Split vs Full Body Training for Muscle Growth

Which Method of Training Should I Use?

There are constantly debates in the fitness world concerning which type of exercise method is the best. Everyone who finds themselves on the path to making gains wants to figure out the most fruitful method to transform their bodies and meet their goals.  Of all the unique approaches out there, I’ve found that four of them seem to find themselves above the rest and are most by bodybuilders.  Those four are full body, bro split, upper/lower, and PPL.  I’m going to go into each one and explain what a typical workout looks like, and what the pros and cons are of each.  Then I’ll give my personal recommendations as to which, if any, stands above as the most effective method when it comes to fitness and bodybuilding.

Full Body Training

Full body training obviously references training the full body, and doing so each time you go to exercise.  Instead of choosing a few muscle groups, you are going to hit every group once or twice throughout your workout.  Generally when doing this you will exercise three to four times during the week, resting or doing cardio and/or core on the days where you aren’t hitting your main workouts.

The main positive for this method is that you’re going to be using each muscle group at a more frequent rate.  So, throughout the week each body part gets worked more than other methods that split up muscle groups into different days of the week.  However, there are certainly negatives to this. First, many argue that even though you’re hitting all muscle groups each workout, these muscle groups will be underworked because there is not enough focus on them.  If you’re doing 6-8 exercises during a workout, you are probably only hitting each muscle group once or twice, so they won’t be achieving enough intensity each workout as they would in a split type of method.  Also, by working the whole body each session you may experience joint pains and problems from overusing the entire body.

Now let’s talk about what a typical workout looks like. A general session with the full body workout could include all of the following:

Bench Press
Front Squats
Machine Rows
Shoulder Press
Deadlifts
Lat Pull Downs
Calf Raises

With this session you are hitting legs, chest, back, and arms all in one. Each session would then most likely be manipulated slightly to provide variety while still hitting all muscle groups in a similar fashion.

Now, despite the fact that you most likely will not witness most of those you see at the gym using the full body workout method, the method has been used by well-known bodybuilders such as Reg Park and Vince Gironda.  Park is known for his 5×5 full body training, meaning he does all of his exercises using the baseline of 5 sets of 5 reps.  Similarly, Gironda uses an 8×8 method.  Even the great Arnold Schwarzenegger used full body exercises early in his lifting career.  He would later transition to splits, but understood the benefits of full body, especially for new lifters.

Full body workouts are an excellent method for those just getting into lifting, as you can see even Arnold implemented this ideology.  When you first start your fitness journey, you generally will see rapid growth and strength gains, especially in comparison with those that have been lifting and bodybuilding regularly for a few years or more. These are often referred to as “noob gains” or “beginner gains.” Your body has not been under this type of muscular stress, and in turn is able to adapt fairly quickly and give you that initial beginner muscle development. Because of this, full body workouts are a great method for beginners because you are hitting the whole body and allowing these noob gains to take over in all of your muscle groups.

 

Split Training

Split training, otherwise referred to as the Bro Split, splits each day into one or two body parts or muscle groups. The goal of split training, as well as each individual workout during split training, is to hone in on each muscle group and hit them hard with high intensity.  You’ll be partaking in 4-6 exercises during each day’s muscle group, as opposed to only one or two exercises per muscle group during a full body workout.  Again, there are cons to split training as well. The main negative to split training is that you are only training each muscle group once per week. Many critics of split training note that because you’re only hitting each muscle group a single time in 7 days, you’re not maximizing the muscle-building potential of those muscles.

Now with that in mind you have to understand that technically you may be utilizing more than one muscle group on certain days as well.  Secondary muscle groups are activated during main muscle group days.  Triceps and shoulders will be activated and utilized during chest days, as there aren’t many pure chest exercises that don’t at least inadvertently affect these other groups.  The same goes for back day. Biceps will be activated as well in most back exercises.

So what does a week of split training look like? Here is a typical weekly workout schedule:

Monday: Chest
Tuesday: Back
Wednesday: Legs
Thursday: REST
Friday: Shoulders
Saturday: Arms
Sunday: REST

Now if you’re so inclined, you can tweak this typical schedule to fit your needs or to hit muscle groups slightly more often. Many people combine shoulders with arms, and in doing so you have the potential for a 6-day schedule instead of 7. Others take only one rest day to lower their schedule further.  Typically, however, those that do pure split training like this tend to enjoy lifting the same muscle groups on the same days of the week out of either habit or comfort.

