A Complete Bro Split for the Natural Hardgainer

A Complete Bro Split for the Natural Hardgainer

Editor's note: This feature is a combined effort between Steve Shaw and OCB Bodybuilding CEO Kareem "Reemo" Petteway. Steve Shaw leads with an opinion piece on the validity of bro splits, while Reemo Petteway provides a kick-ass 5 day split workout

Are Bodybuilding Split Routines Legit?

Not seeing the results you want and tired of all the "full body workout routines are the only way to train" hype? Let's try something different.
Reemo PettewayThe pendulum is swinging. For nearly 3 decades body part splits were seen as the only "real" way to build muscle. These days many prominent fitness celebrities are touting the benefits of training body parts multiple times per week. As a result body part splits, often called bro splits, are being positioned as out-dated and ineffective for natural lifters.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Body part splits work. In fact, the vast majority of natural bodybuilders and figure competitors train each body part only once per week.

Proponents of full body workouts tend to beat the same drum:

Research shows that training a body part more frequently might improve muscle protein synthesis. Therefore, because of this single factor, frequency training is more optimal.

Fair enough. I'll grant the frequency training camp this point. But as a rebuttal, I present the following points to consider.

Point #1 - Full Body Workouts Typically Take Longer

When you perform a full-body workout you have to properly warm up ALL body parts, not just 1-2 per day. This forces you to spend more time in the gym, which can be a negative for many lifters.

In addition, as your strength levels increase, so do the number of required warm ups sets. A lifter that squats 185 for reps needs fewer warm up sets than a lifter who squats 275 or 365 for reps. After you reach a weight that is 50% of your one rep max, warm up sets should only jump up by about 10%. So the more you lift, the more potential warm up sets you need.

As you get stronger you'll need one, two or even in extreme cases three more warm up sets before you attack your first working set. If you are performing several heavy, compound movements per session - such as squats, bench press, and barbell rows - imagine how much longer these sets will prolong your time in the gym. Between changing plates, slapping on knee or wrist wraps, grabbing a sip of BCAAs, etc., each additional warm up set costs me about 2-3 minutes of time.

Related: Machine Fuel: The #1 Intra-Workout BCAA 

When using a body part split, or training only 1-2 body parts per day, you will decrease the amount of time spent warming up. For example, when training chest you might lead with the bench press. After your warm-up and working sets, you are pretty much ready for your next chest exercise. You MIGHT need to perform one warm up set to get the feel for this next exercise, but it's unlikely you'll need more than that.

You're also performing fewer compound movements per session, which not only reduces the cumulative number of warm-up sets per session, but also leads to a faster time between sets. It's much more difficult to recover between sets of big hitting compound exercises than it is machine or isolation movements.

A full body workout typically has three (or more) dumbbell or barbell compound movements. A body part split is likely to feature only one or two.
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Point #2 - "Optimal" Advantages Even Out Over Time

On paper full body workouts and upper/lower splits provide a slight muscle protein synthesis advantage. That's great. Advantages are good. But over the course of three, four or even five years this advantage evens out.

A natural bodybuilder can only get so big. The more they gain, the less they have left to gain. This is a reality, even though many in the lifting community choose to ignore it.

So let's say a full body workout gives you a 5% muscle protein synthesis advantage out of the gate. This would equate to about an extra 0.5 to 0.75 pounds of muscle during the first year of training, and maybe 0.25 to 0.5 pounds during year two.

While you (might have) gained slightly more muscle during year one using a full body workout, the "bro split" trainee has more potential gains left in the tank. For this reason, despite frequency training providing an advantage, muscle gain rates during year two might actually be equal.

Natural muscle potential is like a full glass of water. We each only get one full cup of gains during our lifetime. For some naturals this might be 32 pounds of muscle, and for others 35 pounds of muscle. You can't change your cup size - or natural potential - though many believe you can with hard work and a will of steel. This is nonsense.

So the more you take out of this glass during year one, the less gains you have to take during year two.

