Body part splits or whole body workouts | the pros and cons

The other day (a very observant) someone asked me why I give most of my clients whole body workouts when they see me performing body part splits.

  • Do I think one type of workout is intrinsically better than the other? (No)
  • Is one ‘harder’ than the other? (Not necessarily)
  • Under what circumstances would I provide a client with a body part split? (Read on…)

body part splits or whole body workouts: which is better? via http://fitknitchick.com

Whole body workouts are exactly what they sound like.

A workout in which all of the major muscles of the body are trained. Whole body workouts tend to focus on compound, multi-joint exercises, exercises which are often described as ‘functional’ in nature (meaning that they mimic the types of movements our bodies were designed to engage in daily). Smaller muscles (think triceps and calves) are trained in conjunction with bigger muscles, rather than via isolation or ‘vanity’ exercises (e.g., tricep kickbacks and seated calf raises).

In contrast, body part splits involve splitting the major muscle groups up and training them on separate days.

Upper-lower splits are common; all of the muscles of the upper body are trained together, with lower body muscles trained on a separate days. Core training can be done on either the upper or lower body day, although most people prefer to train core and legs together to equalize training time across days.

Push-pull, movement pattern splits are popular too; muscles involved with pushing exercises (e.g., chest, anterior delts, quads, calves and triceps) are trained on the same day, pulling muscle (e.g., back, biceps, hamstrings, posterior delts and abs) exercises are trained on another.

Other configurations of body part splits can be created depending on the exerciser’s goals, their desired frequency of training and how much experience they have in the gym. (My last 3-day body part split had me training chest and back on day 1, legs and core on day 2 and shoulders, biceps and triceps on day 3).

Whole body training has many benefits:
  • it’s generally more metabolic in nature than body part splits (i.e., burns more calories)
  • it’s typically a more functional type of workout and can easily incorporate speed, agility and balance training in addition to muscular strength and endurance
  • you don’t necessarily need dumbbells, barbells and a weight bench to get a good workout; Google ‘body weight exercises’ and see how much variety there is
  • missing a workout isn’t as much of a concern when you’re training all muscle groups each time you exercise
The downside of whole body training?
  • workout length tends to be longer than for body part splits, as you’re targeting all of the major muscle groups in one workout
  • you may not be physically able to perform the same workout on two adjacent days (when you train a muscle to near failure or fatigue, it may require 48 hours before it’s ready to be trained again)
  • doing the same workout 3, 4 or 5 days a week can get boring and potentially lead to injury and over-training
Whole body training is perfect for people who…
  • have only 2 or 3 days a week for exercise
  • are new to strength training and need to focus on learning form and creating an exercise habit
  • have weight or fat loss as their primary goal

The majority of my personal training clients fall into the above category, hence the reason why I create whole body training programs for them.

Body part training has many benefits too:
  • workouts can be as short as 30 minutes; great if you’re pressed to find time for exercise in your day
  • there’s adequate time to train each muscle from a variety of different angles; body part workouts typically include 2 to 3 exercises per body part within the same training session (no more having to choose between chest presses and flys)
  • when carefully designed, you can completely rest a muscle group before working it again; for example, an upper/lower split might have you training legs on Monday and Thursday (great for building muscle size as most growth happens during the recovery phase)
  • depending on your body part split, you can train up to 6 days per week (some of us need our daily stress reliever…)
The downside of body part splits?
  • if you miss a workout day, you miss a body part (and may not end up training it again for another whole week)
  • if your goals include fat loss, you may not create enough of a ‘metabolic disturbance’ to see an effect on the scales
  • muscles may be quite sore the day following the workout, especially if you’ve performed 3 or 4 different exercises and worked to fatigue
  • you may need to train 4 or 6 days each week to fit all of your exercises in
Body part splits are perfect for people who…
  • have muscular hypertrophy as their primary training goal
  • prefer more frequent, shorter workouts to less frequent, longer sessions
  • are disciplined enough not to miss a workout (or be able to make it up immediately so as not to leave a body part behind… 😉 )
  • have sufficient experience with strength training to choose appropriate combinations of exercises (and know how many reps and sets of each to perform)

A few of my clients fall into the above category (you know who you are 🙂 ). Depending on their preference (and their primary hypertrophy goals), I tend to favour upper/lower and push/pull splits.

Body part splits or whole body workouts: what’s best for you depends on…
  • your goals (hypertrophy, fat loss, health, aesthetics, overall fitness)
  • how much time you have available for exercise (both workout length and how many days a week you’ll be training)
  • your experience level (beginners often do better with whole body workouts while more experienced lifters can get great results from body part splits)
  • how much variety you require in your workouts to maintain your exercise habit (note that those following a whole body training style can alternate between 2 or 3 different whole body workouts to keep their interest level and motivation high)
One final thought…

In my own training, I use a mix of the two. Twice a week I participate in whole body training while teaching Bootcamp and Group Step. The three or four days I’m in the gym, my workouts consist of body part splits.

