As long as people load plates onto barbells, there will be arguments about how to train and how to organize that training. One of the most polarizing debates? Whether to go with full-body workouts vs. splits.
Let's start with the basics. A full- or total-body workout is just what it sounds like: A workout that trains all your muscles in a single session. A "split" workout splits your muscles up — sometimes dividing by muscle groups, upper and lower body or pushing and pulling muscles — so that only some parts of your body are trained on each training day.
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Which is better? That depends on three questions only you can answer: how often you want to lift, how much experience you have lifting and how intense each session is. Here's how to figure out the best approach for you.
Question 1: How Often Do You Want to Lift?
"The best type of weekly training split is determined by how many days per week you're training," Nick Tumminello, a personal trainer in Florida and author of Strength Zone Training, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
No matter the frequency you choose, performing 10 to 20 working sets per muscle each week has been associated with building maximum muscle. In a July 2016 review from the Journal of Sports Sciences, scientists found that performing 5 to 9 sets a week on a muscle group resulted in an increase in muscle of 6.5 percent, while performing more than 10 sets peraweek bumped that up 9.6-percent increase.
To be considered a "working set," each of those training sets should be almost (but not quite) to technical failure, which is the point at which you can't perform another rep correctly. So, your chosen workout frequency — whether it's two, three or six days — should ultimately get you to those 10 to 20 sets per muscle group per week.
If You: Lift 2 to 3 Times a Week
Do: Full-Body Workouts
In Tumminello's view, "if you're training two to four times per week, doing total-body workouts is the best way to go, regardless of your goal or experience."
One reason: Some research shows that training muscle groups twice per week is better than doing so once per week, even if the total amount lifted is the same, according to a November 2016 review in Sports Medicine.
One explanation for this could be multiple increases in what's called "muscle protein synthesis." After you lift weights, this process — which tells your body to build muscle — is elevated for a period that lasts between one and two days, according to a June 2015 review in Sports Medicine. Training the muscle two or more times per week will spike this twice instead of once.
Not all research says that twice a week is better than once a week, though. Another review, published in December 2018 in the Journal of Sport Sciences, found that the effect on hypertrophy was similar whether a muscle group was trained once, twice or three times a week — as long as those 10 to 20 sets were done.
If You: Lift 4 Times a Week
You could go either way: If you perform a routine that splits your body in half — maybe one upper-body and one lower-body workout or a workout comprised of pushing exercises and another with pulling exercises — you can hit every muscle group two times a week.
You could also do four total-body workouts per week as long as the workouts are spread out or you don't train your muscles in exactly the same way.
"Total-body training on a daily basis [can mean you] don't allow proper recovery between training days," Jason White, PhD, associate professor and director of performance sciences at Ohio University, tells LIVESTRONG.com. Giving yourself at least one rest day between full-body training sessions is necessary for your muscles to recover.
If you want to train two days in a row and do total-body training, make sure the exercises you're doing for each body part tax the muscles in different ways. So if you do a bent-over barbell row on day one for your back, perform an exercise like a lat pulldown — which challenges your back from a different angle — on day two.
If You: Lift 5 to 7 Times a Week
"Splits are more for people who desire increased frequency," White says. That keeps you in the gym on a near-daily basis and allows you to hit the high volumes you want to hit for those muscle groups while still allowing recovery days before the next time you hit them.
Splitting up your routine can also make these workouts shorter. "Hitting a few muscle groups thoroughly in each session takes less time than [training] your entire body thoroughly," Tumminello says.
One other benefit of adding sessions is that it's often easier to get more total volume from spreading the sets out: You'll get pretty tired doing 15 sets of 10 reps in a row, so the weight might decrease, or you may not be able to finish all your reps. When you're doing just 5 sets, for example, you'll likely be able to lift a greater total in each of the three sessions, resulting in more total weight lifted throughout the week.
Question 2: How Experienced Are You?
Be honest here, because this matters: People who have just started lifting gain strength and muscle differently than those who have been lifting for a while. If you've been lifting for a year or less, consider yourself a beginner for now. If you've been training consistently for more than a year or two, look at the advanced info below.
If You: Are a Beginner
Do: Full-Body Workouts
"Body-part splits are too much for beginners, because they don't need to spend a full workout working specific muscle groups to see gains," says Tumminello. "For beginners, doing total-body workouts is best in order to not hit any one specific muscle group too hard in order to avoid being overly sore or getting injured."
When you're starting out, you can also get stronger and build muscle with fewer workouts — which makes total-body training the perfect choice.
Beginners gain a lot of their strength through changes in the nervous system: The brain and muscles are learning how to fire faster so that the right muscles do the work, per a March 2003 review from Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. This "motor learning" results in strength gains that advanced lifters have already realized. So muscles groups don't need to be overloaded as often to gain strength.
