Full body training vs split routines: Who wins?!
In one corner we have the traditional split training concept; chest on Monday, back on Tuesday, legs on Wednesday, shoulders on Thursday and arms on Friday!
In the other corner we have the good old fashioned full body training style; the legs get hit every session, we do an upper body pull and an upper body push too!
Which one is your money on? Let’s see if we can find a winner.
Split routine fundamentals
Technically speaking, a ‘split routine’ could refer to any setup where you’re not training the entire body in a single session. It doesn’t need to be anywhere near as ‘bro’ or ‘bodybuilding-esque’ as my initial example. It could be a push, pull, legs template where the ‘push’ and ‘pull’ are upper body orientated and the ‘legs’ is, well…………a leg day.
There’s also the upper/lower split: an upper body focus and then on the very next day, it’s the lower body. You’d rest the day after and repeat the pattern, but with differing intensities (i.e. a heavy and ‘light’ day on each area).
- Each day is different – you’re not squatting every workout
- The gym sessions are generally shorter
- You can focus on certain areas easier – particularly weak points as there tends to be more isolatory work
- It may be easier to add load to lifts as advanced people just cannot add weight to the bar on every lift, every session.
- More overall days are generally needed to dedicate to the gym
- The high training frequency could be an issue for those with less than average recovery capacity
- Muscles are being stimulated less frequently than on a full body program – smaller muscles such as the shoulders, arms and calves need more frequency than one mere session per week. By training them infrequently you’re leaving growth potential on the table!
There are numerous studies in existence showing that NATURAL people (not taking any exogenous hormones), muscle protein synthesis is only elevated for a maximum of 48 hours after a training session. In layman’s terms: all positive benefits you’re ever going to get from a workout are exhausted at the 48 hour mark. If you’re going a whopping 168 hours (ONE WHOLE WEEK) without hitting that muscle again, then you’re missing the muscle gaining boat by a fair margin.
Your bodybuilding idols and heroes get away with this courtesy of outrageous drug stacks. It’s been shown when using steroids, muscle protein synthesis stays elevated far longer than it would in the case of a natural.
Full body fundamentals
For the sake of clarification, full body doesn’t mean literally isolating every muscle individually among one workout. It’s not about doing an exercise for every single muscle from head to toe – it’s choosing exercises that intelligently call upon all those muscles in a synergistic – or compound fashion.
Squats, deadlifts, bench press, pull ups, bent over rows, overhead presses and so on. A good full body routine is centred around these exercises. Each session you take care of all major muscles. An example would be:
– Bench press
– Pull up/bent over row
– Overhead press
– One arm row/upright row
- Better for those who don’t have as much potential gym time
- Muscles are stimulated at a higher frequency overall
- Simplifies the routine as there’s fewer exercises
- Great potential for progression (especially for beginners)
- Can be time consuming – especially when you get stronger and need more rest between sets in order to make progress
- Squatting heavy 3 times per week places too much stress on the body when you’re strength levels are well into intermediate territory and bordering on advanced. Recovery is likely to be compromised.
- Weak points are more likely to occur due to the lack of ‘specialization’
What’s right for you?
Once again it’s context dependent. Have I said that before? Must have. I’ll likely say it again too. Context is everything in fitness. If you’re far from realising your maximum potential when it comes to strength and muscle, the simpler your training style should be. Truth be told, there are many out there using overly complicated programs that are completely unnecessary and inapplicable to them. They think they’re more advanced than they are. Although over estimating our abilities is a common human error. Wise people underestimate their abilities. They always think they need to work harder and be better. Such attitudes create dangerous opponents.
Full body training caters to the needs of the majority. You can run a proven full body routine for a long, long time – particularly if you’re making subtle rotations in exercise selection, such as switching an incline dumbbell press for a barbell press.
Above all though, if you’re making progress across the board (adding weight/reps/increasing volume) on a full body routine, then STICK WITH IT. It’s only when many lifts are stubbornly stalling that you should consider a more advanced approach, such as a split routine of some kind. Push, pull, legs and the upper/lower splits are good follow on options to full body routines.
The fact of the matter
As a natural individual (no steroids or drugs) you need frequent stimulation. There’s no avoiding it. Doing a cable crossover drop set once per week is never going to offer up the growth stimulus of bench presses done twice per week. Not in this universe anyway. Drugs change the game. They’re that powerful, alas.
Another great training concept that falls slightly further along the ‘advancement continuum’ is training cycles or peaking cycles, where you start light and add weight across a pre-determined timespan; 12 weeks perhaps. Once the cycle is over, you reset at a slightly higher starting weight than the previous 12 weeks. Simple.
Just remember, as a natural, opt for frequency. Whether that comes in the form of a split routine or a full body routine, keep that stimulation coming in.
