It’s an age-old debate in the bodybuilding community: should you do a full-body workout or a split routine?
If all you did was read the latest magazines, you might think it was an open-and-shut case – split routines, of course! But if you look back to the “Golden Era” of bodybuilding – the 50s, 60s, and 70s – you’d see tons of huge, strong dudes doing nothing but full-body workouts. Then, of course, there are the powerlifters, most of whom still do some type of full-body or upper-lower program.
Which one should you pick? It can seem like a tough choice, especially when you’re just starting out. To help you decide, here are a few pros and cons of full-body and body part-split routines.
Full Body for Fat Loss
If your goal is pure and simple size gains, then you’ve got some more thinking to do. If you need to drop some fat, however, the choice is simple -full body all the way! As you’ve (hopefully) already heard, weight training is a far more effective tool for fat loss than running or other forms of cardio. But when it comes to shrinking your waistline, not every movement will have the same effect.
Take the squat, for example. It’s one of the toughest exercises you can do, and it has a tremendous ability to up-regulate your body’s fat-burning hormones. The same is true for deadlifts, bench presses, and other heavy, compound movements. However, curls, calf raises, and other isolation exercises won’t have nearly the same effect. Does that mean they’re worthless movements? Not at all! But they’re not going to torch body fat nearly as well as the heavy stuff.
So, your best bet for simultaneously getting stronger and leaner is to perform several different types of heavy movements in each workout. Simply pick a lower body exercise (squat or deadlift), a push (bench press, overhead press), and a pull (pull-ups, rows). You can add more on top of all that, but those three mainstays will make each workout as effective for fat loss as possible.
Splits for Lagging Muscles
If you’re a beginner, you do NOT have weak points. I don’t care how small this or that body part is, you just need to focus on gaining size and strength with basic movements. If you do have a couple years of training under your belt, however, you probably have one or two lagging areas. It’s legs for most guys, but others struggle to grow their arms, chests, shoulders, or backs.
Whatever your weak point is, a body part split is going to be the quickest way to bring it up to par with everything else. Small lats and tiny traps? Double up on your back days, and pay extra attention to deadlifts and rows. Puny legs? Train legs twice as often as every other part, and hammer your squat until it’s your best lift. Narrow shoulders? Add extra overhead presses and side raises to every chest, shoulder, and back day on your schedule. You may not gain as much overall size as you would on a full-body schedule, but you will see rapid improvements in the areas you hit the hardest.
Full Body Frequency
While splits can help you improve “problem” areas, full body workouts are probably your best bet for the fastest overall size gains. Since you’re focusing almost all of your attention on the heaviest lifts, your body is constantly facing pressure to adapt and grow. Take an average full-body workout – squats, bench presses, pull-ups, and maybe some curls to finish. Contrast that session with a back and biceps day on a split routine – deads, rows, pull-ups, and curls. The latter may be better for growing specific areas, but the former is going to produce a FAR greater overall growth response in your body.
Plus, you can always train a body part or movement pattern more often when you’re NOT hammering the crap out of it. That aforementioned back workout will require days of recover, whereas you could be squatting and benching again within a day or two. In fact, once you get your work capacity up to snuff, you can do heavy, full-body workouts almost every day! Try and ignore the “overtraining” brigade for a while, and learn what your body is really capable of.
Advanced Development Through Splits
Lifters constantly bicker over whether or not you can “shape” your muscles. The concept does sound kind of silly, but I think it does have some validity, especially since each body “part” is actually composed of several groups of muscle fibers. If you want to develop all of these muscle fibers to their maximum potential, you’ll probably have to use a split routine at some point.
Take your quads, for instance. You might not be able to tell if your legs are small – or if you’re not very lean – but your quads are comprised of four different groups of muscle fibers. The most prominent are those on the very outside – the vastus lateralis – and those on the very inside – the vastus medialis. The lateris give your legs that “sweeping” look, while the medialis forms that coveted “teardrop” near your knee.
Now, if you have awesome bodybuilding genetics, then both of these groups will develop just fine through lots of heavy squatting. If you’re like most lifters, however, you’ll have to perform some dedicated work to get them both up to snuff. You might need close-stance leg presses or sissy-squats for your teardrops, and you might have to do some crazy high-rep hack squats to develop that killer sweep.
Overall, the point is that you’ll probably need some targeted, high intensity work on specific areas to get every little muscle to grow. This kind of training isn’t conducive to massive overall growth, but it will help you take a good physique to the next level.
Justin Woltering is a distinguished Fitness Expert, Author, and Dymatize Sponsored Athlete. See www.justinwoltering.com