To build muscle, you need a plan. An important aspect of that plan is how you distribute the workload (volume) over the available training days. This often results in a split, in which you train only one or a few muscle groups on a day. But why not train your whole body a few times a week? Full body training has several advantages we’ll discuss below.
1. YOU CAN MAINLY DO COMPOUND EXERCISES
Compound exercises, or compound exercises, are generally more effective for muscle growth than isolation exercises, especially if you perform them heavily. The exact reasons for this remain unclear, but it’s probably mainly because compound exercises disrupt homeostasis much more than isolation exercises. As a result, they cause more overload and therefore more muscle growth.
If you train full body, you can focus your training program mainly around those “big lifts”: bench press, overhead press, squat, deadlift and row. For example, if you do the bench press, deadlift, and row in one session, you’ve already trained your entire body — with just three exercises! Of course they are heavy exercises, but your schedule with full body probably also contains more complete rest days than with a split. And that will benefit your recovery.
If you use a split, you will be more dependent on isolating exercises. Especially if you use a ‘bro split’, where you train only one muscle group per session (Monday chest day and so on). But also with more efficient splits, such as push/pull/legs and upper/lower body, you will have to program compound exercises with more policy.
Full body workouts with large compound exercises are also ideal for beginners. By doing the same compound exercises two or three times a week, your body can quickly learn them. As a result, you will not only get a training rhythm, your body will also be ready faster with neural adaptations. These are adjustments in the central nervous system to become better (and therefore stronger) in a certain exercise. Only when you have mastered an exercise well, further adjustments will mainly take place in the muscles. In other words, only after the neural adjustments can your body really start building muscle.
2. YOU MINIMIZE ‘JUNK VOLUME’
Full body training means you can train each muscle group at a higher frequency. Just think: with a bro split you train a muscle group only once a week, with a push/pull/legs split a maximum of twice. With full body, on the other hand, you can easily work on each muscle group three times a week, for example by training on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. But in theory, you can even train a muscle group daily.
Does a muscle grow faster if you train it more often? Not necessarily. If you are a beginner and need no more than 10 sets per muscle group per week to grow (your training volume), you can safely put those sets in one weekly workout. If you are more advanced, you need a larger training volume. And then it pays to spread those sets over several training days.
The principle of diminishing retruns applies to training volume – not only on a weekly basis, but also per training (the session volume).
During one training session, after about 5 sets, the growth stimulus for a certain muscle group already starts to decrease, only to stagnate around 10 sets. This is now apparent from several studies. So you can do a maximum of 5-10 productive sets per workout (usually 2 to 3 exercises), after that you only do unnecessary sets (‘wasted sets’ or ‘junk volume’). And those unnecessary sets are not only a waste of your time, they also cause unnecessary muscle damage and fatigue. As a result, junk volume can ultimately come at the expense of muscle growth. So more is not always better.
To avoid junk volume, you need to keep your session volume per muscle group low. In that respect, full body training is ideal: you train all muscle groups several times a week, but always at low session volumes.
In theory, you should not even do more than 3-5 sets per muscle group per workout, because that way you only do the most productive sets. From that idea, full body 5 times a week has emerged, a training protocol that is gaining popularity, propagated by coaches Eric Helms and Jeff Nippard. The figure below shows you the major advantage of this protocol compared to its counterpart, the bro split. More information in this video and an example of such a workout in this video.
Does this mean that, for maximum gains , you should do full body five times a week or more often? Well, if you’re a novice or (early) intermediate bodybuilder, certainly not. After all, you often still need 48 hours before muscle protein synthesis and recovery are fully completed – even if you use low session volumes. See also this figure.
But as we already noted: for (relative) beginners, with their high training sensitivity and low volume requirement, training frequency is not so important after all, as long as they recover sufficiently. In principle they can even suffice with training each muscle group once a week [ i ] .
For advanced users, a protocol like 5x a week full body can be a revelation, a way to break a plateau. We speak from our own experience. You will have to optimize your recovery though; you can no longer afford stressful days or sleepless nights.
3. YOU CAN START YOUR SETS ‘FRESHER’
Full body training can also increase the quality of your sets. By quality we mean the power and effort you put on during a set.
On the one hand, this is because you only do a limited number of sets per training per muscle group (based on high frequency training). So there is much less local fatigue (the fatigue in a muscle) than when you do a whole series of exercises for the same muscle group in succession.
