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Categories: Workouts

Full Body Workout Vs. Split Routine: Which Is Better?

By Marc Perry / April 7, 2018

I’ve spent more time than I would care to admit pondering this question and I’ve spent years of my life experimenting with various full body workouts and split routines.

I understand how confusing and frustrating this question can be.  For example, tons of smart trainers I know who have great physiques focus their strength training workouts on split routines.  But yet they train every one of their clients with full body workouts!

Why the contradiction?

Just so we’re on the same page, a full body workout means you are exercising your entire body with all muscles being stimulated in one workout, where as a split routine (aka training split, or body part split) you separate your muscle groups, or movement patterns on different days.  For example, if you are working out 3 days in a week, you can complete chest and back exercises on one day, legs on another day, and shoulders and arms on the third day, which is a type of body part split.

The following will teach you about the pros and cons of full body workouts and split routines so you can decide which type of routine is right for you.

Full Body Workout: Pros & Cons

Pros

  • Balanced Body – You will be able to build a well balanced body by hitting all muscle groups in one workout, which is more natural and more closely mimics real life.  Many physiologists think of the body as one muscle because all muscles are connected to each other, so splitting up the body each workout may not make functional sense.
  • Miss A Workout, No Biggie – If you normally workout 2x per week and you happen to miss a workout, you have already worked out all your muscle groups with just one workout.  Not a big deal.
  • Maximize Calorie Burn & Fat Loss – When someone has 30lb to lose, I like to keep them on their feet with their legs moving, so full body workouts can work very well.  Most smart trainers out there train their overweight clients with full body workouts 2-3x per week.  Regarding muscle building, a full body workout can debatably create a more powerful hormonal response to help build muscle, but it’s harder to fully stimulate a muscle with sufficient volume to spur growth.
  • Cons

  • Can Be Difficult To Focus On A Given Muscle Group – It’s hard to hit a given muscle group, or movement pattern very intensely, especially legs because the intensity can be too tough to handle along with the lengthy recovery time after a workout.
  • Can Lead To Overtraining – If you like lifting weights 3x per week, doing full body workouts each workout can lead to overtraining if not structured properly.  Hitting each muscle group too hard will likely cause an overtraining response.  A muscle that has been worked with heavy weights thoroughly (6+ sets) can take a good 5-6 days to recover.
  • If you really want to do full body workouts 3 or more times per week, you need to change up the movement patterns, lift lighter weights and do circuits, and/or take down the number of sets per muscle group.
  • Intensity Can Be Hard To Handle – Intensity of full body workouts multiple times per week can be tough to sustain, especially as you become more advanced and start lifting serious weight.  In his prime, Arnold Schwarzenegger tried High Intensity Training (HIT), which is a very intense type of full body workout.  He said he would rather retire to Austria and become a ski instructor than do those workouts.  I can’t blame him.
  • Who should do a Full Body Workout?

  • Cardio Fanatic– If you love doing cardio, but hate strength training, definitely do full body workouts, preferably circuit training workouts.  Just a couple times per week will go A LONG way.
  • Beginner – If you are a beginner, stick to full body workouts.  I also like full body workouts for older adults (my dad who is 65 years old does 2 full body workouts per week and it’s worked GREAT for him).
  • Intermittent Exerciser – If you are strength training 1-2x per week, you should strongly consider full body workouts, or an upper body/lower body split.
  • Enjoy Metabolically Intense Workouts – If you are more advanced (i.e. lift very heavy) but love pushing yourself to the max every workout and maximizing calorie burn, full body workouts will do the trick.
  • Body Part Split Routine: Pros & Cons

    Pros

  • Superior For Body Shaping – You have more control over the targeted development of your physique.  So if you want to spend a little extra time on increasing the width of your shoulders, then you can do that.  To my knowledge, there are only a handful of natural bodybuilders and fitness models who do full body workouts consistently, while the vast majority use some type of training split.
  • Very Manageable/Easier – Lifting weights should never be easy, but if you like lifting heavy, it’s more manageable if you are only focusing on 2-3 muscle groups at a time, or less.  It’s less metabolically challenging.
  • Easy to Switch Up Workouts – Switching up your workout routine can be as easy as changing your body part split so you focus on different body parts on different days (which is what I’ve been doing as of recent), or simply substituting different exercises for a given split.
  • Cons

  • Less Overall Calorie Burn – If you are doing an arm workout, the calorie burn will be less than a full body workout.  There are ways as I describe in my Get Lean Guide for making a body part focused workout more efficient to help burn a lot more calories, but on average, full body workouts burn more calories, sometimes a lot more.
  • Muscle & Strength Imbalances – Ever see the guy who has arms that are 4x as big as his calves?  My guess is that guy is not doing full body workouts, but a body part split routine.  If your workout routine is not structured properly, it’s pretty easy to overdevelop certain muscle groups at the expense of others and develop muscle imbalances from both from an aesthetic and strength perspective.
  • Can’t Skip A Workout – Well you can skip a workout, but it’s problematic.  With most training split routines, you are going to hit each muscle group once per week, so if you miss a workout, two weeks will go by before you hit that muscle group again.
  • Who should use a Split Routine?

