Full Body vs Body Part Splits
Bodybuilding is much like any other sport. To be successful, you must dedicate yourself 100% to your training, diet and mental approach.
“Full body” and “body part splits” are common terms in the fitness space, used to refer to two different structures for a resistance training program.
In full-body training, you usually perform an exercise for each muscle or muscle group in every session.
Body part splits target specific muscle groups in each workout. Some of the most popular splits are:
This article will cover the rationale for full-body training and split training; pros and cons of both; and some tips on how to choose the structure that will benefit you the most.
Training Frequency and Volume
Whether you choose full-body training or a body part split is going to affect two important variables in your program:
A small note on terminology: When talking about volume, I will be referring to the number of hard sets you perform per muscle or muscle group per week. Counting hard sets has been found to be a good proxy for volume when each set includes between 6 and 20 reps, as Greg Nuckols, Eric Helms, and Dr. Mike Israetel have written about at length.
The current general volume recommendation is 10 to 20 weekly sets per muscle or muscle group in order to make gains in strength and size. The less experienced you are, the fewer sets you may need to make progress, and vice versa.
In a single session, the sweet spot for effective training seems to be three to 10 sets per muscle or muscle group. Less than that may not produce enough stimulus for a single muscle. More than that can have a negative impact on performance in the current session, post-workout recovery, and thus subsequent training.
The current general frequency recommendation for strength and hypertrophy is to train each muscle or muscle group two to four times per week.
For this reason, the “bro split”, in which you only hit each muscle once every seven days, results in a suboptimal training frequency.
Furthermore, this style training forces you to cram 10 to 20 sets in a single workout to truly “hammer” your muscles, thus going over the recommended effective range of three to 10 sets.
As a result, bro splits might not give you the best bang for your buck if you are interested in long-term strength and size gains.
This leaves us with full-body training, upper-lower, or push-pull-legs. There are other potential splits, but for simplicity’s sake I will focus on these popular options.
Here is the most important take-home message of this article (yep, you can stop reading after this paragraph): When volume is equated between conditions and matches the optimal workload for the individual to achieve their desired outcome, then no split is superior to the others.
For example, if your ideal volume is 12 sets per week per muscle or muscle group, all of the following options are equally valuable, at least in theory:
The factors dictating your final choice will be:
Pros and Cons of Full-Body Training
On average, full-body workouts are performed with at least 48 hours of rest between sessions, two to three days per week, and entail three to four sets of one exercise per muscle or muscle group each.
Assuming you want to train three times per week, full-body workouts allow you to hit each muscle quite often. This could be especially beneficial for beginners, who need to repeat the same exercises over and over in order to develop correct motor learning patterns.
If they can recover from it, higher frequencies might benefit intermediate and advanced trainees, too. This is contrary to the old-fashioned belief that only novices should do full-body workouts, whereas more experienced lifters should employ a bro split.
I have already covered the potential downsides of the bro split. As this article has been expanding upon, reality appears to be much more complex and highly specific for each individual.
For the average individual, who may utilise full-body training three times per week instead of five or six, like the lifters involved in the studies mentioned above, the main disadvantage of this type of program is that it can limit your volume.
Unless you can afford to spend several hours at the gym, it’s unlikely you will be able to do more than three to five sets per muscle or muscle group per session.
This amounts to nine to 15 sets per week. Progressing from the lower to the higher end of the range will keep you going for years, but eventually you might need to switch to a different structure if you are interested in high-volume training, such as that necessary for hypertrophy.
Furthermore, your best option for full-body training are compound lifts, which place more emphasis on your bigger muscles, for example chest and quads.
Your smaller muscles, like biceps and triceps, will be hit indirectly, but it may come a point in your lifting career where you may need to train them in a more direct fashion to elicit better results. In that case, too, a body part split might be more conducive to this goal.
Pros and Cons of Splits
The most obvious advantage of body part splits is that you can accumulate more volume for a single muscle or muscle group per session, since you are only targeting a couple of them at a time.
As a result, not only can you accrue more total weekly volume. You can also choose more isolation exercises to hit smaller muscles, or more exercises for a specific muscle that you want to bring up.
However, any split routine would require you to train four to six days per week instead of only two or three. This level of commitment could be impractical for your average gym goer with a full-time job, who doesn’t want to become the next Mr. Olympia.
Which One Should You Choose?
The three main factors to consider when you’re picking a structure for your own program are the following, in order of priority:
1.What’s your goal?
Goals influence your weekly set volume, which is one of the most important variables in a training program. For this reason, you need to establish your objective first.
If it’s general fitness, then full-body training is probably your best option.
You can gain strength, build a pretty awesome physique, and get all of the health-related benefits of resistance training on a well-designed full-body program that only requires 10 weekly sets and two to three weekly sessions.
If you have bodybuilding aspirations, whether competitive or not, you may need to increase volume over time.
In this case, you could combine full-body workouts with a split routine. For example, you could do full-body training during low-volume phases and switch to a body part split to accommodate volume increases during hypertrophy phases.
2.How many times per week can you go to the gym?
As a general guide, if you can’t go to the gym too often, then full-body training will be your best choice to reach the minimal frequency required for strength and hypertrophy.
If you can only go twice per week, you may not be able to achieve 10 weekly sets per muscle. Nevertheless, training with less volume than this recommendation will still produce some growth, as noted by Brad Schoenfeld when commenting on his and James Krieger’s 2017 meta-analysis on the dose-response relationship between volume and hypertrophy.
It might not be optimal from an absolute standpoint, but it is ideal when the alternative is to just sit on the couch and biceps-curl chips into your mouth.
On the other hand, if you can go to the gym multiple times a week, then introducing a four- or five-day split will allow you to have time-efficient and productive higher-volume sessions.
Typically, when volume is 12 to 14 sets, I would choose an upper-lower split repeated four days a week. When volume is around 16 to 20 sets, I would opt for a lower-upper-lower-push-pull split or a lower-upper-full body split, both of which could be carried out over the course of five training days.
3.How much time can you spend at the gym?
In theory, the more time you have available for each session, the fewer sessions you could schedule every week.
However, a single session of over two hours might not be very effective. You might be so fatigued at the end that the final exercises might not provide much of a stimulus, in which case you might be better off doing them another day.
The inverse is also true: Training multiple muscles for a very short time might not help any of them grow. You might only get to do one or two sets per muscle, falling short of the range of effective sets per session.
The main practical takeaways of this article can be summarised as follows:
In Future Episodes:
Fitness Q&As – Part 1 is coming, covering a variety of topics in the field of nutrition and resistance training!
Are you training full-body or using body part splits at the moment?
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