If you’re on a mission to gain as much muscle as you can in the shortest time possible, should you choose a full body workout or a split routine? Which works best?
Having used both full-body workouts and split routines over the years, it’s my opinion that a well-designed split routine is by far the superior choice when it comes to building muscle.
Full-body workouts do have their benefits, especially if you have a limited amount of time to train and can only make it to the gym 2-3 days a week. But if you’re able to lift weights at least four days a week, I give the edge to split routines.
Today, I want to take a closer look at the pros and cons of both approaches, so you can choose a strength training program that’s right for you.
What’s a Full Body Workout?
A full body workout means training all the major body parts — chest, back, shoulders, arms and legs — in a single workout.
The workout itself might look something like this:
- Barbell Bench Press 3 sets x 5-8 reps
- Reverse Grip Lat Pulldown 3 sets x 10-15 reps
- Barbell Squat 3 sets x 5-8 reps
- Leg Curl 3 sets x 10-15 reps
- Dumbbell Shoulder Press 2 sets x 5-8 reps
- Incline Curl 2 sets x 10-15 reps
- Triceps Pressdown 2 sets x 10-15 reps
Most resistance training programs that use full body workouts are done 2-3 times a week, with each workout typically separated by at least one full day of rest.
Here’s what a typical 3-day full-body workout routine might look like:
- Monday: Workout A
- Tuesday: Off
- Wednesday: Workout B
- Thursday: Off
- Friday: Workout C
- Saturday: Off
- Sunday: Off
Who Should Use a Full-Body Workout?
Full-body workout routines can be made to work for beginner, intermediate and advanced trainees alike.
In fact, some advanced lifters prefer high-frequency (4-5 times per week) full-body workouts over more conventional body part split routines.
However, full-body workouts are particularly well-suited to beginners, who typically don’t need as many sets as intermediate and advanced lifters (such as bodybuilders) to stimulate growth.
That is, training your whole body three days a week on Monday, Wednesday and Friday may have been an effective way to build muscle when you were starting out.
But there’ll come a point when the gains slow down, or even grind to a halt completely. Once you get to that point, it’s my experience that you’ll need to ramp up the amount of resistance training you’re doing to continue making progress.
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Gaining more mass will typically require a higher weekly training volume, which usually entails the addition of an extra training day, and the transition to a body part split routine, such as a 4-day upper/lower split, Arnold split or PPL routine.
That is, if you’ve moved past the beginner stages of training, and you’ve got both the time and motivation to train 4-6 days a week, a body part split would be the way to go.
What’s a Split Training Routine?
With a split training routine, rather than hitting all the major muscle groups in a single workout, you work different areas of the body on different days.
A split training routine is usually performed 4-6 days a week, with the body separated into two or more different regions.
There are numerous workout splits out there, from an upper lower split to a bro split to a push pull legs routine, each with its own benefits and drawbacks.
On an upper lower workout split, for example, you train the muscles in your lower body and upper body on separate days.
The default version of the upper lower workout split involves training four days a week, like so:
- Monday: Upper Body
- Tuesday: Lower Body
- Wednesday: Off
- Thursday: Upper Body
- Friday: Lower Body
- Saturday: Off
- Sunday: Off
An upper body workout will normally hit your chest, back, shoulders, biceps and triceps, while the lower body workout works your quads, hamstrings, glutes and calves.
Upper body exercises like the incline bench press, machine chest press, pull-ups, barbell rows, curls and dips are done on one day, with lower body exercises, such as the deadlift, squat, leg extension and calf raise, performed on another.
The training frequency for each muscle group is twice a week, which tends to work well for growth.
Full Body Workout vs Split Routine: Which is Better for Building Muscle?
Because there are so many different ways to set up a split routine, it’s impossible to say that a full body workout is better than a split routine, or vice versa.
The suitability of any given resistance training routine depends on a number of factors. Let’s take a closer look at each one.
How often can you train?
A resistance training program is only effective if you actually do it. There’s no point starting out on a workout split routine that involves lifting weights six days a week, if you only have the time (or the inclination) to train three times a week.
You want to hit each muscle group at least twice every seven days, which you can do with both whole body workouts and split training routines.
However, if you want to hit each muscle group twice a week, you can do that with just two full-body workouts. A split routine, on the other hand, requires at least three.
If time constraints mean you can make it to the gym on a consistent basis 2-3 days a week, then go with a full-body workout. But if you’re able to train 4-6 days a week, then some kind of split routine will likely give you better results.
How much time can you spend in the gym?
If you can train four days per week, your workouts are going to take longer than they would do if you were lifting weights 5 or 6 times per week.
If you’re training 5 days a week, for example, you might be able to get each training session done in 45 minutes.
Compressing the same amount of work into three training sessions means that each one is going to take 75 minutes, which may not fit your schedule.
Some people find it easier to stick to a strength training program that involves shorter, more frequent workouts. Others prefer longer, less frequent training sessions.
What do you enjoy doing?
For some, a split workout routine is simply a more enjoyable way to train. They thrive on the variety of training different muscles, and doing different exercises, from one day to the next.
Many people like the idea of having a chest day, a legs day or an arms day, where they dedicate an entire workout to a specific muscle group, mainly because it means walking out of the gym with the muscles you’ve just trained feeling pumped up and ready to explode.
Getting a pump is no guarantee that muscle is going to be gained any faster, but it still feels good.
Gaining a large amount of muscle mass requires sustained and consistent effort over a number of years. And a big part of staying consistent is actually wanting to go to the gym.
If following a split workout routine makes it far more likely that you’ll do the work necessary to make your muscles grow, that’s a major benefit. A resistance training program that’s optimal for muscle growth isn’t optimal if you don’t do it.
Overall, there are pros and cons to both full-body workouts and split routines. Both have their place at different times and for different people.
In general, someone who’s relatively new to lifting weights, and wants to train 2-3 days per week, would be better off with a routine incorporating full-body workouts.
But if you’re able to train 3-6 times a week, the number of effective training routines on the menu becomes that much larger.
Training more often means that you can divide your body into two or more separate compartments, and still hit each muscle group at least twice a week
For someone that’s moved beyond the beginner stages of training, and has both the time and motivation to train 4-6 days a week, some kind of split routine would be the way to go.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is full body or split better for hypertrophy?
Both full body workouts and split routines can work well for hypertrophy. As long as your workout routine hits each muscle group with the right frequency and volume (total number of hard sets per muscle group in both a single training session and over a 7-day period), then it’s going to be an effective one.
Are full body workouts better than split routines for fat loss?
Neither one is inherently better than the other for fat loss. Losing weight is more a function of your diet than it is anything else. For the same number of weekly sets, you’re likely to see similar results with both full body workouts and split routines (assuming the split routine is set up properly in the first place). In my experience, you’re better off going with the one you’re most likely to stick with.
How many times a week should I do full body workouts?
Full body workouts can be performed anywhere between 2 and 5 times a week. In fact, some advanced lifters report impressive gains with high-frequency (4-5 times per week) full-body workout routines compared to more conventional body part split routines. However, most people will be better off with a full-body training program done 3-4 times a week.
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