  • Fitness Model/Bodybuilder – If you like (1) lifting heavy, (2) hitting a muscle hard while (3) having great control over shaping of your body, then do split routines, or training splits.
  • Advanced Lifter – If you’ve been lifting for a long time and religiously hit the gym, or lift weights at home 3-5x per week, then stick with split routines.  I don’t see any reason to change as long as you are hitting your legs and core on one of those days AND you have your nutrition under control.  If you have over 20% body fat, you should seriously consider full body workouts to help maximize calorie burn.
  • Get Nauseous Easily With Full Body – Some people after a full body workout will get nauseous, their lips will turn white, and they will want to hurl.  This can happen if someone is out of cardiovascular/lifting shape, but it also happens to some people who can’t handle the metabolic intensity of a full body workout.  I think it’s a genetic thing, like how some people have cast iron stomachs and can eat anything without getting sick.  This is a very important factor for deciding whether to do full body workouts, or split routines.
  • What If You Could Get All The Benefits of a Full Body Workout Without The Negatives?

    Well, that’s along the lines of what I did with the 12-Week BuiltLean Transformation Program I developed and how I personally workout.  Intuitively, you want to maximize calorie burn while keeping muscle mass and creating a favorable hormonal response, so the first month of the BuiltLean Program uses full body workouts 2 times a week, with one day of high intensity interval training, then the second month switches to a routine that is more focused on specific muscle groups and movement patterns during each workout completed 3 times a week, but is still technically full body because every muscle is used (HIIT conditioning is completed at the end of each workout).

    I did this because shifting from basic full body workout to full body workouts that are more targeted allows for a great progression, changes up the workouts, and I wanted you to try both styles to see which one you like more so you can sustain the workouts for the long haul.

    At the end of the day, like most of these intractable fitness questions, a full body workout vs. split routine really depends on your goals and what you enjoy.  We’re all different.  You can effectively build muscle, or lose fat with both types of workouts if you train hard, have a sensible routine, and focus on nutrition. With that said, I do think full body workouts is the way to go for most people to help you develop the most lean, strong, and well balanced body possible.

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    97 Comments

    • Dreas says:

      I started at 12 exercises and gradually increased the number. Taking creatine and BCAA's mixed in my water bottle doing the workout helps tremendously. I began this crazy routine back in the '70's in the Marine Corps along with martial arts training daily. After work, I would go to the recreation center every other day and exercise from 6:30pm to 9:30pm head back to the barracks for a shower and have a few beers at the E-club, hopefully wake up by 5:30AM the next morning. My initial weight was 155lb, my best body weight was 242lb., I slacked off a bit going to reach 300lb real soon. I like my routine.
      I must admit the "genetic thing" has me quite amazed. Folks in my family are pretty big, or should I say obese! 250- 350lb. males and females. I don't know how I happened to turn out to be the "skinny guy" me and a younger brother. Two injuries to date, Achilles's tendon strain when doing 450lb. standing and 45 degree angled calf raises and pulled right triceps muscles. The AAS makes the workout that much easier.

    • jack says:

      hi marc

      im trying to get some serious functional strength but want to bulk and lose some excess hip fat while im at it , im 17 at the moment so no real experience of training but ive put together a fully body workout to try to stimulate growth hormone and but fat , would you mind telling me if i need to improve it or im going the right way about it becuase im getting improvments but no real size , strength or fat loss. im doing the workout 2 times per week as i ache in certain areas 2-4 days after workouts.

      thanks

      • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

        @Jack - I had to take out the workout you listed as the comment was far too long to publish, by about 500%. With that said, I did check it out and I think you could probably teach me a thing or two about functional strength! If you want to gain muscle, are you lifting more/heavier over time and eating ample calories and protein (my guess is somewhere around the 3000-5000 calorie range) without knowing much about your body size etc. Your body will not grow unless you fuel it properly with enough calories and force your muscles to grow by lifting more/heavier. My guess is you are not eating nearly enough calories to help support the intense training you are doing. Finally, I think it's admirable you are creating your own lifting program, but just be careful. Think in terms of movement patterns so that you don't injure yourself - i.e. squats/lunges/push (vertical + horizontal), pull (vertical + horizontal), bend, twist.

    • Marq.H says:

      Hi Marc!
      I ´ve been training for some time now using a routine where Day 1 is chest,shoulders,biceps,abs and lower legs.Day 2 is back,triceps,abs,upper legs and couple of sets of forearms.This is done three days a week,Mon,Wen,Fri,
      alternating Day 1,Day 2 and Day 1 again.Weekends are off.Next week Day 2 Day 1 and Day 2 again.I believe this way I get variety and keeps things fresh.What do you think?
      Cardio warm-up for 5 minutes each time.Do you have any suggestions about this kind of routine.

      • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

        I think your routine is reasonable, but I personally would choose an upper/lower body split, or a split where you could superset exercises, or put them in a circuit. You get a better workout in less time. I also have a slightly different type of split in my builtlean program, but I think it's more functional than the split you are using.

