April 21, 2022
With strength training and bodybuilding being more developed than ever, we have learned a lot about what is optimal for the body to grow...and what is not. There are a slew of different types of workout splits to choose from that can accommodate your specific needs. At the same time, some will claim to be better for strength gains while others for muscle growth. If you have read SET FOR SET for any time, you know we hate declaring something is “better” as things are rarely that clear in the fitness industry. This couldn’t be any more true than with what workout split you choose. In this article, we’re going to break down the two most basic categories of workout programs - full body vs workout splits.
Some of the topics we’ll go over include:
A workout split is the basic framework of organizing your workout plan by “splitting” up your exercises. Basically, instead of going to the gym and doing random exercises based on how you feel (we all know the guy who does bench and curls every day), a split is a helpful way to organize your workouts to ensure you’re hitting every muscle group evenly and consistently, and perhaps more importantly, ensures you give your muscles adequate rest. It’s really the very first step you take when designing a program.
In this sense, a “full-body” workout is actually a split in itself and is its own major division. Outside of that are all the other types of splits which will divide exercises by either body part (i.e. upper/lower) or movement pattern (i.e. push/pull) into their own day.
While more common in the strength world, there are even some splits where lifters will divide their days by focusing on a major lift such as the squat.
Regardless of how exercises are divided across the week, the primary goal is to simply give your workout structure and allow you to optimize your training based on your situation and goals.
Choosing the right split is a bit more involved than just choosing what you think looks good. There are a few variables that you need to consider.
1. How Much Time Can You Commit To Training?
By far, the most critical variable to consider when choosing what workout split to follow is deciding how much time you can realistically dedicate to training. And do yourself a favor; think long-term. One of lifters’ biggest mistakes when choosing what plan to follow is committing too much time and getting burned out.
We say long-term because we can easily overestimate how much time we want to spend training after that first week when we’re all gung-ho. However, after weeks or months pass, we find that we’re constantly feeling rushed, and going to the gym feels like a chore. This is important as certain splits are explicitly designed for the amount of days you can train weekly. Therefore, be honest with yourself. Going to the gym even just twice a week for the rest of your life will consistently outperform hitting the gym 6 days a week for a year, then getting burned out and dropping out for extended periods of time.
2. Your Ability To Recover
While there are some general rules to follow with recovery, everyone can respond differently to training. You may have found that you’re able to recover remarkably quickly, which allows you to follow a split that trains a muscle group with high frequency. On the other hand, you may need a couple extra days meaning something like a body part split is necessary so that you have an entire week to recover.
It can take a while to gain this type of body awareness but it’s definitely something to keep in mind. There are two easy ways to see if know if you’re recovered:
3. Your Training Age And Goals
While any split can be designed to reach any goal, these can definitely play a factor, especially your training age. If you are new to the gym, running a 6-day upper-lower split that has you training each body part 3x a week is definitely not going to work for you. On the other hand, if you have been training for 5 years and want to continue putting on mass, a 2-day full-body split is not going to allow you enough volume to progress. The problems with these two variables exist mainly on the end of the spectrum (like the two scenarios above), but it’s definitely something to consider.
As mentioned above, a full-body workout is still a “split,” but we are going to separate it and use “split” to refer to every other type of workout split: upper/lower, push/pull, push/pull/legs, body part aka bro split, etc. The reason being is that this is the first major difference that occurs when choosing how you will run your program. Basically, the choices are either to work every muscle group every session or if you will divide them up. While there are definitely different ways to divide your muscles, that can be decided upon once you choose to use a split rather than full body.
Think about it like deciding to buy a dog or not. Sure, you can choose from different breeds, but first, you need to decide if you even want a dog. To do that, you need to look at the pros and cons of owning and not owning a dog from a broad sense. That’s what this article is going to do. We’re going to look at the pros and cons of a full-body program as well as various workout splits.
As the name implies, a full-body training split will have you train every muscle group every session. It’s a relatively popular method of training that works excellent for the beginner lifter but is also used successfully by more advanced trainers. Actually, one of the most successful strength programs for beginners, Starting Strength (you'll find it in that link), utilizes a full body split training 3 day a week.
While you will train every body part every session, this doesn’t necessarily mean the same emphasis will be put on every muscle group. In fact, even though it sounds simple, a full-body workout plan can actually get quite technical in its design. For example, a common method is to start every workout session with a main exercise such as your squat, bench press, or deadlift. Then as the session proceeds, you may use accessory movements from other body parts. Or, you can use undulating periodization with a full-body workout meaning that one session will concentrate on muscle hypertrophy, another will concentrate on strength, and another on power.
