Among the most popular modern training programs, there are few as frequently utilized as the Arnold split and push/pull/legs; two rather effective intermediate training programs best known for their unique training split methodology.
However, due to this unique training split, it is important for lifters to understand what makes the Arnold split and PPL distinct from one another.
The greatest point of difference between the two training programs are in the emphasis placed on certain muscle groups, with the push/pull/legs training program providing a more balanced spread of training stimulus while the Arnold split places greater focus on the upper body.
A training program or workout program is a structured routine that dictates when an exerciser will work out, what sort of exercises are performed within a workout session and the volume and resistance of said exercises.
In truth, the term training program is more of a blanket term for a number of different training methodologies and fitness strategies that are combined to provide an exerciser with a streamlined plan for physical improvement.
Training programs will often vary in complexity, difficulty and compatibility between exercisers - as the training program of a novice weightlifter can look quite different than that of an advanced competitive athlete.
The Arnold split is a novice to intermediate level training program that divides the muscle groups of the body into separate days based on their order of size relative to one another, with the chest and back musculature being worked on an entirely separate day to the deltoids and arms, for example.
While the Arnold split has fallen somewhat behind the push/pull/legs training program in terms of popularity, it is still nonetheless considered quite effective at developing muscle mass and strength in the upper body.
Workout #1 Monday: Chest, Back
Workout #2 Tuesday: Shoulders, Upper arms, Forearms
Workout #3 Wednesday: Thighs, Calves, Lower Back
Workout #1 Thursday: Chest, Back
Workout #2 Friday: Shoulders, Upper arms, Forearms
Workout #3 Saturday: Thighs, Calves, Lower back
Note: Abdominals done every day.
Workout #1 uses the following exercises:
Chest: Bench press, Incline press, pullovers
Back: Chin-ups (do as many as you can at a time until you reach a total of 50 reps)
Power training: Deadlifts (3 sets of 10, 6, 4, reps to failure)
Abdominals: Crunches, 5 sets of 25 reps
Workout #2 Uses the following exercises:
Shoulders: Barbell clean and press, dumbbell lateral raises
Power Training: Heavy upright rows (3 sets of 10, 6, 4 reps to failure), push presses (3 sets of 6, 4, 2 reps to failure)
Upper arms: Standing barbell curls, seated dumbbell curls, close-grip press, standing triceps extensions with barbell
Forearms: Wrist curls, reverse wrist curls.
Abdominals: Crunches, 5 sets of 25 reps
Workout #3 Uses the following exercises:
Thighs: Squats, lunges, leg curls
Calves: Standing calf raises (5 sets of 15 reps each)
Lower back/power training: Straight-leg deadlifts (3 sets of 10, 6, 4 reps to failure), good mornings (3 sets of 10, 6, 4 reps to failure)
Abdominals: Crunches, 5 sets of 25 reps
The main aspects of the Arnold split are a notable separation of the chest and back muscles from the shoulders, biceps and triceps muscles on separate training days, with the leg muscles of course being trained on yet another separate workout session.
Furthermore, the Arnold split is particularly compatible with the usage of supersets, as well as for focused and highly targeted development of the arm muscles - making it especially popular with bodybuilders or those training for aesthetic musculature.
There are two main versions of the Arnold split, one where the lifter only trains thrice a week, while the second version simply repeats this three day cycle by having the lifter train six times a week instead. It is the six day variation that is considered to be more suitable for general muscular development (the one outlined above).
The Arnold split’s primary advantage over other training programs is its ability to maximize development of so-called “show muscles”, those being the deltoids, pectorals, and arm muscles.
It does so by separating these upper body muscles by their relative size, allowing a lesser amount of synergist muscle fatigue in favor of large muscle group hypertrophy.
Due to the separated nature of the upper body muscle groups, exercisers may find that their arms and deltoids can reach a point of overtraining or excessive fatigue when subscribing to the six day variation of the Arnold split.
Furthermore, it is likely that the musculature of the arms will receive excessive stimulus unless proper programming in regards to volume is followed, as these muscle groups are arguably much smaller and therefore are less enduring.
