You know you need to devote the time to work out on a regular basis. But how do you know if you're making the most of that time and really benefiting from head to toe? One way is by choosing full-body workouts that work multiple muscle groups in each session.
"Those types of workouts can still be effective," says Connecticut-based exercise physiologist Tom Holland, CSCS. "But for the majority of people, a full-body routine is going to be a better bet."
What Is a Full-Body Workout?
The term full-body workout may be self-explanatory, but there's more to it than simply moving your arms and your legs.
"A good full-body workout targets the upper body, the core and the lower body, and it also elevates your heart rate," Holland says. It's not about one single move that does everything, but about pairing different moves with short periods of rest in between.
You don't need special equipment, either. In fact, some of the most effective workouts use just your body weight as resistance. Because of that, whole-body routines can also be easily modified based on your ability and fitness level.
"Anyone from a complete beginner all the way up to an advanced athlete can benefit from a good full-body workout," Holland says.
5 Benefits of Full-Body Workouts
But full-body workout benefits extend well beyond working multiple muscle groups in a short amount of time. Along with a proper nutrition plan, Holland says, whole-body plans can help you achieve your health and fitness goals — whether that means losing weight, getting ripped or just feeling stronger and healthier.
Here are a few reasons why a full-body approach may be a good option for you.
1. They Combine Cardio and Strength Training
Routines that target single body parts tend to focus on building strength and toning muscle, while aerobic exercises (like jogging or biking) mainly boost your cardiovascular fitness. But a good whole-body workout combines cardio and strength training — which research suggests is a smart move for several reasons.
In a January 2019 PLOS One study, for example, overweight adults who combined cardio and resistance training reduced their heart health risk factors more than people who only did one or the other, even when the total amount of exercise was the same.
And in a November 2019 study of people with obesity in Obesity, those who got the recommended amounts of both aerobic exercise and strength training had a lower prevalence of the condition than those who got plenty of one but not the other.
Holland suggests starting your full-body workout with a cardio interval, like 30 seconds of jumping jacks, to boost your heart rate. Then alternate classic moves that target different muscle groups.
"Exercises like push-ups, planks, lunges and squats have been around forever, and it's because they work really well," Holland says. "Just because they are basic, don't make the mistake of thinking they're not effective."
2. You'll Boost Calorie Burn and Build More Muscle
It will also increase lean muscle mass throughout the body, which can have a beneficial effect on your metabolism. (In other words, you'll burn more fat throughout the entire day, not just during exercise.)
Focusing an entire workout on just your arms, your legs or your abs would mean you could devote more time to that body part and work those muscles longer and harder. But research suggests that doing so may not actually translate to bigger muscle gains.
A small July 2015 study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research compared strength and muscle gains in men who followed a split-body routine and those who followed a total-body routine. Men in the split-body group trained each muscle group once a week, with multiple exercises for each muscle group. Those in the total-body group performed the same workout three times a week, with just one movement per muscle group each time.
Both groups gained strength and muscle, but those in the total-body group gained more muscle thickness in their forearms. The findings suggest a "potentially superior" muscle-building (although not necessarily strength-building) benefit of more frequent total-body workouts, the study authors wrote, perhaps because levels of muscle protein synthesis stay elevated throughout the entire week.
3. You Can Do Them Anywhere, Anytime
If you were going to devote an entire workout to a single body part, you'd have to get pretty creative — or you'd need the help of gym equipment designed to isolate and tone specific muscle groups. But with plenty of full-body plans, your own body weight is all the equipment you need.
When you use your body weight as resistance, your muscle groups automatically work together to stabilize and support each other, Holland says; just think of how your shoulders, your abs and your glutes are all engaged while holding a plank, for example.
"Anyone from a complete beginner all the way up to an advanced athlete can benefit from a good full-body workout."
Of course, full-body routines don't have to be limited to body-weight exercises only. If you're looking to mix it up, you can add dumbbells, resistance bands or a stability ball — all of which can be incorporated into an at-home workout. If you do have access to gym equipment, consider spending some time on the rowing machine, which works the shoulders, arms, chest, back, abs, glutes and legs all at once.
Getting a good full-body workout doesn't have to take a long time, either. "If you put together five moves at 30 seconds each, and you repeat the sequence five times, that's an awesome workout in just about 15 minutes," Holland says. (Rest for a few seconds between each move, and for 30 seconds between each sequence.)
4. They Reduce Your Risk of Injury
Whole-body routines can also help prevent muscle imbalances and overuse injuries, according to the Mayo Clinic. For starters, targeting multiple body parts in each workout means you're less likely to put a disproportionate amount of stress on one joint or muscle group, the way a baseball pitcher or a marathon runner might.
Plus, strengthening all of your major muscle groups can provide built-in protection against common injures related to overuse like stress fractures, tendon or ligament tears, falls and back pain. Resistance training can benefit the health of your bones, connective tissue and muscle, all of which may reduce the risk of these types of injuries, according to the American College of Sports Medicine.
5. You Can Schedule Plenty of Rest Days
Professional athletes who hit the gym twice a day may have the luxury of focusing each session on a different body part — but for most of us, that's simply not the case. "If you're only fitting in three or four real workouts a week, they should be full-body workouts," Holland says.
The World Health Organization recommends getting at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity (or at least 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity) every week, along with two or more days of strength training. And with full-body workouts, Holland says, it's possible to achieve those goals while still enjoying some recovery time between sessions.
"Strength training causes tiny tears in the muscles, and those muscles need time to repair," he says. "So maybe you take a day off in between workouts, or maybe you change it up and do something different," he says. Low-impact activities like walking or swimming are great ways to stay active on days between whole-body sessions.
"Most people don't want to worry about doing arms twice a week and legs twice a week and cardio twice a week," Holland says. "If you can fit all of that into a few workouts per week, you can spend the other days doing something else you enjoy."
- PLOS One: "Comparative effectiveness of aerobic, resistance, and combined training on cardiovascular disease risk factors: A randomized controlled trial"
- Obesity: "Muscle Strengthening, Aerobic Exercise, and Obesity: A Pooled Analysis of 1.7 Million US Adults"
- The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: "Influence of Resistance Training Frequency on Muscular Adaptations in Well-Trained Men"
- Mayo Clinic: "Overuse Injury: How to prevent training injuries"
- ACSM: "Resistance Training and Injury Prevention"
- WHO: "Physical Activity and Adults"
- ACE: "5 Benefits of Compound Exercises"