With so many ways to structure a strength-training workout, there’s an approach that works for everyone. Some people work their entire body during a single session and then wait 2 or 3 days before doing another total body workout. Other fitness buffs use a split routine, a two-day, three-day or even a four-day split.
Yet another approach is to work one body part per day, devoting a single session to exercises that train a particular muscle group. When you do this, you’re essentially working each group of muscles every 5 to 7 days, assuming you give yourself a day or two off each week. What are the pros and cons of using one body part per day training approach?
Advantages of Training One Body Part Per Day
Working a single muscle group per session gives you the opportunity to really focus on that muscle group and give it the volume and intensity it needs to grow. One caveat: When you work your entire body each time you train, you may not have the time or energy to maximally stimulate each muscle group. Some muscles may get short-changed. Make sure you have the mentality to focus intensely on one muscle group each session. If you do, training one muscle group per session saves time because you still have time to fit in a cardio session.
You might wonder whether you’re sacrificing strength gains when you only hit each muscle group once a week. A study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine involving older adults showed you CAN make significant strength gains training only once per week. As some fitness experts say, you may not need to train your muscles as often as you think you do.
Cons of Working One Muscle Group per Session
Focusing on a single muscle group per session also has some disadvantages. For one, training a single body part at a time doesn’t mimic the functional movements you do in everyday life. Muscles are designed to work together to carry out a particular movement. For example, when you bend over to pick something up, you use muscles in your core, back, and upper body. Training a single muscle group at a time doesn’t as effectively train muscles to work together to do the movements you do in everyday life. So, taking this approach does less to enhance your functional skills.
Working a single muscle group at a time also burns fewer calories than a total body workout where you do more compound movements that work multiple muscle groups at the same time. It’s this type of training that maximizes the release of anabolic hormones as well. On days where you’re working smaller muscle groups like your biceps, you’re not burning a lot of calories or maximizing the release of growth hormone and other anabolic hormones.
Working one muscle group per session is intense because you’re really hammering the muscles with lots of volume and intensity. That’s both good and bad. You may find the intensity and volume too exhausting or prefer to break up the monotony by working a variety of muscle groups by training your whole body in a single session.
Although you can make muscle gains using a once a week training approach, the jury is still out as to whether it’s as effective as training more than once weekly. In one study, a group of men worked various muscle groups once per week while another group did a similar volume divided into three weekly sessions. After three months, the men who trained each muscle group once a week gained 5 pounds while the split training group gained 9 pounds.
Tips for Training One Body Part per Week
If you take the approach of training one muscle group weekly, be sure you’re physically and mentally prepared to give your workout the volume and intensity you need to justify training it only once a week. If you have a sub-optimal workout, you’ll have to wait a week to work that muscle group again. If you have too many “slack” days, you won’t make progress due to the low frequency of training. If you’re going to train a body part only once every 5 to 7 days, you have to train it with focus and intensity.
The Bottom Line
You can build strength and size training each muscle group only once per week, but you’ll have to hit the muscles you’re working hard. It’s a time expedient way to work out but not one that necessarily suits everyone. If you can only train two or three days per week, the body part a day approach obviously won’t work for you. If you like the idea of a split routine, in this case, you might choose a two-day split where you work upper body during one session and lower body in a different session. You could also divide up your muscle groups and do a three or four-day split. Some people do a push-pull split by doing pulling exercises one session and pushing ones in another.
If your goal is to maximize calorie burn as you get stronger or to improve functional strength, doing whole body strength training each time you train with lots of integrative movements might work best.
Keep in mind that you CAN build strength and muscle size training one body part per day, but that doesn’t mean it’s OPTIMAL for building strength and size. Some research suggests that more frequent training leads to greater gains in strength and size. If doing a single muscle group each session works best with your schedule, make sure you’re working hard during that session and getting enough protein. You can also use one body part per day training as a way to break through a plateau and “mix things up.”
Training one body part a day is one approach that can lead to gains as well as serve as a way to break through a plateau. Isn’t it nice to know you have so many options?
British Journal of Sports Medicine. 2007 Jan; 41(1): 19– 22.
Pain Science. “Strength Training Frequency”
MH Spotlight “Inside the Muscle Laboratories”
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