There are a lot of different ways to structure workouts for success, and admittedly the title above doesn’t tell the full story. The real title should end with, “which is better for your goals at the moment?” Full body and split workouts both come with a plethora of benefits. When it comes to using one over the other, the individuality of how we live our lives, train, manage stress, and adapt should dictate program design.
Full body and split workouts each come with their own lists of pros and cons. In this article, we’re going to discuss what full body and split workouts are, their respective list of pros and cons, and how to decide which could be better for you in the moment.
What Are Full Body Workouts?
Full body workouts are exactly as their name suggests, a workout that is designed to work the body as a whole on a regular basis. A full body workout will include exercises that target handfuls of muscle groups, and the flow of how exercises will be programmed can be based on things like:
- Energy Expenditure
- Example: Big movements come first.
- Daily Workout Goals
- Example: More emphasis on a specific exercise first.
- Example: Tougher or lagging movements come first.
- Muscle Group Size
- Example: Larger muscle groups first.
As you can see, there are multiple ways to structure full body workouts from a topical level to a more granular point of view.
What Are Split Workouts?
Split routines divide workouts with a prescribed parameter. The most popular split routine that gets thrown around is the “bro split”, however, there are handfuls of split routines out there. Similar to full body workouts, split workouts have a time and place for their best uses. The three most common types of splits include:
- Bro Split
- Example: 1-2 muscle groups get trained on each workout day.
- Upper/Lower Split
- Example: Upper body, then lower body training days.
- Push/Pull/Legs Split
- Example: Pushing muscles are trained one day, then pulling muscles the next, and legs the following.
Every split routine has application for various individuals in different scenarios and one is not necessarily better than the other.
Full Body Workouts Pros
Before diving into the pros below for full body workouts and split routines, it’s worth recognizing that pros will vary from coach to coach depending on how they like to structure their programs.
1. Time Efficiency
One of the major benefits of full workouts include their time efficiency. If you’re pressed on time or have limited gym availability on a weekly basis, then tackling full body workouts is a great way to provide a frequent stimulus to multiple areas on the body.
2. Greater Energy Expenditure
While this isn’t always the case, generally, full body workouts will yield a greater total energy expenditure per session. By performing often larger exercises on a variety of muscle groups, total caloric burn per session will usually be higher compared to splits.
3. Mentally Challenging and Fun
Training splits can certainly be challenging and fun, but full body workouts will usually take the cake here, as they vary more often. Splits are more challenging and fun when there’s a very direct adaptation being sought out, but as a whole, full body workouts will generally yield a greater challenge due to their variety.
Full Body Workout Cons
- Slightly harder to manage fatigue with. Without adequate programming knowledge, full body workouts can be harder to regulate when it comes to walking the line between growth and accumulating too much fatigue.
- Can be limiting for specific adaptations like maximal strength, and this point circles back to the fatigue aspect.
Split Workout Pros
The interesting thing about split workouts is that their benefits will vary slightly based on the type of split being performed.
1. Maximal Strength Priority
If muscles and exercises are only being trained once, maybe twice a week, then more energy can be spent pushing strength limits for them. It’s unrealistic to push high intensities often without adequate rest, so splits can be a solid option for pushing limits and providing enough recovery time.
2. Individual Muscle Attention
Splits are fantastic for the lifters that want to vest all of their energy on a daily basis into one or two muscle groups. For those interested in maximizing exposure for certain muscle groups, split workouts can be a good option.
3. Manageable Fatigue Levels
While volume and intensity can highly dictate fatigue, splits are usually a safer bet to manage overall fatigue levels due to the multiple days of recovery in-between certain muscle groups and exercises. Full body workouts can be a little tougher to manage when it comes fatigue accumulation.
Split Workout Cons
- Not always reasonable for lifters with very limited gym time.
- Typically lower weekly training frequency. If your goal is improving on a particular lift, then splits can be limiting due to lower training frequencies for certain muscle groups/lifts.
Deciding Between Full Body and Split Workouts
If you’re structuring your next training program and you’re on the fence of what training style you should employ and you don’t have a coach to assist you, then we can choose by accounting for a few of the questions below?
What are your current goals?
The first and most important aspect to consider is to decide what your current goal(s) are. The more specific goals are in nature, then the more specific a program will need to be.
