into doing all of the upper body work on one day and all of the lower work on a separate day.

This makes it one of the most balance routines as opposed to a classic split where the lower body is done on one of four or five weekly sessions.

What Are The Pros And Cons Of An Upper/Lower Routine?

By far, the biggest advantages of an upper/lower training split are:

  • You maximize recovery as you train all the joints of the upper and lower body on one day and then have several days off until you train them again. Great for when we have issues with shoulders, low back, elbow tendonitis, etc.
  • Great for shoulder health, as you train all of the muscles and supportive/connective tissues of the shoulders on one day.
  • Upper/lower splits are perfect for athletes, as on your off days, you can fit in practice time and other training, like sprints etc.
  • It is the preferred way for powerlifters or those pursuing strength routines, as the upper days revolve around bench and its assistance movements and the lower days around squats and deadlifts. Many of the more enduring strength routines, such as those from Westside Barbell are all based on upper/lower splits.

Upper/Lower training splits are great for athletes! - Image Credit: iStock

The downsides of an upper/lower training split are:

  • Lack of specialization for very advanced or competing bodybuilders
  • Some might have an issue with the time in between upper body sessions

Some of the biggest advantages of training like this are that you have to most balanced routine as far as training the legs as much as the upper body.

Even with the fabulous push/pull/legs split, you still devote only 1/3 of your training to legs.

Another thing is that you have the option of hitting each bodypart twice a week should you choose to train 4x a week. 

Build Muscle Mass With An Upper/Lower Split- Image Credit: iStock

Two Old School Upper/Lower Split Training Routines

Two of the most popular upper-lower splits from almost 20 years ago were Lyle McDonald's 'Generic Bulking Routine" and Dante Trudel's 'DC Training".

Lyle McDonald's "Generic Bulking Routine" is a classic approach that combines strength with hypertrophy, using compound movements with a moderate overall volume per session and reps that fall in the middle between training for strength and for size.

According to McDonald, the routine is "trying to strike a volume between the issues of frequency (for gene expression and protein synthesis), recovery (failure training can burn people out) and progression (I want to see the weights going up consistently over the cycle). " 

Lyle McDonald's 'Generic Bulking Routine

Mon: Lower

Squat: 3-4X6-8/3′ (3-4 sets of 6-8 with a 3′ rest)

SLDL or Leg Curl: 3-4X6-8/3′

Leg Press: 2-3X10-12/2′

Another Hamstring Exercise: 2-3X10-12/2′

Standing Calf Raise: 3-4X6-8/3′

Seated Calf: 2-3X10-12/2′

Tue: Upper

Flat Bench (Dumbbell or Barbell): 3-4X6-8/3′

Rows: 3-4X6-8/3′

Incline Press or Shoulder Press: 2-3X10-12/2′

Pulldowns or Chin-Ups: 2-3X10-12/2′

Triceps: 1-2X12-15/1.5′

Biceps: 1-2X12-15/1.5′

Thu/Fri the workouts are to be repeated with substitutions for some of the exercises.

As far as volume, if you do not have the best recovery, he recommends to cut the volume back to 2-3X6-8 and 1-2X10-12, or consider making this a 3 day a week routine, M/W/F: week 1 (upper Mon+Fri, lower Wed) and week 2 (lower Mon+Fri, upper Wed), thus A-B-A, B-A-B etc.

One thing that McDonald argues that makes this routine so effective for both gene expression and protein synthesis is that each muscle group is hit every 5th day, which is optimum.

The big advantage that this routine over the one below is that it is a heck of a lot easier on the nervous system and also, the idea of training the biceps with upper body makes more sense than it does in DC training, where he has you do biceps with lower body. 

DC Training

Dante Trudel's routine uses a similar split, with some differences, the key ones being extreme fascial stretching and using rest-pause. It is really a program for advanced trainers.

Beginners and intermediates will do better on Lyle McDonald's generic bulking routine.

DC training hits each bodypart with more frequency than the average once a week bodypart split, but uses less volume, with only one max set per each exercise.

The key principles of DC training are

  • Maximal weights used each session
  • Multiple set rest pausing, with 2-3 drop sets on the final, heavy set per bodypart
  • Low volume higher frequency, hitting each bodypart every fifth day
  • Extreme fascial stretching
  • Carb restriction
  • Low intensity cardio
  • High protein diet with between 1.5 to 2.5 grams per pound of body weight
  • Dual factor "blasting" and "cruising" phases

Dual factor cycling is also built into the routine with "blast" (intensification for 6-12 weeks) and "cruise" (accumulation for 7-14 days) phases. In the first phase you essentially go all out, which is very hard on the nervous system and then deload for two weeks to allow for recovery.

Trudel has you pick three of your best compound exercises for each bodypart and cycle between them through each workout, doing a different one of each of the 3 exercises you've chosen per workout.

Workout three times a week in A-B-A, B-A-B fashion. The idea is to cycle these exercises listed each session to avoid injuries due to the intensity of this routine. So use these or similar compound exercises for each bodypart.

