In light of the new year, many will have made a resolution to begin attending the gym more often; I know in my regular attendance at the local YMCA that I have definitely seen an uptick in the number of other gym patrons, no matter what time of day I train. We all know the stereotype of the “New Year’s Resolutioner,” as I have heard them called over the years: someone decides that the beginning of a new year is the perfect time to try to lose some of the holiday weight, or perhaps to try to sculpt a new physique to meet whatever sort of look their heart desires. Most will fail to continue to attend after the first few weeks, hence why gyms get quite a bit more quiet typically beginning around February and into March. But some will stick around and actually begin to see the real progress that comes with beginning one’s gym journey, the so-called “newbie gains.”
When one begins training, more specifically of the weight training variety, they tend to experience a very rapid increase in muscle mass and strength. This phenomenon results from a number of factors that do require some scientific training to grasp in full, but the SparkNotes version amounts to this: in the first few months of weight training, one’s starting point is about as far from their ceiling as possible, so the body is far more likely to kick into overdrive when it comes to muscle synthesis. The stimulus is far greater by comparison to an untrained or newly training athlete as compared to a decades-long veteran weightlifter. This can be seen in muscle synthesis rates. One study found that someone who has been training for years will see a complete halt in muscle synthesis as a result of a workout between 12 and 24 hours after they leave the gym, but newbies will see this synthetic process from the same workout continue for up to 5 days afterward.
The flip side of the newbie gains coin, however, is what I just alluded to: the inevitable plateau, when simply doing anything won’t cause you to see gains anymore. At this point, it becomes important to pick a proper training scheme to target the muscles more effectively, if muscular gain is of importance to you. There are several options out there, but the most popular (especially among teenage boys with massive egos — we all know that one kid in the gym who spends more time posing than training) seems to be what is referred to as the “bro aplit.” This training split essentially corresponds to training 5-6 days a week, with each day specifically set to target one muscle group, to cause maximal muscular trauma that results in increased muscle mass after recovery. An example split may have separate days for training chest, arms, back, legs, shoulders, abs, etc. The purpose of this article is to explain why this system is a bad choice. Some of the evidence I will use to do this is empirical and some scientific.
Starting on the scholarly side of things, research shows that there is simply no benefit to training a muscle group less than twice a week to stimulate maximal hypertrophy (the scientific term for muscle growth). Remember that stat I listed earlier about when muscle synthesis tails off for experienced lifters? It ends after a maximum of around 24 hours. This means that if I train my chest on Monday, and don’t train it again for 6-7 days, then at least 5 days will pass in which my chest is not undergoing muscular synthesis. Now this does not mean that one should train one’s chest daily either, as the 24- hour statistic may imply. Other factors must be taken into account, like central nervous system (CNS) fatigue, which makes it difficult to contract the muscle fully and thus diminishes the effects of weight training. But it does mean that the science would logically be correct, as well as empirically, in calling for training a muscle group multiple times a week.
In my own personal experience, this principle does seem to ring true. As someone who could have been called a hard gainer for quite a while (that is, I found it difficult to grow the muscle tissue I wanted), the “bro split” definitely led to slower progress than other alternatives. I have found, as have many, that the ideal way to maximize training stimulus to induce muscle growth stimulus is through what could be called “powerbuilding,” after the combination of powerlifting and bodybuilding, on some form of a push-pull-legs split. Under this method, one trains 5-6 days a week with rest whenever necessary to allow the CNS to recover. Each workout begins with some form of a heavy compound movement, like a barbell back squat, for example. These types of movements tend to be useful for two main reasons: first, they utilize a number of muscle groups as opposed to one, and they allow for building strength that will be useful in increasing stimulus through more contraction-based movements. The squat may be leg- dominant, but it also recruits the abdominals and back for stability:, hence its characterization as a compound movement. Further, the strength gained by squatting in the 1-5 rep range will also allow for higher strength capacity in exercises like quadriceps extensions that are more targeted at contraction. The universally understood principle is that doing a set of the same exercise with heavier weight at the same rep count, or same weight for more reps, will result in more muscle trauma, which induces higher muscle growth. Compound movements and the strength they develop lead to both of these alternatives being possible.
I could write an encyclopedia on this topic, such is my love for it, but for the sake of length, I must stop here. But let my closing remark be this: if you seek to build muscle, for whatever reason that may be, avoid the “bro split.” It’s crap.