Full Body Workouts vs Split Training – Which is best?

Full body workouts vs split routines is a question that crops up very regularly among newer lifters. 

What's the difference? Which is better for strength? Which will give you the best muscle gains? Which is the most sustainable? All very common questions.

Depending on where you get your information, you could end up getting some quite contrasting and confusing answers. This article aims to provide you with the truth on the topics above and leave you with a clearer vision of where to take your training.

Let’s take a look at both types of training, including how to perform them effectively and the pros and cons of each;

full body workout vs split routines

What is Full Body Training?

Girl performing a front squat

The concept behind a full body workout is straight-forward, you simply train your entire body, both upper and lower body muscle groups each time you head to the gym.

Training in this way brings about the need to look at certain variables in more detail to make sure you get the most out of each session.

Since lower and upper body are both trained, it leads us to the first variable you will need to consider: your exercise selection.

Some people will plan full body workouts that focus mainly on different exercises that target/isolate one particular muscle group, where others will focus on compound lifts in order to work multiple muscle groups at once.

The compound exercises route, which makes use multiple muscle groups per exercise is going to be more effective for the majority. This doesn't mean you can't use some isolation exercises but most of your time should be spent performing compound lifts.

Your main lifts during full body workouts will include things like presses, squats, deadlifts and chin-ups to name just a few exercises that effectively work several muscle groups on both lower and upper body.

Volume and intensity of a full body workout are also crucial. This includes the number of sets and reps (volume) you’re performing during the workout as well as the amount of weight you're using (intensity).

Your focus should not be on lifting a new PR every sessions, but on building strength by progressing within your target rep ranges.

It is important that you match the volume and intensity to your goal and recovery abilities if you want to make progress. Prilepin's table, below, gives a guide of the optimal volume per workout for a given intensity.

Load/Intensity

(% of 1 rep max)

Reps per set

Optimal reps

Range of total reps

55 - 65%

3 - 6

24

18 - 30

70 - 80%

3 - 6

18

12 - 24

80 - 90%

2 - 4

15

10 - 20

90%+

1 - 2

4

1 - 10

Training frequency should also be managed. How often you can and should train will differ very slightly for each individual but we can provide some general rules for the majority.

Other factors such as the intensity and volume you are training at have to be taken into the equation also. It is important to manage your full body splits as overworking your entire body could lead to under-recovery, which will affect your progression in the gym.

Most individuals will benefit from training 2-4 times per week. Check out my article on the topic to find out more about training frequency.

If you are repeating the same workout as the day previous, you may encounter some problems such as muscle fatigue and connective tissue damage, a great way to stop this is to have an alternating "A & B" workout, using each workout twice a week on alternate days.

Pros of Full Body Workout Programs

Full body training is a great method of training for beginners or newbies to the gym, it will elevate protein synthesis on a more regular basis for their whole body, allowing them to acquire faster results.

Better quality of training throughout the workout as you’re able to go from a lower body exercise to an upper body exercise, meaning you get more recovery time and are fresher to start your next exercise.

In general, you will burn more calories performing full body training. You are working your whole body and multiple muscle groups are under stress when lifting, leading to a greater number of calories being burned.

Increased physical preparedness. Due to the increase in frequency and total volume over the week, it will prepare your muscles for a greater workload and force your body to enhance recovery speed, great high-level athletes.

Less muscle soreness (DOMS) than a split body routine. As you are not focusing on hammering one or two muscles groups, you won’t shouldn't be doing enough volume to cause significant tissue damage.

Therefore, you shouldn't be as sore and will be able to train your muscles with the same intensity on your next workout.

You get to work more muscle groups, more often. Training with full body workouts multiple times per week will allow you to hit all muscle groups at least 2 times a week.

This video from Dr Mike Israetel explains the benefits of full body workouts against body-part split training:

Cons of Full Body Workout Programs

In my opinion, there really aren't too many downsides to full body workouts for the vast majority of people. But, there may be some disadvantages for some; more advanced bodybuilders are a group that might need to bear some of the following in mind:

More advanced bodybuilders might need to spend more time and increase their training volume for particular muscle groups, With full body workouts, it can sometimes be difficult to find enough time during a workout to dedicate to those individual muscle groups.

Getting the frequency and intensity wrong can make full body workouts harder to recover from. This would then hamper progress as you struggle more to recover from each workout over time.

how often should you train a muscle group? SRA curve

Some muscle groups may not get enough recovery time. Again this is usually down to poor programming, which may lead to a lack of intensity in workouts later on in the week.

Full body workouts might lead to weak points. This is usually down to genetics; some people will find they need extra volume on certain muscles compared to others. This will only really become a worry as you reach a more advanced stage.