Given that you are training each muscle group every time you go to the gym, the vast majority of those who run a full-body training split will go to the gym two or three times. While some swear they will do full body splits 5 times a week, we just don’t find this plausible for a natural lifter. Or, they just aren’t training hard enough. Regardless, if you are going to do a full-body split, stick to three days a week, four at max.
There’s a good chance that full body splits don’t get the respect they deserve. Generally, when people hear of a full-body split, they think either a) beginner or b) some sort of light dumbbell exercise. Neither is true. Wellllllllll, they could be, but those don’t tell the whole story. Full-body workouts can pack a huge punch. Here’s what they offer...
1) Highly Efficient
Full body workouts are extremely efficient. In fact, they must be due to their nature. As mentioned, full-body workouts are ideal for those who don’t have a lot of time due to their job and family or social life. Or, perhaps someone wants to be fit but has other hobbies and doesn’t want the gym to eat up all of their free time. All you need to get in a great workout is three days of training. In fact, you could even get away with training twice a week with a full body workout if you’re just looking for general fitness and strength gains.
One of the reasons is that full-body workouts don’t have a lot of time so they only use (or should only use) the best movements that get the most bang for your buck. This includes all of your foundational movements.
2) Ensures Plenty Of Recovery
Perhaps the greatest hurdle lifters must conquer is due to self-sabotage. We’re talking about inadequate recovery. We understand we love hitting the gym, and we want those gainz. However, you can hit the gym too much, which will mitigate your progress. We’re not even talking about full-blown overtraining; we just mean you get fatigued from work, working out, family issues, etc. Anytime you go to the gym and aren’t prepared to give it 100%, there’s a good chance you’d be better resting another day.
When you only train 3 days a week, this is unlikely to happen. When we run a 3-day full body split, we love the fact that we are genuinely looking forward to crushing every session. After training for 10+ years, that means something. In fact, this is one of the reasons we encourage advanced lifters to give a 3-day full body split program a go. It feels great to allow your body to fully recover and have plenty of time to crush our next session.
3) Less Buildup Of Fatigue During Your Session
If you run a full body program, you’ll likely being hitting all your major muscle groups. For instance, you may train the quads, chest, hamstring/glutes, back, shoulders. This will help mitigate fatigue during your workout, which could mean your training will actually be more intense as the muscles you work will be fresh with each new exercise, and thus you can continue going hard. While it’s still tough, some trainees find that alternating the muscle groups allows them to push harder as the muscle is less fatigued.
4) Easy to Follow
What are you doing today?
Uhhhh, what’s today; Tuesday? Oh yea, I’m doing everything.
And that’s how complicated a full body split is. Well, not entirely, but they are pretty simple to follow. We’ll give you a little bonus and show you how to build a full-body workout program real fast:
5) Highly Customizable
We were being a bit facetious above to prove a point, but full body splits are pretty simple. At the same time, they are highly customizable. Above we went over some examples but a full body program doesn’t just have beginner exercises. In fact, it shouldn’t. Remember many great strength programs are 3-days a week. That being said, don’t be fooled into thinking that you’re trapped with what you can do with a full body workout.
On the contrary, a split training program will have you divide your muscles so that a certain group will be trained in one session while another group is trained in another session, and so on. While we won’t go through every split in-depth, we will list some of the more common body split training programs.
Still, new splits have even emerged over the years to keep up with sports research. For instance, the PHAT body split designed by Dr. Layne Norton has your sessions divided by both body parts AND training goals, specifically power and hypertrophy.
As you can see, all of these training programs can vary quite significantly from one another. However, at the end of the day, they’re designed so that a lifter can divide their training to better optimize their workout with recovery.
Split training programs are just as fantastic as full-body splits and bring along their own unique advantages. Again, this article can’t go over every specific component of each split program, but we will address the overarching similarities that they share...
Once you get into the world of split programs, you have a lot more choices of programs to address your specific needs. For example, when you do a full-body split, you are stuck with training every muscle group every session. This may or may not be ideal for your specific goal so you better hope it is.
However, spit programs allow you to really design your program however you want. While we did list the more common splits above, nothing is saying that you have to follow these. For example, while rare, some strength guys find that heavy squats really take it out of them to the point any other training that day is fruitless. Therefore, they have a day where all they train are heavy squats. Or like having a specific day for core and arms. The point is there’s much more flexibility to design a program to fit your needs, you just need to split things up accordingly.
