One of the major questions personal trainers, strength coaches, and gym goers 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? And what about your own training, how should you set up your program? There are many factors that have to be taken into account when these questions are to be answered. While some gym goers will get optimal results from a 3-day split, others might benefit from more frequent training of each muscle group. In general, I think full-body workouts are underrated, and in this article I’ll show 7 instances where these types of programs are highly effective.
How should you design your training program?
If you’ve been doing resistance training for some time, read about strength training on fitness & bodybuilding websites, and/or taken a look at the training programs of fitness competitors or bodybuilders, you know that full-body workouts are the exception rather than the rule – at least for intermediate-advanced trainees who are training for muscle growth. It seems that some people are convinced that you shouldn’t focus on more than 1-3 muscle groups every training session or combine resistance training and other types of physical activities in the same workout.
In terms of what training frequency, intensity, and volume to aim for, you’ll get many different opinions depending on who you ask. A bodybuilder who’s been doing 4 and 5 splits for most of his training career will likely tell you that high-volume training once a week for each muscle group is the way to go, whereas if you ask a powerlifter, you’ll likely be recommended to train each lift or muscle group more frequently, regardless of whether you are primarily looking for hypertrophy or strength gains.
But what if you ask an experienced coach who’s read the research and spent many years training people with different goals, recovery abilities, and skills? Most likely, he’ll tell you that there isn’t one size fits all. He may say that volume, intensity, frequency, and load have to be adjusted according to each person’s needs, and that 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.
Personally, I’ve found that most people benefit from training each muscle group (or at least the primary lifts) multiple times per week. This opinion is based on my personal experience as a strength coach and personal trainer, as well as on the scientific and evolutionary evidence. Isolating and completely destroying each muscle group with 20-25 sets of various barbell-, dumbell-, cable-, and machine-exercises once every week is a very unnatural and novel human behavior from an evolutionary perspective.
Studies investigating the impact of different training frequencies and volumes on strength- and hypertrophy-related adaptations show mixed results. This is to be expected, as there are many variables that play a role in all of this. That said, the weight of the evidence indicates that completely destroying each muscle group once a week with 25 sets to failure, as many bodybuilders do, is rarely optimal for the average guy or girl looking to gain strength and/or muscle. One of the most comprehensive review articles on the topic concluded that 30-60 repetitions for each muscle group 2-3 times per week may be optimal untrained and moderately trained individuals who are primarily interested in hypertrophy (1).
When put together, this suggests that for most people, training each muscle group more frequently, with a lower volume each workout, is superior to blasting every muscle group once a week. 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’m talking about full-body training I don’t mean doing a whole bunch of different exercises for each muscle group and spending 3 hours in the gym. Rather, I’m referring to a workout that consists of heavy training of compound exercises (e.g., the squat, push-up, chin-up, press, bench-press) that target all the major muscle groups, and in some instances, also rowing, sprinting, and other activities.
Below are 7 types of people who should strongly consider doing full-body workouts. While most of these cases revolve around hypertrophy and strength development, I’ve also included instances where the goal isn’t to get big or strong.
1. Novice looking to gain strength and muscle
The vast majority of untrained individuals who want to build muscle/strength don’t need anything more than 4-7 basic lifts to get going. Playing around with a wide range of exercises, doing 25 sets on each muscle group once a week, and emphasising arm- and ab-training are some of the biggest mistakes you can make as a beginner. Unfortunately, this is the way most people approach training when they first join a gym.
For beginners, I often advocate a starting strength-type program, which involves training the entire body three times per week. The emphasis should be on squats, deadlifts, pull-ups, presses, dips, and other multi-joint exercises. During the first couple of weeks and months of strength training, beginners can add weight to the bar every workout, and the progress is pretty much linear as long as sleep, nutrition, and exercise technique are all dialed in correctly.
2. 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. That said, not everyone is a fitness enthusiast that looks forward to running, sweating, and lifting heavy things. If you’re only going to train 2 times per week, full-body workouts are the way to go. For example, if you’re a regular guy who’s training for hypertrophy, both of your workouts should consist of multi-joint movements, such as the squat, bench-press, and pull-up.
3. Strength trainee coming back from an unplanned break
Another instance where I’ve found full-body workouts to be of great value is after you’ve had a couple of weeks off from training. Some lifters only take one or more weeks off training when it’s for deloading purposes, however, the vast majority also end up with a couple of unplanned training breaks here and there – 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.
In terms of your strength level, 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 prior to the break. Actually, as most hard-training individuals have experienced, taking a week off from training will often help your long-term progress.
That said, if you’re not training for several weeks or months, your strength levels will obviously decline, and you can’t jump back in with the same load as you’re used to. In these cases, I’ve found that doing full-body workouts is very effective for 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 prior to the break.
