Is it Better to Do Full- or Split-Body Strength-Training Workouts?

Your reasons for following a strength-training regimen may be clear — greater bone and muscle strength, injury prevention, better sports performance — but figuring out the best way to structure your routine may be less straightforward.

If you’re determined to lift weights, you still wonder: Should I be doing full- or split-body workouts? Experts clarify matters.

Typically, full-body strength workouts involve multi-joint movements (i.e., squats, pullups, chest presses), which recruit many different muscle groups. As such, full-body workouts are more time-efficient, making them the ideal option for those who can’t spend more than two or three days in the gym, says Mike Donavanik, certified strength and conditioning specialist, a celebrity trainer in Los Angeles, California.

Full-body workouts can be pretty straightforward: Perform 3–5 sets of 6–8 different exercises, making sure to complete all sets for one exercise before moving on to the next. A great outline for a total-body routine could be: goblet squats, reverse lunges, straight-legged deadlifts, pushups, bent-over rows, chest presses and inverted rows, says exercise physiologist Dean Somerset, certified strength and conditioning specialist.

According to Marfred Suazo, certified strength and conditioning specialist, co-owner of Superiior Fitness in New York City, sticking to full-body strength workouts also gives you the freedom to perform other activities on your days away from the gym. You can run, bike, do yoga or play a round of golf without being overly sore or delaying your recovery.

On the other hand, if you’re in the gym more than three days a week, you may want to consider splitting things up. “If you’re working out five days a week, full-body sessions can be counterproductive,” Donavanik says, as you’re not allowing your body enough time to recover between sessions.

Strength training (and other high-impact activities) break down your muscle tissue. In order for that muscle tissue to grow back bigger and stronger, you need to give it time to rebuild. If you keep breaking down those same muscles day after day, you’ll not only slow your gains, but you may even experience injury.

Interestingly, new research in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness suggests that you may not need to take a full day or two to recover in between full-body sessions. Recreational lifters who performed a full-body strength routine three days in a row every week for seven weeks made comparable gains in strength as lifters who separated their strength sessions by at least 48 hours. That said, it’s important to note that both groups were still only lifting three days per week, which allowed each group at least four days to recover per week.

To avoid injury and burnout, you could either split up your strength-training sessions (more on this later), or you could do short, full-body circuit workouts. With circuit training, you move directly from one exercise to the next with little to no rest in between, which keeps your heart rate elevated throughout the session. With this method, you’ll get your cardio and strength work done at the same time.

Breaking up strength workouts according to muscle group is known as split training, and it’s a popular training approach among bodybuilders. Split training can also be time-intensive, so this method is best for those who can dedicate an hour in the gym a minimum of four days per week.

“A split routine will allow you to target one or two muscle groups intensively each day, with more sets and heavier weights,” Suazo says. In other words, you could hammer your back and bicep muscles one day, fatigue your chest and triceps the next day and give your legs a workout another day. Then, you’d be ready to hit your back and biceps again a day or two later. “This intensity of training may lead to better results for muscle building,” Suazo says.

Split training is also ideal if you’re looking to beef up specific muscle groups, need specialized sports training or are working through injury rehab, says Somerset.

Like full-body training, there are many ways to structure a split routine. For example, you could do a push/pull split, where you focus on push exercises one day (i.e, leg presses, split squats and chest presses) and pull exercises another day (i.e., leg curls, single-leg deadlifts and biceps curls). Or, you could separate your training according to individual muscle groups (i.e., chest and triceps, back and biceps, shoulders and core, legs).

If you have minimal time to train, Somerset recommends following an upper/lower split: Work your upper body (chest, back, shoulders, biceps and triceps) two days per week, and your lower body (quads, hamstrings, calves and abs) two days per week.

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