The health and fitness industry is (unfortunately) rife differing opinions. This holds truth whether we are discussing dietary interventions, specific supplements, and of course, methods of training.  One such ‘discussion’ (see: argument) that appears more often than most, is full body training regimes VS body part training splits.

Both of which are commonly suggested to lead to vast improvements in strength and muscle growth, and have very passionate people arguing on their behalf.

But, like most things, it is not always that black and white, and as such it is quite difficult to state as to one is necessarily any better than the other. A more likely truth is that both have merit when used in certain situations (while being less useful in others), and as such may be a suitable method of training at that particular time.

In this article we are going to have an in depth look at both full body training, and body part training splits, to determine their pros and cons – and as such when they are best suited for use.

Full Body Training

Full body training effectively describe a program where every single muscle group is trained every session, for 2-4 sessions per week. This method of training is frequently underutilised, where it is often only used for novice or beginner trainees as a way to introduce them to the gym and improve their competence to perform core training lifts, such as squats and deadlifts (as each lift is trained with a high weekly frequency).

Despite public perception, full body training splits do have a great capacity to develop strength power, and as such are often the choice method of training for high level powerlifters and elite athletes alike.

Pros of Full Body Training

Now, as mentioned above, full body training splits are still utilised by highly competent individuals to promote strength development and improved athletic performance – and as such it can be safe to assume that they have some decent upside.

Which is true. There are a number of positives associated with full body training splits that aren’t seen with other programming methods:

1. They are highly time efficient

While this positive doesn’t necessarily relate to the physical improvements seen with training, it does not make it any less important. Utilising a full body training split is hands down the most time efficient way of scheduling our training, making it ideal for those of us with busy schedules.

During a single session, we train every single muscle group using 1-2 exercises. While this may sound time consuming, it is in fact the opposite. By prioritising large compound movements, we can target all the core muscle groups in the body within a 60-90 minute window.

And as we are hitting each primary muscle group every session, we only need to train 2-4 times per week see solid results. This seriously reduces our weekly time commitment to the gym, making them and incredibly efficient way of structuring our training.

2. They Increase our training frequency considerably

It is fairly well known that a given muscle group takes somewhere between 24 and 72 hours to recover from a single training session (this is dependent on the volume and intensity of that training session). This means that we can actually train a given muscle group 2-4 times per week without any risk of over training.

If we are only training each muscle group once per week, we are effectively leaving a large amount of potential training on the table (which results in a heap of strength and muscular development also being left on the table).

By increasing our training frequency through full body training, we can vastly increase the amount of stimulus a given muscle group receives, which can promote some serious muscle growth over time.

Moreover, as we are prioritizing compound movements (such as squats, deadlifts, and the bench press) each and every training session, we can greatly improve our ability to perform these movements. This causes enhanced adaptions to the neural and muscular systems that result in an increased strength response over time.

3. They promote increased energy expenditure

Something that becomes apparent with full body training splits is that they are taxing. Which, from an energy expenditure perspective, is a good thing. By training the muscle groups of both the upper and lower body each and every session, we use a huge amount of energy not only to complete a given session, but to also recover from that session.

Additionally, by only using compound movements, we vasty increase the absolute amount of load lifted each session. This creates a huge increase in mechanical stress on the body, which further increases the amount of energy used during a session (which can also further promote muscle growth – another positive if you ask me).

man squating with barbell strength training

These increases in energy expenditure can lead to an increased rate of fat loss over time, making full body training splits a fantastic option for promoting a high rate of fat loss with a minimal time commitment.

Cons of full body training

As with pretty much all things, there are two sides to every story, and while full body training splits are time efficient, and can promote both strength and muscular development AND an increased rate of fat loss – they do also have some downsides.

1. It can be brutal

As mentioned above, full body training splits force us to use heavy loads and large, compound movements, multiple times per week. While this has merit for muscle growth, strength increases, and fat loss, it does make them taxing.

Like, incredibly taxing.

This can lead to some serious fatigue during the session (making it difficult to complete), while also promoting lethargy after a sessions completed. Also considering that we are using heavy loading up to 4 times per week, we can also see an increased risk of developing chronic joint injuries.

2. It can be monotonous

The second big downside more impacts our mental state than anything else, but that doesn’t reduce its importance in the slightest. By training the same lifts 2, 3, or even 4 times per week, training can become somewhat boring and monotonous.

This can further reduce our adherence, or our ability to push ourselves in the gym, which can reduce the results we see from our training. Remember, while the gym needs to be hard work, it should also be fun and enjoyable – and if it is not, we can see serious drop in our training results.

Full Body Training Practical Example

But, if you don’t mind performing a similar program day in and day out, and can cope with difficult training sessions on the daily, then you might want to give a full body training split a go for 6-8 weeks and see the gains come rolling in.