For example, if a primary goal for the next 6-weeks is specifically targeting one or two body lifts and building their strength, then using some form of split to increase total volume on the goal oriented areas might be the best move. Likely, you’d want to use a split that trains the desired lifts around 2-3x a week.
Conversely, if time is limited and let’s say you’re moving, got a new job, or tied up with other obligations, and your goal is getting the most bang for your buck with your gym time, then full body workouts would likely the be the call.
Are you training for a sport?
Outside of goals, another approach you can take when selecting program structure for a mesocycle(s) is to consider the sport you’re involved in. From this consideration, there are multiple questions to ask to choose the most efficient option possible. Some of these questions include:
- Are you in the off-season or in-season?
- How specific does you in-gym sessions need to be for your sport?
- For sport athletes, how often are you practicing and will your workouts interfere?
These are only the starting points for considering what program structure would be most suitable to coincide with sport goals. The main focuses surrounding this point should be managing fatigue, improving sport performance, and providing a runway for following mesocycles.
What’s realistic with your lifestyle?
Unfortunately, we all don’t have hours on end to spend in the gym, which brings up the topic of choosing what’s realistic for your lifestyle.
Not every program will perfectly fit into every lifestyle, and likely, structures will have an ebb and flow to them throughout various points in your life. This is why it’s important to not get married to one structure and to experiment with various styles of training.
Often times, when this aspect is not accounted for, this change will come naturally from feeling “burnt out” in daily life while performing one style of training.
What Really Matters
While it’s good to not marry a particular program structure, it’s normal to have a preference. Some lifters simply love splits and others can’t live without full body programs, and this brings up the important topic: What really matters?
What matters across all program structures is achieving quality volume with appropriate intensities. Without these, it doesn’t matter what program you are following because gains will be left on the table. There has been a fair amount of research published about much is enough for suggesting the best possible outcomes for various adaptations and goals.
Below are a few guidelines that have been based on recent research that are worth keeping in mind.
- Frequency/Exposure: A meta-analysis published in 2016 in Sports Medicine journal suggested that training major muscle groups at least twice per week compared to once was superior for improving hypertrophy. From the meta-analysis, it was unclear if three times a week was superior to two times. (1)
- Intensity: Another study published in 2018 in the European Journal of Sports Science suggested that heavier intensities upwards of 80% of one’s 1-RM led to superior strength gains. (2)
- Volume: Another meta-analysis published in 2016 compared the effect of various amounts of weekly sets in relationships to muscle mass improvements and suggested that the group that performed 10+ sets had superior results compared to the <5 and 5-9 weekly sets groups. (3)
Other Factors to Consider
Generally speaking, if the goal is hypertrophy and strength, then training a muscle group twice per week with intermediate and higher intensities is a safe bet for progressing — despite the program begin followed. However, what other factors can be considered when creating a sound program?
- Effort: Not every set is created equal and this is when using methods like percentage-based training, RPE, and RIR come into play. By using a form of autoregulation you can ensure you’re pushing muscle groups hard with structure towards adapatation regarding the set being performed.
- Greg Nuckols suggests that counting strength-focused hard sets that have intensities around ~85% 1-RM and hypertrophy-focused hard sets with intensities around ~65% 1-RM is one method for accounting for weekly hard sets.
- Training Status: Where you are as a lifter can also play a heavy role in how much is enough for optimal growth for various training structures. For example, a newer lifter will not need nearly as much volume and intensity as an advanced trainee that competes regularly.
The Main Takeaways
At the end of the day, both full body and split workouts provide multiple benefits and can help you on your way toward tackling your training goals.
When deciding which style of program to use for your next training cycle, consider how the program itself fits into your lifestyle and goals, then apply the above suggestions for programming adequate volume and intensity to make the most of your time in the gym.
1. Schoenfeld, B., Ogborn, D., & Krieger, J. (2016). Effects of Resistance Training Frequency on Measures of Muscle Hypertrophy: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Sports Medicine, 46(11), 1689-1697.
2. Lasevicius, T., Ugrinowitsch, C., Schoenfeld, B., Roschel, H., Tavares, L., & De Souza, E. et al. (2018). Effects of different intensities of resistance training with equated volume load on muscle strength and hypertrophy. European Journal Of Sport Science, 18(6), 772-780.
3. Schoenfeld, B., Ogborn, D., & Krieger, J. (2016). Dose-response relationship between weekly resistance training volume and increases in muscle mass: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal Of Sports Sciences, 35(11), 1073-1082.