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Full Body vs Split Routines

One of the common characteristics of the HIT approach, is the regular use of full body workouts. But what about split routines? Are there any benefits to using split routines in your own training or with your clients, or are they best left on the shelf?

 

THE GIST

  • A full body routine is one in which all major muscle groups of the body are exercised in each workout.
  • Full body routines were commonplace in the fitness and bodybuilding worlds from the advent of strength training right through to the 1960’s and are still the cornerstone of HIT workouts.
  • In split routines, the body is separated into different areas, each getting its own individual workout on separate days.
  • An upper/lower body split is probably the most common way to divide the body
  • Some of the benefits of full body routines are: they are time-efficient, usually focused on key multi-joint exercises – especially important for beginners, and they target the body as a whole.
  • Some of the benefits of split routines are: they can be useful for certain populations/individuals, like athletes and highly-motivated individuals, they can provide more space to experiment with volume, or specifically address smaller muscle groups with the inclusion of more single-joint exercises.
  • Ultimately, both full body and split routines work to build muscle, the choice comes down to what works best currently for the individual physically and keeps you motivated to adhere to exercise over the long term.

Full body vs Split routines in under 6 minutes

A full body routine is one in which all major muscle groups of the body are exercised each workout. When most people think of a HIT routine, they typically imagine a full body routine consisting of somewhere between 3-12 exercises.

Examples include:

Full Body Routines

Here are three examples of full body routines that target the body as a whole.

 

Big 3

  • Leg Press
  • Pulldown
  • Chest Press

Big 5

  • Leg Press
  • Pulldown
  • Chest Press
  • Row
  • Shoulder Press

10 Exercise Full body Routine

  • Chest Press
  • Row
  • Lateral raise
  • Triceps pushdown
  • Biceps curl
  • Wrist extension
  • Heel raise
  • Leg extension
  • Leg curl
  • Leg Press

 


Full body routines were commonplace in the fitness and bodybuilding worlds prior to the advent of HIT in the 1970’s. Indeed they were the approach used by most people who stepped foot inside a gym right through to the mid-part of the 20th century. Then they faded in popularity (if not effectiveness) from the late 1960’s onward. Full body routines which had worked for decades began to be looked down upon by many as merely beginner’s routines, something to move-on from once you had 6-12 months weight training under your belt.

What did people move on to? Split routines, in which the body is separated into different areas, each getting its own individual workout on separate days. There are many different variations of split routines; here are two good examples, an upper/lower split and a 3-way split:

Upper/Lower Split Routines

The number of days separating each workout is based on the recovery ability of the individual. An upper/lower body split is probably the most common way to divide the body.

 

Upper Body

  • Chest press
  • Compound row
  • Lateral raise
  • Pulldown
  • Triceps pushdown
  • Biceps curl
  • Abdominal

Lower Body

  • Leg press
  • Leg curl
  • Heel raise
  • Leg extension
  • Hip abduction
  • Low back

 


3-Way Split Routines

The number of days separating each workout is based on the recovery ability of the individual.

 

Chest/Shoulders/Triceps
  • Chest press
  • Lateral raise
  • Dips
  • Triceps pushdown
  • Abdominals
Lower Body
  • Heel raise
  • Low back
  • Leg press
  • Leg curl
  • Leg extension
Back/Biceps
  • Pulldown
  • Compound row
  • High row
  • Biceps curl
  • Wrist extension

 


This isn’t where split routines stop. It is of course possible to continue dividing the body into further sections, indeed plenty of people have done so. Take, for example this possible 5-way split: Chest day – Back day – Shoulder day – Leg day – Arm day. This split however is perhaps problematic, it doesn’t take much thinking about to realize it is in some ways unbalanced.

In the above 5-way split example, note that the arms are likely to get worked on every single upper body day i.e. 4x in one cycle, and the anterior and posterior deltoids are going to get hit in 3 workouts. When you consider it, it doesn’t make a lot of sense for the muscles of the chest, back and legs to get a less frequent stimulus (and in all likelihood, less volume) than the muscles of the arms and shoulders.

For practical purposes, if you are going to consider a split routine the most logical first choices are an upper/lower split or a 3-way split.

Having earlier noted that full body routines fell out of favor, they have had somewhat of a resurgence in popularity in the 2010’s, in the wider fitness world. Of course, in HIT they never went away: at a time when split routines were prevalent Arthur Jones and Ellington Darden of Nautilus were regularly writing about and encouraging the use of full body routines, going against the then-current grain.

So, what does work best, full body routines or split routines? Let’s look at the benefits of both full body and split routines.