An example full body training program may look something like this:

1ASumo Deadlift4X6
1BWeighted push ups4X8
2AFront Squat3X8
2BChin Ups3X10
3AReverse Lunge3X8/side
3BBarbell Overhead Press3X10
4ABarbell Bench Press3X10
4BInverted Row3X10

The above example provides a great demonstration of how we can train every primary muscle group in the body in a single session (which can be done 2-4 times in a given week) and implement full body training.

Body Part Splits

Now, in what is quite close to the opposite end of the training spectrum, we have body part training splits. This type of training was been made famous by pro body builders, and has been popularised by more mainstream health and fitness magazines where it is suggested to maximise muscle growth.

This type of training describes a split where each core muscle group is trained once per week, and a single training session is dedicated to a single core muscle group (think chest day, back day, arm day, leg day etc.).

Pros of Body Part Training Splits

Now, the popularity of body part training splits is not unfounded. They have a host of positive associated, and can be a seriously effective means of training when used in the right situation.

1.The provide a heap of training volume

Using a body part training split allows us to use anywhere from 5-8 exercises for a given muscle group in a single session. This greatly increases the amount of volume that a given muscle group receives in that session.

Training volume is one of the key drivers for muscle growth, and by increasing it to such a great degree will promote some serious muscular development over time.

man strength training with dumbbells

As a bonus, this method of training allows us to focus our time on the muscle groups that require more development than others (in which we can either increase their training volume, or add an extra day where that muscle group is trained two times in a week rather than once), and as such can go a long way to promoting the development of a well-rounded physique.

2. They provide variation

This training method effectively allows us to do a completely different session each day of the week, which keeps training interesting and varied each and every session. This can improve adherence, and reduce the likelihood of training getting monotonous and tedious.

This can greatly increase our enjoyment for training, and subsequently, the results we see from our training. Additionally, the constant variation may have the potential to increase the metabolic stress placed on the muscles, which can lead to further muscular development.

3. They provide maximal recovery

When using Full body training splits, we only train a single movement or muscle group one time per week. This effectively allows a full week of recovery to occur before we hit that movement or muscle group again.

This will ensure that we are fully recovered before we train again, which can greatly reduce the risk of developing either a chronic or acute training injury.

Cons of Body Part training splits

As with full body training methods, body part splits also have some downfalls, even despite their apparent benefits.

1. They are incredibly time consuming

This method of training requires us to train each muscle group on an individual day, which can lead the need to train anywhere from 5-6 times per week. While this may be suitable for individuals with a heap of time up their sleeve, it is not particularly time efficient, rendering them somewhat useless for those of us with busy schedules.

2. They limit strength development

While body part training splits are undoubtedly suitable for the development of muscle size, they don’t lend themselves well to strength development. As we are only using large compound movements once per week (per muscle group) we don’t provide the nervous system enough stimulus to maximise strength development in these movements.

Additionally, this also reduces the mechanical stress placed on the muscle tissue (as we don’t maximise the load used), which can further reduce strength development over time.

Body Part training split practical example

If you have the time to train 6 times per week, and want to maximise muscle growth rather than strength, body part training splits might be just for you.

The following example provides a way to organise your weekly training schedule:

  • Monday: Legs
  • Tuesday: Chest
  • Wednesday: Back
  • Thursday: Rest
  • Friday: Shoulders
  • Saturday: Arms
  • Sunday: Rest

Within each of these sessions, the goal would be to use anywhere from 5-8 exercises that target that focus muscle group primarily, so using a chest day as an example:

1Barbell Bench Press4X6
2Incline DD Press3X8
3Decline DB Press3X10
4Dumbbell Fly3X10
5Push Ups3X12
6Cable Fly3X12

This would allow us to provide the key muscle group with a heap of volume, stimulating a high degree of muscle growth.

Conclusion

So, in conclusion, it is hard to recommend one method of training over another, as each has its own set of pros and cons. In the end, it comes down to our individual needs and training goals.

If you are limited by time, or want to prioritise strength development, then maybe using a full body training program 3 times per week may be your best option.

Or if you have a lot of time available to hit the gym, and want to focus predominantly on the development of new muscle tissue and muscle growth, a body part training split may be the route you want to take.

Neither is wrong, and neither is better than the other, it just comes down to preference and goal!


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Sources

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Hartman, Michael J., et al. “Comparisons between twice-daily and once-daily training sessions in male weight lifters.” International journal of sports physiology and performance 2.2 (2007): 159-169. Viewed at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19124903

Melby, et al. “Effect of acute resistance exercise on postexercise energy expenditure and resting metabolic rate.” Journal of Applied Physiology 75.4 (1993): 1847-1853. Viewed at: http://jap.physiology.org/content/75/4/1847.short

Schoenfeld, Brad J. “The mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy and their application to resistance training.” The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 24.10 (2010): 2857-2872. Viewed at: http://journals.lww.com/nsca-jscr/Fulltext/2010/10000/The_Mechanisms_of_Muscle_Hypertrophy_and_Their.40