Full Body Training vs. Split Training

by Chris on May 14, 2012

There are always going to be questions asked that have no single correct answer and will be savagely debated until the end of time. Pepsi or Coke? Milky Way or Snickers? Full body or split training?

This is one of those conflicts that will never be totally laid to rest in the training world. On the full body training side people are often quick to use Olympic weightlifters and gymnasts as examples. On the other side you have plenty of powerlifters and athletes who break their training up. So which one is best? Is one training style better than the other? As with most issues when it comes to strength training the answer is both simple and complex: it depends.

Full Body Training

Full body training is pretty simple and to the point. You work the entire body during every session. As stated above, most Olympic weightlifters train this way and the style has been supported by plenty of strength coaches and lifters, such as Chad Waterbury and Jamie Lewis just to name a few. Personally, I prefer this style of training and about 75% of my yearly training is structured this way.

Full body training offers a huge host of benefits. For starters, there are just some movements that don’t quite fit easily into split style training. Push presses, split jerks, Olympic lift variations and plenty of other movements incorporate the entire body. A minor issue, I know, but an issue for some people nonetheless.

My favorite element of full body training is the increased training frequency. I am a huge proponent of high frequency training for both size and strength development. Simple put, the more often you can expose your body to a stimulus like strength training, the better it will adapt to it. Want to get stronger? Try squatting 3-4 times a week. It will surely get the job done. When using full body style training (which is more often than not) I typically train anywhere from 3-5 times per week. That’s right. I train everything up to 5 days a week. And no, I don’t suffer from overtraining or adrenal fatigue or whatever other nonsensical training boogeyman that so many people are so damn afraid of nowadays.

Another great thing about full body training is that it forces you to pick the best exercises. If you’re only doing 3 exercises per session which ones are you going to pick? If you can only do one lower body movement are you going to do leg curls or deadlifts? That is an example of a question with only one right answer.

Full body training is incredibly effective and easy to program. Just choose one lower body dominant movement, an upper body pushing movement and an upper body pulling movement. Often I will also include one explosive movement (like an Olympic lift) and possibly an exercise specifically for the midsection.

Full body training is excellent for acclimatizing someone to training if they are just returning or beginning. I also use it for more strength and intensity driven periods of training since this style relies so heavily on big compound lifts.

Split Style Training

Split training is what you see most people doing in the gym. It’s what they see in bodybuilding magazines and it’s usually all they know. While I really don’t prefer bodypart splits that are common among bodybuilders, there are some methods of split training that I do like. All you need to do is look at guys like the Westside lifters, Ed Coan, Bill Kazmaier and countless athletes who use splits to know that they can be very effective if implemented right.

Split training comes in many different forms. You’ve got the bodypart splits I mentioned above, upper/lower splits, push/pull and any other combinations you can think of. Whatever combination you choose will depend on you and your personal preferences and experiences. Typically when I run a split style program I gravitate towards upper/lower splits. I’m assuming that since you are reading my article you wanted to know my opinion. If you didn’t, sucks for you because you’re getting it anyway.

While I prefer full body training in most situations, there are benefits to splitting up your training. The primary reason I like splitting is that it allows more recovery than full body training. I know I said above that I have trained up to five times a week with full body training without overtraining, and that’s true. However, after a while your joints will start to take a beating. Also, dealing with movements that structurally load the spine every day gets a little wearing as well.

Another benefit of split training is the converse of one I mentioned above: it allows you to use a wider variety of training movements. While this isn’t necessarily good for some people who use entirely too much variety in their training, it can be beneficial. For one thing it allows you to break up some of the boredom of only using core lifts every day. This additional variety also lets you spend some dedicated time focusing on weaknesses that you might not otherwise hit. As long as you are still picking effective exercises and not filling up the extra space with Hercules curls you are on the right track. In fact, I still prefer using compound movements as accessory lifts when I’m doing split style training.

With the points above in mind, I typically program split style training as part of a volume accumulation cycle. Basically that means that I use it for a period of time to crank up the amount of work done in training. The rep ranges will be slightly higher, especially on accessory work, and the total training volume over the week is higher. This is an excellent contrast to what is normally intensity driven training with a full body program.

Putting It All Together

In the end, the style of training you choose depends on you. Just look at the broad spectrum of coaches and athletes out there using completely different methods and all getting excellent results. With the right thinking almost any style can work. How you plan your training should always be driven by your goals, your training history and any other number of factors that influence your daily life. Remember that the body responds very well to contrasts, which is one of the reasons that periodization exists in the first place. If you always do the exact same thing your training is going to stall no matter what.

 

I use lots of different splits and methods in my Distance Coaching program, depending on the lifter, in order to stimulate gains in muscle and strength.

