The world has changed a lot in recent years, for sure. A decade ago, the average high school athlete had relatively little access to workout regimens and training protocols outside what their coaches taught them. Sure, there was some stuff out there, but you always had to pay a premium and wait forever for the DVD or VHS tape to be delivered by carrier pigeon.
Today, if you even think about running faster, you’ll likely run into several advertisements and promoted videos of downloadable or free products that promise you a 4.2-second 40-yard dash in 3 weeks. Or maybe you search Youtube on how to throw a baseball harder. Suddenly, you start getting emails offering a five mph guaranteed increase to your fastball speed in the next 30 seconds! Maybe I’m exaggerating a little, but you know what I mean.
Today’s athletes can easily be overwhelmed with free information and limited-time discounts to products that promise to up your game differently. I was a high school athlete a little over a decade ago. I knew I had the edge over my teammates because I used to find what research I could and apply it to my game. That (at least in my head) gave me the advantage to become the best pitcher on my team. Nowadays, real-time, hot off the press strength and conditioning research is free and presented to you on your phone, without even asking. It was easy to work just a little harder than your teammates, which could easily help you make varsity, start, or become your school’s best player. Now, it isn’t a question whether you have access to products that will help you run or throw faster or gain 20 pounds of muscle this offseason. There are many methods to achieve those things, and they can easily be sampled to see what methods are right for you.
With this new generation of athletes, with all this information comes greater knowledge. Today’s athlete is more informed than your average Physical Therapist or Chiropractor when it comes to strength and conditioning. Most athletes outside of football players didn’t lift weights a decade ago. Now, pretty much all serious athletes do. With that comes tougher questions from athletes regarding their training. Possibly the most common question is, how should we program our lifting? Should x athlete have upper and lower body days? Or should every session be a full-body training day? Let’s investigate.
The Case for Upper and Lower Body Days
If you regularly workout at a big box gym, you’ll notice some tendencies. Monday is international chest day. Every gym bro out there knows that Monday is bench day, or “push day.” Tuesday tends to be more of a bicep “pull” or “arm” day. Wednesday is legs, which is why gyms are less crowded on Wednesdays. Thursday and Friday are repeats of Monday and Tuesday. Again, of course, this is an exaggeration, sort of. There really are a lot of programs dedicated to those types of split routines. But is it right for athletes? Maybe. It depends on the athlete’s situation. It depends on the sport, the goal, and whether you are in season.
There is a basic formula that most strength and conditioning coaches (including myself) follow. Early in the offseason is a good time to dedicate to building muscle. Adding muscle bulk allows the athlete to put on size and the added strength that comes along with it. Having workout sessions dedicated solely to the upper body is the most efficient way to build muscle. It efficiently overloads particular muscle groups, creating a good muscle-building environment. Let’s say you do some chin-ups. If you want to build bigger arms, following chin-ups with some bicep curls or some rowing exercise will help accomplish that. Squats after chin-ups are, of course, not the best choice for building arms. The same logic can, of course, be applied to the lower body.
So, if your goal is to build muscle, then yes, upper and lower body training sessions are ideal for that. Accumulating more volume on the same muscle groups can force the body to build more muscle in those areas. For athletes, this is best done early in the offseason. Having bigger muscles helps accomplish other goals you’ll want to achieve in the preseason and in-season.
The Case for Total Body Training Days
As the season approaches, so do practice and time commitments. Athletes have less time to train on their own. More time is dedicated to learning plays and honing their craft in the preseason. Total body workouts will be more efficient at delivering a training effect with less time available. The bigger advantage is that total body training tends to be more sport-specific. For building muscle, I mentioned chin-ups and curls are some good options for arms. But for total body training, chin-ups, squats, deadlifts, planks, or pushups may be better choices. These exercises work for multiple muscle groups. Working for multiple muscle groups at once is also what athletes do during competition. That makes total body training more sport-specific. Developing coordination and learning to efficiently use the kinetic chain with medicine ball throws, jumps, TRX exercises, overhead squats, and other total body exercises are more athletic and can translate better to athletic performance. Again, sport-specific exercises will be more helpful as the season approaches and even during in-season training.
It is also theorized that total body training could be a better way to build strength. Let’s say you want to build your squat numbers. After lifting heavy on squats themselves, it may be best to do an upper body exercise next to give the legs a break. Even though you are still working out, you are allowing the legs to recover so you can lift heavier squats again or with another heavy leg exercise. That’s harder to do on legs or arms day.
The Case for Both Split Routines and Total Body Training
Of course, the answer to most questions in strength and conditioning is: Maybe, and it depends. I’ve presented a fundamental thought process as to when each method may be useful. When it comes to the body of research, building muscle is ideal in the offseason, and building strength becomes more appropriate as the season approaches. Once the season has arrived, we need to do our best to preserve as much muscle and strength as possible.
There are lots of things to consider. Baseball players play more games than any other sport. They need to worry more about strength losses over the course of a long season. Football players, rigorous as their sport is, only play once a week. They have more time on their side and can afford to continue having training days dedicated to rebuilding lost muscle and maintaining high strength levels. Swimmers can compete year-round. They tend to have much shorter off-seasons that don’t afford them much time to build muscle. Strength training is probably more of a near year-round priority, and muscle-building protocols are sprinkled in between meets every now and then if there isn’t much offseason.
Every sport and athlete has different demands based on their season and their own body. Again, this information is only the basics and shouldn’t be taken as gospel. I encourage any serious athlete to find a strength coach and create a personalized year-round program to help them become the best athlete they can be.