4. Intermediate lifter with a lot of potential left in the compound lifts
Many strength trainees have played around with various “bodybuilding routines” their entire training career and have 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 – some additional exercises can be added to the mix.
5. Person whose main goal is to be fit and healthy and achieve multifaceted fitness
If your goal is to run as fast as possible over long distances, the focus of your training should of course be on endurance exercise, whereas if your goal is to build as much muscle as possible, you should naturally emphasise resistance training. But what 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?
Looking at indigenous human activity patterns can help us understand how we should exercise in order to optimize gene expression and achieve robust health. I’ve made the case many times here on the blog that people who are looking to achieve a fit and healthy body should adhere to an Organic Fitness program that includes a range of different types of activities, such as sprinting, strength training, and walking
A lot of gym goers who begin lifting weights 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.
Personally, I’m no longer that interested in optimizing muscle growth and getting as strong as possible. I still perform resistance exercise on a regular basis, but I also include rowing, sprinting, swimming, and other types of physical activities in my training program. This type of program will not confer a specific adaptation to just one type of activity; rather, it will confer multifaceted fitness and good health.
This is also very relevant to those people who are primarily interested in aerobic performance. Many fitness enthusiasts run long distances every time they work out and believe that more is “always” better. This is unfortunate, because there are many negative health effects associated with excessive endurance training (2, 3). Our hunter-gatherer ancestors often covered long distances every day; however, they didn’t do as much intense, prolonged cardiovascular exercise as many runners do today.
6. Trainee looking to get as strong as possible in a set of compound movements
Many of the most effective powerlifting programs out there encompass full-body training. Usually, some version of the different compound lifts is performed several times per week with varying intensity and load. 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. In general, you should perform the exercises you are primarily interested in improving as often as you can, as long as you stay within your recovery capabilities.
7. Relatively inexperienced client training with personal trainer/coach
My experience is that many, if not most, regular gym goers who work out with a Personal Trainer (PT) benefit from doing full-body workouts (or sometimes a 2-split). The reason being that they generally only train with their PT/coach 1-2 times per week, and these sessions should be as effective as possible. The 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.
If you train a client 2 times per week, focusing on the most important exercises both of these workouts ensures that you stay on top of the clients’ progress. Even if you tell a client to train to failure on their own and focus on the compound lift, chances are he doesn’t really train that hard when he exercises by humself – regardless of how good the training program you gave him is and how well you instruct him. Also, as most coaches have inevitably witnessed, a lot of people mess up their exercise technique when they are training without their PT, and some even skip certain exercises or workouts all together. I’m not referring to the advanced strength trainee or fitness competitor here, but rather relatively inexperienced people at commercial gym who hire a trainer.
One of the greatest challenges you face as a personal trainer is to find the right balance between specificity and variation. For me, it took a couple of years of working as a strength coach before I felt that I found this sweet spot. For example, let’s say you’re training a relatively untrained client whose main goal is to gain muscle. Clearly, for this person, the focus should be on heavy resistance training and progressive overload in squats, deadlifts, and other compound lifts. The client will get great satisfaction from seeing his/her progress in these multi-joint exercises, however, you clearly can’t keep doing the same exact thing every workout. First of all, this will lead many clients to feel that they don’t really need a trainer. Second, while focusing on these multi-joint movements should be the priority, it’s rarely optimal to exclusively focus on the basics. Instead, you have to add in assistance work, additional exercises, mobility drills, etc. that are specifically tailored to that person’s needs and goals.
One approach I’ve found to be effective when training relatively inexperienced clients is to pick out 4-6 multi-joint exercises (e.g., squats, deadlift, rowing) that are perfect for that person’s needs, goals, anthropometry, and skill set, and have the client do these exercises pretty much every workout. I don’t always use the same volume, load, intensity, etc., but I always keep track of the progress in these main 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 concerned about always writing things down and focusing on progressive overload; rather, the main emphasis is on “feeling the muscle”, training hard, and having fun.
For example, if I’m training someone who wants to build stronger and bigger glutes, I’ll pick out 4-5 compound exercises that cover the major muscle groups. Besides these lifts I might also add in a couple of additional exercises for the upper body and legs; however, the main emphasis will be on specifically targeting that person’s goals by focusing on hip dominant exercises (e.g., hip thrusts, box squats, pull throughs), glute activation, and correcting muscle imbalance such as lower crossed syndrome.
I hope I’ve made a convincing case for full-body training. Full-body workouts aren’t for everyone (or every goal), but they are often pretty damn effective. What are your experience with full-body training? Do you know of any additional instances where full-body workouts are highly effective?