Split-routine workouts (focusing on a different muscle group or specific body part each day instead of training all muscle groups each workout) can be beneficial if you have unlimited training time, allow for adequate recovery, or are preparing for a bodybuilding competition.
However, for most people, squeezing in several weekly split-routine workouts is unrealistic and overwhelming during the season. Even if you have more time during the off-season, it's still a tight squeeze.
Below are some compelling (and logical) reasons to make a full-body weight training routine a better option and a basic part of your program to build strength and muscle. If you miss a full-body workout, you can always do it the next day without compromising your schedule—unlike split-routine workouts.
1. Full-Body Workouts Mimic Athletics and Real Life Movements
Many physiologists think of the body as one muscle because all muscles are connected to each other, so splitting up the body each workout may not make much functional sense.
"You will be able to build a well-balanced body by hitting all muscle groups in one workout, which is more natural and more closely mimics real life," says Marc Perry, CSCS, a former Yale University athlete who is now a strength and conditioning expert in New York.
Full-body workouts also involve muscle movement patterns utilized in sports and involve more multi-joint exercises and therefore more muscle groups.
"Rather than thinking about body parts, I want you to think about primal, natural and athletic movement patterns that work multiple muscle groups at once," says B.J. Gaddour, CSCS, author of Your Body Is Your Barbell (2014, Rodale Press). That creates efficiency and functional strength for everyday use. You can basically build a cutting-edge fitness program using only four distinct categories of movement: two for your lower body (hip dominant and knee dominant) and two for your upper body (pulling and pushing)."
2. Full-Body Training Yields More Size Gains in Less Time/Less Workouts
Full-body workouts generally only require a few upper- and lower-body multi-joint lifts for a few sets using moderate to heavy weight. Multi-joint bodyweight exercises such as Push-Ups, Pull-Ups, Dips, Jump Squats, Burpees and Step-Ups can also be substituted in a full-body workout to build muscle and strengthen the muscle. All of these multi-joint movements target several muscles at once, reducing workout time. The full-body workouts incorporating the mostly multi-joint high energy exercises are more taxing and require greater recovery time between workouts (48 hours or more).
According to health and fitness writer and ACE-certified personal trainer Andrea Cespedes, "Full-body workouts are for athletes whose sports demand power and agility. These allow you to train the body as a unit—athletes' moves during competition are rarely performed in isolation. They also recruit more total muscle mass during each lifting session."
Cespedes compares the efficiency of full-body workouts to split routines: "Athletes who participate in multiple training sessions and practices per week may also perform total body workouts for expediency, as they do not have to visit the weight room four to six times per week to train in splits," she says.
3. The Split-Routine Recovery Myth
More than 10 years ago, noted strength training and bodybuilding author Ellington Darden, Ph.D, wrote in his book The New High Intensity Training (2004, Rodale Books) that three whole-body workouts per week are "much more productive for bodybuilding than any type of split or double-split routine. Your stimulated body needs approximately 48 hours or more between workouts for consistent recovery to occur."
Darden mentioned a full-body Monday-Wednesday-Friday or Tuesday-Thursday-Saturday workout schedule as ideal for building size and strength with the days off between workouts for recovery and enhancing growth.
What happens when you train intensely nearly every day without a full day of rest for recovery between workouts—even if you're only training one or two muscle groups each workout (split routines)? You drain your Central Nervous System, leading to fatigue and hindering muscle growth. Thinking that training legs and arms hard at about 80-90% RM capacity for one workout and the next day training chest and back at high intensity (80-90% RM)—and believing that the arms/legs are "resting" from the previous day's workout is false. The body recovers as a unit—not in isolated parts.
You can start your full-body training with these five exercises.
Perry, Marc, CSCS. "Full Body Workout Vs. Split Routine: Which Is Better?" (September 15, 2011, builtlean.com).
Gaddour, BJ, CSCS. Your Body Is Your Barbell." (2014, Rodale Press). p. 35.
Cespedes, Andrea. "Do Athletes Train Using An Upper Lower Split Or Full Body Workout?" (October 21, 2013, livestrong.com).
Darden, Ellington, Ph.D. The New High Intensity Training. (2004, Rodale Books). pp. 34, 88.
Jim Carpentier, CSCS, is a certified strength and conditioning specialist, New Jersey-licensed massage therapist, and a health/fitness writer. He currently serves as associate health and wellness director at the Greater Morristown YMCA in Cedar Knolls, N.J.
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