A BIG QUESTION personal trainers and strength trainees face is how often each muscle group and compound lift should be trained. Should you split up your clients' training program so that 1-3 muscle groups are trained each session? Or should you have them do full-body workouts? What about your own training, how should you set up your program?
Clearly, there are many factors that determine the answer of these questions, and while some lifters will get optimal results from a 3-day split, others might benefit from more frequent training of each muscle group. I think the benefits of full-body workouts are underrated, and in this article I'll show 7 instances where these types of programs are very effective.
How should your training program look like?
People seem convinced that training splits are always the way to go and that you shouldn't focus on more than 1-3 muscle groups every workout. However, as any personal trainer knows, there isn't one size fits all. Volume, intensity, frequency, and load have to be adjusted according to each person's needs, and while some people benefit from focusing specifically on just a few muscle groups every workout, others will see optimal results from a very different training routine.
If you ask an experienced coach who's read the research and spent many years training people with different goals, recovery abilities, and skills, he'll likely tell you that optimal training frequency, volume, load, etc., varies from person to person.
However, he'll probably also tell you that the extreme bodybuilding-type program where every muscle group is completely destroyed once a week is rarely optimal for the average guy or girl looking to gain strength and/or muscle.
First, most coaches would agree that training each muscle group (or at least the primary lifts) multiple times per week is optimal for the majority of people.
Next, the most comprehensive review on the subject shows that 30-60 repetitions for each muscle group 2-3 times per week is the optimal way to go for hypertrophy (untrained and moderately trained individuals) (1).
Third, isolating and hammering each muscle group with 15-25 sets of various barbell, dumbbell, cable, and machine-exercises every seven days is a very unnatural human behavior from an evolutionary perspective. When put together, this suggests that for most people, training each muscle group more frequently and with a lower volume each workout is superior to the "blast every muscle group once a week" routine.
Sometimes, it can even be beneficial to move as far away from the low-frequency and high volume bodybuilding program as we can get, to full-body training. To be clear, when I say full-body training I don't mean doing a whole bunch of exercises for each muscle group and spending 3 hours in the gym. Rather, I'm referring to a training program where each workout consists of heavy training of compound exercises (e.g., squat, chin-up, press, bench-press) that target all the major muscle groups, and in some instances, also rowing, sprinting, and other activities.
When do full body workouts work?
Below are 7 different training populations that often reap the benefits of full-body workouts. While most of these cases revolve around hypertrophy and strength development, I've also included instances where the goal is not necessarily to get big and strong.
Novice looking to gain strength and muscle
The vast majority of untrained individuals looking to build muscle/strength don't need anything more than 4-7 basic lifts. Playing around with a wide range of exercises, doing 25 sets on each muscle group once a week, and emphasizing arm and ab training are some of the biggest mistakes you can make as a beginner. But sadly, this is the way most people train when they first join a gym.
For beginner workout programs, I advocate a starting strength-type program, which involves training the whole body three times per week. Squats, deadlifts, pull-ups, presses, dips, and other fundamental movements should be the basis of the training program. During these first couple of weeks and months of strength training, beginners can add weight to the bar every workout, and the progress is basically linear as long as sleep, nutrition, and exercise technique are all taken care of.
Conventional wisdom, gym talk, bodybuilding magazines, and fitness blogs have led many to believe that more is generally better and that blasting every muscle group once a week is the optimal way to go for muscle growth. Also, as many new lifters usually want to try "everything" at the gym, one of the greatest obstacles you face as a trainer coaching a novice is to convince him/her that a simplistic training program is all he/she needs.
Individual who's only able to train 2 times per week
It could be argued that everyone can free up time to train more than twice a week. However, not everyone is a fitness enthusiast that looks forward to running, sweating, and lifting heavy things. If you're only going to train twice per week, full-body workouts are great.
The reason is simple:
to achieve optimal results, you should be doing the primary exercises (for your goals) in both workouts.
For example, if you're a regular guy who's training for hypertrophy, both workouts should consist of multi-joint movements, such as the squat, bench-press, and pull-up.
Strength trainee coming back from an unplanned break
Another instance where I've found the benefits of full-body workouts to be of great value is after you've had a couple of weeks off from training. While some lifters only take one or more weeks off training when it's for deloading purposes, the vast majority end up with a couple of training breaks whether it's due to illness, loss of motivation, travelling, or any other event that gets in the way of you doing your regular training routine.
Strength-wise, you won't lose much from simply taking one week off, and you can generally start training again on pretty much the same weights as you used before the break. Actually, as most hard training individuals have experienced, taking a week off from training will often help your long-term progress.
However, if you're not training for several weeks or months, your strength levels will decline, and you can't jump back in with the same load as you're used to. In these cases, full-body workouts are an extremely good way of regaining strength as quickly as possible. Reduce the load, do 4-7 compound lifts 2-4 times per week, add weight to the bar "every" workout, and you'll soon be where you were before the break.
Intermediate lifter with a lot of potential left in the compound lifts
Most lifters at commercial gyms have played around with various "bodybuilding routines" and never focused on progressive overload in the big compound exercises. For these individuals, exclusively focusing on the compound movements for a couple of months is generally incredibly effective. As the progression in these lifts starts decreasing -- as it will -- they can again begin to mix things up with additional exercises and more advanced programming.
Person whose main goal is to be fit and healthy and achieve multifaceted fitness
It's important to remember that our genes were primarily selected for in an environment that demanded for a wide range of different types of activities, such as running, lifting, jumping, and carrying, and even though our environment has changed dramatically since the Paleolithic era, we are still, to a large extent, stone agers from a genetic perspective (2, 3). Looking at indigenous human activity patterns can help us understand how we should exercise to optimize gene expression and achieve robust health.
