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Total-body workout or split training – what is more effective?

Is the 6-day split, push-pull, upper body – lower body, or the total-body training the best training variation to maximise hypertrophy? Many who want their muscles to grow bigger ask themselves this question, but don’t really get a clear answer. Articles in internet forums and fitness magazines sometimesfavour one and sometimes the other variation. Here you can read how you can plan your training optimally – according to the desired goal and available time.

Split-training

With the split training, all sets are separated according to muscle groups and movement patterns. One example of this is the classic push-/pull split. Here push movements such as leg press, bench press and shoulder press are separated from pull movements such as deadlifts or bent-over rows. Accordingly, those exercises are grouped on individual training days. The classic split training is set out so that only one to maximally two muscle groups are trained per session. These split training sessions allow for a very high muscle load, especially if the division takes place according to the muscle groups, which is a very important factor for hypertrophy. In this model more sets and reps per muscle group can be completed, compared to a total-body workout.

Total body workout

During a total body workout an athlete trains all muscle groups during a session – i.e. the whole body. As a result, it’s not possible to plan as many exercises for each muscle group during a session as would be possible with the split-training variation. The advantage lies in the higher training frequency because each muscle group gets trained in every session. As a result, the volume (sets x reps) that can be accomplished in a week is often higher compared to split training with an equal number of training sessions. The higher total training volume, i.e. the training volume per week or month is a deciding factor for maximal muscle hypertrophy.

Split training or whole-body workout: what is more effective for me?

Two fundamental questions need to be answered at the start: how many training sessions would I like to, or more specifically, can I complete per week and how much time have I actually got per session?
For example, with maximally 3 sessions per week the 6-day split won’t work. The whole-body workouts in contrast typically require more time per session compared to the split training, as more warm-up sets need to be completed due to the more muscles being trained. When selecting either a whole-body or split training the exact allocation of training days needs to be taken into consideration: after every session 48 hours should be allowed for the stressed muscles to recover.

The following overview shows the most important variations and their most useful integration according to sessions per week.

VariationTraining sessions per week
  3 4 5 6
Whole-body-Split X X    
Upper-body / lower-body-Split X X X X
Push- Pull-Split X   X X
Push-/Pull-/Legs-Split     X X

 

Generally speaking, for more advanced athletes a weekly training frequency of 2-3 sessions per muscle group is recommended (1). Whereas, if a muscle is only stressed once per week the hypertrophy effect seems to be reduced. Therefore, none of the split-variations with a training frequency of maximally 2 sessions per week are recommended.

Three training sessions per week

With two to three sessions per week the most promising variation is whole-body training. Here it is possible to train every other day, which allows sufficient time for recovery between sessions. Despite fewer sessions per week the necessary volume is achieved, which is an important factor to stimulate hypertrophy. To ensure that all muscles are stressed during a session, the main focus during whole-body training should be on the big muscle groups and the basic exercises.

The upper-body / lower-body split is another variation that is often utilised when there are 3 opportunities to train per week. However, here the optimal weekly training frequency of at least 2 sessions for each muscle is not achieved. Depending on preference, the upper body is trained twice per week and the lower body only once – or the other way around. Alternatively, it can be alternated each week. This is especially useful for athletes that need to train on consecutive days:

Week 1: upper body – lower body – upper body
Week 2 – lower body – upper body – lower body
Etc.

Four training sessions per week

Although whole-body training is still possible, the planning is very complicated as the related recovery time needs to be taken into consideration. An upper-body / lower-body split is recommended in this case. This way it is possible to achieve a high volume for the whole body and it is possible to train on consecutive days as well as with a days’ break between visits to the gym. The division into push-/pull-training is also possible. However, the selection of exercises needs to be carefully considered to allow the muscle groups sufficient recovery time. For example, the hamstrings might be loaded twice during squats (push day) and deadlifts (pull day). A sufficient recovery phase is not achieved in this case.

Five training sessions per week

With five training sessions per week a push-/pull-/leg-split is also an option in addition to an upper-body / lower-body split with individual loading for one half of the body (three sessions per week for one half of the body, 2 sessions for the other half of the body). Although with this split-variation the main focus lies on upper-body training as there is only one session per week for the lower-body. If the goal is to have pronounced leg muscles, then this split variation is definitely not ideal.

Six training sessions per week

Here too the versatile and easy to plan upper-body / lower-body split is a good solution. Those who want to focus mainly on training the upper-body muscles can resort back to a push-/pull-/leg-split. In this training variation the upper-body muscles are stimulated in four sessions and the leg-muscles in two sessions.

Conclusion:

The crucial part for successful training is the weekly volume completed per muscle group. With less than four sessions per week the athlete will benefit mostly from whole-body training. Those who can complete more sessions in one week will benefit mostly from an upper-body-/lower-body separation; these are easy to plan and not only allow a high training frequency, but also a good variety of exercises.

Last, but not least: a change of the training frequency doesn’t just increase the fun of training through more variation, but also offers the body a new and important stimulus. Therefore, it is recommended to alternate the split-variations from time to time as long as this is possible time-wise and organisationally.

Author: Sebastian Kaindl
Sebastian is a sports scientist (hons), head coach at Kaindl Athletic System, state coach for powerlifting and was an active member of the German national team. He is also a member of the Dymatize Advisory Board.

Disclaimer:
The exercises, training and/or nutritional information and recommendations presented in this article/video are to be followed at your own risk and do not substitute personal and/or individual advice. Medical advice should be obtained beforehand by anyone under 18 years of age, by individuals with health restrictions (especially orthopaedic or internal complaints/conditions), and by women who are pregnant or breastfeeding. If problems are encountered when applying the training and nutritional methods, a doctor should always be consulted immediately. No liability is assumed by Active Nutrition International GmbH.

References:
(1) Wernbom, M., Augustsson, J., & Thomeé R. (2007). The influence of frequency, intensity, volume and mode of strength training on whole muscle cross-sectional area in humans. Sports Med, 37(3): p. 225-64.