Here I will take a look at the potential benefits and downsides of each training style and then make some recommendations based on different goals. There will also be specific recommendations for people looking to get lean as most ChilledFitness readers are. The good news is that if you ask yourself some simple questions, the right kind of training for you becomes fairly obvious.
Let’s start with some very brief definitions…
Full Body Workouts
As the name suggests, this training style involves working as many muscles as possible in a single session – all of the major muscle groups are trained at least. Training will often be based around compound, multi-joint movements such as squats, clean and press, pull-ups and push-ups. Isolation exercises which focus on a single muscle group are not as common.
Sessions are often structured as circuits or as a series of tri-sets and supersets. This allows the full body to be trained efficiently in a relatively short time period. Workouts tend to be intense with at least one day of rest before the next session – you will not often come across anyone seriously training their full body for two days consecutively.
The MAX Workouts program is a great example of this training style.
Split Workout Routines
These workouts are where most people tend to start when entering the world of fitness – split routines are very popular in mainstream magazines and often used by body builders. The most common involve focusing on one or two body parts per session, depending on how many workouts are completed per week. For example…
Popular muscle groups and combinations for split workouts:
- Back and biceps
- Chest and triceps
- Chest and shoulders
- Chest and back
- Shoulders and arms
The above is just a sample of some of the more frequently recommended body part combinations that could be trained together in a split workout schedule – there are of course many more.
Split routines do sometimes include some full body exercises but typically feature more isolation exercises such as curls, calf raises and tricep extensions etc.
Now we know the differences between these two popular training styles, let’s try and answer a common question…
Should I Do Full Body Or Split Workouts?
As I mentioned above, this really depends on your individual goals. Let’s start by looking at full body routines, how they can benefit you and who should consider them.
Benefits of Full Body Routines Over Split
1. Increased Energy Expenditure & Fat Loss
The compound exercises that make up full body routines typically require a lot more energy than isolation exercises do. Just imagine a set of front squats or power cleans compared to a set of bicep curls. The number of calories burned by curls is a whole lot less.
When you are performing multi-joint movements in circuits or supersets then your energy expenditure is extremely high. You are putting your body in an ideal state for optimal fat burning and also taking advantage of something called the Afterburn Effect – this basically allows you to continue burning calories at an increased rate well after your session has finished. See my guide to Metabolic Resistance Training for more on this.
A full body workout routine essentially has you doing more work in a session.
2. Efficient Use of Training Time
Arranging a full body workout into one or more circuits or supersets can help you make the most of the time you have available for training. Most people are at least somewhat time restricted and don’t have 90 minutes to spare multiple times per week to hit the gym.
It is definitely possible to carry out an extremely effective, high intensity full body session in 20 minutes if you are keeping rest to a minimum. I have personally trained this way for a long time during lunch breaks etc. 3 full body workouts like this per week equals a total of one hour training time – the results you can achieve with this tiny time commitment are incredible.
If you happen to miss a full body session then you are also in much better shape than if you were following a split training schedule. Missing a split session often means that the body parts due for a workout on that day will not get trained for an entire week. Even when missing a full body session you have still trained everything twice in that same week.
3. Cardiovascular & Strength Benefits
If you train your full body intensely with heavy weights and minimal rest then you are able to get some of the benefits of both strength and cardio training from a single session.
Circuit based workouts with incomplete recovery are essentially a type of cardio and will definitely allow you to burn calories effectively. When using heavy weights you are also able to maintain and develop lean muscle, just as you would with more traditional split-type routines.
One huge benefit here is that by using full body workouts you are able to effectively burn body fat without the loss of muscle. This is an extremely common goal and one that the vast majority of ChilledFitness.com readers are extremely interested in.
Are Full Body Workouts Better Than Split Routines For You?
I recommend full body routines for people who:
- Do not have a lot of time for training
- Are focusing on fat loss without muscle loss
- Have had poor fat loss results with cardio
- Want to get a lean physique as quickly as possible
- Want to add muscle without body building
I think those points describe the vast majority of ChilledFitness.com readers fairly well, so I would recommend full body training instead of split workout training for most of you
Let’s now take a look at the split workouts though…
Benefits Of Split Training Over Full Body Workouts
Although I have strongly endorsed full body routines above, split workouts definitely have some unique benefits. It is a good idea to understand them to get a balanced view on whether you should be trying split workouts or full body routines.
1. Greater Focus on Areas of Your Choice
The nature of split workout routines means that you are usually focusing one or two body parts per session. This does give you greater freedom to target your efforts where you think they are most needed. For example, if you feel that your triceps need more attention or you simply want to increase their size or strength then there will be a workout session during your week where you can make this happen. Training your whole body simple doesn’t allow for this kind of fine tuning – you have to worry about covering everything in a short time period, not changing the shape of individual body parts.
This is one of the reasons many fitness models and body builders choose split workouts – they need to be able to focus on getting as close to their ideal shape as possible. This can however be time consuming and simply impractical for anyone who cannot devote themselves to this full time.
If you are following a split routine then be careful not to neglect certain areas of your body you don’t really enjoy training. A common mistake made by beginners is to spend too much time focusing on their arms or chest and totally ignoring , or at least under-training their legs. This leads to imbalances and often looking plain stupid!
2. Heavier Weights For Strength & Size
A full body workout will cause you to tire quickly. As you move past the half-way point and toward the end of your session then you will definitely be feeling strain, energy levels will start to drop. Overall you will not be able to lift weights which are as heavy as the ones you are using for split workouts – the energy expenditure is just too much.
One of the benefits of split routines vs. full body routines is that a split session will allow you to use heavier weights and avoid the kind of fatigue experienced when training full body. This can obviously be beneficial for gaining size and strength.
The combination of focused training on a specific body part, along with heavier loads, results in excellent progress for some people who are not able to sustain the same levels of progress when training their full body.
3. More Straightforward, Less Overtraining
A split routine can be very simple to adhere to. Exercises are laid out exactly and you can be very clear about what should be done and when during your week. This is key more compliance and consistency, both if which are key to seeing long term results.
Training the full body can be difficult due to a lack of focus. It is common to think that a certain body part is not receiving enough attention – this can lead to overtraining.
Some people also have problems with the sheer intensity and energy requirements of full body training. You can start to feel tired and de-motivated, even after recovery days. It seems that full body training sessions are simply unsustainable for some people who will see much better results, and have more enjoyment, with split training. In this case the full body or split dilemma is an easy one to solve – choose split!
Who Should Use Split Routine Training?
This training style is great for professional and aspiring fitness models who need the ability to fine-tune areas of their body. A lot of body builders also prefer the split to full body.
If full body workouts are too intense for you or simply de-motivating then split sessions could be the way forward. Ultimately you need a schedule you can stick to, otherwise all of this is in vein. Where fat loss is a goal, I would always try and choose full body workouts vs. split training though.
To sum up, it is possible to both lose body fat and pack on lean muscle with both styles of training. I’m sure the split workout vs. full body workout debate will continue for years to come though. At the end of the day, as long as you have a program that you enjoy and can stick to then there should be nothing stopping you from reaching your goals.
Also remember that nutrition is at least 70% of the fat loss/lean muscle gaining equation. If your nutrition is too far off then your training schedule is almost meaningless anyway. I always recommend and follow the Paleo Diet so make sure you read up on that. Paleo alone is enough to achieve incredibly efficient fat loss.
What Do You Think?
Definitely let me know any thoughts you have on this topic – just use the comments section below. I would love to answer questions and discuss your individual experiences.