It’s been far too long since writing, but a recent article in Men’s Health UK provides some impetus. Having a toddler, a busy family life, and running a gym that keeps getting busier will keep one busy enough that in order to not fall into the Busy Trap some things must fall by the wayside.
Men’s Health asked me some questions regarding whether full-body or split programs are better for most people. Here is my answer.
Parts of my response were left out for space reasons, so what I would add is that I and my staff think about the needs of the person first – whether that is what movements need priority, what energy systems, are we looking to improve endurance, strength, power etc… and that guides what we do first and foremost. That is accomplished by assessing the person – which is a big piece most people are missing. As the old saying goes you don’t know what you don’t know. Having some trained eyes on you is irreplaceable.
Rather than go into depth here my friend Patrick Ward breaks down criteria for exercise selection and programming quite well here.
So without further ago here is full-body training vs. split routines.
Peek at the workout regimes of elite bodybuilders and, alongside the surely-that’s-a-typo weight they’re shifting, you’ll notice an array of exercises paired and grouped in baffling ways. Hitting specific muscles with forensic focus is how the pros build perfectly balanced bodies. But when you’ve only got an hour in the gym on your lunchbreak, is it really worth obsessing over such complicated routines?
For your average gym-goer, or anyone who values functional strength over aesthetics, definitely not, says Elemental Fitness Lab owner Chris Bathke. “Nearly everyone does better on a full-body programme,” he explains. “But most people are stuck in bodybuilder mentalities and do way too much arms, chest and abs. It’s simply not as effective.”
Muscles are made to move together. Split routines force them into patterns they don’t normally experience. Fancy climbing a wall? You’re better using a pull-up motion than a triceps pulldown. Moving a sofa? A deadlift’s a wiser bet than lying on your back and leg pressing it. The body is a unified machine, says Bathke, “and the key is to think about movements, not parts.”
Because split routines isolate muscles, they can also lead to overall weakness despite impressive visual gains. Endless curls may get your biceps straining your sleeves, but unless you’re building forearm and shoulder strength at the same pace you’ll wind up stressing your joints. Four weeks out of the gym with tennis elbow won’t help you hit your muscle targets.
But full-body training isn’t just about muscle growth. “If your main goal is to burn fat, then a full-body circuit is a good way to train,” says Jay Moore, fitness manager at Virgin Active Aldersgate. It’s simple maths; work more muscles, burn more calories. It’s why belly fat-burning deadlifts will earn you a quicker six-pack than endless crunches. And because you incorporate your abs to stabilise you, you’ll hammer your core as hard as your quads in a single exercise. Bad news for Patrick Bateman, good news for you.
But you can’t just head to your local gym and aimlessly start picking up barbells, warns Bathke. You need a programme focused on your goals – whether that’s weight loss, muscle gain or sports performance – and which hits your biggest muscle groups to turbocharge your metabolism and hormone production. “Less is more,” he says. “One upper body pulling movement, one push, a single leg movement and a hip dominant movement.” Link them together into a circuit for a hormone-spiking workout that fuels full-body muscle while burning fat, all in less than 15 minutes.
Recover to rebuild
If your goals are more aesthetic than athletic, or if you’re racking up weights that make the barbell buckle, full-body routines can become problematic. The higher your training volume the more recovery time you need. If you’re hitting the same muscles hard every two days you hamper growth. By focusing on a muscle group once a week you can give yourself seven days to rebuild, so can target specific areas more intensely.
But muscles don’t work in isolation. Pulling weight towards you incorporates your back and biceps. Pushing it away takes chest and triceps. “It’s beneficial to train those pairs together,” says Moore, who also recommends adding a core workout into each session. “There’s no reason not to and you’ll be using your abs to brace correctly when you’re lifting.” If you’re geared more towards a beach- than pitch-ready body, those extra planks and leg raises will help you earn a washboard stomach sooner. Remember that when you’re gritting your teeth through the final set.
Split routines demand greater discipline, though. Miss a session on a full-body programme and it’s only two days until you’re next in the gym. But for guys on splits, when the pub wins out over legs day, your pins have to wait a week until they’re trained. Too many missed sessions and you’ll build injury-prone imbalances; chicken legs can’t support a tree-trunk torso.
Mix it up
Whichever muscle methodology you adopt, the key is variation. “You should never let your training become boring or routine,” says Moore. Your body adapts to new movements quickly, and when it does, you’ll stop growing. Blending both full-body and split routines can help shock your body into coping with different types of training. The result? Big muscles, fast.
Kicking off a session with big compound moves like squats, deadlifts and pull-ups will fire up the body’s powerhouse muscles. When you start feeling fatigued, switch to more isolated exercises for a targeted workout.