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!
After 20-years of experimentation and thousands of hours training clients 1-on-1, I believe there is a clear winner for most people.
Full body workouts are vastly superior to body part splits in the long term.
See my article The Functional Fitness Approach To Get Lean & Strong for more information on how I shifted from body part splits to a full body approach.
Just so we’re on the same page, a full body workout means you complete upper and lower body exercises on the same day. For a split routine (aka training split, or body part split), you target certain muscles on certain days.
For example, if you are working out 3 days in a week, you may 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
- Balanced Body – You will be able to build a well balanced body by training the entire body as one muscle, 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 arguably does not make functional sense.
- Efficiency – If you are strapped for time, full body workouts can help you build strength, cardio, and flexibility relatively quickly. Just 20 to 30-minutes is plenty to train your entire body and get the blood flowing.
- Maximize Calorie Burn – 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.
- Difficult To Focus On A Given Muscle Group – It’s hard to hit a given muscle group with several sets. I don’t see this as a problem because doing 9 sets of chest press is not going to transfer over to real life.
- 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. A muscle that has been worked with heavy weights thoroughly (6+ sets) can take a good 5-6 days to recover.
- 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 more 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.
Who Should Use a Full Body Workout Routine?
- Enjoy Cardio– If you love doing cardio, but don’t love strength training, definitely do full body workouts, preferably circuit training workouts. Just a couple of times a week will go a long way.
- Mostly Sedentary – If you are a beginner or are mostly sedentary with little outside exercise, stick to full body workouts so you get strength & cardio benefits in one workout efficiently.
- Enjoy Intense Workouts – While full body workouts are great for beginners, they are also fantastic if you are more advanced and love pushing yourself to the max every workout. A full body workout is much more metabolically challenging than a body part split workout.
Body Part Split Routine: Pros & Cons
- Better For Body Shaping – You have more control over how your physique develops. So if you want to spend a little extra time on increasing the size of your front deltoids, then you can do that. As a warning, focusing on body shaping can open up a can of worms with body image issues. After lifting for 20+ years, my body is much healthier – and even looks better – by improving my natural strength and mobility. See The Functional Fitness Approach To Get Lean & Strong for more info.
- Split Workouts Are Easier – Lifting weights should never be easy, but if you like lifting heavy, it’s more manageable to focus 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, or simply substituting different exercises for a given split.
- Lower Calorie Burn – If you are doing an arm workout, the calorie burn will be a lot less than a full body workout. Yes, you can add a finisher to the end of the split workout to burn more calories, but full body workouts still burn more calories.
- 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 Models & Bodybuilders – If you like (1) lifting heavy, (2) hitting a muscle hard while (3) having direct control over shaping of your body, then do split routines, or training splits.
- Advanced Lifter – If you’ve been lifting for a long time, religiously hit the gym, and love the muscle pump, then body part splits may work the best. Many advanced lifters make the gym their primary activity above recreation and other forms of exercise.
- Get Nauseous With Full Body Workouts – 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.
So Which Routine Is Best For You?
Hopefully by this point, you have a stronger sense whether full body workouts or body part splits are for you.
As I mentioned in the intro, I strongly prefer full body workouts.
The cons of full body workouts can be mitigated by simply adjusting the workout.
For example, you can dial down the intensity of the workout or the types of exercises if it’s too metabolically challenging.
If you want to focus on a lagging body part, you can still focus on it within the context of a full body workout.
For a follow along full body workout video, check out this 30-Minute Full Body Workout.
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.
Most importantly, consistency is the name of the game, so you must actually do the workouts!
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.