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Full body vs. split training

And the winner is...

A question that I often receive from both clients and students is: should you train the whole body each session, or is it better to split it up and dedicate each day to a different muscle group? Because both seem to produce impressive athletes. In this article I will shed some light on both training methods, which will hopefully assist you into making a proper choice for yourself.

photo by @wearebru
"Most strength athletes lean towards full body programs, while many bodybuilders prefer split routines."

Let’s start with outlining the essential differences between the two methods. In classic full body training, exercises like squats and presses are trained every session, multiple times per week. Frequency of training each body part is therefore high, but volume per session per muscle group is low - simply because there's a whole body to train. On a classic split routine, things go exactly the other way. Here, the body is smeared out over a training week, with separate sessions devoted to one body part like the arms or chest. This makes for a low training frequency (once a week), but with very high volumes per muscle group per session.

If you look at what type of athlete is usually associated with either common method, then you’d see that most strength athletes lean towards full body programs, while many bodybuilders prefer split routines. The difference in goal is, obviously, strength versus muscle growth. For strength athletes this high frequency choice makes total sense, because in order for a skill like bench pressing or olympic lifting to improve, coordination needs to be trained. So the more frequent, the better. For maximal muscle growth on the other hand, you need targeted volume, and lots of it. And doing just four sets per day won't cut it.

So it's easy then: pick a low frequency split if you want to get big, and a high frequency full body routine if you want to get strong, right? Well, it's not that simple. As I have written in my article on hypertrophy and rep ranges (see suggestions down below), it's important to realize that mechanical tension - how much you are lifting - is at the foundation of muscle growth. Being stronger also means that 'lighter' high rep training is performed with more weight as well, resulting in higher training volumes - which again adds to muscle growth. In theory, it's therefore a good idea to strive for strength and practice higher training frequencies even when you only care about getting bigger.

"All arguments seem to point towards higher frequencies being optimal."

Another issue that pops up with low frequency split training is when we consider the amount of effective volume that one can do in a training session. Research has shown that optimal training volume sits, on average, at about 10 sets per muscle group per session, and that doing either more or less yields inferior results. Whether this has to do with under-recovery or that past the 10 set mark one is just too fatigued to hit a sufficient intensity to stimulate muscle growth, is hard to say though.

So if all arguments seem to point towards higher frequencies being optimal for both strength and muscle growth, why is the classic split still around? I find this a difficult question to answer. Simply because elite bodybuilders are, after all, the most muscular athletes. And many of them are on classic split programs. And they can't be all wrong. Maybe the research is yet to catch up here, but it's likely that with more experience, volumes necessary for muscle growth just become too high for full body training. A division into a more split type program might then be required to stay away from monstrous full body marathons that are impossible to hold up - or recover from.

In conclusion, it should be clear that I believe high frequency full body routines to yield better results than low frequency split programs. Especially during your first few years in the gym, a huge part of making progress is increasing weights by building up movement skill, so high frequency full body training yields quickest results. As you progress and become more experienced, however, more targeted volume needs to be dedicated to specific muscles, and full body training may lose its effectivity. This then paves the way for hybrid type programming with hints of split training in them, but elaborating on those is beyond the scope of this week's article.

Bryan Wolters

MSc. Human Movement Sciences, former powerlifter, and current trainer at Vondelgym Amsterdam.

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