Full Body Workout Vs Split - The Age Old Debate
with so many different styles of workout regimes out there which style of workout should you be following?
- Full body?
- One body part per day?
- Two body parts per day?
- Bodyweight only?
Newcomers to the gym can easily get frustrated, suffer from analysis by paralysis (as they're bombarded with so much conflicting information) which leads them to either give up or do very little.
You'll find many athletes, trainers and bodybuilding veterans out there that swear by their own method of training - which at the end of the day will either be a variation of full body workout or a split/isolation based routine.
Having spent years following both a split and a full body workout regime I'm going to outline the pros and cons of both along with my recommendation. This is a very controversial topic in the world of bodybuilding so I recommend experimenting and finding what works best for you - don't be so quick to take someone else's word on it.
By default it seems many people simply opt for a full body style regime as it 'keeps things simple' and is 'optimized'... but is it really?
The Full Body Workout Regime
A full body workout is a workout that focuses on utilizing each of the major muscle groups in one workout, including your chest, back, shoulders, arms and legs.
A full body workout can be based upon your main compound lifts including the squat, bench, deadlift and overhead press. An example of a routine like this is Stronglifts 5x5.
Alternatively a full body workout can hit each muscle group individually in one workout via the use of isolation exercises.
A typical full body workout regime will be performed 3 times per week, typically on a Monday/Wednesday/Friday split.
The Split Workout Regime
A split or isolation based workout regime is based upon honing in on each individual muscle group.
The typical split/isolation based workout regime that many gym-goers utilize is a Monday - Friday five day split consisting of the following:
Monday - Chest
Tuesday - Back
Wednesday - Shoulders
Thursday - Arms
Friday - Legs
An alternate style of split routine that is quickly gaining traction is the 'Push, Pull, Legs' style of regime which has 3 main days:
Push = Chest/Shoulders/Triceps
Pull = Back/Biceps
Legs = Quads/Hamstrings/Glutes/Calves
As you can imagine the split style of regime will be utilizing a greater number of exercises and sets per body part as each body part has a day scheduled to it - performing these exercises with the same amount of volume while following a full body workout regime would be extremely time consuming and exhausting.
Pros of Full Body Workouts
Without a doubt full body workouts are efficient. Hitting the gym 3 times per week for roughly an hour while making both size and strength gains is impressive.
Accelerated Fat Loss
Provided you're following a full body workout regime that is based around your main compound lifts e.g. the squat, bench, deadlift and overhead press you'll be expending a substantially larger amount of calories per workout as opposed to a split routine that is based upon individual muscle group isolation.
Frequency of Muscle Groups
As I mentioned earlier, when you're following a full body workout regime you'll typically be training 3x per week which means you will be training each muscle group 3x per week.
As a split routine spends one day per body part throughout the week you'll only be training each muscle group once per week.
Cons of Full Body Workouts
Lagging Body Parts Aren't Targeted
If you're a beginner this won't apply so much, but as an intermediate or advanced lifter who has built up some muscle over time it's inevitable that you'll have some lagging body parts (perhaps this is chest or legs for you which seems to be most common).
When a lagging body part has been identified extra volume can be added for this body part, especially when you're focusing on a split body workout regime (when my back was lagging during my 5 day split workout regime I added another back workout at the end of the week for several months until it caught up to the rest of my physique in terms of development).
On a full body workout regime scheduling in lagging body parts can be tough (and is rarely done) hence why a large number of more advanced gym-goers who follow StrongLifts 5x5 or similar end up with monstrous legs with underdeveloped arms.
Intensity of Workouts Can Be Unsustainable
I'm a huge advocate of lifting heavy in the 4 - 6 rep range, if you've read any of my other training based articles I'm sure you would've picked up on this relatively quickly.
Lifting 80%+ of your 1 rep maximum is tough, even on a split day when you're honing in on a particular body part.
Performing multiple sets at 80%+ of your 1 rep maximum for squats, bench, deadlift and overhead press in one workout can be troublesome.