The push/pull/legs or PPL training program is an intermediate level regime that separates the various muscle groups of the body by their function and range of action, hence the term “push” and “pull”.
The push portion of the PPL training split refers to the triceps, deltoids and chest muscle groups - while the pull portion refers to the biceps and back muscles, with the legs portion encompassing all other muscle groups beneath the waist line.
The push/pull/legs split is generally trained six days a week so as to place stimulus on the muscle groups twice within a given training week, allowing for significant hypertrophy and strength developments to develop.
The most marking aspects of the PPL training program are in the method in which it separates the muscle groups, alongside the fact that it allows the exerciser to split the “big 3” compound exercises on to separate days, avoiding excessive fatigue or stabilizer muscle group overtraining.
Furthermore, much like the Arnold split, push/pull/legs also features a three day variant that only trains the muscle groups of the body once per week, saving the exerciser time in exchange for further training volume.
The main advantage of the PPL split is the balanced nature in which it develops the body, producing a more athletic exerciser and ensuring that total fatigue is managed between each muscle group.
Push/pull/legs achieves this by separating muscle groups by their kinetic function, equating to smaller muscle groups being trained on separate days despite their involvement in the compound movements of sequential training sessions.
In terms of disadvantages, the push/pull/legs training program separates smaller muscle groups onto separate days, especially antagonist pair muscle groups such as the triceps and biceps.
This can easily result in muscular imbalances or poor training specificity if programmed incorrectly, limiting the total volume and what sort of exercises are possible within the training split.
Both the Arnold split and the push/pull/legs training program share the same training frequencies, regardless of variation used - either three consecutive days out of the week, or six consecutive days followed by a day of rest.
However, it is in the length of these training sessions that the two programs differ, as PPL makes use of more large muscle groups than the Arnold split and therefore will take a longer length of time before a workout is completed.
As a rough estimate, one can assume that they will be in the gym for approximately 30 minutes when following the Arnold split, but even over an entire hour with push/pull/legs, making the latter training program not only unsuitable for busy individuals but also more fatiguing in general.
In terms of workout intensity, the Arnold split presents a greater level of perceived exertion than PPL when it comes to chest and back training sessions, though this intensity does admittedly drop off on the second upper body day where only the deltoids and arms are trained.
Conversely, push/pull/legs distributes the intensity of each workout program equally among all the muscle groups of the body, with fatigue also being evenly distributed as well.
In terms of muscular focus, however, the Arnold split allows for far greater stimulus to be placed on the muscles of the arms and shoulders - so much so that an entire day is dedicated to working them. This is particularly useful for bodybuilders or individuals wishing to increase the size of their arms.
This is not the case in PPL, where training stimulus and focus is evenly distributed between muscle groups.
Fittingly, it is the Arnold split program that is most suitable for bodybuilders - or, at least, for bodybuilders who find themselves lacking sufficient arm and deltoid muscle mass, as having an entire workout session dedicated to training these muscles will greatly aid in inducing hypertrophy.
However, push/pull/legs is also considerably effective for bodybuilders seeking a more well-rounded approach that places an even level of development on the back and chest muscles, with the arms receiving less volume comparatively to the Arnold split.
Invariably, it is the push/pull/legs split that is superior for athletic development or gross strength improvements, as the major muscle groups found in the upper body are separated to two distinct workout sessions, allowing the highest level of resistance possible per compound movement.
While the Arnold split will also improve strength developments in these muscle groups, its combination of the chest and back muscles within the same training program does not maximize possible training stimulus in the way a PPL split will.
As you can see, the Arnold split is clearly better for developing muscle mass in the “show muscles” of the upper body, whereas push/pull/legs is better for achieving a more well-rounded training stimulus.
Additionally, it is also a good idea to match up the time and energy demands of each workout program to your unique circumstances. Busy people or those who work a tiring job may find that the Arnold split is less fatiguing overall than its PPL counterpart.
At the end of the day, however, both the Arnold split and the push/pull/legs split will result in practically the same stimulus, only with different timings and focuses.
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