In an article, Dr. Casey Butt analyzed the rate of drug-free muscle gain. He came up with the following formula:

Muscle gain in one year = 0.3 × wrist2 × 0.5(no. of years training - 1)

If you have a somewhat average wrist size of 7", your gains during the first 5 years of training would be:
  • Year 1 - 14.7 pounds
  • Year 2 - 7.4 pounds
  • Year 3 - 3.7 pounds
  • Year 4 - 1.8 pounds
  • Year 5 - 0.9 pounds
Bench Press

Over the course of 5 years this lifter's "glass of gains" is 28.5 pounds. As you can see, during each subsequent year you have the potential to build about half of your remaining muscle gains.

A natural lifter who has a slight advantage during year one actually has LESS muscle to gain during year two. This means that even if a trainee has gained a slight 0.5 pound advantage during year one, the difference in rate of muscle gain during subsequent years will diminish.

This slight advantage decreases each year, and over the course of four to 5 years things even out.

If muscle protein synthesis rates were the only difference between full body workouts and bro splits, choosing between these two styles of training might be easier. This isn't the case though.

Point #3 - Bro Splits Allow More Recovery Time Between Similar Workouts

This is a no-brainier. Bro splits give you a week of rest in between similar workouts. While some might argue that this time between body parts is not needed, or actually counterproductive, it does come with inherent advantages.

Hammering a body part only once a week can improve focus. I find I am able to work harder on any given day when I am focused on only 1-2 body parts, as opposed to 8, 9 or 10. Many of you will feel the same way.

I can get in the gym, crush a major body part with 1-2 compound exercises, and then round out my session as needed. Even if my first exercise for a given body part feels sub-par, I can still regroup and hit is hard with the second, third or even fourth exercise.

During full body workouts, I often feel like I am actually under-stimulating a body part on any given day. Sometimes three sets just don't do the trick, and I am left feeling like I needed more work. Unfortunately, because I have an entire slew of other body parts to target, I can't afford to add another couple sets per exercise if needed.

Bro splits just feel better to me. They allow my training to flow better and remain more intuitive. There is a give-and-take you get when training only one major body part per day that you can't get with full body workouts.

I also like the fact that when I do have the energy to attack a body part, I have the freedom and recovery time between sessions to do so.

An argument could be made that because bro splits allow more intuitive training and subsequent recovery time, they may actually negate the muscle protein synthesis advantage that frequency training has on paper.

Point #4 - The View That Bro Splits Work a Body Part Only Once Per Week is Wrong

This is one of the biggest bro split misnomers.

Proponents of full body workouts or frequency training often neglect the fact that both major and minor body parts are stimulated multiple times per week on bro splits, albeit to varying degrees.

Think about it. Triceps are worked when training chest and shoulders. So unless you are doing a push/pull/legs split, you are likely stimulating your triceps 2-3 times per week.

The same could be said for shoulders. Front and side delts are utilized during chest training, and rear delts are worked on back training days.

Compound movements are called compound movements for a reason; they target multiple body parts. Even though chest day exists to target the chest, you are also working shoulders, arms, rear delts, etc. On the same note, rows and deadlifts work more than just your back muscles.

While we can debate the degree of stimulation that comes with this indirect work, we can't argue that this additional stimulation exists. For this reason, we cannot discount the certain reality that bro splits function more like frequency training than we're conditioned to believe.

The Full Natty Bro Split

This workout routine is designed by Reemo Petteway, OCB Bodybuilding CEO.

Most body part splits are structured to fit within the confines of a weekly schedule. This program is different. It's an eight day split that's structured as follows:
  • Day 1 - Chest
  • Day 2 - Back
  • Day 3 - Shoulders
  • Day 4 - Off
  • Day 5 - Legs
  • Day 6 - Arms
  • Day 7 - Off
  • Day 8 - Off
Day 1
Chest Workout
Exercise Sets Reps
Dumbbell Flye  4  25
Superset: Incline Bench Press & Elevated Push Ups  5  15-20, 15, 12, 8-10, 6-8
Superset: Dumbbell Incline Bench Press & Pec Dec  4  15-20, 15, 12, 8-10
Superset: Dumbbell Bench Press  & Dumbbell Flye  4  15-20, 15, 12, 8-10