Your strength will decline rapidly as your body reaches absolute exhaustion with each passing set, during this time utilizing the correct form for each exercise also becomes a challenge (which increases your likelihood of injury).
Natural gym-goers need to lift heavy with a reasonable amount of volume.
Lifting in the 4 - 6 rep range for 80% of your 1RM as I mentioned for each body part 3x or more per week will result in either an injury or overtraining - I speak from first hand experience with a damaged rotator cuff (which is now all fine, thankfully!).
In short, the dilemma I see with full body regimes is that in order to get the required volume of sets etc. in for each body part your workouts would blow out to be marathon sessions in excess of 2.5 hours.
Should you end up doing this you would only be able to train twice per week maximum as risk of injury and over training would drastically increase.
Pros of Split Workout Routines
100% Effort Can Be Dedicated To Each Muscle Group
Each muscle group is honed in on with complete focus when following a split workout regime, other body parts (including secondary muscle groups) are not pre-fatigued prior to commencing your train. This allows you to get the best 'bang for your buck' as your other muscle groups won't be holding you back from pushing out those last few repetitions you would normally be able to.
Lagging Body Parts Can Be Managed
Split workout regimes allow you to prioritise and alter your training regime in order to sculpt your physique as proportional and asymmetric as possible.
If your back is lagging like mine was you can simply add additional volume to your back day, move your back day further away from your arm day (as biceps are the secondary muscle group used when training your back, these may be causing you to fall short of those last few reps or that additional weight if they are still fatigued) or schedule in an additional back workout later on in the week - they really are that flexible.
In short, split workout regimes are more personalized for you.
Optimal For Strength And Intensity
On a split workout regime you won't be performing 4 - 5 heavy compound exercises in one session.
Typically, you'll perform 2 heavy compound movements for the muscle group you're targeting before moving on to a small amount of isolation.
From my experience my strength and overall workout intensity is far higher during this structure of workout as opposed to performing one or two of these compound lifts on the same day as other muscle groups.
Cons of Split Workout Routines
Should you decide to follow a split workout regime you'll be in the gym more often than those who decide to follow a full body workout.
If you're extremely short of time, are prone to missing workouts or can't get to the gym as often as you'd like then the split workout regime will not be the best fit for you - this is not so much a con but rather a point that must be taking into consideration based upon your lifestyle.
Can Be Boring
Spending 45 minutes - an hour honing in on an individual muscle group can be quite boring for many gym-goers.
The full body workout regime offers constantly variety in each session.
Imbalances Due To Preference
Those guys you see walking around with massive arms, a bulging chest and broad shoulders while sporting tiny legs? I can guarantee you they are following a split workout routine.
You have to make a conscience effort while following a split workout regime to give each and every workout your all, regardless of whether you're fond of the muscle group you're training. Period.
Skipping workouts is more problematic on a split workout regime as opposed to a full body workout (as if you miss one full body workout you'll still be hitting each body part 2x that week, if you miss one of your body parts on a split workout regime well you'll have to wait until next week...).
My Closing Thoughts & Recommendations On The Full Body Workout Vs Split
There you have it, my thoughts on the pros and cons for each workout regime.
I recommend you try both styles of training - experiment and find what works best for you. Some bodies respond better to volume while others can easily get away with lifting extremely heavy on their 3 full body workout days and don't have to focus on any isolation at all.
The perfect workout routine for you is the one you will stick to. Identify your goals, look at your lifestyle and find or create a regime (either split style or full body style that fits best for you).
I'm a fan of volume and found while performing full body workouts once I was out of my 'newbie gains' stage (i.e. my first year and a bit of lifting) fatigue, strength plateaus and intensity issues kicked in.
These days I focus on a split style routine based upon compound exercises in the 4- 6 rep range.
If you're a newbie I would recommend StrongLifts 5x5 or a similar full body workout regime primarily so you can learn the correct form on the exercises which form the pillars of both strength training and bodybuilding.