I’d love to know what you’ve seen/found using different training styles! What gets your vote, a split routine of some kind or the old school full body?
JR @ Straight-Talking-Fitness View All
The 'brains' behind StraightTalkingFitness, a site all about discovery that leads to strength in all formats; fitness, mental, emotional and spiritual. Everything starts from within and projects outwards. Master the body, master anything and everything.
Great article! I try to alternate between periods of split routines and total body.
Thanks a bunch! Yes, that’s another great method. How long do you spend in each phase?
Usually 4 to 6 weeks.
I thought as much. Which do you prefer more?
I definitely like the total body more with a cardio component but enjoy both. How about you?
I find a full body approach suits me best overall. Although when I’m working long hours, splitting it up can be a god send. Overall though, I do more full body than splits.
You know me, I was definitely one for the full body hit. I’ve done 5 or 6 day a week splits and it’s too time consuming and with little recovery, the gains start to suffer at the cost of not enough downtime. Given my stupidly annoying injury, it’s going to be a long time before I ever bench press again. However, I’m still hitting the whole body and nothing leaves me feeling more worked than compound exercises. Having said that, I’m not sure I’ll ever go back to squatting heavy three times a week, the CNS just doesn’t get enough time in between to recover enough. Great article, as always.
Sounds like you could’ve wrote the post yourself 😉 I agree totally. Squatting heavy 3 times per week is torture when you’re decently strong – especially when you’re trying to ADD WEIGHT every session! *Shudders*
Can you do anything involving the shoulder, or is it strictly bench pressing you’re ruled out from?
You’re too kind. I realised I had reached a stage whereby squatting three times a week while trying to add weight was counterproductive.
I had a set back this week. I’ve been working on the shoulder and have seen some good results. Incorporating negatives into a pull up and then progressing to single pull ups. A simple movement and I experienced intense pain. On a good note, I am recovering more quickly. There’s a good chance that one of the bicep tendons is subluxating. It has been agreed that I will wait another few weeks before having my next MRI. Then the possibility of an injection. If all else fails, it will be complicated surgery and six weeks in a sling. If the bicep tendon is involved, it will be secured with a screw into the shoulder. I’m hoping it won’t come to that though. Lots of strengthening exercises involving the rotator cuff. It’s slow progress but I will get there. Soon..very soon.
I used to do that too. I’d squat to failure numerous times per week. So dumb in hindsight! I actually only front squat at present and that has AMAZING carryover to it’s big brother, the back squat.
That doesn’t sound good at all. Being out of (proper) action for that long is hell for us active souls, but I guess it’s a challenge in and of itself. Whatever happens, we both know you’ll be back stronger. Fingers crossed it’s as soon as possible!
I’m tackling Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 program and it seems to be working out (no pun intended) for me so far. I’m lifting four days a week. My main lifts on Sunday and Wednesday are back squat and bench press, and I do overhead press and deadlift on Monday and Thursday. Your comparison seems to say that I’m doing the right thing as far as a full body routine.
So you’re getting a twice weekly stimulus? Sounds good to me. The intensity is cyclical though, right? I know the basic premise of 5/3/1 but there’s so many versions and variations, I get lost sometimes haha!
I’m very basic. Cycles every three weeks not counting deload.
That’s the version I’m familiar with. I always thought it looked a great program, never tried it though. Might be one for the future, maybe even a training log………..dare I say it………
I’m a 18 year old. Gymming since the past year. I can barely manage 4 days a week for the gym. Should I go with a full body routine? (till now I’d been following a split routine)
It depends. How strong are you? What are you goals? Weight loss? Muscle gain? Sports performance? Or just looking good?
If you’re struggling with 4 days per week, maybe a full body routine 3 days a week is the way to go? And what kind of results have you got from a split routine?
Sorry for all the questions, haha. But These are all things that go into choosing a suitable approach.
For starters I have a 200 pound deadlift. But I’ve been unable to gain strength in my legs, abs and arms. Maybe that’s because I’ve not been able to dedicate time to them. My aims are to improve my game(basketball) and looking good naked. I’ve gained muscle mass and definition in the right places with the split routine. I look good with a shirt on. But the results are still disappointing according to the time I have given.
A 200 lb deadlift is SOLID. How much do you weigh? I guess we all want to look good naked, haha. If the deadlift is a strength of yours, maybe back off it a little and focus on the areas that are lagging? Maybe dedicate at least 2 sessions per week to those areas. They’ll more likely respond to twice weekly than one weekly.
I don’t weigh much. 68 kgs. I just can’t seem to gain weight.
Gaining ‘weight’ just comes down to how much you’re eating versus the activity you’re doing. Gaining muscle without fat is very hard to do and is a S-L-O-W process.