However, this doesn't mean that you can't put more emphasis on one of these activities. On the contrary, if you work on strength training for runners and your clients goal is to run as fast as possible over long distances, the focus should naturally be on endurance training, and if your goal is to build as much muscle as possible, you should emphasize resistance training.
However, if you're not that interested in optimizing your performance in one activity and instead just want to be as healthy possible and achieve multifaceted fitness, you should probably include a combination of strength training, endurance training, sprinting, and other physical activities in your training program.
Many lifters start out with a purpose of gaining as much muscle and strength as possible. In other words, the primary goal is to maximize muscle and/or strength development. While some people stick with this goal for many years, and even sometimes for their entire training career, others divert to a more "balanced" form of training.
Training is not all about lifting weights. For me, I'm no longer that interested in exclusively focusing on optimizing muscle growth and getting as strong as possible. I also include rowing, sprinting, swimming, and other types of physical activities in my training program. This type of exercise program will not cause a specific adaptation to just one type of activity, but it will confer multifaceted fitness and good health.
This is also for those people who are primarily interested in aerobic performance. Many of these trainees run long distances every time they work out and often believe that more is "always" better.
However, the data on this topic is clear -- "chronic cardio" actually has some adverse health effects, and many runners would benefit from adopting a more balanced training routine, especially if they want to stay as healthy as possible (4, 5). The fact is that although our hunter-gatherer ancestors often moved long distances every day, they rarely did long stretches of intense cardio (sustained heart rate in the 80+% range) like many runners do on a frequent basis today (3, 4).
Trainee looking to get as strong as possible in a set of compound movements
Many of the most popular powerlifting programs involve full-body training. Each primary exercise is rarely trained to failure each session, but usually some version of the compound lifts is trained several times per week with different intensity and load. That's not to say that there aren't many effective programs where each lift are trained more infrequently (e.g., 5/3/1), but if your goal is to get as strong as possible in a specific exercise, you should train that movement more than once a week.
This really goes without saying, as specificity is one of the essential principles of strength training. Generally, you should perform the exercises you're primarily interested in improving as often as you can, as long as you stay within your recovery capabilities.
Relatively inexperienced client training with personal trainer/coach
This is a highly debated topic among trainers and coaches, but my opinion is that the average client you get in a commercial gym (in other words, not the fitness competitor, ironman athlete, or advanced strength trainee) benefits from doing full-body workouts (or sometimes a 2-split) every session you train them.
Why? They generally train with a trainer/coach 1-2 times per week, and these sessions should be as effective as possible. The primary exercises that form the basis of the training program (varies from client to client depending on goals) should be done more than once a week, meaning that if you train a client 2 times per week, focusing on the most important exercises both of these workouts means that you stay on top of the clients' progress.
Even when you tell your client to train to failure on their own, focus on the basic lifts, etc., most clients don't really train that hard when they exercise by themselves, regardless of well you instruct them. Also, as most coaches have inevitably witnessed, many clients mess up their exercise technique when they're training without their trainer, and some might even skip certain exercises or workouts all together. Again, I'm referring to the relatively inexperienced person at a commercial gym who hires a trainer.
I advise picking out 4-6 multi-joint movements (doesn't have to be resistance training) that are perfect for that person's needs, goals, anthropometry, and skill set, and I have the client do these exercises basically every workout. I don't always use the same volume, load, intensity, etc., but I always track the progress in these basic exercises. Besides these primary movements, I mix things up with other activities and drills that are perfect for that individual.
In these additional exercises I'm not that adamant about always writing things down and focusing on progressive overload, but rather put emphasis on "feeling the muscle," training hard, and having fun.
For example, if I'm training someone who wants to build great glutes, I pick out 4-5 compound exercises that cover the major muscle groups. Besides these lifts I might add in some additional exercises for the entire body, but the emphasis is on specifically targeting that person's goals by focusing on hip dominant exercises (e.g., hip thrusts, box squats, pull-throughs), glute activation, correcting possible "muscle imbalances," and ingraining the hip hinging pattern.
I hope I've made a convincing case for full-body workout training. Full-body workouts definitely aren't for perfect everyone (or every goal), but they are often damn effective.
6 Steps to Building Beginner Workout Programs - Jonathan Goodman (free Ebook download)
What are Strength Exercises for Runners? - Jon-Erik Kawamoto
Screening the Squat - Justin Kompf
The Deadlift Exercise - Dean Somerset
Personal Trainers Shouldn't Periodize - Jonathan Goodman
Fixing Bad Pushups - Dean Somerset
- Wernbom M, Augustsson J, Thomee R. The influence of frequency, intensity, volume and mode of strength training on whole muscle cross-sectional area in humans. Sports medicine (Auckland, NZ). 2007;37(3):225-64.
- Cordain L, Gotshall RW, Eaton SB, Eaton SB, 3rd. Physical activity, energy expenditure and fitness: an evolutionary perspective. International journal of sports medicine. 1998;19(5):328-35.
- O'Keefe JH, Vogel R, Lavie CJ, Cordain L. Organic fitness: physical activity consistent with our hunter-gatherer heritage. The Physician and sportsmedicine. 2010;38(4):11-8.
- O'Keefe JH, Vogel R, Lavie CJ, Cordain L. Exercise like a hunter-gatherer: a prescription for organic physical fitness. Progress in cardiovascular diseases. 2011;53(6):471-9.
- Booth FW, Chakravarthy MV, Spangenburg EE. Exercise and gene expression: physiological regulation of the human genome through physical activity. The Journal of physiology. 2002;543(Pt 2):399-411.