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Tuesday
Oct022018

Strength Training: Total Body vs. Splits

One of the most common questions I have heard in the 20+ years I’ve been in the fitness industry is, “Should I do total-body workouts or training splits (splits for short)?” It doesn’t matter if it is asked from a fitness enthusiast who has been working out for six months or six-plus years, the question gets asked all the time, so I will answer it in this article.

Before getting into the answer I will first define what full-body and split workouts are. Then I will go over the pros/cons of each and when/why I suggest using them. Finally I will give a few examples of each so you can try them in the future.

Regarding definitions, a full-body workout involves most, if not all, of the major muscles in the body from head to toe. Major muscle groups like chest, back, shoulders, glutes, quads and hamstrings are trained in these workouts. If time permits, sometimes smaller muscle groups like biceps, triceps and calves are included as well.

Splits divide the body into either sections/parts of the body, movement patterns or specific muscle groups. An example of a split dividing the body into sections/parts would be an upper-body/lower-body split. This means the body is split into two different parts (the body is divided into upper and lower halves in this case). On one day you would train only the muscles of the upper body, and then work the muscles of the lower body the other day.  

An example of a movement pattern split would be training upper-body exercises that move in the horizontal direction on one day (rows, chest presses, flies, etc.). The second day, leg exercises could be trained (you can divide these up into hinge movements or squat movements if you lift legs on multiple days). On the third day, exercises that move in the vertical direction (shoulder presses, side raises, pulldowns, etc.) would be used. 

Regarding doing a split workout with muscle groups, it is simply training 1 to 3 muscle groups each session. An example of a muscle group split would be the following: Monday: Chest, Tuesday: Back, Wednesday: Shoulders, Thursday: Legs, Friday: Arms.


The pros of total-body workouts are as follows:  

  • They are great for people who only have 2 to 3 days/week that they can train. This can be really important during heavy travel times.
  • They work well for people who don’t have time to do cardio outside of their training sessions.
  • They usually burn more calories than training split workouts do because more and larger muscle groups are trained.
  • They decrease the chance of having muscle imbalances as most, if not all, major muscle groups get trained.
  • They work well for people starting fitness programs as these people don’t need lots of exercises to target each muscle group.
  • Females tend to like training the total body more than men.

The cons of total-body workouts are the following:

  • They are usually the longest workouts to do because so many muscles are being trained.
  • It is difficult to increase training volume (total amount of work being done) over time without making the workout really long.
  • Usually no more than 3 sets/exercise can be used due to training length time (if you do more, you will run out of time or the workout will take too long).
  • They can increase potential of overtraining as lots of work is being done each session.
  • A muscle and/or movement pattern that needs additional work might not get the needed work due to lack of time.
  • They can be very hard to complete because of time being spent working out or overall exertion during the workout.
  • Training the same large muscle groups on consecutive days can have a negative impact on recovery in some people.
  • Some people find these workouts boring as most of the exercises are basic.
  • Men usually dislike total-body workouts.

The pros of training splits are the following:

  • People who have more training experience can benefit from them as more training volume is often needed to keep making progress. Splits allows you to use multiple exercises for each muscle group.
  • People who can and want to train more frequently during the week on a consistent basis can benefit from splits.
  • If certain muscle groups need more individual work, training splits are often needed.
  • While a person needs more days to train during the week to make training programs effective, there is more time to work on individual muscle groups within the workout as other muscle groups might not be trained that day.
  • It is easier to do more than 2 to 3 sets/muscle group during each workout using training splits because there is more time to train in each workout.
  • You can train on consecutive days with minimal negative impact on recovery due to different muscle groups being trained on different days.
  • These workouts often take less time than total-body workouts and allow additional time for cardio and core work to be done.
  • You can do more than 2 to 3 sets/exercise as you have more time to train.
  • Men often prefer to train this way.

The cons of training splits are the following:

  • People often have good intentions to do more workouts, but they end up skipping 1 or 2 workouts so muscle groups are often missed. This is common in men; legs are often missed.
  • Training splits can cause muscle imbalances if some muscles are trained more often than others.  For example, people often train muscle they can see (chest, shoulders, arms and quads) more than muscles they cannot see (back, hamstrings, glutes and calves) causing muscle imbalances.
  • The total calorie burn usually isn’t as high as total-body workouts as fewer muscle groups are trained.
  • Women usually dislike split workouts compared to men.
Over the years I have used total-body workouts, splits and combinations of both with a wide variety of clients. 
 
I have used total-body workouts with people who have limited time to train. As discussed above, if a person struggles to get into the gym 2 to 3 times/week, it makes sense to use total-body workouts. Also, if people have fat loss goals, total-body workouts can be really effective as they burn more calories than splits do. Finally, if someone is new to training, total-body workouts can be really effective as they need more practice on doing basic exercises for neurological reasons (This is a fancy way of saying they need more practice lifting) and don’t need as much training volume initially.

I usually use splits on people who have no trouble getting to the gym more than 4 times/week. These people usually have goals of increasing muscle size, strength or both, so more training volume (either through increased exercises/muscle group or sets/exercise) is needed. Also, these people have usually been lifting for over two years so they do need more volume to continue to see results.

One opportunity that is often missed by many fitness enthusiasts is that they think they can do only one or the other. However, there is no reason why both can’t be used either over 3-5 days Total Body/Split Hybrid). There are examples of this in the table below.

Here are 12 different examples of different ways you can use total-body workouts, training splits or a combination of both over the week. There are MANY examples in addition to the ones below that can be done, so I am just showing you a few:

 

Workout Option

Monday

Tuesday

Wednesday

Thursday

Friday

Saturday

Sunday

2X/Week Total Body

Total Body

 

Total Body

 

 

 

 

3X/Week Total Body

Total Body

 

Total Body

 

Total Body

 

 

*3-Day Training Split

Upper Body

 

Lower Body

 

Upper Body

 

 

**3-Day Training Split

Upper Body (Vertical)

 

Lower Body

 

Lower Body (Horizontal)

 

 

***3-Day Training Split

Back & Biceps

 

Legs

 

Chest, Shoulders & Triceps

 

 

*4-Day Training Split

Lower Body

Upper Body

 

Lower Body

Upper Body

 

 

**4-Day Training Split

Lower Body (Hinge)

Upper Body (Vertical)

 

Lower Body (Squat)

Upper Body (Horizontal)

 

 

***4-Day Training Split

Chest & Triceps

Back

 

Legs

Shoulders & Biceps

 

 

***5-Day Training Split

Chest

Back

Shoulders

Legs

Arms

 

 

3-Day Hybrid

Upper Body

 

Lower Body

 

Total Body

 

 

4-Day Hybrid

Upper Body

Lower Body

 

Total Body

Total Body

 

 

4-Day Hybrid

Upper Body (Vertical)

Lower Body

Upper Body (Horizontal)

 

Total Body

 

 

*Represents a Body Section Training Split

**Represents a Movement Training Plane Split

***Represents a Muscle Group Training Split

 

Hopefully after reading this article you understand the differences between total-body workouts and splits as well as what the pros and cons are. Based on how much time you have to train and what your training goals are, try the above examples of both. In fact, for best results, try each of the 12 examples over the course of the year (one/month) based on how many days you can work out each month. Give them an honest try, and see which one you like the best and which one gets the best results for you!

In health, Corey Grenz — Program Specialist and Master Trainer — Life Time, Chanhassen 

This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader. 

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