Recently, I’ve been receiving a lot of questions about whether or not split or full body workouts are superior. I’ve already covered the topic elsewhere, but not as explicitly as I’ll cover here.
For those who don’t know, a full body workout is a workout which covers multiple (or all) major body part groups per day, while a split just targets one group (or a small number of related groups) per day. The general belief is that a split allows us to hit one muscle group very hard, while a full body plan doesn’t hit as hard per day, but makes up for it with much higher frequency.
However, it is generally unclear why people prefer certain setups, or why we tend to believe that one is more efficient than the other.
The typical division we have is upper body horizontal push (bench press), upper body vertical push (overhead press), upper body horizontal or vertical pull (pull up or row), lower body knee extension focus (squat) and lower body hip extension focus (deadlift or other hip hinge). These five movement groups cover virtually all major muscle groups, and are the basis of any well-structured program.
A full body workout is one in which you train multiple major groups per day. So I might train squat and deadlift on the same day, or a squat and a bench press. The most extreme version of a full body workout is one in which you train all major muscle groups every workout, so you’d be hitting all five major movements each time you go into the gym.
In contrast, a split routine is one in which you’re targeting muscle groups individually. So you might have a day for bench press and related muscles, a day for squat and related muscles, and so on all the way to 5 different, highly specialized workouts per week. Some splits are also more complicated than this and feature extra days like arm or core days as well.
What I’ll call here a partial or mixed split is usually a split which still features full body days, but which doesn’t take it to the extreme of doing the same workout every day. The most common formulation of these is an upper/lower split, in which you alternate upper and lower days.
Here’s a typical weekly version of each:
|Split||Partial Split/Mixed||Full Body|
|Chest Day||Upper Day (Chest emphasis)||Full Body Workout|
|Leg Day (Squat)||Lower Day (Squat emphasis)||Full Body Workout|
|Back Day||Rest or Back or Arm Day||Rest or Full Body Workout|
|Shoulder Day||Upper Day (Shoulder emphasis)||Full Body Workout|
|Leg Day (Deadlift)||Lower Day (Deadlift emphasis)||Full Body Workout|
|Arm Day||Rest or Back or Arm Day||Rest or Full Body Workout|
This is not intended to be a complete picture of all the different split and full body workout forms out there on the market - there’s tons of variations.
For example, many lifters might combine shoulders and chest on a split, or not distinguish between squat and deadlift days on the leg days.
Partial splits can be constructed around upper/lower pairs without much difference either - for example, a split where you do Heavy Bench/Light Squat on one day, Heavy Deadlift/Light Shoulder on the next, Heavy Shoulder/Light Deadlift on another, and Heavy Squat/Light Bench on the last.
All of these approaches are more or less equally valid. We could debate every single program on the market and I’d be here until I turn 80 and die like I lived, under a barbell. So long as you’re getting in the same total amount of work, it doesn’t matter too much whether you do it in a split or full body format - what matters most is the total amount of work that you’ve done.
We measure work in the form of volume, typically defined as sets*reps*weight to get a number of total poundage lifted in a given lift. Now, volume calculations have a lot of issues, and we shouldn’t specifically train just to make our volume numbers go up, but understand that we can use volume calculations to get a rough snapshot of how much work we’re doing currently. What this means is that if we see volume in the bench press consistently increasing over time, we can expect to see our bench press strength increase and related muscles grow.
One easy way to get an even simpler look at our volume is to count the total number of challenging sets (taken to near failure) for a particular muscle group. For example, you might perform 3 challenging sets in the bench press per week - and if next week we do 4 challenging sets, we can probably assume we’re improving. Counting sets sacrifices accuracy (we could also do 3 sets with a greater weight for a smaller incremental increase, where 4 sets is a huge jump of an additional ⅓ over the previous volume) but gives us a good rough snapshot over time.
To return to the question - are split workouts or full body workouts (or some partial split) better for maximizing the amount of volume you can complete each week?
It’s a question of both short term and long term recovery.
|Short Term Recovery||Long Term Recovery|
|Can handle 3-5 challenging compound sets within a single workout before fatigue compromises further volume.||Takes 2-4 days to fully recover from a challenging workout.|
This table demonstrates that there are two recovery variables we have to balance to ensure that we’re able to complete as much volume as we can - short and long term recovery.
Short term recovery refers to our recovery within our workout. As we complete more and more sets of a challenging compound exercise, we progressively fatigue the muscles more and more. This means that, in subsequent sets, we won’t be able to handle as much volume (reps or weight) per set. We can add further sets, but there’s a point of diminishing returns. This compromises our ability to handle a lot of volume. If we keep going, diminishing returns means we start generating more fatigue than the benefit we get out of the workout - and risk injury.
For most people, you’re able to complete about 3-5 serious sets before fatigue starts really impacting your volume, and it’s highly individual. You might recover quicker or more slowly than the next person.
Additionally, you typically see that you recover quicker on certain lifts than others. The bench press, overhead press, and row (the upper body lifts) are easier to recover from than the lower body (squat and deadlift) lifts. So, your response to individual lifts, and the amount of volume that you can handle, may not be the same as someone else’s.
Now, long term recovery refers to our recovery between workouts. After a workout, your muscles are damaged and your energy reserves are depleted. In response to this, the body takes time to recover and rebuilds stronger. This is a necessary part of the process of building muscle and strength.
This process can take between 2-4 days for typical workouts. You can make workouts so hard that it takes longer to recover, but this isn’t ideal (remember what I said about diminishing returns) - if you minimize the amount of unnecessary excess fatigue generated, you keep your recovery times short and can train again soon.
