"As with most debates within the strength and conditioning industry, there's no right answer to the question of whether full body workouts or body part split workouts are ‘better’," says says Mike Krajewski, PT, CSCS, owner of MK Fitness in Nashville, TN. And if anyone tries to tell you different, ignore 'em.
"There’s no one way to do this," agrees Shawn Arent, Ph.D., C.S.C.S.*D, a Medical and Science Advisory Board member for Blueprint for Athletes and the director of Rutgers University's Institute For Food, Nutrition, and Health Center for Health & Human Performance. "There are a lot of right ways, but also wrong ways," he adds. You need to organize your training sessions so you're getting adequate rest and not overtraining certain energy systems.
What's more, there are pros and cons for both full body and split styles of training. As with most other training practices, the right one for you entirely depends on your goals. Here's what you need to know.
Full Body Benefits
The guy it benefits: Total-body routines benefit guys who are just targeting strength and aren't really preoccupied with mass, as well as those who are really trying to shred body fat. When you're engaged in a total-body strength and conditioning routine that's either focused on lifting heavy or quick, interval-like metabolic moves, you get a better bang for your buck.
More efficient use of time
"Getting to the gym more than 3x/week is not always in everyone’s schedule," Krajewski says. Full-body routines can help cut down some of the hours you spend in the gym per week without skipping a major muscle group. "Workouts that incorporate lower and upper body parts all mashed into one kick ass workout can allow you to get the anabolic response from your muscles that you need, while saving you from spending hours in the weight room," he adds.
Greater hormonal response
Full-body movements work far more muscle fibers, which release greater amounts of testosterone, growth hormone, and IGF-1 hormones, which lead to more muscle and less fat. So arguably, total-body workouts can create a better hormonal response.
Better for weight loss/fat loss
"Intense full-body workouts that have you wobbly legged and gasping for air are known to leave your muscles beat up," Krajewski says. Circuit training, metabolic intervals, and compound lifts engage more muscle groups, skyrocket your heart rate, and burn more calories. "Hitting your full body all the time from a conditioning aspect is great; it’s the model CrossFit follows," Arent notes.
Body Part Split Benefits
The guy it benefits: Specific upper and lower body splits are excellent for guys looking to bulk muscle mass in certain areas of their body, gain a PR in a major lift, or sustain a training program for the long haul. These are generally less exhausting and are ideal for major bulk-ups.
More focused strength gains
"Body part-specific training sessions (ie. chest day, back day, leg day, etc.), while less time efficient, can definitely dial in the specificity of the goals of your training program," Krajewski says. "If your goal is to deadlift 450lbs or bench 300lbs, you have to train accordingly," he adds. "If you weigh 165lbs and have a current bench PR of 225lbs I can guarantee you that full body workouts 3x/week won’t get you there." Getting in your major lifts and accessory work catered to that muscle group will. Just be careful you don't over-emphasize one muscle group over the others; that's when muscle imbalances and weaknesses can occur.
Better for building mass
"If you’re looking to build mass, I really see little benefit to constantly doing full-body workouts," Arent says. "Not to say it couldn’t work, but in terms of the volume you can accomplish and the ability to focus on certain muscle groups, I tend to prefer upper-lower body part splits." The upside is these focused workouts let you rotate your heavy versus light days more consistently; you don't want every day to be heavy and/or hard. That’s important for progression and it’s part of the periodization model.
"When programmed properly, the split workout routine results in considerably less overall fatigue since the focus is only on one or two body parts—max," Krajewski says. Full-body routines torch more calories and tire your body out faster, which can compromise your strength-specific training focus. "This isn’t implying that after an intense leg day your stems won’t be rendered useless for the remainder of the day," he explains. But you're at a lower risk for overtraining and overloading your whole body because your legs have time to recover.