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There is a great debate on what works best in the strength-training world, full-body workouts or body part splits. The simple answer is it depends on your goal, and your experience level. There are many ways to construct a weekly strength-training program, and sometimes you can use a periodization model to include multiple workout splits in a given year. To give you a better idea on where you should start, let’s take a look at some pros and cons for each type of strength training model.
Full-body Strength training
If I had to pick one method I would pick full-body strength training. Implementing a well designed full-body strength training routine 3-days a week for the majority of the population will be the most efficient and effective way to burn body fat and build or maintain muscle tissue. The first reason is because of the time factor. Most people just don’t have enough time to devote to exercise. Three days a week is a reasonable goal that people can fit into their lifestyle. It is also enough strength training volume to produce some great benefits regardless of age and experience.
Working multiple muscle groups in a full-body strength training fashion also has been shown to increase growth hormone at a larger rate than traditional bodybuilding type of workouts where you only work one or two muscle groups at a time. The more muscle worked, the more neural and physiological demand, thus increasing the metabolic rate and burning more calories. Bottom line is that most people want to lose body fat and be more fit, and three full-body strength training routines a week is the perfect combination for the majority of the population.
At SOF, we are using resistance training as the main component of our fat loss programming. Our goal is to work every muscle group hard, frequently and with intensity that creates a massive metabolic disturbance or “afterburn” that leaves the metabolism elevated for several hours post workout.
A study by Schuenke MD, Mikat RP, McBride JM.et al. used a circuit training protocol of 12 sets in 31 minutes. EPOC was elevated significantly for 38 hours post workout. 38 hours is a pretty significant time frame for metabolism to be elevated. If you trained at 9am until 10 am on Monday morning — you’re still burning more calories (without training) at midnight on Tuesday.
In my experience, full body training in a superset, tri-set or circuit format (with non competing exercises) in a rep range that generates lactic acid (and pushing the lactic acid threshold or LAT) seems to create the biggest metabolic demand. Training legs, back and chest will burn more calories and elevate metabolism more than an isolated approach training one of them. The rep range that seems to work best is the 8-12 hypertrophy range, although going higher will work just as well with a less trained population. If you are looking to gain strength and power rather than looking to reduce body fat, stick in the 3-8 rep range.
Body-part Split Routines
When I began to weight train seriously during my junior year in high school I geared all my workouts towards a bodybuilding style split routine. As I sifted through various bodybuilding magazines I noticed that all of the very muscular people in the photos were only working 1-2 muscle groups a day 4-6 days a week. Since I wanted to get bigger I just copied those routines and did them. In the beginning I made some huge gains. Soon after that I plateau for a very long time. I later learned that nutrition, supplementation and recovery were my missing catalysts to really make some big gains.
My initial gains were made due to the fact that my body was not accustomed to this type of training. Since I did not let my body recover and did not eat enough protein and calories I didn’t make any more gains. I was also playing varsity basketball and football at the time, so I was well overtrained and was performing a lot of cardio in sports. I now know that for in-season athletes a full-body strength training routine 2-3 times a week would have been best. If you are someone that likes to run, bike, or swim a lot, split routines may not be for you due to the recovery demands of breaking down muscle tissue at an extensive rate.
How long you have been lifting weights also plays a big factor in how often you should lift. As you train more and more, your body adapts to it’s imposed demands. I feel that anyone starting a serious strength-training program needs to develop a strong base of the basic movements. Squats, deadlifts, chin-ups, rows, and presses should make up the foundation everyone’s routine, especially beginners. After you have been training for at least 2-4 years, then it is time to throw in some isolation movements such as bicep curls, triceps extension, and lateral raises once in a while. Until then stick to the basics.
There are many ways to split up your strength training routine. You can do the classic push/pull/lower-body routine, upper-body and lower-body split, or 1-2 muscle groups a day spread throughout the week. All of these methods will work very well for some individuals. But you must consider some very important factors.
Nutrition is very critical if you are looking to perform a split routine. The main goal for most people wanting to perform a split routine is muscle hypertrophy, better known as muscle growth. Bodybuilders are the best eaters on the planet, and they are able to perform split routines because of this. Eating 4-7 times per day, with plenty of calories coming from protein, healthy fats, and functional carbohydrates, along with plenty of water and sleep are critical if you want to make gains. This is not something that most people can do. We all have lives outside of working out. Work, stress, family, and other obligations get in the way of getting all of our nutrients and rest in.
If you do decide to embark on a split routine and are willing to make the necessary commitments then here are some basic rules to follow when outlining a split routine. Perform 6-9 sets of 8-15 repetitions for smaller muscle groups such as biceps, triceps, and calves, and up the sets to 9-12 per muscle group for bigger muscle groups such as chest, legs, and back. Make sure not to train more than 3-4 days in a row without a rest day. Eat tons of quality food, drink plenty of water, optimize post-workout nutrition, and get some sleep. I also recommend giving your body a break periodically from a split routine. After about 4-6 weeks of lifting 4-6 days per week, change to a 3-day full-body split for 2-4 weeks, and then go back to a more split routine to avoid overtraining and maximize gains.
As you can see there are a lot of different options out there when looking to develop a well-rounded strength-training program. Just like any other exercise program, you need to stick with what works best for you and your lifestyle. If you are still confused on which one to pick, 9 out of 10 times full-body routines work the best.