Full body versus split high intensity training routines

Q&A: Full Body Versus Split Routines

Question: Some HIT trainers recommend doing full body workouts and hitting each muscle group two or three times a week, but others recommend splitting the body up and only hitting each muscle group once a week or even less frequently. Which one should I do if my main goal is increasing muscle size? If I should do a split routine how should I split up the muscle groups?

Answer: Like most things related to exercise the answer depends on many factors which can vary between individuals or even between muscle groups for an individual like muscle fiber type (muscles which are predominantly fast twitch recover more slowly, and muscles which are predominantly slow twitch recover more quickly) as well as how you train and structure your workouts. Some people need more time for individual muscle groups to recover between workouts than others, and some might do better training each muscle group more frequently with full-body workouts while others will do better on a split routine. The only way to determine which works best for you is to keep accurate records of your workouts and make changes based on how your body responds, carefully evaluate the results, and repeat.

How hard you train a muscle group and the volume of work you perform with it both influence how effectively you stimulate improvements in its strength and size. However, while exercise effectiveness increases with intensity, as the volume of work increases you very quickly reach a point of diminishing returns. Beyond some point doing more work for a muscle group won’t give you better results but it will increase the amount of time needed for recovery. This is why as you become more advanced and learn to push yourself to train more intensely you’ll eventually find it necessary to reduce the volume of work for each muscle group, increase recovery time, or both to avoid overtraining. Because intensity of effort is more important than the volume of work you perform for a muscle group most people will get better results training each muscle group with fewer exercises more frequently as part of a full body workout than with more exercises less frequently on a body part split.

Full body versus split high intensity training routines

Another factor to consider is the total volume of exercise performed for all muscle groups in a workout. While your body can improve its ability to handle, recover from, and adapt to the stress of exercise somewhat, as you get stronger and learn to train more intensely each exercise makes greater demands, and eventually you will have to reduce the volume of your workouts to avoid overtraining. Since you must perform at least enough exercises to effectively train all the major muscle groups if you want a well balanced physique there is a minimal number of exercises you need to do, so you can only reduce the number of exercises per workout so far before you need to start splitting them up. Fortunately, you only need a few basic compound exercises to effectively train all the major muscle groups, so you can reduce the number of exercises per workout pretty far before having to either reduce your training frequency or switch from a full body to a split routine. For example, this basic full body workout…

  1. Squat
  2. Chin up
  3. Chest Press
  4. Compound Row
  5. Shoulder Press
  6. Stiff-leg Deadlift
  7. Weighted Crunch
  8. Calf Raise
  9. Wrist Flexion
  10. Wrist Extension
  11. Neck Flexion
  12. Neck Extension

…can be divided into these two very low volume basic full body workouts:

Workout A

  1. Squat
  2. Chin up
  3. Shoulder Press
  4. Calf Raise
  5. Wrist Flexion
  6. Wrist Extension

Workout B

  1. Deadlift
  2. Chest Press
  3. Compound Row
  4. Crunch
  5. Neck Flexion
  6. Neck Extension

Very few people would have to reduce their workout volume to lower than this or train less frequently than twice weekly with such low volume, but there are some people who either have such poor recovery ability or train so intensely that they need more time for individual muscle groups to recover. In these cases it is usually better to divide the muscle groups up over two or more workouts than to reduce the overall training frequency so much that metabolic and cardiovascular conditioning are compromised. Doing so may also allow for more variety of exercises to be performed for each muscle group during each workout without overtraining, which can be beneficial for physique development. Depending on how much recovery time is needed either a push/pull or push/pull/legs split is usually enough, and it would be very unusual for someone to need to divide their muscle groups up into more than three workouts.

To determine whether you will get better results on a split routine than a full body routine you would need to switch and compare your strength increases and changes in body composition and circumference measurements over an equal period of time. It is important that you compare over time rather than between workouts, because if you split your body parts up over two or more workouts while maintaining the same training frequency each body part is being worked half or a third as often. When splitting your workouts like this it is possible for you to make better progress from workout to workout while making slower progress overall if the workouts are much further apart, which can be deceiving. For example, it might look like you’re getting better results if your strength on an exercise is improving fifty percent more every time you do it, but if you’re only doing it half as frequently you’re actually progressing more slowly.

Start by switching from a full body routine to either a push/pull or upper/lower split routine, keeping the total volume and frequency the same. After performing the split routine for a period of time compare your results to an equal period of time on the full body routine. If the two-way split produces better results you can then experiment with splitting your workouts up three-ways, using either a push/pull/legs or chest & back/shoulders & arms/legs & trunk split. If the two-way split does not produce better results, go back to the full-body routine.

For examples of different full body and split high intensity training routines including push/pull, upper/lower, push/pull/legs, and chest & back/shoulders & arms/legs & trunk read High Intensity Workouts.

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