If you want to gain muscle, which routine works best? An upper/lower split or a full body routine?
For an identical training volume, which I’m defining here as the number of hard sets you do over the course of a training week, the average lifter will see similar gains with both approaches.
In most cases, you should pick the one you’re most likely to stick with. Both routines will produce solid results, just as long as you train hard, eat right and stay consistent.
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’d go with an upper/lower split.
Full-body workout routines are also well-suited to beginners, who typically don’t need as many sets as intermediate and advanced lifters to stimulate growth.
However, 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 a higher volume of training to continue making progress.
Today, I want to take a closer look at the pros and cons of both routines, so you can choose one that’s right for you.
What’s a Full Body Routine?
With a full-body workout routine, you train all the major body parts — chest, back, shoulders, arms and legs — in the same training session.
Most workout routines based on full body workouts are done 2-3 times a week, with each workout separated by at least one full day of rest.
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Here’s what a typical 3-day full-body workout routine might look like:
- Monday: Full-Body Workout
- Tuesday: Off
- Wednesday: Full-Body Workout
- Thursday: Off
- Friday: Full-Body Workout
- Saturday: Off
- Sunday: Off
Each workout revolves around compound lifts that work multiple muscle groups at the same time, and will usually include 1-2 pulling and pushing movements for the upper body, 1-2 exercises for the legs, as well as some isolation exercises for the shoulders and arms.
The workout itself might look something like this:
- Bench Press 3 sets x 5-8 reps
- Lat Pulldown 3 sets x 10-15 reps
- Squat 3 sets x 5-8 reps
- Leg Curl 3 sets x 10-15 reps
- Dumbbell Shoulder Press 2 sets x 8-12 reps
- Incline Curl 2 sets x 10-15 reps
- Overhead Triceps Extension 2 sets x 10-15 reps
What’s an Upper/Lower Split?
An upper/lower split is a workout routine that works the muscles in your upper body on one day, and the lower body on another. Here’s what a 4-day upper/lower split looks like:
- 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 bench press, shoulder 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.
Upper/Lower Split vs Full Body: Which is Better for Building Muscle?
Having used both full-body workouts and various split routines over the years, it’s my opinion that an upper/lower split is the superior choice when it comes to building muscle.
But that’s just me. Your mileage may differ. Whether or not a given weight training program is right for you depends on a number of factors.
Let’s take a closer look at each one.
How often can you train?
A weight training program is only effective if you actually do it. There’s no point starting out on a split routine that involves lifting weights four 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 a full-body workout routine and an upper/lower split.
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 routine. But if you’re able to train four days a week, I’d recommend the upper/lower split.
How much time can you spend in the gym?
Doing the same amount of work in three rather than four training sessions will mean longer workouts.
If you’re training 4 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 workout is going to take 60 minutes, which may not fit your schedule.
What’s more, some people tend to run out of steam towards the end of a full-body workout, especially if they’re doing heavy compound lifts like squats, deadlifts, rows and so on.
As a result, the muscles being worked towards the end of that training session receive less effort than the ones trained at the start.
But with an upper/lower split, your energy and focus is distributed across fewer muscle groups, which usually makes for a higher quality workout.
Some people prefer a workout split that involves shorter, more frequent workouts. Others prefer longer, less frequent training sessions. Again, pick the one you’re most likely to stick with.
What do you enjoy doing?
For some, an upper/lower split 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.
Building a decent 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.
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