Upper/Lower Workout Plan – The Perfect Program for Intermediate Lifters
An upper/lower workout split can be the perfect option for intermediate lifters.
While beginners usually do best on a full body program, intermediates may need more volume to keep progressing, but a lower frequency for optimal recovery from that volume.
Full body programs usually see you train 3 times per week, training every muscle group in each session.
This typically falls across Monday, Wednesday, Friday or three other non consecutive days of the week. As every muscle group is being trained in a session, training on consecutive days is not a good option, as it’s not long enough for optimal recovery.
A full body program is good for beginners because it necessitates low volume per muscle group per session. As every muscle group has to be worked, each group gets less volume to keep workout duration reasonable. For a beginner, this is enough to stimulate gains, and it’s also recoverable within two days before the next session.
In the first 6 to 12 months, you will see rapid progress, often termed “beginner gains” or “newbie gains”. Full body routines are great during this time, because you train each muscle group frequently. Each time a muscle group is trained it is not long before it is ready to go again. This means progress can happen every 2-3 days, instead of every 4-5 days.
There does come a point where this fast progress ends. When it does, a new approach is needed: More volume per muscle group per session, more recovery, and slower, smarter progression. To achieve this, full body programs are no longer the most logical choice. The increased volume will likely result in sessions that are too long. Additionally, the workouts will be too frequent, not allowing for optimal recovery between sessions.
Enter the Upper/Lower Split
An upper/lower lifting program splits the body into upper and lower body. You’ll have upper body training sessions, and lower body training sessions.
During your upper body sessions, you train your major upper body muscle groups – chest, back, shoulders – and hit some smaller ones as well like biceps and triceps. Your sessions will have exercises like bench press, pullups, dumbbell rows and lateral raises on the same day.
During your lower body training sessions, you’ll train the major muscles of your lower body like quads, hamstrings, glutes and calves. You may also hit core muscles of your abs and lower back on this day.
What Does a Good Upper/Lower Program Look Like?
One mistake that a lot of people make with their training is neglecting certain muscle groups. Pulling muscles often don’t get enough work. This can have a detrimental impact on aesthetics, strength and joint health.
Some people have a tendency to focus way too much on their chest, arm, ab and shoulder exercises, and not enough on their back exercises.
Your back is so important, it literally helps you to stay upright and not slump to the floor. Your back is also incredibly important for your other lifts, playing a major part in bench press, deadlifts, squats, etc.
An upper/lower routine solves this to some degree as you can no longer devote entire days to chest, abs or arms, then tag back on as an afterthought at the end of another chest day.
Make sure you’re working your back at least as much as your chest. For every set of pushing, you should have a set of pulling.
If your routine is unbalanced in favour of pushing exercises (bench press, shoulder press, dips, pushups, etc.) without equal amounts of pulling, the front of the shoulder (anterior deltoid) gets overdeveloped, pulling the shoulder joint forward and out of good alignment. The rear delts aren’t strong enough to keep the shoulder in its proper position. The result is poor posture, and often shoulder pain.
People also tend to neglect lower body, just having one “leg day” per week. Upper/Lower programs have 2 lower body days, meaning no top-heavy looking trainees!
What’s the optimal volume per muscle group per session and week?
Another mistake that of people make when designing their own lifting programs is doing TOO MUCH. Too many exercises and too many sets.
You don’t really need any more than about 10-20 sets per muscle group per week (evidence found by this 2017 meta-analysis). There’s definitely diminishing returns beyond about 10 sets per muscle group per week, and no additional benefit for most people beyond 20 sets per week.
Therefore, an upper/lower program should work each muscle group for about 5-10 sets per session, taking the total for the week to 10-20 sets per muscle group.
What Should Frequency and Recovery Be Like on an Upper/Lower Program?
An upper/lower body routine is best done over 4 sessions. This allows you to work each muscle group twice per week whilst having time in each session to give those muscle groups 5-10 good sets.
It also allows 72 hours+ for recovery between sessions targeting the same muscle groups, which is great for intermediate lifters doing slightly more volume per session.
On an upper/lower split, it’s best to lift for two days on, one day off, two days on. Most people then have two days off before restarting the cycle, so it syncs up with a 7 day week.
Example 4 day per Week Upper/Lower Schedule:
Monday: Upper Body A
Tuesday: Lower Body A
Thursday: Upper Body B
Friday: Lower Body B
Another way to do an upper/lower split with 4 days per week is to lift every other day, alternating between upper and lower. This requires being able to work out on weekends. This way you would work every muscle group twice per week with 96 hours of recovery for upper and lower muscles before working them again. This would be a good option for older trainees who might need the extra 24 hours of recovery.
