There are a variety of approaches to resistance training. Some people work their entire body during a single training session, usually incorporating lots of compound exercises that work more than one muscle group at a time. Another approach is split training where you work one group of muscles during one training session and another group during a separate training session. Most commonly, with split training, you work lower body one day and upper body on a separate day. What are the pros and cons of split training versus working all of your muscle groups in a single session?
Pros and Cons of Split Training
With split training, you focus on one group of muscles at a time. As a result, you can devote all of your time and effort to training them intensely. Some people believe working out this way maximizes gains in strength and muscle mass because one group of muscles gets your complete focus and effort. Bodybuilders who are trying to maximize muscle definition usually use split training.
By focusing on only upper or lower body during a training session you really hammer the muscles you’re working with intensity. Unfortunately, research looking at whether split training is superior for building lean body mass is lacking. Some people prefer split training because they like to focus on a limited number of muscles during a workout. When you do a full body workout, you work your whole body in a single training session. This takes a lot of time if you’re doing it right. Trying to train your entire body in a single session may be too tiring or time prohibitive. Plus, the muscle groups you worked during a split training session have more time to recover between workouts since you alternate between upper and lower body. More recovery time means less risk of overtraining.
Split training has its cons too. On days you’re working upper body, you won’t burn as many calories since you’re working smaller muscle groups. You also won’t elicit as strong of an anabolic response since growth hormone and testosterone release will be lower. Working larger muscles maximizes the release of anabolic hormones. If you’re trying to lose body fat and develop muscle, a total body workout with lots of compound exercises or a metabolic circuit training with no rest between exercises may be a better approach since you’re trying to burn as much fat as possible. You can always switch to split training once you’ve reached your fat loss goal.
Pros and Cons of Whole Body Training
Possibly the biggest advantage of whole body training is the metabolic benefits it offers. It may sound strange but working your lower body provides the anabolic stimulus you need to develop your upper body. When you work large muscle groups during a workout, more growth hormone and testosterone are released in response to the stress of working larger muscle groups. This anabolic effect creates conditions that stimulate the growth of all the muscles you’re working.
When you do isolation exercises and work smaller muscle groups, you don’t get the same hormonal response. Growth hormone also promotes fat burning so you get more metabolic and fat-burning benefits. Heavy resistance, compound exercises and working large muscle groups like your legs cause the greatest release of growth hormone. Higher training volumes also favor growth hormone release.
What’s the Best Training Approach?
Which training approach is best for you depends on the time you have to devote to training and your fitness goals. If you have limited days of the week to work out, working upper and lower body during the same session may be the best option. A full body workout is also better for fat loss due to the greater calories you’ll burn and the anabolic effects of working large muscle groups and training multiple muscle groups during the same session. Once you’ve reached your fat loss goals and want to maximize muscle gains, you can split train to work specific muscle groups with intensity. You can also use split training to correct muscle and strength imbalances.
If you split up your resistance training and focus only on a specific group of muscles during a training session, work large muscle groups first. When working your upper body, focus on your chest and back muscles first not your shoulders, biceps or triceps. You need the strength and support of smaller muscle groups when you train larger ones. Exhaust them early and you won’t be able to lift as much when you work larger muscle groups. Plus, you’ll increase your risk of injury.
Upper and lower body splits aren’t the only way to structure your resistance routine. You can do a split routine where you work “push” muscles one day and “pull” muscles during a separate session. You can also do four or six day splits where you work only certain muscle groups during each session. The drawback to doing four and six splits is you’re spending a number of days during the week resistance training. This won’t work if you have only a few days of the week to work out.
You can also vary the approach you take for variety. Do full body training for a few weeks then switch to split training for a few weeks to target particular muscle groups and correct muscle imbalances. Changing your approach can help you avoid reaching a plateau as well.
The Bottom Line?
Full body workouts have benefits but so does split training. Consider your goals and the time you have available when choosing your workout structure. Don’t be afraid to change your approach to fine-tune your training or to add variety. With so many ways to meet your fitness goals, you have lots of options.
Journal of Sports Science and Medicine (2008) 7, 560-000
Sports Med. 2003;33(8):599-613.
European Journal of Applied Physiology. 2011. 111, 2249-2259.
“Hormonal Responses to Resistance Exercise Variables” Luis M. Alvidrez and Len Kravitz, Ph.D.
Human Kinetics. “Utilize proper workout structure and exercise order”
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