Is a Full-Body Workout or a Split Routine Your Best Bet for Success?

You started an exercise program but decided to hold off on the strength training at first. Perhaps it's because that area of the gym is full of unfamiliar pieces of equipment and people who all look like they know exactly what they are doing. Maybe it's because your goal is to lose weight and not bulk up, or you've heard that strength training isn't all that important. The truth is that no matter where you are in your fitness journey, strength training is an important part of any well-rounded exercise routine. Although it can be intimidating at first, creating a balanced strength routine isn't all that difficult.

Once you decide to add strength training to your schedule, the next decision becomes how often to do it. This will be answered, in part, by which kind of routine you decide to do: full-body or split. A full-body strength routine consists of exercises that work all of your major muscle groups in one session. Each exercise might work one muscle group at a time (for example, biceps curls), or can work multiple muscle groups at once (for example, a pushup.) Either way, when the workout is completed you will have done exercises targeting your lower body, upper body and core muscles. A routine such as this is typically done two to three days per week, with at least one day of rest in between each workout.

Split routines, on the other hand, focus on specific muscle groups during one session. For instance, you might do just lower body exercises on a Monday, then focus only exercises that target the chest and back on Tuesday. In this case, strength training is typically done more frequently, as rest days in between workouts are not needed.

There are pros and cons associated with both types of training, of course. And because you can see results with both options, the one you choose will depend on a number of different factors. 

Pros of a Full-Body Strength Routine

  • It's not a big deal if you skip a day. Depending on how you structure your split routine, you might end up working a specific muscle only once a week. If you skip a day, that can mean two weeks between workouts, which can result in strength declines. Since a full-body routine works all of the muscles at least a few times per week, skipping one day won't have a significant impact on your progress.  
  • More calories burned. Each muscle group is stimulated more frequently with a full-body plan, which means you burn more calories overall. More calories burned means greater fat loss.  
  • Routine mimics real world movement. When you do activities of daily living, such as getting groceries out of your car or putting a heavy box up on a shelf, you engage multiple muscle groups at once. Your body is used to working this way—it rarely focuses in  on just a few specific muscles in isolation. For this reason, full-body workouts can help with overall functional fitness, which emphasizes core stability and closely mimics the movements of everyday activity.
  • It's convenient. Instead of having to visit the weight room almost daily, you can complete a quality strength training workout in just 30 minutes, two to three times per week. That kind of commitment can be easier to fit into a busy lifestyle, and also leaves you more time for cardio and flexibility training, the other components of a well-balanced exercise routine.

Cons of a Full-Body Strength Routine

  • Tough to focus on specific body parts. If you know your core is weak or you lack strength in your biceps, a full-body routine makes it more difficult to put a lot of time into exercises that target those areas. You might do one or two exercises that work those muscles, versus a split routine where it could be four or five.  
  • You can only lift so much weight in one workout. Targeting so many muscles in the same workout leads to fatigue more quickly than if you're targeting just a few. Fatigue means you won't be able to lift as much weight with each rep, which can make it more difficult to build muscle mass. This becomes problematic, particularly for those whose goal is to gain large amounts of muscle.

Pros of a Split Strength Routine

  • Less general fatigue from working muscles. If you are working one or two specific muscle groups per session, you can devote all of your energy to them. This means you'll be able to lift more weight and ultimately do a higher number of reps and sets than you can if you're doing a full-body routine, which often includes compound movements that are more likely to result in fatigue. 
  • More concentrated attention to each muscle group. If you're looking to increase the intensity of your routine and maximize muscle growth, a split routine can help. The increased focus on individual muscles allows for greater muscle fiber stimulation, which leads to greater muscle growth.
  • Decreased chance of overtraining. With the way many split routines are structured, you work certain muscle groups just once a week. Although you're working those muscles harder during that session than you would in a full-body workout, it's followed by six days of rest for that muscle group. In a full-body program, you're working the same muscle groups multiple times per week, which increases the risk of overtraining and injury.
  • Shorter workouts. Even though you're doing more sessions each week, the individual workout time can be shorter because you're likely doing fewer exercises. When your free time is limited, a split routine might be easier to fit into your schedule.

Cons of a Split Strength Routine

  • Not usually appropriate for beginners. If you've never strength trained before, a better approach is to ease into a two to three day weekly routine, versus four, five or even six strength workouts per week. Keep in mind that it's much easier to see progress when you first start strength training, so a full-body routine will provide visible results for most people. 
  • Could be boring. If you're someone who likes to keep things moving and have lots of variety in your workout, a split routine might not be for you. It can be difficult to stay focused and motivated when you are concentrating on just a few body parts, or if you're motivated by the feeling you get from a total body challenge.
  • More time-consuming. You'll do more strength training sessions with a split routine, since you're targeting just a few muscles at a time. If you're not interested in strength training five days a week, a split routine might not be the best option. 

Which Is Right for You?

If you're asking yourself, "Which is better: split or full-body routine?" the answer is not that simple. The reality is that both kinds of training have their place in a workout routine. The type of training that's right for you will depend on your current fitness level, goals and interests.

A full-body routine is ideal for someone who is:
  • New to strength training or returning from an extended hiatus
  • Not interested or doesn't have the time for numerous strength sessions each week
  • Looking to burn the greatest number of calories in the shortest amount of time
A split routine is ideal for someone who is:
  • An experienced weightlifter looking to take things to the next level
  • Trying to build significant muscle mass
  • Targeting specific muscle weakness or imbalance
Dean Anderson, a health expert and personal trainer, has his own style of training that combines the two methods. "I get the best results when my weekly exercise plan includes two full-body strength workouts (Sunday and Friday, usually) and two split workouts, upper body on Tuesday and lower on Wednesday. For full-body workouts, I often use a circuit training approach to boost calorie burning, and aim for doing two circuits. For split workouts, I do two consecutive sets of each exercise, using the heaviest weight/resistance I can manage to do eight to 10 reps within the first set. This seems to give me the benefits of both split routines and full-body workouts."

Whichever type of training program you choose, the most important thing is that you're challenging your muscles and adding variety frequently. After about four to six weeks of any exercise program, your body starts getting used to the exercises you've been doing. Mixing things up will ensure consistent increases in strength and consistent progress toward your goals.