 

Upper/Lower Split

As you can see, names for different workout methods tend to lack creativity, so you can probably anticipate what an upper/lower split is. Upper/Lower split is a training regimen that takes one day of upper body and one day of lower body. Classically, a rest day is taken after the completion of both. So for simplicity’s sake let’s look at that in a weekly regimen:

Monday: Upper
Tuesday: Lower
Wednesday: Rest
Thursday: Upper
Friday: Lower
Saturday: Core/Cardio
Sunday: Rest

Now as you can see, I’ve added a core/cardio day to make the 7-day schedule work.  However, considering that upper/lower splits are really a 3-day cycle, you also have the option to simply repeat those 3 days indefinitely, which as we’ve discussed before, gives you more constant training for each muscle group. Typically for those doing an extended upper lower program, you will bump the 3-day schedule up to a 6-day schedule, simply because you will have an upper body day 1 and 2 and a lower body day 1 and 2. Even though you’re doing upper/lower/rest, you will be doing two different workouts for each.  This way you won’t be as bored with your workouts and the body can respond to slightly different exercises on each session of the same muscle group.

 

PPL

PPL routines stand for Push, Pull and Legs (again very creative naming system applies).  It basically takes the upper lower split and splits the upper once more into two different groups.  Push day generally works out your chest, triceps and shoulders, which are the muscles whose exercises are pushing movements. These are exercises such as bench press, skull crushers, and shoulder press. Pull day works back and biceps, which are the muscles whose exercises are pulling movements.  This includes lat pull­-downs, curls, and rows.  After completing push and pull days you have your leg day.

As far as resting is concerned, you can take one rest day per week cycle through your PPL routine twice in that week span, or you can add a rest day after each cycle and have an 8-day regimen. Let’s see what both methods look like in a simplistic schedule:

Method 1:                                                           Method 2:
Monday: Push 1                                               Day 1: Push 1
Tuesday: Pull 1                                                  Day 2: Pull 1
Wednesday: Leg 1                                           Day 3: Leg 1
Thursday: Push 2                                              Day 4: REST
Friday: Pull 2                                                       Day 5: Push 2
Saturday: Leg 2                                                 Day 6: Pull 2
Sunday: REST                                                     Day 7: Leg 2
Day 8: REST

Personally, I recommend the latter of the two methods.  Push, Pull, Legs can be intense when done correctly, and I appreciate the rest days in between each 3-day cycle.  Now, these days don’t have to be spent idol. I generally like to do some cardio on my “rest” day, as well as throw in some core work.  Also, notice how I have a “1” or a “2” after each exercise day.  As I mentioned in the upper/lower split section, it’s recommended to have two different routines for each of your push days, pull days, and legs days.  Leg day 1 may be front squats, straight-leg deadlifts, reverse lunges, and step ups. Leg day 2 may be back squats, one-leg dumbbell deadlifts, leg press, hamstring curls and quad extensions.  Not only are you keeping the body from getting too accustomed to one workout, you’re also hitting muscles differently, and can focus more on certain muscles within the muscle groups each workout. Six exercises on push day could be 3 chest, 2 triceps, 1 shoulder.  It can also be 2 chest, 2 triceps, 2 shoulder. Mix it up.

 

Which method is right for me?

Each method we have gone through has advantages and disadvantages.  The overarching concern you generally have to take into consideration is working each muscle group enough while not overworking them. On one end of the spectrum you have the full body system where you work every muscle group each training session. On the other end, you have the bro split that works out one muscle group per week.  In between are the hybrids of upper/lower splits and PPL workouts.

If you are beginning out full body may be the way you want to start for a few months.  Since you’re not used to lifting it is beneficial to get your body used to the idea of heavy stress upon your muscles by hitting all the muscle groups at a lower intensity. Once the body becomes used to the stress of lifting, you can transition into one of the other workout styles.

At this point which method is correct? The answer is none of them, and all of them. Every individual lifter is different. You can see that by going to the gym and looking around.  Our bodies are all different shapes and sizes, so it is foolish to say that one method works best for all of them.  The key, like so many parts of life, is trial and error.  Pick one and go with it for a couple months, noting your progress along the way.  When you hit a point where your results are stagnant and you notice less progress, switch it up and try a new method.  Even the act of changing things around is great for the body, because the body itself can get used to the same workout over and over again and that leads to diminishing returns.

So, pick a method, try it out, and go from there. If you are committed and consistent you should see results in any regimen, so focus on sticking to your goals and lifting hard each time you hit the gym!