Example Upper/Lower Schedule Lifting Every Other Day
Monday: Upper Body A
Wednesday: Lower Body A
Friday: Upper Body B
Sunday: Lower Body B
Tuesday: Cycle begins again with Upper Body A
Lifting 3 Days Per Week with an Upper/Lower Split
An upper/lower split can also be done over three days per week if this is all you have time for. Monday, Wednesday, Friday as lifting days would make sense, and ties in with a work week.
Again, you should alternate your Upper and Lower sessions. On a 3 day schedule, this means you’ll train upper body twice one week, but only once the following week when you’ll train lower body twice, and so on. This way you are training each muscle group every 4 or 5 days. Over the course of the year, this averages out as 1.5 times per week. This would be good for those with less capacity to recover, such as people with high stress, poor sleep or older trainees.
Can You Lift 5 Days Per Week with an Upper/Lower Split?
You might be wondering if you can lift every week day and alternate between upper and lower, like this:
I do not recommend this. You will probably get better results if you follow a 4 day per week program with a rest day in the middle (upper/lower twice each, with 72 hours between upper and lower, not 48).
That’s because most research shows that most people need 72 hours rest after working hard for their muscles to be FULLY recovered and above the baseline that they started at before the last workout.
In some studies, after 48 hours the participants were able to MATCH their baseline performance, but after 72 hours they were able to exceed it (example).
Leaving slightly longer for recovery may result in improvements from training rather than just matching previous performance. See below graphic on supercompensation. In our example, training the same muscle groups for a second time after 48 hours would be training when fitness level had only recovered to base level. Training after 72 hours would take advantage of training in the zone where “supercompensation” has occurred and adaptation is above the base level.
Of course, not everyone’s recovery happens on the same timeline.
Some people may take 72 hours to recover to the base level, whereas others may only take 36, or even 24. This is rare, though.
If you are one of the rare individuals who recovers well within 48 hours, to a standard that is above the base level, then having workouts closer together may be a good option.
What Do the Workouts Look Like on an Upper/Lower Program?
There are a variety of different ways you can work out on an upper/lower split. There is no one “right” way. However, you should make sure you are working out all of your major muscle groups across your training cycle (usually one week, but may differ slightly if you don’t lift 4 days per week).
One way you can ensure you’re working all of your major muscle groups is to make sure you cover all of these fundamental human movement patterns across your training cycle:
- Vertical pull
- Vertical push
- Horizontal pull
- Horizontal push
A squat could be a barbell back squat, dumbbell goblet squat or it could just be something that mimics that movement. For example, the leg press or hack squat machine.
Hinge is any hip hinge movement – so these are things like deadlifts, Romanian and stiff legged deadlifts, good mornings and hip thrusts.
Vertical pull is any pulling from above your head, like lat pulldowns and chinups. Vertical push is the opposite, shoulder presses, military presses, etc.
Horizontal pull and push should therefore be self explanatory – they’re your rows and bench presses/pushups respectively.
Example 4 Day Upper/Lower Program
Here’s an example 4 day Upper/Lower program using free weights that you can follow:
Monday: Chinups x 3 sets, Incline Bench Press x 5 sets, seated cable row x 3 sets, Dumbbell lateral raises x 3 sets, Facepulls x 3 sets
Tuesday: Barbell back squat x 3 sets, barbell Romanian deadlift x 3 sets, Leg press x 3 sets, Standing dumbbell calf raises x 3 sets, hanging knee raises x 3 sets
Thursday: Dumbbell one arm row x 3 sets, Barbell military press x 5 sets, lat pulldown x 3 sets, dumbbell bench press x 3 sets, cable fly x 3 sets
Friday: Barbell Deadlift x 3 sets, Dumbbell Bulgarian split squat x 3 sets, hack squat machine x 3 sets, seated calf raise x 3 sets, ab wheel rollout x 3 sets
There’s no direct arm work, as you’re getting more than 10 sets per week where the biceps and triceps are working hard on compound exercises for the back, chest or shoulders. If you feel you need more arm volume you can add this in, however.
This is a balanced program working all muscle groups twice per week with volume between the optimal range of 10-20 sets. All pushing is balanced with equal amounts of pulling and there’s plenty of lower body work.
How do you approach each set on an upper/lower Program?