The structure of the DC Training upper/lower split is: 

Workout A

Chest (Barbell or Dumbbell Flat or Incline Press, or Machine Chest Press)

Shoulders (Barbell or Dumbbell Shoulder Press, or Machine Shoulder Press)

Triceps (Barbell Triceps Extensions or Dips or Machine Dips)

Back Width (Chin-Ups or Pull Downs or Machine Pulldowns)

Back Thickness (Barbell or Dumbbell Rows or Rack Deadlifts or Machine Rows)

Workout B

Quads (Back or Front Squat or Leg Press or Hack Squat)

Hamstrings (Leg Curls or Glute-Ham Raises or Stiff-Leg Deadlift)

Calves (Seated or Standing Calf Raises or Toe Press on Leg Press)

Biceps (Barbell or Dumbbell or Machine or Cable Curls)

Forearms (Reverse Curl or Hammer Curl)

Friday: repeat of Monday (different exercises)

Monday: repeat of Wednesday (different exercises) 

Rest-Pause Training

"Rest-pause" training is a brutal method of training to failure popularized my the late Mike Mentzer 25 years or so ago (FWIW, Mentzer wasn't the first to speak of rest-pause, Peary Rader talked about rest pause training in one of his Iron Man editorials in the late 40s). It is essentially a way of training beyond failure with weights about 85% 1RM like this

Set 1 x 6 reps

Rack the weight or lockout and rest 15-30 seconds, breathe deeply and slowly

Set 2 x 4 reps

Rack the weight or lockout and rest 15-30 seconds, breathe deeply and slowly

Set 3 x 3 reps 

Fascial Stretching

After each rest pause set you perform a weighted stretch for each muscle group with resistance for a minute or so, ie, using a heavy dumbbell held behind the head in the bottom position of a dumbbell extension, after doing triceps - or holding a heavy pair of dumbbells in a fly position after hitting chest.

It hurts and its brutally effective for recovery and stretching the thick fascia that surrounds the muscle, arguably allowing it more room to grow inside it.

Deadlifts - a staple of a lower body training day - Image Credit: iStock

More Upper/Lower Split Training Routines

I have made the best gains on these  following upper-lower splits, rotating them every 6-8 weeks or so. The routines below are the ones that has always worked best for me.

Upper/Lower Split One

Workout A

Bench Press - 4 sets x 5 reps

Military Press - 4 sets x 8 reps

Triceps - Lying Barbell Triceps Extensions - 4 sets x 10 reps

Supported Rows - 4 sets x 8 reps

Preacher Curls - 4 sets x 12 reps

Workout B

Romanian Deadlift 4 sets x 8 reps

Front Squat 4 sets x 8 reps

Toe Press on Leg Press Machine - 4 sets x 12 reps

Barbell Static Hold 45 Seconds

Hanging Leg Raises - 3 sets x 12 reps

Upper/Lower Split Two

Workout A

Incline Bench Press 4 sets x 5-8 reps 

Chin-Ups or Pulldowns 4 sets x  8 reps

CG Bench Press 3 sets x 8 reps

Barbell or Dumbbell Curl 3 sets x 8-1o reps

L-Lateral Raise 3 sets x 20 reps

Workout B

Squat or Box Squat 4 sets x 5 reps

Bulgarian Squat or Single Leg Press 3 sets x 10 reps

Hammer Curls 2 sets x 20 reps 

Leg Raises 3 sets x 15 reps

Upper/Lower Split Three

Workout A

Incline Press 4 sets x 6-8 reps 

Pull-Ups 4 sets x 6-8 reps 

Dips 3 sets x 8-12 reps 

Barbell or Dumbbell Curl 3 sets x 8 reps 

Overhead Single Dumbbell Triceps Extensions 3 sets x 10 reps 

Workout B

Box Squat 4 sets x 5 reps

Glute/Ham Raises 3 sets x 10-12 reps 

V-Sits 3 sets x 10-15 reps 

Barbell Reverse Curl 2 sets x 10-12 reps 

Upper/Lower Split Four

Workout A

Dumbbell Floor Press 4 sets x 5 reps 

T-Bar Rows 4 sets x 8 reps 

Dumbbell Pullovers 4 sets x 10 reps 

Arnold Press 3 sets x 10-12 reps 

Reverse Crunch 3 sets x 15 reps 

Workout B

Semi-Sumo Deadlift 4 sets x 6-8 reps 

Barbell Split Squat 4 sets x 10 reps

Dumbbell Single Stiff-Leg Deadlift 3 sets x 15 reps 

Standing Calf Raise 3 sets x 20 reps

Upper/Lower Split Five

Workout A

Weighted Chin-Ups 4 sets x 6-10 reps

Incline Dumbbell Press 4 sets x 6-8 reps

Seated Plate Raise/Dumbbell Lateral Raise Superset 3 x 10-12 reps each

Close-Grip Bench Press 4 sets x 8-10 reps

Workout B

Low Handle Trap Bar Deadlift 5 sets x 8 -10 reps

Bulgarian Squat 4 sets x 8-12 reps

Glute-Ham Raises 3 sets x 8-12 reps

Calf Raises 3 sets x 10 reps