For me, it’s a great balance between hypertrophy training and training for fat loss. It also keeps me from getting bored. And because the strength workouts are each only performed once a week, I only have to write myself a new program once every 2nd month.

Some might argue that by combining the two, I’m undermining the separate effects of each type of training. But experimenting with my body and learning what works best for ME has shown me the exact opposite!

body part splits and whole body training

Body part splits AND whole body training FTW

 

Do you have a preference for body part splits of whole body training?

What’s your current body part split?

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Comments

  1. Great explanation. I usually do whole body workouts, because I do strength 2-3x per week, but I do more upper body on Fridays to give my legs a bit of a break before my long run on Saturdays.
    Coco (@Got2Run4Me) recently posted…Which Vacation Are You?My Profile

    • Thanks Coco! Sounds like you’re doing exactly what works for your schedule and goals. With your frequent runs, it would be hard to fit strength training in more often!

  2. This is such a great post–thank you for breaking it down like this. I tend to go for body part splits due to time available, but enjoy whole body more.
    misszippy recently posted…Maximize the marathon taperMy Profile

    • You’re very welcome! I must admit that I prefer body part splits more. And I’d happily train upper body every day of the week if I could get away with it. Leg day just makes me so sore!

  3. Really great and informative look at this. I use a combo of both for myself, particularly during marathon training–I just can’t fatigue muscle groups entirely and then go do a long run. My favorite is body splits, though. It is sometimes a bit of a challenge for me to do a really good whole body workout because I am so used to it!
    Susie @ Suzlyfe recently posted…Yoga Clinic: Sun Salutation B SequenceMy Profile

    • It’s always tough to balance two different training modalities; long distance running and weight training can be complementary, but only if you don’t kill yourself every time out 😉

  4. It makes sense that a trainer would use whole body workouts for a client because, in reality, you don’t know when you’ll see that client again. The client may show up for three sessions, cancel the next and reschedule for the following week. And you don’t know if they’ll do any workout on their own. So, each workout has to be maximized as a full body workout.

  5. Nailed it. Could not have said it better. Most of my clients, even those with varying agendas, do whole body workouts. Why do I not, then…? Because I own the place and am there 7 days per week. Spreading the internal wealth…

    • Why thank you Roy. Huge praise coming from you (somebody whose professional opinion I have immense respect for!). I’m at the gym 6 days a week too. No place I’d rather be…

  6. Nice article. Summarizes the pros and cons very well. Thank you. I use whole body workouts with my clients, and this helped me to really nail down in my mind why it’s appropriate to do that. I do a combination of splits and whole body because I think each is beneficial.

  7. I prefer whole body workout because my schedule if volatile. If a kid gets sick or a client needs a deadline pushed up, I might get off schedule. A full body workout makes my workout schedule more flexible.

    And finally I do fill body workouts because that is what Tamara tells me to do 🙂
    Stephanie Robbins recently posted…Where the Girl Scouts Digital Cookie Site As An Affiliate ProgramMy Profile

  8. I usually do body part splits because I truly like working individual muscles and really enjoy the burn I get and soreness the next day. That being said, I will try to throw in some form of cardio as my active rest to keep heart rate elevated and hopefully burn a few extra cookies…

  9. You really lay this out well Tamara. It’s tough to find articles that explain all the sides in a neutral fashion- seriously. It tends to be yet another area where people judge each other (“I NEVER do body part splits because they BAAAAD.”)
    In reality, there are pros and cons and it all depends on your goals, as you say.
    I only use body part splits for clients in very rare instances… after all, most clients come to us because they are not training optimally to begin with. On the other hand, although I’ve been off a body part split for several years now, my plan is to return to it sometime this year. Bam.
    Suzanne @WorkoutNirvana recently posted…Why Owning It Is Critical to Aesthetic GoalsMy Profile

  10. I love this! Thank you so much for the thorough post. I’m a trainer too and have always relied on full-body workouts. I tend to enjoy them more, although I throw a few isolation exercises in here and there for my own body. In my experience, those who do splits have more specific goals, and it takes more equipment and planning to make this type of thing work. But for the everyday person trying to get in shape, I think full-body workouts spaced out during the week are ideal.
    Ashley @ A Lady Goes West recently posted…A weekend “Day in the Life” recap + fitnessMy Profile

  11. Thanks so much for the link love!

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