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Upper-Lower Training Routines

By far the most popular way people have split their routines is with a so-called "A/B" split. The most common of these is a classic "upper-lower" split with the shoulder girdle and arms being hit one day and then the 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.

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 musculature of the shoulder girdle on one day and then let it rest.
  • Upper/lower splits are perfect for athletes, as on your off days, you can fit in practice time and other training modalities, 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. Most of the more enduring strength routines, such as Westside Barbell or 5/3/1 are all based on upper/lower splits.

The only real downsides to this sort of 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. 

Some Examples of Upper/Lower Splits

Two of the most popular upper-lower splits are Lyle McDonald's 'Generic Bulking Routine" and Dante Trudel's 'Doggcrapp 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 poundages 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 leg curl: 2-3X10-12/2′
Calf raise: 3-4X6-8/3′
Seated calf: 2-3X10-12/2′

Tue: Upper
Flat bench: 3-4X6-8/3′
Row: 3-4X6-8/3′
Incline bench or shoulder press: 2-3X10-12/2′
Pulldown/chin: 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 are an older trainer or do not have the 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. 

DoggCrapp 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
  • 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 2.0 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 structure of the split is: 

Workout A
back width – chins, pull downs
back thickness – rows, rack deadlifts

Workout B

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 

Extreme 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.


For What its Worth

I have made the best gains on these sorts of upper-lower splits, going back and forth between them 4x a week and push-pull-legs 3-4x a week. The routine below is the one that has always worked best for me:

Workout A
chest - flat bench
shoulders - overhead barbell press
triceps - weighted dips
back - 45 degree chest supported rows
biceps - barbell body drag curls

Workout B
Hams - Romanian deadlift
quads - back squats
calves - Standing calf raises
forearms - grip machine
core - planks, crunches and roman chair side bends

The parameters I use which suit my recovery best at the moment are (not counting warmup sets, which total about 3 progressive ones on each exercise): 2-3X6-8/3′