 

The benefits of full body routines

Typically, full body routines will focus on 3-8 key exercises, all of which or at least a majority will be key multi-joint exercises. There is no doubt about it, these key exercises will provide the greatest exercise bang-for-buck. This simplicity is important, especially for those starting out with resistance training. As a beginner it is important to get the basics right first and to benefit from receiving the greatest return on your investment for time spent in the gym.

Big exercises like the leg press, chest press and row stimulate the major muscles of the body effectively, they are not only important movement patterns to learn, they are also efficient. A Big 3, Big 5, even an 8-exercise full body routine can be completed in very little time, in most cases sub-20 minutes. As time progresses, or in specific cases where more single-joint exercises are required you or your client can still be in and out of the gym within half an hour.

Most researchers across the board agree that each muscle group needs to be stimulated between 1-3x per week for optimal results. And most HIT trainers consider 1-2 workouts per week to be optimal for most, at least when an individual is past the beginner stage. When using full body routines, it is then simply a matter of selecting a frequency that works for you within the constraints of your lifestyle, energy levels and any other physical activities you engage in. And each time you workout all your key muscle groups will have been stimulated, so even if you have to skip a workout, you are effectively still on track. This is convenient, it doesn’t require thinking about or over-analysing.

Full body workouts in general also work very well for clients who aren’t that into exercising. As great a trainer and lovely a person as you may be, believe it or not, some clients would rather be sat with friends having a cappuccino than being put through their paces by you, in your “torture chamber”. Keeping these clients engaged is key, especially before they grow to love exercise! They need to develop adherence, and a time efficient, effective workout that only requires seeing you once or two times a week for twenty minutes stands perhaps the greatest opportunity of achieving this.

 

The benefits of split routines

When a person has developed significant ability and strength in the key exercises, it can be possible that by the tail end of a full body routine they begin to flag. Energy levels can dip and their ability to recruit all the motor units of a muscle group could potentially be compromised. You might not enjoy that feeling of not being able to give your absolute all to your last few exercises of the day. If this is the case, then a split routine may provide a less systemically draining avenue to pursue.

Talking about systemically draining, there may be cases where some individuals struggle with recovery in the day or two following a full-on, full body workout. They may be fine during the workout itself but dread the full body DOMS, or lethargic feeling of being systemically spent. This is most relevant to individuals who have a high stress lifestyle, poor nutrition or lack adequate sleep, or are perhaps facing a chronic health condition. In some cases, telling them to just suck it up or fix their lifestyle isn’t going to cut it, at least not in the short term. Simple split routines can reduce post-workout systemic fatigue for these individuals, and they will thank you for it- making adherence in these cases more likely by moving to a split routine, at least for a period.

Another population who face higher than normal levels of stress are athletes, in some cases splits may fit their overall program better, especially for those who also need to schedule their workouts around sport specific training and competition. Cyclists and runners, for example may not thank you training their legs and hips a couple of days before a long run or ride but can cope fine with an upper body workout then.

Another group that may want to experiment with split routines are those who are super-into resistance training: the highly motivated individual. Splitting the body two or three ways can allow more exercises to be performed for a muscle group than a full body routine would typically allow. More single-joint or “accessory” exercises can be performed, muscles which don’t always see as much direct stimulus can get their time in the sun: neck, forearms and hip abductors for example.

A downside with a split is, if muscle groups are going to be trained as frequently as they would be with a full body routine, more days and time will need to be spent in the gym, there is a loss in absolute efficiency. This will be problematic for some individuals. Having said that there are those for who this won’t be a downside at all, they may in fact relish being in the gym more often.

 

The bottom line: choosing between full body and split routines

Whether you choose to do full body routines or split routines the same key principles that apply to any resistance training program need to be considered:

  • selection of effective exercises balanced across all major muscle groups
  • appropriate mechanical loading and progressive overload
  • intensity, volume and frequency suited to the individual
  • any muscle damage incurred during a workout is repaired before that muscle group is worked again.

Then there are practical and psychological aspects to address: how often do you or your client want to be in the gym, how often can a person afford to train: both timewise and financially?

Ultimately, both full body and split routines work to build muscle, the choice comes down to what works best currently for the individual physically and keeps you motivated to adhere to exercise over the long term. If you are a personal trainer you will probably realize the vast majority of your clients will be best served by efficient full body routines, nearly all the time. It is more likely that you, as a highly motivated exercise fan with regular access to the gym, may find yourself wanting to experiment with split routines from time to time. Nevertheless, the ability to adapt workout programming to shifting life circumstances, current stress and motivation levels, or simply with an eye to experimentation are all valid reasons to keep both full body and split routines in your arsenal.




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