On the other hand, you have more variety of muscle groups during training. Alternating between upper and lower body exercises gives muscles more recovery time, which means you can start the next exercise less fatigued [ v ] .
4. YOU CAN TRAIN MORE EFFICIENTLY
Because with full body you can train largely on the basis of compound exercises (see 1), you save time. After all, with such exercises you train two or even three muscle groups at the same time. You will have to use longer rest periods between sets than with isolation exercises.
5. YOU (POSSIBLY) BENEFIT FROM A GREATER HORMONAL RESPONSE
When you do strength training, your hormones respond to it. This creates an acute increase in testosterone, growth hormone and IGF-1 in particular. And that increase is greatest if you do large compound exercises, especially those involving the lower body (which after all contain the largest muscle groups) [ ii ] .
It remains to be seen whether this hormonal response actually produces a greater growth stimulus [ iii ] . Because it probably mainly compensates for another hormonal reaction during strength training, namely the increase in the catabolic hormone cortisol (aka the ‘stress hormone’). And with large exercises with heavy weights, more cortisol is also released than with small exercises with light weights.
Nevertheless, there is a (small) study that shows that upper and lower body training in one session has specific positive effects on muscle growth in the upper body [ iv ] . The 9 participating men trained their right biceps during a leg workout and their left biceps only during a specific biceps workout for 11 weeks. Afterwards, the right biceps turned out to be significantly larger and stronger than the left. The researchers measured higher levels of growth hormone and testosterone during the combined leg and biceps training, and therefore attribute the results of the research to this.
It is therefore possible that the combined training of the upper and lower body does have a positive effect on overall muscle growth.
6. NO MORE LEG DAYS
Full body training also means the end of the dreaded leg day. At least assuming you didn’t skip it.
Workouts dedicated to the lower body only are by far the toughest. In fact, it is crazy to do another three or four exercises for your legs and buttocks after a heavy squat session: not only physically, but also mentally a tough task. Although there is always a reward: that satisfied feeling when you have just squeezed out your last rep…
A full body program puts an end to all this. From now on, your workouts will ‘only’ contain one or two lower body exercises. So in every training, but we experience that positively: we find heavy squats much less mentally taxing in the knowledge that our legs can rest for the rest of the training.
ARE THERE ALSO DISADVANTAGES?
We can’t think of any real disadvantages of full body training. However, novice and average bodybuilders should take extra into account the recovery time between two workouts, which can take 48 to 72 hours for them.
After all, in a full body program you can only train again when all your muscle groups have recovered sufficiently. This may be problematic if you have to process relatively high volumes. Or if you can only train for four consecutive days, for example. In such situations a split may be a better solution, for example a push/pull, push/pull/legs or upper/lower body split. No bro splits, again, because they are much less effective as you put way too much volume for a muscle group in one session. And that comes at the expense of the net productivity of your sets, as we already saw. Only beginners, who don’t need that much volume on a weekly basis, can still get away with a bro split.
Advanced people recover faster and can even do full body workouts (almost) daily. The condition is that the session volume remains low (no more than about five sets per muscle group) and that you always keep 2-3 repetitions ‘in the tank’ (2-3 RIR) with compound exercises. In addition, it is advisable to alternate in high and low weights, and to accentuate muscle groups on some days and to spare a bit on others.
“Full body” does not have to mean that you always literally train your entire body, nor that you always train with heavy weights.
EXAMPLE: FULL BODY 3X A WEEK
Finally, an example of a full body schedule for average bodybuilders who can train three times a week.
You train three times a week on non-consecutive days, for example on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. You have the weekend off.
|deadlift with straight legs||3||8-12|
|seated dumbbell press||3||8-12|
|sit-ups on reclined bench||3||15|
|Bulgarian split squat||3||8-12|
|incline dumbbell presses||3||8-12|
|dumbbell bent over row||3||8-12|
|hanging hip/knee lifts||3||15|
|seated dumbbell press||3||8-12|
|pull up with wide grip||3||8-12|
NB 1: You use a relative intensity of about 2 RIR. So, especially with the largest compound exercises, you are about two repetitions away from muscle failure.
NB 2: Do you also want to train your arms in a targeted manner? Then do three sets for your triceps and biceps respectively on different (training) days. For example, three sets of lying triceps extensions on Monday and three sets of biceps curls on Friday.
EXAMPLE: FULL BODY 5X A WEEK
In the video below an example of a thorough five-day full body training program, by Jeff Nippard. Day 1 is highlighted in this video.