This also minimizes the risk of any loss of muscle or strength over time. If you go longer than a week between two workouts for the same muscle group, you can start to lose muscle and strength. It's not necessarily a huge dropoff, but it does become a concern. You can see where a very complicated split (6 days/week) can start to cause issues if you aren't able to get your workouts in on the strict schedule required - if you have to take two days off, you start going longer than a week before training the same muscle group again, and this could impact your results.
Recovery is also highly variable depending on the lifts trained, just like with short term recovery - the deadlift is usually the most taxing lift, and a serious deadlift day can take a consistent 3-4 days to recover from, while you might feel fully recovered on the bench press or row in a quick 2 days.
In general, the best way to maximize our volume is to train as hard as we can per workout, as frequently as allowed by our recovery rates. If you can bench press hard every 3 days, this means that you’re training bench 2x/week for a total of 2x the effective volume - and much greater results.
One method around this issue for higher frequency full body workouts is to alternate lighter and heavier days - so you may not be as fully recovered as you'd like between a heavy bench day and the next bench day, but if you make that a lighter bench day, it won't be as much of an issue.
There’s even evidence that performing the exact same volume, but splitting it up over more days per week, can lead to greater results. The general theory is that this is because you’re fresher between workouts and thus more able to take advantage of high energy levels. So, you might not be pushing yourself to the max number of challenging sets per workout, but you’re avoiding any dropoff in results due to fatigue, and you can put out a greater volume of work overall.
With this in mind, we can start to see where there are potential up and downsides to all approaches. This chart will summarize them here.
|Extreme Split||Partial Split||Extreme Full Body|
|Pros||Plenty of recovery time between workouts, can get in a lot of volume per workout, tons of variety generally equals fun.||Moderate frequency generally maximizes combo of higher frequency and optimal volume per workout. Alternating heavy/light workouts can help keep both short and long term recovery in check. Good mix of variety and boredom.||High frequency per body part allows for high volume and better results by splitting it up over many workouts.|
|Cons||Suboptimal for short term recovery. May compromise total volume by limiting yourself to 1 workout per muscle group per week, long time between workouts may be a waste (and potentially lead to a little bit of muscle/strength loss if your program gets derailed) if you recover quickly.||While generally useful, won’t always be useful for outliers with particularly fast or slow recovery. Some may still benefit more from extreme splits or extreme full body workouts.||Suboptimal for long term recovery. High frequency means little recovery between workouts, which means you may not be able to push yourself hard and put in an optimal amount of volume. Repeating the same workout constantly generally gets boring real quick. High frequency also ultimately means more time wasted going to the gym, warming up and setting up for each exercise, etc. - so likely total gym time increases.|
What's Best For You?
I think this chart does a good job of laying out the issue. I will say that when structuring my programs, as well as those of my clients, I tend to base them on a 4x/week structure, with a Heavy Squat/Light Deadlift, Heavy Bench/Light Overhead or Back, Heavy Deadlift/Light Squat, and Heavy Overhead or Back/Light Bench format. Sometimes for those who recover particularly quickly or slowly, additional changes are made. However, this format tends to work well for a lot of people.
One important thing to note is that in general, recovery takes longer in heavier lifters. Heavier lifters have bigger muscles and fatigue more musculature at once, so they take longer to recover from appropriately heavy work. Likewise, lighter lifters have less muscle and recover more quickly.
This helps explain why extreme splits may have become so popular - because we’ve mostly received them from serious bodybuilders, who trend towards the heavier weight classes, recover more slowly, and might benefit a bit more from extreme splits. In contrast, lighter lifters can benefit more from full body workouts.
It's also important to consider your training goals. While bodybuilders and powerlifters train to maximize muscle and strength and can dedicate their entire training week to a perfectly organized gym schedule, those lifting for other purposes (to improve their performance in more complex sports) may not have as many days specifically to devote to training for muscle and strength. They have to balance lifting weights with their other forms of training. The same applies to casual exercisers who don’t have much time to devote to training.
In this case, it makes sense to stick to full body workouts (or even an extremely simple 2x/week upper/lower split) to minimize the risk of detraining. If you have a complicated 6 day split but can only train with weights 2x/week, this means it would take you 3 weeks to go through a full cycle, and during that time you’d go so long between training sessions for the same muscle group that you’d likely see some amount of muscle and strength loss.
So, when your training time is more limited (3x/week or less for weight training), full body workouts are superior in that they’re more time efficient for consistently hitting all major muscle groups.
The ultimate takeaway should be that there’s no superior training structure. What matters more is overall workload. However, different training structures may be more or less useful to maximize your workload, depending on your training goals and individual recovery capabilities.
The two most common workout structures are full body workouts and splits, as well as mixed structures that are some combo of the two.
However, either is effective if the point is to build muscle and strength - what matters more is the overall level of work you’re able to accomplish.
In the training week, accomplishing a greater volume of training can rely on a careful manipulation of short and long term recovery abilities in order to maximize the amount of good work you can accomplish.
To this end, neither a full body or split approach are usually optimal for the average exerciser, since they can cause problems with short or long term recovery.
A mixed approach usually works best, but every person is different, and depending on your circumstances a mixed approach may not be ideal.
Particularly heavy exercisers recover slowly and may work better with a split, while particularly light exercisers recover quickly and may work better with a more full body approach. Those with limited training time should stick to full body workouts to maximize efficiency and avoid going so long between workouts that you lose some muscle and strength.
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