upper lower split training guide barbell

Use an upper lower split training plan to burn fat and build muscle

The upper lower split is one of the classic ways to arrange your weekly workouts to burn stubborn body fat and add lean muscle mass. But is it the right training strategy for you and your goals? Here’s what you need to know to start building your best-ever body, says New Body Plan creator and Men’s Fitness cover model Jon Lipsey

Every good training plan operates according to a “split”. Essentially this is how your workouts and the body parts you train are arranged throughout the week. The upper lower split is a classic and useful option. It’s also the split that kicks off New Body Plan 2.0, my latest and most innovative and interactive fat-loss programme.

That plan harnesses the methods I used to transform my own body. In just eight weeks I went from overweight dad to Men’s Fitness cover model. So the upper lower split certainly can be used to make massive improvements to your physique. Here’s what you need to know before you get started.

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What is an upper lower split training plan?

The upper lower split is a training system in which each workout targets either your upper-body muscles (chest, shoulders, back, arms and abs) or your lower-body muscles (glutes, quads, hamstrings and calves). Typically you would do four sessions each week. And you’d do two of each: two upper-body sessions, and two lower-body sessions.

How do I plan an upper lower split training week?

The upper lower split training week is very simple to plan. Your biggest decision is whether you start your training week with an upper-body workout or a lower-body one. My tip would be to start with a lower-body session.

Why? Because on Mondays most guys want to do a chest workout. So if you train your upper body then too you’re going to have to queue to use the barbell bench press and other upper-body equipment.

If you do a legs workout on Monday, you’ll have the squat rack and the other key equipment to develop bigger legs all to yourself. You can do an upper-body workout and a lower-body workout on consecutive days. But you do want a rest day after that, if you can.

Here’s one example of how t structure your upper lower split training week:

Monday Lower-body workout
Tuesday Upper-body workout
Wednesday Rest day
Thursday Lower-body workout
Friday Upper-body workout
Saturday Rest day
Sunday Rest day

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How do I plan an upper lower split workout?

There are lots of exercise combinations you can use for an upper lower split. So use these examples as a guide, rather than as a rigid formula.

Upper lower split: Lower-body workout

1. Barbell back squat

Sets: 4, Reps: 8, Rest: 90 secs
Target muscles: Quads, hamstrings, glutes

2a. Barbell Romanian deadlift

Sets: 3, Reps: 10, Rest: 0 secs
Target muscles: Hamstrings, glutes

2b. Barbell Bulgarian split squat

Sets: 3, Reps: 10, Rest: 60 secs
Target muscles: Quads, glutes

3a. Seated hamstring curl

Sets: 3, Reps: 12, Rest: 0 secs
Target muscles: Hamstrings

3b. Seated leg curl

Sets: 3, Reps: 12, Rest: 60 secs
Target muscles: Quads

Upper lower split: Upper-body workout

1. Dumbbell bench press

Sets: 4, Reps: 10, Rest: 60 secs
Target muscles: Chest, triceps, front shoulders

2. Lat pulldown

Sets: 4, Reps: 10, Rest: 60 secs
Target muscles: Back, biceps

3. Barbell shoulder press

Sets: 4, Reps: 10, Rest: 60 secs
Target muscles: Shoulders, triceps

4a. Dumbbell biceps curl

Sets: 3, Reps: 12, Rest: 0 secs
Target muscles: Biceps

4b. Triceps cable pressdown

Sets: 3, Reps: 12, Rest: 60 secs
Target muscles: Triceps

5. Plank rotation

Sets: 3, Time: 30 secs, Rest: 45 secs
Target muscles: Abs and core

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Is an upper lower split the right training approach for me?

The upper lower split is a fantastic weight-training strategy for most gym-goers. And it’s the number one best place to begin if you are new to lifting weights. The only reason it might not be right for you is if you are a very experienced or advanced trainee or bodybuilder.

Why? Because you might need to need to dedicate more training time to each muscle group to maximise its size and strength. A good way to do this is to pair complementary muscle groups into the same session, such as a chest and triceps session, or a back and biceps workout. You may also want to exercise more frequently than four times a week. But for the average guy, an upper lower split is a great place to start.

How many upper lower split sessions should I do each week?

You should aim to do four sessions a week if you’re doing an upper lower split. If you can only do two sessions a week they should be full-body sessions, where you work all your major muscles groups each time you train.

If you can do three workouts, you could do one upper-body session, one lower-body session and one full-body session. If you want to do more than four sessions a week, go for a body-part split programme, where you hit certain muscles on certain days. A five times per week plan could be chest on Monday, back on Tuesday, legs on Thursday, shoulders on Friday, and arms on Saturday, with rest days on Wednesday and Sunday.

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What are the benefits of doing an upper lower split?

It’s simple to follow

Even if you’re a complete beginner you could jump into an upper lower split pretty comfortably. And it will allow you to make great progress for a decent amount of time.

It’s great for fat loss

Because you don’t do many exercises per body part, you can keep rest to a minimum. You can use supersets or just reduce the rest between exercises. That will keep your heart rate high and allow you to burn lots of calories. And it is that calorie burn, combined with the resistance training effect of lifting weights, that’s key to fat loss.

You train legs twice a week

A lot of guys never train their legs. So doing two legs sessions a week is good going. Legs sessions are great for fat loss and they will also set you up for upper body success.

It’s a flexible approach

Because you can do two upper lower split workouts back-to-back, that opens up a lot of scheduling possibilities. It also gives you the option of keeping your weekends free, which may be appealing.

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What are the limitations of doing an upper lower split?

They’re not ideal for experienced lifters

If you’re a serious lifter or a body builder, an upper lower split is unlikely to be optimal for you. If you want to really smash your back, for example, you’ll want to do 4-5 back exercises. You can’t do that in an upper lower split.

It’s tricky to fully fatigue muscles groups

You don’t have to be a bodybuilder to notice upper lower split shortcomings. If you’re a regular gym goer you’ll probably want to do about three moves per muscle group. That’s possible on lower body days. But it is tricky on upper body days. That’s why my New Body Plan 2.0 programme starts with an upper lower split but moves on to more body part focused splits as you progress through the plan.

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What are the best alternatives to an upper lower split?

There are a lot of alternatives to the upper lower split. We’ll arrange them by number of training days so you can select the one that suits you:

Three day training split

Session 1 Full body
Session 2 Upper body
Session 3 Lower body

Should I do a three-day training split?

Yes, but only if three sessions is the maximum you can do per week.


Four day training split

Session 1 Chest and triceps
Session 2 Back and biceps
Session 3 Legs
Session 4 Shoulders and abs

Should I do a four-day training split?

Yes, if you’ve progressed beyond the upper lower split and you want to devote more time to individual body parts.


Five day training split

Session 1 Chest
Session 2 Back
Session 3 Legs
Session 4 Shoulders
Session 5 Arms and abs

Should I do a five-day training split?

Yes, but only if you’re an experienced lifter looking to add maximum muscle mass.

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