Workout programs usually aren't labelled as "full-body" or "body part" routines, but we've all heard of "leg days" or "arm days" versus workouts that do it all. Every program wants you to build muscle, get strong or lose weight. Choosing between full-body or specific focus routines, however, isn't easy. Title illustration by Jim Cooke. Image by Anthony Topper, MartialArtsNomad.com, SatGuru.
Full-Body Workouts Are More Efficient and Ideal For Beginners
In a full-body routine, you train every major muscle in your body, like your chest, back, arms, hamstrings and abs, in each workout. They incorporate exercises that engage many of those muscle groups in one movement, like squats, deadlifts and overhead presses, all of which are also called compound movements. Compound movements demand a lot of energy and burn more kilojoules, but they also beat up your muscles and typically require you to rest more between each set of exercise and whole workouts.
The upside is that when you work out the same muscle groups by doing the same or similar exercises multiple times each week, you improve your overall body strength, rather than just in one area. This is what a typical full-body routine might look like:
- Monday: Squats (emphasis on quads, glutes, hamstrings, abs)
- Tuesday: Off
- Wednesday: Bench press (emphasis on chest, triceps, abs)
- Thursday: Off
- Friday: Deadlifts (emphasis on lower back, glutes, lats, hamstrings, abs)
- Saturday and Sunday: Off
If you're just starting to pick up weights, are short on time or are more interested in shedding some kilograms, full-body programs would be your jam.
For the beginner, these programs are more simple, help you learn and constantly practise the major compound exercises, and can lead to major strength and muscle gains because of how often you're working out the same muscles. In fact, beginner strength programs, like Starting Strength and 5x5, emphasise those full-body movements to help you lay down a solid strength base.
Similarly, compound lifts engage so many muscles that they skyrocket your heart rate and burn more kilojoules, making them more ideal for weight loss goals. For someone who doesn't have much time to work out, full-body workouts are more efficient, so you don't have to train as often throughout the week. Each workout in Starting Strength, for example, runs you through three exercises for a couple of sets each, which means you don't have to spend hours in the gym.
Exercising Specific Muscle Groups Help You Work On Weaker Muscle Groups
Everyone has heard of "leg day", where you work out your lower body to the point of feeling wobbly right after. But "leg day" is just one day out of a whole rotation of body part-focused workouts, or a "workout split". Here you break up your routine over a week and focus on specific muscle groups during each workout. These workouts are staggered to give each muscle group time to recover before you rotate back to it, and you train more frequently over the week.
Split workouts give you the chance to isolate and develop weaker muscle groups. Also, compound movements may be more efficient, but they often give less love to smaller muscle groups like your rear deltoids and calves. A split routine could look something like this:
- Monday: Hip thrusts, hyperextensions, Romanian deadlifts, lunges (glutes, hamstrings)
- Tuesday: Dumbbell chest press, lateral raises, shrugs, tricep push-downs (chest, shoulders, triceps)
- Wednesday: Off
- Thursday: Bulgarian split squats, leg extensions, standing calf raises (quads, calves)
- Friday: Seated row, pull-ups, bicep curls (back, traps, biceps)
- Saturday and Sunday: Off
By the end of the week, you will have worked out your entire body, which means you work out one major muscle group once or twice each week. These workouts can include a combination of compound and isolation exercises, but they typically would target a specific muscle group for that day.
Split routines are more appropriate than full-body routines after you're comfortable in the gym and want to start shaping your body a certain way. Maybe you want broader shoulders, so you would add more shoulder and upper chest exercises in your training. This is why bodybuilders typically do split routines.
Full-Body Workouts Are Better For Beginners, and Split Routines Are Ideal For Intermediate Lifters
When you choose whether you want to do full-body or split routine workouts, think about how many days you can devote to exercise, your personal fitness goals and your current level of ability and comfort in the gym.
If you're just starting out and want to get in better shape, your best bet is to go with a full-body program. Once you gain more experience, you can graduate to a split routine to focus on strengthening and building specific muscles. Some programs also incorporate a little bit of both: You can follow a split routine and then use full-body circuit training-style workouts to add an extra bit of intensity at the end of a workout, for example. Either approach will help you get stronger, build bigger muscles or fit in your jeans better, with the right eating habits.