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Are Full-Body Workouts Better for Muscle Growth?

There are many benefits to the split routine. It’s a very popular style of programming, especially with bodybuilders.

There are many benefits to the split routine. It’s a very popular style of programming, especially with bodybuilders. The dominant justification of split routines is that in order to maximize hypertrophy and muscle size, one has to “load up” on different muscle groups, increase volume, and optimize the anabolic phase (recovery). If you focus on one muscle group on specific days of the week, then you can ‘rest’ that muscle group on the other days of the week and more effectively ‘make gains’.

And this works for a lot of people. But does it work for everyone?

The Research

Many scientific studies have investigated the pros and cons of the split versus the full body routine. One recent investigation in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research observed that in a group of 20 well-trained men, total body programming led to greater forearm strength as compared to a split of similar intensity and volume–though there weren’t many other ‘statistically significant’ differences observed. Another similar study done with young female participants found that the whole body exercise group gained more leg lean muscle mass than the split routine exercises–but this was the only marked difference that they observed, and both groups gained muscle and dropped fat. One study suggests that a split routine may be optimal for experienced exercisers looking to stimulate muscle growth, while exercisers new to working out or someone wanting to just increase overall strength would do better with a full body program.

Many other studies have compared the two programming styles and their muscle and strength building capacity, and have offered similarly ambivalent results. No clear-cut conclusions have been made. Though, let’s be honest: science is so rarely ever clear-cut or conclusive.

So, if full-body and split body workouts are similar in the way that they benefit our muscles, I wondered: what are the essential components that make a strength-training routine ‘effective’? What I learned is this: it’s not so much about what you do, but how and how often.

Frequency and Volume

How often are you working out? How many sets and reps? Controlling for frequency and volume (and, of course, assuming that you are performing each exercise correctly), it seems that full body and split routines are equally effective in generating gains in strength and hypertrophy. So, as long as you’re doing a similar number of reps in a similar amount of time, you should see similar benefits.

But…how much time do you have? Split routines can definitely give you results, but only if you’re consistent and hitting the gym most days of the week. If Saturday is ‘chest and shoulders day,’ but you miss one Saturday, do you wait another week or do the workout on ‘lower body’ Sunday? These are dilemmas that plague the mind of the bodybuilder.

But if you’re short on time, can only work out a couple days a week, and want to get as much bang for your buck (buck = time), a full-body routine is the way to go. This way, you can hit most, if not all, of the major muscle groups while maintaining volume…and intensity.

Intensity

The science shows that if the intensity isn’t there, it’s hard to see results–and this is true for both full-body and split routines.

Interestingly, being in an anaerobic state, where your muscles are utilizing glycogen in your muscles rather than oxygen, stimulates muscle growth, power, and strength better than just resistance training alone. Your lactic acid threshold, as well, will be positively affected so you can go harder for longer.

This anaerobic state is challenging to maintain–you typically need to reach at least 70-80% of your maximum heart rate–but this may explain why so many people (including myself) have seen greater results with higher-intensity, full-body workouts. One potential benefit of a full-body or compound exercise is that it does tend to be higher intensity than an isolation exercise–so you’ll be more likely to reach that desired anaerobic state.

So, be honest with yourself: are you working hard? Are you challenging yourself? You can use the RPE scale, found here, or your personal trainer can help you find your ideal working intensity.

Conclusions

When it comes to building muscular strength and size, both full-body and split programming will give you results–if done consistently. So, if you’re still not sure which programming type is the right fit, some other important variables to consider are: what are your goals? What is your fitness and experience level? And what can you fit into your lifestyle? A personal trainer will help you to evaluate all of these variables to help you pick a routine that works best for you and your life.

Wishing you all the best on your journey to optimum health!

Written by Theresa Faulder, Master’s in English, Certified Personal Trainer, and Infofit fitness blog writer.

Works Cited

Aerobic vs. anaerobic: How do workouts change the body? ISSA. (n.d.). Retrieved March 12, 2022, from https://www.issaonline.com/blog/index.cfm/2018/aerobic-vs-anaerobic-how-do-workouts-change-the-body

Aerobic vs. anaerobic: How do workouts change the body? ISSA. (n.d.). Retrieved March 12, 2022, from https://www.issaonline.com/blog/index.cfm/2018/aerobic-vs-anaerobic-how-do-workouts-change-the-body

Bartolomei, S., Nigro, F., Malagoli Lanzoni, I., Masina, F., Di Michele, R., & Hoffman, J. R. (2020). A comparison between total body and split routine resistance training programs in trained men. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, Publish Ahead of Print. https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0000000000003573

Calder, A. W., Chilibeck, P. D., Webber, C. E., & Sale, D. G. (1994). Comparison of whole and split weight training routines in Young Women. Canadian Journal of Applied Physiology, 19(2), 185–199. https://doi.org/10.1139/h94-014

Evangelista, A. L., Braz, T. V., La Scala Teixeira, C. V., Rica, R. L., Alonso, A. C., Barbosa, W. A., Reis, V. M., Baker, J. S., Schoenfeld, B. J., Bocalini, D. S., & Greve, J. M. (2021). Split or full-body workout routine: Which is best to increase muscle strength and hypertrophy? Einstein (São Paulo), 19. https://doi.org/10.31744/einstein_journal/2021ao5781

Schoenfeld, B. J., Ratamess, N. A., Peterson, M. D., Contreras, B., & Tiryaki-Sonmez, G. (2015). Influence of resistance training frequency on muscular adaptations in well-trained men. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 29(7), 1821–1829. https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0000000000000970