Novice lifters also get muscle-building effects from their sessions for longer than advanced trainees. Muscle protein synthesis (that process mentioned above that tells your body to build muscle) stays elevated for around two days after each lifting session, compared to less than a day in more advanced lifters, according to the 2015 Sports Medicine review.
If You: Are an Advanced Lifter
Since your muscle-building spike only lasts for about a day post-workout, you may want to make it spike more often and fit "in enough training volume of each muscle group throughout the week," Tumminello says. That means training more often.
The longer you lift, the more volume you'll need on each muscle group to make it grow. It's a concept called "progressive overload," and has been shown — as in this October 2010 review from the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research — that to increase muscle growth and strength, your volume needs to increase over time.
You can increase volume by using heavier weights or by adding more reps or sets. That means your workouts might get longer, or you may add additional sessions to your week. More sets and more workouts means you need more recovery time — which could make split routines fit your training style.
Question 3: How Intensely Will You Train?
There's a third factor to consider: How hard you're working and how hard you can work. "A lot of people don't actually train intensely enough to really give an adequate growth stimulus in one leg day per week or even two leg days per week," Alex Viada, CSCS, founder and owner of Complete Human Performance, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
Oftentimes, it's because we're bad judges of how much we can handle. For example, an August 2017 study from the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, found that people had a difficult time guessing just how many reps they had left in them. In some cases, subjects underestimated by 4 reps.
What that means: If you think, "My max number of leg press reps at this weight is 8," you could be doing much less than failure and not getting a full training stimulus from that set. This can be especially true, Viada says, if you're doing many sets of one exercise or hammering a single muscle group on the same day, as you do in split routines.
As your muscles fatigue, you may start to go through the motions instead of concentrating on performing good reps. But if you spread all your leg work throughout the week on a series of total-body training days, you might have more energy to give those lunges your all.
There's also your preference to consider: You may not want to train to failure (or close to it), as it's harder to recover from, and it's unpleasant, Viada says. In this case, moderate-intensity workouts, done more often, could do more to grow a muscle group.
"If you're hitting legs four times per week at moderate intensity [as part of total-body workouts], for example, that might still be a better growth stimulus than two times per week at a moderate- to high-ish intensity [in a split routine with a dedicated leg day]."
How to Set Up a Total-Body Routine
When designing a total-body workout, you want to choose compound exercises, moves that work more than one joint at a time. Doing so works more muscles in each move, maximizing the effectiveness of each set. A bench press set, for instance, works not just your chest, but your triceps, too. And a barbell row works your back and your biceps.
It can be easier to think about building your routine around the main movement patterns instead of muscle groups:
- Upper-body horizontal press: bench press, push-up and cable chest press
- Upper-body horizontal pull: seated cable row, barbell row and inverted row
- Upper-body vertical press: shoulder press and push press
- Upper-body vertical pull: pull-ups and lat pulldown
- Lower-body press: squats and split squat
- Lower-body pull: deadlift variations
- Rotational movement: Russian twist or wood chop
- Core: plank
Choosing one exercise from each of these categories can create an effective full-body workout. Mix and match different moves to create multiple workouts. You can even do a total-body workout with fewer moves than this. One popular total-body workout has just five moves: bench press, squat, deadlift, row and overhead press — all performed with a barbell.
How to Set Up Splits
If you've decided to organize your training into a split routine, there are myriad ways to approach it: You can divide your body into muscle groups, setting up a "chest and back" or "chest and triceps" day, a "back and biceps" day, "a leg and abs" day, etc.
You can also divide your exercises into pushing movements — like push-ups, squats and shoulder presses — and pulling moves, like deadlifts, pull-ups and rows.
The split you choose should depend on which one you like best and fits your schedule. But it should also depend on which one you can best recover from, White says. "The muscle growth is taking place during recovery."
You also need to feel recovered enough to do your next workout. If you're still too sore to do your next session, your split may not be giving you enough time to recover, or your workout sessions may be too intense for your current training level.
- Journal of Sports Sciences: "Dose-response relationship between weekly resistance training volume and increases in muscle mass: A systematic review and meta-analysis"
- Sports Medicine: "Effects of Resistance Training Frequency on Measures of Muscle Hypertrophy: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis"
- Journal of Sports Sciences: "How many times per week should a muscle be trained to maximize muscle hypertrophy? A systematic review and meta-analysis of studies examining the effects of resistance training frequency"
- Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise: "A meta-analysis to determine the dose response for strength development"
- Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: "The Mechanisms of Muscle Hypertrophy and Their Application to Resistance Training"
- Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: "Accuracy in Estimating Repetitions to Failure During Resistance Exercise"