Lifting for “straight sets” isn’t recommended on this program.
What are straight sets?
Straight sets are where you use the same weight and lift for the same number of reps on each set.
For example, 90 lbs x 10 reps for 3 sets.
This is fine for beginners, but as an intermediate is means the first 2 of those 3 sets weren’t really that challenging.
If you want to really grow, your 10-20 sets per muscle group per week need to be hard sets.
You don’t have to train to failure on every set, but you should be coming close. Research shows that when reps start to slow down noticeably you are approaching failure. These are the reps that cause the most muscle damage, creating the stimulus that forces your body to adapt and rebuild stronger during your recovery.
So, if “straight sets” aren’t recommended, then what is?
Each set should be taken close to the point of failure. So if you use the same weight for every set, you will get more reps on the first set, fewer on the second and so on.
Or, you could reduce the weight after every set and then you might get the same, or more reps with each passing set.
If you get more reps per set as you do more sets, but the weight gets lighter, you are doing reverse pyramid training.
Reverse Pyramid Training with an Upper/Lower Program
Reverse pyramid training is a great way to train.
You train hard, close to/to failure and lift in a variety of rep ranges.
Muscular gains will be similar regardless of what rep range you lift in, as long as you come close to failure. Strength adaptations are not, however. This study found that hypertrophy gains were similar with high loads and low loads where sets were taken to failure, but improvements to 1 rep max were significantly better in the group that trained with high loads.
That’s because if you want to maximise the weight you can lift, that is not only strength, but also a skill. Low loads lifted to failure will improve strength, but will not practise the skill of lifting heavy loads. To lift as much as possible you therefore need to also practise that skill.
Reverse pyramid training is a great way to do this because you do the heaviest work first. This means that you’re fresh (after a few easy, warm up sets) to lift close to failure with heavy loads.
Once you’ve done that first set, you reduce the weight by 10-20%, rest, then do your next set close to failure. Then repeat for as many sets as you’re doing (reducing the weight each time).
This also gives your workouts a feeling of downhill momentum once you’re past that first, heavy set. If you’ve already hit a rep PR with that weight then you’ve got the biggest win in your bag already, even if the rest of the workout isn’t great.
There’s no need to use Reverse Pyramid Training on every single exercise, but at least do it for your main compound exercise of the day (bench press, squat, military press, deadlift).
Programming RPT in Your Upper/Lower Workouts
Before you begin lifting heavy weights, you’ve got to be warmed up.
Warm Up Set 1: Bodyweight or unloaded barbell. This should be an easy 10+ reps.
Warm Up Set 2: 50% of the weight you intend to lift on your first work set. Another easy 5-10 reps.
Warm Up Set 3: 75% of the weight you intend to lift on your first work set, 3 reps.
Warm Up Set 4: 90% of the weight you intend to lift on your first work set, 1-2 reps.
This way, you get some good reps in with easy weight. Go slow on these, feel the muscles working, allow them to stretch. Respect the weight and ingrain good movement patterns. Then as you get closer to your working weights, you lift for far fewer reps to avoid tiring yourself out before your main set of the day.
These warm up sets will be quite useful if you do them properly. They will help you to get some technique practice in, they’ll get blood flowing to the muscles you’ll be using, increase elasticity of connective tissue, reduce muscle viscosity (stiffness) and enhance metabolic reactions.
Here’s what the work sets should look like with Reverse Pyramid Training:
Work Set 1: 4-6 reps. Lift close to failure but avoid failing completely.
Work Set 2: Reduce weight 10-15%, 6-8 reps, close to failure.
Work Set 3: Reduce weight 10-15%, 8-10 reps, close to failure.
Track the weights you lift and the number of reps you get. When you get to the top of the range on set 1 (e.g. you’re hitting 6 reps or more on set 1, increase the weight next time for set 1).
An upper/lower routine is perfect for when you’re past the beginner stage.
Your two upper and two lower workouts should ideally be at least 72 hours apart to maximise recovery.
An upper/lower routine lends itself well to working out 4 days per week, on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. However, you could also work out on alternating days, like Monday on, Tuesday off, Wednesday on, etc. You could also train 3 days per week on Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and complete the cycle over two weeks.
You should be working out each major muscle group with about 10-20 hard sets per week.
If your goals are muscle hypertrophy, then rep range is not important. Just be sure to always work close to failure on your sets. If you want to also maximise strength and lift heavy loads, then Reverse Pyramid Training is a good idea.
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