I want to tell you a story about a kid I knew back in high school. He was fourteen, skinny as a rail, and knew less about training than he knew about the Algebra class that he had gotten a D in. As a matter of fact, the only thing this kid knew for sure was that being skinny and weak was no way to go through life.
So one day on a frigid December morning, he walked out of the makeshift gym he had built in his parents’ basement, and took a trip to a local hardcore gym. This gym had a great reputation for getting guys jacked, so he felt a little insecure walking in there with his pathetic physique. Even though he was nervous, he knew that this was what he wanted more than anything. So he overcame his fear, took a deep breath, and walked in.
When he entered through the front door and looked around, he saw nothing but ripped guys, blood, sweat and tears. Although he was intimidated by this atmosphere, he was also excited, because this was exactly the environment he wanted to be a part of.
You’ve probably figured out by now that this skinny kid was actually me. Yes, it’s true, I was once a scrawny little punk who barely knew his way around a gym. Maybe that’s one of the reasons I decided to go into my current profession. I want to give something back, and I couldn’t think of a better way to do that than by helping others realize their physique goals.
Anyway, after training at this hardcore gym for a short while, I noticed that the gym was mysteriously segregated. On one side there were people training their entire body during each workout, and on the other side there were people doing split routines.
As far as what training style was best, I didn’t know what to believe. After getting to know guys from both camps I realized that both had some valid points. Furthermore, from what I observed, both had achieved high levels of fitness. So I decided to experiment with each approach to learn through experience which style was best.
Nearly 20 years later, I still experiment with different permutations of both and have found that, in fact, both styles of program design have their benefits and their drawbacks. Here they are:
Full Body Workouts
• Greater training frequency for each muscle group. This can help expedite results, provided that you are recovered from the previous workout.
• Greater energy expenditure per workout. This could lead to faster fat loss and less need for extra cardio work.
• More efficient use of time. In most cases, you don’t have to train as many times per week.
• More schedule flexibility. For example, if you had to miss a workout due to an unexpected schedule change, you wouldn’t neglect a particular muscle group completely for the entire week. This can happen sometimes with split routines.
• Additional conditioning component. For anyone who wants to improve their fitness without integrating additional cardio workouts, full body workouts would get the edge here.
• Greater hormonal response, which could potentially encourage additional muscle growth and fat burning. Although I’m not completely convinced that these hormonal fluctuations are enough to create an improved training effect, taking advantage of this phenomenon can’t be a bad thing.
• Warm ups take longer because you have to perform a specific warm up for each muscle group trained.
• If your program is not designed/performed properly, your performance on the last few movements could be compromised due to an accumulation of fatigue.
• More difficult to specialize on weaknesses. You obviously can’t afford to spend much time on each muscle group.
• Gives some people more psychological freedom to miss a workout without a valid excuse. It’s much more common for someone to blow off a workout consisting of muscle groups that were already trained that week.
• Each joint is exposed to a more frequent training stress.
Now for the pros and cons of a split routine:
Split Routines (Upper/Lower and Body Part)
• Easier to specialize. If you’re only training 2 muscle groups per workout instead of your full body, it’s easier to concentrate your efforts on those specific muscle groups.
• Easier to warm up for the workouts. For example, on a leg day, once you warm up your legs you don’t have to spend any time to specifically warm up your shoulders like you would on a full body routine.
• Less frequency per week is required for each muscle group due to the higher volume that is performed on that particular muscle group’s designated day. This allows you to rest your joints. For example, if your knees are getting sore, you can rest them for 3-9 days in between leg workouts.
• Allows you to perform conditioning (running) workouts in a fresher state for sports (or hobby) because you can more easily work your leg workouts (which are less frequent in a split routine workout) around your running/sports schedule.
• Low frequency of specific muscle stimulation, since a muscle might only get trained once a week. This is more of a concern for beginners, who might benefit more from the higher frequency of muscle stimulation that a full body routine offers.
• Less frequent rehearsal of technique for specific movement patterns. Again, this is particularly important for beginners, or those performing particularly complex exercises.
• Could involve a greater time commitment to your weekly training program.
I’m sure you are wondering, “Which type of routine is best for me?” Well, that depends on your goals. Some important considerations when deciding on what type of routine to perform are:
• Level of training experience- Typically, I prescribe full body workouts for beginners. Beginners are usually learning proper form and are relatively weak. Both of these qualities warrant more frequent exposure to the training stimulus.
For advanced guys, I generally recommend following a split routine. Advanced trainees are relatively stronger, requiring more recovery time in between exposure to the same movement patterns. You can bend these particular rules sometimes, but be aware of the above considerations.
• General or Specific Desired Effect- Generally speaking, if you want to specialize in any specific muscle group, more often than not you would opt for a split routine. If you want a more general “balanced” training effect, you could opt for either a balanced split routine or a full body routine.
• How many sessions you will be performing each week- If you choose to train 2-3 days per week, you have a choice between full body and split routines. If you can only train 1 day per week (due to sport schedule for example), you would have to opt for a full body routine. If you choose to train 4 or more days per week, you should use a split routine or a combination of the two.
Although the above considerations are important, I personally lean towards full body workouts for most people.
Since these exercises are difficult to recover from, I would opt for a split routine, which would allow for more recovery time.
The second exception is for those who need to engage in a lot of sprint/jump training. In these cases, I opt for a split routine to allow some rest for the lower body.
I hope this clears up some of the confusion on this often misunderstood topic.
Now ask yourself, “Are you doing the right workout to achieve your goals?”
Please leave your comments below. I look forward to the discussion!
Dedicated to your success,