    • steve says:

      Hi Marc

      well i seem to be stuck where i am, ive been going gym for past 2 years and before that never done excersice. so first 6 months was really getting in shape. Ive tried these 12 weeks programmes and no major changes and now doing all muscle workout 2 and sometimes 3 times aweek if i have time. my routine is normally 2 excersices per muscle 4 sets of 8 to 10 normally to failure, but i dont see a huge change in my body people still ask if i go to the gym ( this pisses me off) .
      i eat every 3 hours healthy diet and take protein/creatine on workout days. when i started training i weighed 80kg im now 82kg but less fat except around stomach which seems to be always there.

      Question is what could i do to make things get bigger??? also i have a pectus excatavum concave chest which i think hinders my bench pres as i cannot get above 60kg i do find i increase slowly with db bench press but not bb.

      any info would be much appreciated.

      steve

      ps great threads here

      • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

        @steve - if you are trying to build muscle, the it's critical to (1) eat more calories than you burn, (2) eat ample protein, (3) and progressively lift heavier weights, which it sounds like you are doing. I do plan on writing a length article on how to build muscle soon, so stay tuned! In the meantime, here's a Q&A I did with Men's Fitness on the subject of Bulking - http://www.mensfitness.com/training/pro-tips/the-fit-5-bulking-up.

    • Myk says:

      Hi Marc
      I do Split Routine 4 x per week, I wanted to start doing full body is well!?
      I am not fat at all, i consider my self a bit skinny but my body shape is very good,
      I really want to build muscle and get bigger!!
      Any suggestions would be great.
      By the way your articles and research are very helpful, infomative and interesting.
      Thanks a lot, waiting for response.

      • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

        Myk - I think lifting 4x per week with a split routine is fine, adding an extra full body workout doesn't seem to me like it would help bring you over the hump. If during your split routine you are not emphasizing the basics (i.e. squats, deadlift - be careful though, bench, rows), that's the first place i would start. You also need to make sure you are eating plenty of calories, protein, and you are increasing the amount of weight you are lifting over time. It's easy to get carried away with the hundreds of different exercises you could be doing, but all you need is 5, MAX 10 exercises to help you build up your physique. Track these lifts and get stronger at them while fueling your body with ample protein/calories and your body will respond.

    • Joey says:

      Hi mark, for the full body workout, if I do it 3 times per week, on those off days, do I literally do nothing, coz I find that really hard to do nothing lol, or can I do any type of cardio, like sprints, or ? Also, in the mornings after a workout, would you reccomend to do a very light walk/job for 20 min to burn fat?

      Thanks a lot and great article! :)

      • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

        @Joey - Thanks for the kudos regarding the article. I think active recovery on your off days such as swimming, yoga, biking, and other non impact exercises can help you recover and improve performance. Depending on how intense your full body workouts are, you could even do sprints and other anaerobic training on days you are not lifting. My guess is you'll be in REALLY good shape. Don't think the extra cardio in the morning will make too much of a difference, but it's up to you. I prefer mostly anaerobic activity (i.e. sprinting, high intensity exercises) for burning fat, not low intensity cardio. I think low intensity cardio is great for maintenance and for staying active.

    • Dreas says:

      I must agree with you Marc. A 3 hour full body workout is too much, yet, I have no problems doing so. The 45 minute or 1 hour full body workout will not work for me. There are quite a bit of other muscle groups that are being neglected when one only concentrates on doing full body workouts that only comprise of large muscle group exercises. My routine is 3 hours long because I usually do 2-3 exercises for each muscle group instead of one exercise. That's 3 sets at 10 reps for every exercise. From my neck to the tibia, every muscle will be exercised before I leave the gym..

    • Gee says:

      Very informative article but I have a question.
      I love straight training but only on my legs. I'm a female and I want to build muscle on the lowest body and tone my stomach. Will full body workout work or do I still have to do a split workout? Thank YOu.

    • Madaline Dismuke says:

      Some genuinely quality content on this web site, saved to fav.

      • Kristin Rooke, CPT says:

        Thanks! Glad you're enjoying our articles.

        -Kristin, BuiltLean Coach & Managing Editor

    • Rishabh Singh says:

      Hi...I am a skinny guy finding a way to improve my stamina but also don't want to lose much weight in the process. I have beem doing full body workouts. I do body weight exercises and results are visible but stamina hasn't improved improved much.

      • Kristin says:

        Hi Rishabh - it's great that you're doing full-body workouts. That's going to help you build a balanced physique. To increase your stamina, I would recommend performing your workouts as a circuit where you only rest for a short amount of time between each exercise. This style if workout is more like interval training, and can help you improve both your strength and your cardio.

        You'll also want to pay attention to your diet in order to avoid losing more weight. I recommend either meeting your caloric maintenance needs, or eating a slight excess of calories (about 100-250 per day) in order to maintain your weight or even build lean muscle. Give those two recommendations a try, and let us know how it goes! If you have more questions, feel free to reach out to us at support@builtlean.com.

        -Kristin, BuiltLean Coach & Managing Editor

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