Full Body Gym Workouts vs. Split Gym Workouts
What is better – full-body gym workouts or split gym workouts? This is one of the commonly asked questions we get from novice trainees, regardless of whether they are starting to workout in the commercial gym or at home.
The problem is that this is a question without a right or wrong answer.
Updated: October 20, 2023.
We are all different, so what is good for me doesn’t have to be good for somebody else. Both approaches have pros and cons.
What is most important is that the body is made for survival, so even newbies will stop progressing if they stick to the same workout program for a longer period of time - the body adapts to a new workout program/routine, and after 6-8 weeks, some changes are necessary.
Full Body Gym Workouts
During full-body workouts, the entire body is trained in a single workout session – to finish the workout in 60-90 minutes, shorter rest periods are used (typically 60-90 seconds, rarely longer than 120 seconds), the workout is based on compound exercises (deadlifts, squats, bench presses, pull-ups, and chin-ups, various rows, etc.).
Isolation exercises are done at the end of workouts, if at all, for lagging muscles/muscle groups. However, trainees who want to emphasize certain muscle groups for various reasons may do isolation exercises at the beginning of the workout session.
During these workouts, the entire body is stressed, but no muscle group gets extra high volume or high-intensity workouts, so the body recovers rather quickly in the case of proper nutrition and enough sleep and rest.
Two to three gym sessions per week are possible, with three even being recommendable, combined with low- and high-intensity cardio sessions on non-gym days.
Workout sessions differ regarding exercises, sets and reps, TUT (time under tension), speed, and similar. It is very important to avoid boredom and prevent the body from adapting to the workout routine.
Also, it is necessary to have periodization within one workout session and from the workout session to the workout session.
Pros and Cons of Full Body Workouts
In short, full-body workouts have some pros and cons, including:
Pros of Full Body Workouts
- Efficiency: Full-body workouts can target multiple muscle groups in a single session, making them time-efficient for those with busy schedules.
- Frequency: Since these workouts target the entire body, they can be done fewer times per week while still providing the frequency needed for muscle growth and strength gains.
- Caloric Burn: Engaging multiple muscle groups can lead to a higher caloric burn during the session and an increased afterburn effect post-workout.
- Balance and Symmetry: By training the whole body, there's less risk of developing imbalances between muscle groups.
- Flexibility: If you miss a workout during the week, you won't be neglecting any specific muscle group since each session targets the entire body.
- Functional Strength: Full body routines often incorporate compound movements that mimic everyday activities, enhancing functional strength and overall mobility.
Cons of Full Body Workouts
- Potential for Overtraining: Without adequate rest and recovery, training the entire body can lead to overtraining, especially if the intensity is consistently high.
- Longer Workout Sessions: To effectively train the entire body, sessions may be longer compared to split routines where only certain muscle groups are targeted.
- Recovery: Some individuals may find they require more recovery time after a full body workout, which can impact the frequency of training sessions.
- Potential for Plateaus: Doing the same full body routine can lead to plateaus if there's not enough variety in exercises or intensity.
- Not Ideal for Specialization: Those looking to specifically target or bring up lagging body parts may find it challenging with a full body routine.
- Potential for Fatigue: As the session progresses, energy levels might drop, which could compromise form and the effectiveness of exercises later in the workout.
Obviously, full-body workouts offer many benefits, especially for those looking for a time-efficient way to train multiple muscle groups.
However, like any workout regimen, monitoring one's body, adjusting based on individual needs, and ensuring a proper balance of intensity, recovery, and variation is essential.
Split Gym Workouts
During split body workouts, only a limited number of muscles are trained in each workout session. This gives plenty of time for really stressing the individual muscles with the desired volume and intensity.
Recovery of individual muscle groups after such workouts takes longer, so individual muscles (or muscle groups) are trained once or twice per week, depending on the program and the personal goals.
Split gym workouts require at least 3 to 4 gym sessions per week – sometimes even 2-3 sessions per DAY if specialized programs are used for some athletic/sports event.
Note: personally, the hardest workout days for me were following Smolov and Smolow Junior programs for various exercises (mostly deadlifts, squats, and bench presses) and one of the most difficult but excellent workout routines "8 Weeks to a Record Bench" by Christian Thibaudeau - those where the days when T-Nation was still T-Mag ;)
In the case of some weak body part, for example, biceps or abs, that body part can be done in isolation at the beginning of the workout, or one entire day can be assigned to it.
Pros and Cons of Split Workouts
Just like full-body workouts, split-day workouts also have their pros and cons. In short:
Pros of Split Workouts
- Specialization: Split workouts allow for targeted training of specific muscle groups, ideal for addressing weak points or enhancing particular areas.
- Shorter Workout Sessions: Since you're focusing on a specific muscle group or groups, sessions can be shorter compared to full body workouts.
- Intensity: By isolating specific muscle groups, you can apply more intensity and volume to that particular area without the fatigue that might come from a full body session.
- Variety: Split routines provide the flexibility to change exercises, rep ranges, and techniques for each muscle group, which can keep workouts fresh and engaging.
- Recovery: Since you are only working a portion of the body, other muscle groups have additional time to rest and recover before their next training session.
- Customization: Split routines can be tailored to meet specific goals, whether it's hypertrophy, strength, or endurance, by adjusting the frequency, volume, and exercises.
Cons of Split Workouts
- Frequency: Muscle groups might only be trained once a week in certain split routines, which may not be enough frequency for optimal muscle growth or strength gains for some individuals.
- Potential for Imbalances: If not properly structured, split workouts can lead to muscular imbalances if certain areas are prioritized over others.
- Requires More Days: To ensure all muscle groups are trained, one might need to commit more days per week compared to full body workouts.
- Missed Sessions: If you skip a day on a split routine, you might neglect a muscle group entirely for that week.
- Complexity: For beginners, split routines might seem complicated due to the variety of exercises and the need to understand which exercises target which muscles.
- Potential for Overtraining: There's a risk of overtraining specific muscle groups if there's inadequate recovery or if too much volume is applied in the belief that "more is better."
Split workouts offer a targeted approach that can be tailored to individual goals and preferences. They provide flexibility and can lead to great results when structured correctly.
However, consistency, balance, and proper planning are crucial to avoid potential pitfalls and ensure reaching the desired goals.
Split vs. Full Body: Which One is better?
Full body and split gym workouts are two totally different approaches, and comparing them is like comparing apples and pears, to say the least. :)
For example, if you are on a strict diet and you don’t have much time for working out, full-body workouts are a better option. But, if you do have time and/or you are preparing for some specific athletic event, then split gym workouts are a much better solution for you.
Personally – being married, with kids, and being in front of the computer for a long time almost every day gives me little free time, so full-body workouts are the preferred choice for me. For example - it is easier for me to train three times per week for 90 or so minutes than 4-5 times per week for 60 minutes.
Maybe it doesn't sound much but try to do a circuit workout consisting of pull-ups, squats, push-ups, various crunches, burpees, and similar exercises for 8-10 minutes, practically without resting. Or try doing individual Tabata workouts for several of these exercises in a row.
I don't know about you, but it is enough for me :)
Also, in the gym, every few months, I switch to a split gym workout for a few weeks just to ‘reset’ my mind and my body.
And to see what I am still made of, I try the Smolov Junior program from time to time, but due to my age (at the moment of this update, I am 50+), I don't do Smolov Junior 4 sessions per week for 3 weeks, but I do 3 sessions per week for 4 weeks - despite being endomorph with excellent recovery, it is not the same to recover when being 50 or 25 regardless of the workout, nutrition, and rest. ;)