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Natalia May 14, 2012 at 9:38 pm

I am also a big fan of full body training, because as a girl, it helps me tone up faster without adding bulk… and I also don’t believe in overtraining and all that stuff.. But I have found that training the whole body each session is too tiring sometimes, while splittling it helps achieving the goal of going to the gym 5 days a week. Also variety is an issue when it comes to full body training, changing the routine can take a serious amount of thinking and creativity. It would be fantastic if you posted some exercises you believe are the best to train the whole body.

Chris May 14, 2012 at 10:16 pm

Natalia,

I absolutely agree that full body sessions are great for body composition improvement. One of the great benefits of full body training is that the energy expenditure is huge per session.

Thanks for the comment. I will try to post more about effective full body movements. Once we hit 10 comments I will post some sample training workouts, too.

Ben May 15, 2012 at 10:36 pm

Hi,

You mentioned in your post that you are a big believer in high frequency training as a means of building size, but you also point out that you usually do a split program when you’re trying to increase overall volume, so I was wondering, which do you find more effective for hypertrophy purposes ?

Chris May 16, 2012 at 1:28 am

Hey Ben,

That varies based on situation, goals and individual. Both have the potential for greater hypertrophy if you manipulate your volume accordingly. For many people it will be easier to train hypertrophy with a split style of training since you can divide your volume up between different movements and you have more recovery time between workouts.

If performance oriented hypertrophy is your goal though (i.e. “functional” hypertrophy) I still think that full body training reigns supreme. The higher training frequency and the need to focus on big movements like Olympic lifts and squats will put on muscle that is both show and go.

Dex May 16, 2012 at 2:30 am

Would you recommend full body training or split style training for raising basal metabolic rate (and subsequently lowering body fat)?

Chris May 16, 2012 at 1:21 pm

Dex,

For fat loss & body composition, full body training is best. The energy expenditure for a full body session is huge if you are focusing on the right exercises and will cause a far greater EPOC, or afterburn effect. Basically, by working huge amounts of muscle mass hard during the session, you are going to boost your resting metabolism for the rest of the day. End result: you burn more calories just sitting around the rest of the day.

Very rarely do I have a body comp client do anything other than full body sessions.

steve May 16, 2012 at 2:11 pm

I prefer the total body training because I found my best results with it.Also because of my schedule some weeks I might only get 2 days in and some weeks I might get 4 days in.Life just somehow gets in the way.With a split if I did chest one day it might be 10-12 days before it gets hit again.Really can’t go 4-5 sessions a week.Intensity is too high.I seem to need more recovery time.I could never go to the gym and workout the day before or day after I plan on deadlifting.It just wouldn’t be a concentrated effort.
keep up the good work
PS I’ll have to look up Jamie Lewis don’t think I know that name

Chris May 16, 2012 at 10:14 pm

Steve,

Convenience is another big reason I like full body training. If you miss a day you really aren’t missing anything. I also implement that with myself and clients if I am running some form of split and have to miss a day. When you pick up you can always just combine the workout you missed with the workout you are due for by only using the major movements.

Jamie Lewis’ website is called Chaos and Pain. Be aware that Jamie has a very…unique…style of writing. Don’t read his stuff at work.

Gary May 21, 2012 at 3:45 pm

Hi Chris,

I’ve been toying around with splits and full body since I started weight training about a year ago now. I’ve seen some improvements, but ideally not at the pace I would have hoped.

I’m looking to gain about 10lbs of muscle in the off-season now from football (or soccer) if your American to improve me physically and make myself stronger, more imposing and more powerful. The problem is, I will be starting pre-season in about 7 weeks so have that amount of time to weight train without cardio to see the best gains.

What would be the best way of approaching it, full body or split? If I split I’d probably workout either upper/lower 4 days a week or 5 days a week body part. If I went for a full body I think at most I’d be capable of going 3 times a week.

Any helps appreciated mate

Gary

Chris May 21, 2012 at 10:15 pm

Hey Gary,

Depending on your current program and your personal needs, either method has the potential to produce results. I prefer full body training for athletes as it allows a high training frequency, but that obviously varies on a case by case basis. If you are trying to put on muscle I would be more concerned with your overall training volume and the types of movements you are choosing. It might be worth investing in a good trainer or program that is designed for an athlete such as yourself.

Andy June 27, 2013 at 12:28 am

Thanks Chris, I deal with pre and post bariatric surgery and agree with you that training Full body is great for body composition improvement. It can keep the monotony lower and still get much bang for the newbie buck! I seek balance in my training methodology whether it is for me or my athletes or complete beginners. Thanks for the balanced and insightful approach. Keep it coming.

Christopher Smith June 27, 2013 at 11:05 am

Glad you liked it Andy.

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