‘Full body’ and ‘split’ exercise routines are exactly as the names suggest:
Full body workouts mean training as much of the whole body as can be reasonably managed in each workout, split workouts mean working different muscle groups in different workouts (usually on different days).
So which is better?
The question that comes up every time I have run an online Q&A is one that I felt deserved a longer form answer:
Generally speaking full body routines will be most suited to the majority of people for the majority of health and fitness goals, simply put it is a more efficient and effective way to achieve a stronger, more athletic and leaner physique.
A split routine has some benefits if the goal is to maximise hypertrophy (increasing muscle size)
This is why:
If we consider that the five measurable tenants of health and wellness are:
Strength, Cardiovascular fitness, Mobility, Body Composition, and Emotional Wellbeing.
Then our workout structure should aim to address all five – albeit that we may choose to have more or less emphasis on some of those tenants at particular times.
Strength is developed primarily as a neurological adaptation – what this means is that our nervous system becomes conditioned to recruit or ‘fire’ more motor units (bundles of muscle fibres) at any one time – this makes the body more efficient at producing and withstanding force. And creates a neurological ‘tone’ in the muscle, essentially a state of readiness. As an aside it is this neurological tone that gives athletes the ‘toned’ look.
This neurological adaptation occurs as a result of needing to produce force within multiple muscle groups at the same time or within immediate succession of each other. A full body exercise program will achieve this in each and every workout – making the neurological adaptations that increase strength and neural tine occur much more quickly.
Cardiovascular conditioning is developed by placing gradually increasing demands upon the cardio vascular system. Cardiovascular disease is the number one cause of death in the UK and the US and a workout week must include some form of cardiovascular conditioning.
Full body routines allow us to pair upper and lower body exercises together in ‘supersets’ (essentially mini circuits) to make use of the venous shunt phenomena. This means that the cardiovascular system is having to direct blood from one set of working muscles at one end of the body immediately to another set at the other end. This allows us to achieve a cardiovascular training effect at the same time as our resistance workout.
We can get fitter and stronger at the same time.
If our workouts consist of several exercises all targeting the same muscles or even those in the same area – there is minimal demand on the cardiovascular system and so we must find other exercise modalities to train it.
Mobility: there are direct correlations between muscular strength, stability, neural tone and mobility. We achieve and maintain mobility at our joints by actively taking them through the broadest ranges of motion that we can, as frequently as we are able.
Multiple joint or ‘compound’ exercises performed with good form and through the full ranges of motion have been shown to be one of the most effective ways to build and maintain mobility. Doing this multiple times per week as part of a full body exercise program is more than enough to build and maintain mobility.
If we follow a split routine and focus on one body area at a time then two things occur:
Firstly we lose out on the frequency of multi joint exercise that is required to achieve the mobility benefits described above.
Secondly in a split routine a particular muscle group is subjected to a significantly higher volume of work during its workout – one of the primary focusses of a split routine is to work a particular area to failure or as close to failure as can be managed. High volume is one of the primary instigators of delayed onset muscle soreness (the ‘stiffness’ that is sometimes felt in the 48 hours or so after a workout) – and whilst this is a temporary phenomena and isn’t actually causing any shortening of the muscle itself – there is definitely an impairment in mobility during this period, and so moving the whole body through its full ranges of motion is more difficult.
Body Composition is generally defined as being a persons proportion of body fat versus lean tissue (muscle). We can improve this by either reducing body fat, increasing muscle mass, or both – depending upon the individual goals of the client.
Reducing body fat is achieved by expending more energy than we consume. If we are looking to exercise as a way of expending energy and therefore reducing body fat, then we should be looking at exercise choices that have the greatest metabolic demand (i.e., require the most fuel to perform). The metabolic demand of an exercise is directly proportional to the amount of skeletal muscle required to perform it.
In other words the more of us that we move, the more energy it requires.
We can therefore understand that performing multiple joint exercises multiple times per week will create a greater metabolic demand (greater energy burn) than working specific areas of the body on different days.
If we consider building muscle (hypertrophy) as being the method to improve body composition – this is achieved generally by creating metabolic damage to the muscle tissue and allowing it to repair. Most research suggests that a muscle will require around 12-14 sets of exercise per week to grow optimally (assuming that the nutritional environment supports this!).
A split routine aims to achieve that volume of work on a particular body part in one workout, and then take several days to recover.
However, achieving 12-14 sets of a particular muscle group in one workout is actually a very difficult thing to achieve!
A full body routine aims to spread that amount of work over several workouts – this means the volume of work performed by a specific body part is substantially less in each workout – meaning faster recovery, less soreness and an increased ability to workout more frequently.
Emotional wellbeing is a very tangible benefit of exercise, and although aesthetics are often the reason many people take up an exercise program, it is the mental benefits that keep most people coming back.
Humans beings are task driven animals, and most of us thrive on achieving goals, getting better at something and stimulating our reward centres. Marking progress is a very effective way of stimulating rewards centres and finding fulfilment from an exercise regime.
Consistency is the number one factor in achieving progress in an exercise program – consistently workout out 3 times per week on a full body program is a far less daunting task than exercising 5 or 6 times per week on a split program. The more consistent we are the more progress we will achieve.
That said – there are people who thrive better from the challenge of multiple prescribed workouts per week – and whom want their workouts to occupy more of their bandwidth – anecdotally this is often due to wanting to ‘feel’ the worked body parts more and enjoying the sensations of the muscle soreness.
I think it is fairly clear from the rationale above why I feel that a full body routine is more suitable for the vast majority of people –
This isn’t to say that progress cannot be achieved on a split routine – it absolutely can – it just means more workouts per week to achieve the stimulus required and many more supplementary cardiovascular and mobility sessions to ensure a balanced program.
My 3 x 52 app is based around the concept of 3 full body workouts per week, and being consistent with this all year around. The workouts are structured in such a way to maximise all of the additional benefits of full body training described above spa there is no need to add in any additional training. However – the app will include dedicated mobility sessions that you can use your recovery days and phase two of the app will include live yoga classes to help all members get the most of the mental benefits of exercise.