If you like the ‘pump’ you get from isolation exercises during a split workout, you may not get it to the same extent during a full body session, although you will most likely sweat more and work harder.

What are Split Training Routines?

image of bodybuilder training in the gym

Strictly speaking, split routines simply apply to any type of training program where you do not train the entire body during each workout.

Instead, you focus on a specific muscle or group of muscles. A common style of split training regimen used by bodybuilders is what’s called a “body-part split”. In the case of body-part splits, 1-2 muscles are normally focused on per workout. For example, you would have a leg day, arm day, chest day and so on.

For most trainees, particularly natural ones, body-part splits make it difficult to correctly balance training volume, frequency, intensity and recovery. Hammering one muscle group per workout often leads to a lot of soreness and makes it hard to train the same muscle group again within the next few days.

A slightly better type of split routine would be to split your upper and lower body into separate sessions or to use a push, pull, legs (PPL) split.

The push, pull, legs routine has grown in popularity over the past decade with trainers and fitness professionals adopting it as their go-to split routine to achieve their goals.

This training split typically consists of three working days, performed 1-2 times per week. The videos below outline a typical routine.

Push workouts https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ffsGEdCMeMM

Pull workouts https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uSFReCp-_pg

Leg workouts https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lIBqH4FvEOc

The push workout typically focuses on your upper body, performing pushing exercises and movements. The major muscle groups worked in this section of the split are typically Chest, Shoulders, and triceps.

When designing a PPL workout split, your workouts will generally revolve around barbell and dumbbell pressing – military, incline, flat, and decline presses, along with dips which will work your triceps and shoulders/chest. Isolation exercises tend to be used for extra triceps work and are typically performed at the end of workouts when your muscles are already fatigued.

The pull workout also focuses on your upper body, but instead of pushing, you are of course performing pulling motions/exercises. The major muscle groups worked on this day are typically your Back and Biceps.

When designing this section of your workout it will revolve around pulling motions from all different angles, to hit every section of your back. Popular exercises are deadlifts (although, these are a heavy lower body so could be placed on the leg day), pull-ups, chin-ups, pull-downs and rowing movements. As with Push workouts, people tend to focus on isolation exercises for biceps at the end of their workouts.

Lastly, your third day on the split will focus on your Leg workout. This focuses your training on your Hamstring, Quads, and Glute muscle groups… and calves… occasionally.

This section of your split is the most straight-forward. These workouts generally revolve around exercises such as squatting, lunging, and a few isolation exercises – extensions, curls, calf raises, hip thrusts.

Pros of Split Training Routines

Typically, split body training will allow for maximum focus and high volume on one muscle group. While not necessarily a plus in all cases, it does mean you shouldn't have many worries about not reaching enough total volume.

Repeated sets on one specific muscle group will build up your endurance for that area. For example, training legs, set after set, at a high intensity, will build up your endurance for that muscle group.

This approach to training will allow you to train more often than a full body program. You can easily rest one muscle group for up to two days a week with this approach, allowing adequate recovery for that muscle.

It will allow you to focus on your weak points and train them more often, leading to progression on certain lifts. For example, if you have a week bench press, focusing your chest sessions around pressing movements will lead to an improvement in that muscle group and strength in that lift.

This may be a Pro and a Con, but split training can lead to DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness), which means the muscle group trained previously will be in pain for up to 48 hours post workout. Some love it, some hate it!

Cons of Split Training Routines

It can be hard to keep up the same intensity and lift the same weight during the workout. As you work through different exercises you may notice you can’t lift as heavy or for as many reps, this is perfectly normal, but it is a con associated with this approach to training. It can also be known as progressive overload.

DOMS, as described above, if it is something that you hate and it prevents you from training that body part for days, even weeks, this will not lead to the results you want.

Fewer calories burned per workout compared to full body training. As you are not working the same amount of muscle groups at once, you won’t burn as many calories as you would during a full body exercise. For example, you won’t burn as many calories doing a bicep curl as you would with a pull-up.

This approach to training requires you to train more often if you want to reach an optimal training frequency, taking up more of your time.

It may suit people who just enjoy being in the gym but in order to hit every muscle group with enough frequency to progress, you probably have to train 4-5 times per week.

Conclusion

There are different pros and cons associated with both approaches to training.

At the end of the day, both methods can lead to great gains.

While, I strongly believe most people will see faster, more consistent progress from a full body workout program, it really does come down to choosing which one you are more likely to adhere to.

Laine Norton
 

I am a strength training enthusiast that loves discovering new ways to get stronger. As a certified trainer and powerlifting competitor, I'm always looking for different training methods and advice. I hope to pass some of what I learn on to my fellow lifters.

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