full body workouts vs split routinesDebate is common practice in the fitness community.  One topic that always seems to arise is the debate of full body workouts vs bodybuilding split routines.  There are so many people that hold such a strong conviction toward one side or the other, that logical thinking gets thrown out the window.

In this article we will analyze both types of routines, list benefits and weaknesses to both types of programs, and figure out what demographic will benefit most from each.

It’s time to optimize your gains!

Full Body Workouts

A typical full body routine will work your entire body three days a week with 48 hours of rest in between each workout.  A typical split for this type of routine would be a Monday/Wednesday/Friday split.  A good example of this type of routine is my SY 5×5 Program.

Bodybuilding Split Routines

A bodybuilding split routine breaks the body into smaller portions and will train those specific sections on different days of the week.  These splits may be as simple as an upper body/ lower body split routine, or as complicated as working a single muscle each day of the week. The most typical bodybuilding splits focus on each body part once a week.

So, let’s compare and contrast…

Strength and Intensity

As far as strength gains go, a full body split will be superior.  Given the constructs of a full body routine, you can complete more quality, heavy sets per week for each movement.  You also limit diminishing returns.   The law of diminishing returns states that with each consecutive set you experience less in return.  So set 2 doesn’t yield as much return as set 1 and each consecutive set that follows yields even fewer results.

So using the bench press as an example, if someone is following a 5×5 routine and benching three times a week, he or she will be able to complete 15 quality, heavy sets of bench press spread out over 3 days.

In a bodybuilding split you can still complete the same 15 sets but those sets will now be squeezed into one or two workouts.  That means at minimum you will be performing 7-8 heavy sets per workout to equal the 15 sets performed weekly in the full body program.  So not only are diminishing returns a factor of concern, but fatigue also becomes an issue because of the high workload.  As the levels of fatigue increase it will become more difficult to complete the later sets and eventually you will fail.  This points to the fact that splitting the volume up over a 3 day period is going to be optimal.

Work Capacity

Split routines get the nod for increasing the volume of work placed on a specific body part, muscle, or movement.   Since you are limiting your focus you can spend all of your time and energy on one area.  This precise focus also limits carry over fatigue from one heavy lift to the next.

This focused training can be good for fixing weak points, developing a high capacity for work, and to increase muscular endurance.

Rest and Recovery

In general, bodybuilding split routines allow for more recovery, but this isn’t necessarily an optimal way to train.

Let me explain..

We need to understand that protein synthesis only stays elevated for up to 48 hours post workout.  That means to optimize muscle growth, one would need to stimulate each muscle every 48 hours in order to optimize muscle hypertrophy.

This idea illustrates that a bodybuilding split routine would not be optimal for taking advantage of an elevated protein synthesis window, while a full body split does this perfectly because of the increased frequency of training.

One could argue that the right bodybuilding split could optimize this window, and they are correct, but the typical bodybuilding split routine does not.

So Which Type of Workout is the Best?

For a novice lifter or someone who doesn’t have a lot of experience with exercise programming (probably 95% of people), a full body routine will be optimal. The programming is easy and simple to follow.  It takes advantage of the elevated protein synthesis window and will optimize muscle growth.

A body part split routine can work for an experienced lifter with a high capacity for work who is familiar with exercise programming.  This person would also need to understand how to properly stimulate each muscle every 48 hours without overuse injuries occurring.   A daunting task indeed, but it can be done.

So in short, the outlier group of advanced and educated lifters can see benefits from body part splits if they are smart about it, but a full body routine will be optimal for most people looking to get fit, build muscle and get in shape.

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