Skip to main content
Full-Body vs. Split Workout Plans: Which Is Best?
Curls might get you jacked, but for overall fitness, squats, deadlifts and other multi-joint movements could be the better way to go.
Whether you’re a veteran gym-goer or have yet to rack your first set of weighted squats, you have probably heard the debate over which type of workout is best: full-body or split? These terms refer to workouts that either hit most of your muscle groups or only isolated parts, and which one is best is a frequent subject of discussion among fitness trainers.
While there are pros and cons to each, determining the correct method for you is not as easy as picking out the fittest person in the gym and doing what they do. To figure out the approach that gives you max benefits and minimal injury risk, follow these guidelines.
What Are Full-Body and Split Workouts?
Full-body workouts involve compound movements that hit at least two muscle groups and use multiple joints. A perfect example is the classic burpee move, with explosive force being applied through the legs, core and chest.
Throw in some pushups, pull-ups and squats, and you’ve got a complete full-body workout. But be careful not to overdo it: The high-intensity nature of a full-body workout demands more recovery days between sessions. (Doing these moves twice a week works great.)
Meanwhile, split workouts involve the movement of one joint per exercise, such as the elbow, knee or wrist and only one muscle group, like the triceps in triceps extensions, is activated. In a split workout, muscle groups are divided into different training days per group. These are some popular versions of split workouts:
· The upper/lower split workout: Alternate between upper-body exercises one day and low-er-body moves the next.
· The push/pull/legs split workout: Focus on pushing exercises on day one, pulling exercises on day two and leg exercises on day three. Repeat the cycle.
Benefits of Full-Body Workouts
Full-body workouts are often more tiring than splits, since they involve more muscle groups and therefore require more energy to complete a rep. That’s why Los Angeles-based trainer Keith Hodges recommends them for most people.
“Almost anyone can benefit from performing full-body exercises,” says Hodges. “If you’re running low on time and want to build muscle, improve your body’s functionality and recover stronger with less fatigue, then full-body exercises are highly beneficial for you.”
Hodges says that total body exercises are especially important considering the rising rates of childhood and adult obesity—they help you burn more calories than any other workout.
Slip on your shorts, lace up your shoes, and try some of Hodges’ favorite equipment-free full-body moves:
• Lunges (front, back, lateral)
• Push-Up/Modified Push-Up
• Jumping Jacks
• Squats/ Single Leg Squat
• Squat Jumps
• Mountain Climbers
• Chair/Stair Step Up
• Plank/side plank
• Running/Running in place
• Chair Dip/Stair Dip
• Wall Sit
• Turkish Get Up
• Split Jumps
Full-body moves to perform with a medicine ball, kettlebell, dumbbell or barbell:
• Cable Squat to Row
• Squat to Press
• TRX/Barbell Inverted Row
• Deadlift to Row
• Lunge to Press (front, back, lateral)
• Wall Balls
Which moves are the best? “Every individual is different,” Hodges says, adding that putting together a routine for the biggest fitness gains takes trial and error. “You also have to take in account your fitness level and risk of injury,” he says. Athletic training goals are another important factor.
Certified trainer and fitness nutrition specialist Petra Mace says that full-body workouts are ideal when you’re short on time. “If you’ve only got a few days a week to get a workout in, you’re better off training full-body to ensure you’re hitting all the muscle groups at least once,” she says.
When to Choose Split Workouts
If you’re looking to develop muscle or definition with specific body parts and have extra time for training, split workouts are a better option, says Mace, a former professional fitness competitor. Hodges agrees, adding that the extra calories burned during full-body workouts can interfere with muscle gains. “And with split training, you can increase the volume of exercise per muscle group which increases hypertrophy, or muscle growth,” he says. (A study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research shows that training a specific body part two times per week can lead to greater muscle growth than full-body workouts.)
Since isolated workouts aren’t as depleting as full-body exercises, you can complete more sets per week in formats such as the upper/lower body split and the push/pull/legs split. Less intensity also means faster recovery. During Mace’s fitness competition days, she typically used split workouts. “When I was training, I was in the gym six or seven days a week,” she says.
Slip on your favorite lifting shoes and give these upper/lower body splits a try:
· Barbell Curls/Donkey Kicks
· Dumbbell Flys/Leg Presses
· Shoulder Presses/Calf Raises
· Resistance Band Face Pulls/Hip Abductors
· Cable Pushdowns/Hanging Leg Raises
· Dumbbell Upright Rows/Hamstring Curls
The main thing is to pick the right exercises that support your goals. Some may choose entirely full-body; some will opt for 100% split sets. But most will fall somewhere in between, mixing a matching workouts through the week—and that’s fine, too. As long as you’re working hard and committing the time, it counts!