Day 2
Back Workout
Exercise Sets Reps
Pull Down  5  15-20, 15, 12, 8-10, 6-8
Bent Over Row  5  15-20, 15, 12, 8-10, 6-8
Seated Cable Row  4-5  15-20, 15, 12, 10, 10
One Arm Dumbbell Row  5  15-20, 15, 12, 8-10, 6-8
High Hammer Strength Pull Down  4  15, 12, 8-10, 6-8
Deadlifts  3  12, 10, 8

Day 3
Shoulder Workout
Exercise Sets Reps
Side Laterals - Ramping Tri-Set  3  10
Seated Dumbbell Overhead Press  5  15, 12, 10, 10, 8
Front Barbell Raise  4  15, 12, 10, 8
Smith Machine Overhead Press  4  15, 12, 10, 10
Bent Over Reverse Lateral  4  15, 12, 10, 10
Behind the Neck Push Press  4  12, 10, 8, 6
Cable Side Lateral  3  12, 12, 12
Front Cable Raise  3  12, 12, 12
Reverse Cable Crossovers - Rear Delts  3  12, 12, 12
Behind the Back Barbell Shrug  4  15, 12, 10, 8

Day 5
Legs Workout
Exercise Sets Reps
Moderate Treadmill Walk - 5 to 10 Minutes
Leg Extensions  5  15-20
Leg Press  4  12-15
Squats  4-5  12-15, 10, 8, 6
Leg Extension  4  25
Hack Squats or Front Squats  3  12-15
Leg Curl  5  12-15
Dumbbell Stiff Leg Deadlifts  4  12-15
Single Leg Curl  4  12, 10, 8, 6

Day 6
Biceps and Triceps Workout
Exercise Sets Reps
All biceps and triceps exercises are supersetted.
Cable Curl & Rope Triceps Extension  5  15, 15, 12, 12, 12
Barbell Curl & Close Grip Bench Press  4  12, 10, 8, 6
Seated Incline Dumbbell Curl & Overhead Dumbbell Triceps Extension  4  12, 10, 8, 8
Seated Cable Curls & Dumbbell Kick Backs  4  15, 12, 10, 8
Standing Two Arm Dumbbell Curls & Dips  3  15, 12, 10

Workout Notes

  • Bent Over Rows - First set is with a wider grip, last 4 sets use a more narrow grip.
  • Seated Cable Rows - Reps are kept relatively high, so do not go below 10 per set. Last set is optional.
  • Seated Cable Curls - Are performed using an EZ bar attachment at the seated cable row station.
  • Standing Two Arm Dumbbell Curls - Squeeze the biceps and hold at contraction for 2 seconds. Lower each rep ONLY halfway down.
  • Leg Extensions - Do not extend all the way out. Stop just short of lockout. Use various angles, including normal foot width, narrow foot width, tows inward, toes pointed forward and toes pointed out.
  • Side Laterals - You are performing a tris-et while ramping up in weight. For example, start with 15s x 10 reps, then move on to 25s x 10 reps, and finish off with 35s x 10 reps. Perform this tri-set three times.
  • Behind the Back Barbell Shrugs - Incorporate a 2 second static hold after each rep at contraction.

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Gary Strong - October 3, 2023

Hi guys

Great article & guidelines for others. This says it all “Body part splits work. In fact, the vast majority of natural bodybuilders and figure competitors train each body part only once per week.”

Bob - March 17, 2020

You can’t argue journal articles with “I can”…“I can’t”… And “I feel that…”
Not saying your right or wrong, you make some good points. But your not backing yourself up… That’s not how scientific inquiry works… If I say full body workouts feel better to me does that mean your approach is wrong?? Leaves us no closer to understanding this topic…

Unknown - November 7, 2019

Good post man, I agree with the info.

Bob - January 11, 2019

Thanks for the info. Been going back and forth on this topic but glad to see the clarification backed by science and well, results. Bob

Adam - January 11, 2019

I never such a misinformed article on training.

Paulo von Marshall - January 11, 2019

Do you up the weight as the reps lower

Brennen Pacheco - January 11, 2019

This is pretty good. A lot of newbies try to do the routines they see in muscle mags and that is dead wrong. Newbies can never benefit from such routines as they can’t activate their muscles like the pros can yet

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