Full-Body vs. Split Routines

In the full-body vs. split routine debate, no clear winner emerges. Each have pros and cons. I assume you want to lift more, at the fastest rate, as your goal.

Someone aiming for complete fitness would do well to devote some time to each aspect. Trying to address strength, flexibility, and getting your heart rate up through a single protocol may undershoot in all areas.

I mention this to keep us on track for what we aim to achieve when choosing either way. We want strength and muscle, and this requires specialization, at least for a portion of our workouts.

You should train each exercise in your routine as often as possible. As you advance though, you must do each less often, not more. You do this to continue working hard and adding weight, since intensity must go up to make gains.

It gets harder for your body to recover as you grow, so you need more rest.

Avoid either route as a way to blast each muscle group or exercise beyond what you can handle. Typical bodybuilding divides workouts by body part. For example, you may train chest and biceps on Monday, legs on Tuesday, shoulders on Wednesday, back and tris on Thursday, and your core on Friday.

This will lead to overtraining from too much exercise for almost everyone. Isolation exercises common in these routines harm the joints and stimulate less growth. The failure of this style has nothing to do with the reasons to consider a more sensible split.

Full-body proponents also fall into this trap. They may focus on good exercises and brief workouts, but think they can get away with doing each movement 3 times a week forever since they focus on less.

This works just as badly in the long-run. They will also may fail if they perform the routine circuit-style with not enough rest between sets.

Do not let your greed get the best of you. Pick an option that allows recovery and ensures that you can give it your all in each exercise. Consider these benefits to each approach.

Full-Body

Split routines make about as much sense as sleeping with one eye open. Best results will almost always occur from exercising both your upper body and your lower body in same workout.

– Arthur Jones

  • You allow total recovery.

The body has to recover from exercise through multiple systems. The local effect on the muscles is only one area. For example, the central nervous system has to work to activate the muscles. Wearing it out through too many workouts will affect every exercise. The endocrine system that affects hormones may release too much cortisol or blunt testosterone if overworked.

Instead of analyzing each of these too deeply, just consider your overall progress to simplify things. Too many sessions in a row, regardless of how you divide the muscles, may burn you out. If you feel weak during your workouts, even though your muscles feel no soreness, you failed to recover totally. Full-body allows more rest days to prevent this.

  • You probably train more naturally and efficiently.

The body works as a functional unit, not as bits and pieces. Full-body routines restrict you to mostly compound movements to best use your limited time and effort. This avoids isolation exercises.

Although exercises target groups of muscles, others work to stabilize or in a weaker but still important way. The curls you did yesterday affect the rows performed for your back today. The sore chest from benching yesterday still works hard on rows and pull-ups today. 

A dead-lift with a trap bar can serve as an excellent lower body exercise, but how do you fit it into most splits? The dead-lift uses both the lower and upper body intensely, so it never slides in cleanly. You ignore a potentially valuable exercise.

In the pre-steroid era of old-school training, full-body workouts a few times a week served as the norm. They also had light and medium days in which they went less heavy and stopped themselves from going all-out. This allowed them to do what mattered and recover. Their methods still apply today, and drug-free lifters especially should heed their advice, given their natural status.

  • You do each exercise more often.

This advantage applies mainly to beginners. When you get started, you inflict less damage on your body. A full-body workout allows more opportunities for growth but more importantly it develops the skills for proper form.

More sessions allow faster progress, but you will quickly realize your limits. 3 times a week for beginners loses its value fairly quickly.

  • You may optimize other systems.

Some evidence shows that working so much muscle at once results in a stronger hormone response. This may aid growth. It seems premature though to conclude much based on hormones. They fluctuate too easily.

You also tend to get a greater cardio effect. Trainees without experience on full-body training often comment on how winded they feel. Your heart rate tends to stay elevated.

You get a more comprehensive training effect from your time with full-body training. Keep in mind though that only the hormone response would suit our goals of strength and size. The cardio aspect may interfere with them.

  • You have flexibility for your schedule.

Split routines, by focusing on exercises and muscle groups, rely on order. If you need to skip a workout, your entire weekly setup can get thrown off.

A full-body routine has more consistency, and rescheduling fails to disrupt other workouts.

Split

I do know that, at one point, Arthur Jones recommended training the whole body during one workout and that simply wouldn’t work as a bodybuilder.

– Dorian Yates

  • You can focus on each exercise and do less per session.

Within the context of my training system, this alone can justify a split. Full-body requires a great deal of intense work in a single session. You may find the initial exercises harm the intensity for later exercises. Since I only pick exercises that count, this consequence matters.

You should aim to build strength and size through lifting. Nothing else can compare for making you strong and muscular. Other fitness traits need addressed through other forms of exercise, such as intervals for cardio.

While you may fare well as a generalist should you do a couple full-body routines each week and nothing else, you have to specialize to achieve your best. Specializing can be as easy as including a segment for each area. Training heavy with a fast pace between exercises may elevate your heart rate, but not to the degree that a full-body interval such as a series of sprints will. Make the time to do both.

Through a split routine, you can give each exercise the utmost effort and focus. The total volume per session keeps you fresh, and allows you to address each lift with intensity. This also gives you plenty of time to develop the other areas of fitness. You can add mobility work and intervals without trying to fit too much in one session.

Setup

Each offers unique benefits. You need to do what works best for you. Add weight to your lifts over time. If you take my advice to perform only three movements, a push, pull, and squat, along with mobility work and intervals, then the routines could appear like these examples below. Beginners start with the 1st progression. They proceed downward when progress stalls. Advanced trainees know themselves best and should choose a level based on their needs:

1st:  3 times / week = Full-Body Only

General Warm-Up

Push

Squat

Pull

Intervals

 

2nd:  2 times / week = Full-Body Only

Same as above

 

3rd:  3 times / 2 weeks

Full-Body

Same as above

OR

Split

Alternate A and B three times a week, so ABA then BAB over two weeks

A:

General Warm-Up

Push

Pull

Intervals

B:

General Warm-Up

Squat

Intervals

 

4th: Once per week

Full

Same as above

OR

Split

A, B, and C three times a week

A:

General Warm-Up

Push

Intervals

B:

General Warm-Up

Squat

Intervals

C:

General Warm-Up

Pull

Intervals

 

5th:  Once every 8-14 days

Full

Same as above

OR

Split

Similar formats as above, just with more rest days. Most trainees can avoid this final option.

Full-Body vs. Split Routines

The risk of a wrong decision is preferable to the terror of indecision.

– Maimonides

I still recommend, at the most, 3 non-consecutive days per week for both full and split. An upper/lower split with four days a week (2nd progression) may work, but most will recover and work harder with a day away from intense work between sessions. The 3rd progression begins the possible turn away from full-body.

Rely on weight progression to determine when a level feels like too much. If you stagnate for a week, proceed down to the next progression. Make sure you do this only after ensuring food, rest, and recovery are adequate. Unfortunately no formal method really exists to know what adequate means. Some use hormone changes to decide, but this seems unclear and erratic. Just use your progress.

Advantages exist for each. Many can settle at 1-2 times a week full-body though. As you grow stronger, consider split routines but more importantly at least more rest days. At this point, you will know what to do better than I.

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