2) Allows You To Focus
Because you are training less muscle groups, maybe even one, you are able to concentrate more on what you’re doing. This may or may not be a problem for you but some people can get sidetracked when thinking about how they still need to hit the back, and then the quads, etc. As a split allows you to cut down on the muscle groups, you can solely concentrate on whatever muscle you’re training.
3) Allows More Frequency
As mentioned above, using a full-body split really limits you to 3-days a week if you want to train optimally. However, that may not be enough for you. Perhaps you genuinely love being at the gym, and you want to go more often. Or maybe you want a day to get in some more core or specific exercises. Getting to the gym more often opens up more training time to get these workouts in.
4) Allow More Volume
Similar to above, higher frequency allows more than just more exercises, but it will enable you to get more volume in. This is a huge plus, especially if you’re a bodybuilder where volume is key to growth. Even strength trainers could benefit from being able to workout with more volume.
One of the major issues trainees are curious about is what is better for mass, full-body, or splits? There are actually two studies that can help answer this. A recent study from 2021 looked at the effect that a full-body workout and spit workout had on untrained trainees. After a similar resistance training program, they found that both the full body and split program improved both strength and muscle hypertrophy. However, there is a caveat. This study had each group perform the same amount of volume. From this, we can see that if the volume is equated for, a full body and split program will have similar results for untrained trainees.
Another study from 2021, had two groups perform the same exercise but split the arrangement into either a full-body workout or a body part split. They found that the body split group tended to show a trend towards more muscle growth. This is interesting as even though volume was equated for, there still tended to be more muscle growth.
In addition to these two studies, we can add all of the other studies that show that more volume is associated with greater muscle growth. This is more realistic in the real world as most people who run a full day program train 3 days a week, and those that train a split will train 4+ days. This inevitably means they perform more volume. Therefore, a split that allows more overall volume will likely result in more muscle growth in the real world.
The other big question is which is better for fat loss; a full-body program or a split? This one is hard to answer as there are a lot of nuances. Regardless, workouts should be focused on muscle gain, while nutrition should be looked at for fat loss. That being said, here’s our take.
Remember, caloric burn occurs when you do more work. Therefore, if we were going to look strictly at the caloric burn on a weekly basis, a split program is likely going to burn more, assuming you are going to the gym more often and performing more work.
However, let’s pretend that you perform a full-body workout and a split program the same amount of days a week. There is a good argument that since you are using different muscles during the full body split, you’ll be able to perform more overall work. In this case, the full body workout would probably allow you to burn more calories.
Basically, whatever split allows you to do more work will likely be more beneficial for fat loss.
Most beginners will start their journey wondering this very question; which is better, full-body or splits? In the case of beginners, it likely really doesn’t matter. Above we already saw a study that supports this belief. However, another very similar study looked at the improvements of strength in untrained trainees after following either a full-body program or a split. They, too, saw that neither one outperformed the other. Still, it’s essential to realize that both groups showed improvements, so both programs worked. It’s just that neither worked better than the other.
One thing to consider is a beginner lifter only needs so much stimulus to grow. Further, a maximal threshold exists in which they won’t grow anymore regardless of how much work they do. Since a split is generally used over a full-body program to train more, we can assume that this extra time is likely unneeded.
Consider the big article we did on beginners and isolation work (check it out here as it’s directly applicable to this…plus it’s just interesting!). In a nutshell, multiple studies have shown that adding more isolation work to a beginner’s program that already trains the muscles sufficiently provides no benefit, either strength gains or muscle growth. This is basically what we were saying above. A lifter can only grow so much regardless of their work. Since a beginner doesn’t require that much stimulation, that threshold is reached relatively easily with a minimal amount of work.
Therefore, a beginner will definitely progress on a 3-day full-body workout plan, and adding more to that probably won’t provide much benefit.
Both, a full body and split. While cliche, it’s true; choose a full body or split based on your need and life circumstances. As mentioned above, the one piece of advice we can give is that the biggest mistake trainees make when choosing a program is selecting the one they can’t keep up with. That and (we lied, we have two pieces of advice) full-body workouts are actually incredible and ignored too often.
Full body programs and splits work, but you need to look at your specific circumstances to see what works best. Keep in mind that nothing is committing you to life once you start. The vast majority of lifters who have been training for any significant length of time will probably tell you they have used everything. At least we can. 3-day full-body, 2-day full-body, 6-day bro split, 5-day movement-based…literally everything!
And to tell you a secret, they all worked because they met our life’s circumstances at the time. That being said, now you have the general breakdown, don’t make a huge deal deciding between a full body and a split. Choose what you think would work and go with that for a while and see how you feel. Maybe you’ll hit a PR and maybe not, but you’ll never know until you lift!
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