As with any culture, us gym goers have our own customs: we eat clean, we chug water like it is going out of style and our schedules revolve around our gym time.
Whether you are just beginning your fitness journey or have tossed plates around for some time, you have undoubtedly stumbled across an article or overheard a conversation about the differences between full body and split training, and which one is "better."
And with information so readily available and easily accessible these days, it can be hard determining fact from fiction.
No matter your gym experience level, if you are in the gym, you are basing your routine around the following concepts: whole-body training or split-body training, sets and reps, and time under tension.
There is no way around these concepts. From Arnold down to the most novice lifter, these concepts set the tone for each gym session, so much importance should be placed on their understanding.
These concepts can be altered and manipulated to meet the specific goal of the lifter and there is no one size fits all approach. With this, let's take a deep dive to gain a better understanding of these concepts.
The optimization of physiological strain is of paramount importance if strength gains are to be maximized throughout training1.
At the foundation of this training are two basic types of training you will partake in: full body training or split training. For eons, athletes, gym-goers, bodybuilders, and everyone in between has been doing some variation of these two training modalities.
Full body and split training both have their pros and cons and if used correctly, both can have the side effect of some serious gains. Let’s check them out.
What exactly is full body training? In full body training, you train every major muscle in your body, (think chest, back, arms, hamstrings and abs), in each workout.
Generally speaking, full body training incorporates exercises that engages multiple muscle groups in one movement, like squats, deadlifts and overhead presses.
These movements (also called compound movements) demand a lot of energy and lifters typically break workouts into 3-5 days per week training schedules.
Full body training is great for elevating protein synthesis on a consistent basis, allowing for faster results.
Full body training also allows for a better quality of training throughout the workout as you are able to switch muscle groups, meaning you get more recovery time and are fresher to start your next exercise.
Studies have indicated that significant increases in lean tissue and whole-body mass are possible following a 12-week whole-body resistance training program4. As you are working the whole body and multiple muscle groups, this training modality also allows for a high caloric expenditure.
On the flip side, full body training is not without flaws. More advanced lifters may need to spend more time in the gym and increase their training volume for particular muscle groups.
With full body workouts, it can sometimes be difficult to find enough time during a workout to dedicate to individual muscle groups and weak spots. Additionally, some muscle groups may not get enough recovery time which could lead to a bout with delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) (another topic for a different day).
What exactly is split training? Split training is “where multiple exercises were performed for a specific muscle group in a session with 1-3 muscle groups trained per session 2.”
Strictly speaking, split routines simply apply to any type of training program where you do not train the entire body during each workout. In laymen’s terms, split training breaks your workouts into a 5-6 day training schedule.
Each day of the week, exercises are typically broken into a “primary focus” (think arm day, back day, leg day, etc.) and “secondary focus” (say abs, mobility drills, or cardio). Split training involves hitting each individual muscle group once per week.
The idea behind split training is that it allows the lifter to use greater exercise variation to target individual muscles or groups.
Typically, split training will allow for maximum focus and high volume on 1-3 muscle groups. While not necessarily a plus in all cases, it does mean you should not have many worries about not reaching enough total volume.
Split-body training will also allow you to train more often than a whole-body program. You can easily rest muscle groups during week with this modality, allowing for adequate recovery.
Split-body training will allow lifters to better focus on weak points, leading to progression on certain lifts. For example, if a lifter has a weak bench press, focusing your chest sessions around pressing movements will lead to an improvement in that muscle group and strength on that lift.
Studies conducted have noticed changes in maximal strength, anaerobic capacity, and body composition after an 8-week, split-body cycle3.
On the flip side, it can be hard to keep up intensity during the workout. As you work through different exercises, you may notice you cannot lift as heavy or for as many repetitions. This is perfectly normal but can be a con associated with split training.
Split training is typically more conducive to muscular hypertrophy for this reason. You may notice that fewer calories are burned per workout compared to full-body training. As you are not working the same amount of muscle groups, you will not burn as many calories as you would during full body exercise. For example, you will not burn as many calories doing a bicep curl as you would with a pull-up.
Understanding Sets and Reps
With an understanding of whole and split-body training, we can now dive into repetitions and sets. Repetitions, or reps, are the number of times that you perform any given exercise in your workout.
Each rep of an exercise puts your muscles through several positions, including a concentric and eccentric phase. The sets in a workout tell you how many times you will repeat the number of reps of a given exercise. In laymen’s terms, reps are the number of times you perform a given exercise and sets are the number of cycles of reps you complete.
With whole and split-body training, there is not a one size fits all approach regarding how best to train, as the amount of reps and sets completed depends on a variety of factors, including individual fitness goals and current conditioning level.
One of the most common areas of confusion for lifters and other athletes engaged in training is the question of the appropriate or optimal number of reps and sets for any given workout session. Reps and sets are not arbitrary numbers, rather many years of research and science has gone into these schemes. The American Council on Exercise (ACE) provides a great example of how reps and sets work with varying goals:
- “If you’re new to resistance training and your goal is general muscle fitness and improved health, begin with lighter resistance and aim to complete 1-2 sets of 8-15 repetitions of each exercise with a 30-90 second rest interval between sets.
- If your goal is increased muscular endurance, use somewhat lighter resistance and aim to complete 2-3 sets of 12-16 repetitions of each exercise (*the amount of weight used should fatigue the targeted muscle at the conclusion of the exercise set) with minimal rest (30 seconds or less) between sets.
- If muscular strength is your objective, use heavier resistance and strive to complete 2-6 sets of 4-8 repetitions of each exercise with a longer rest period (2-5 minutes) between sets.
- If you are seeking muscular hypertrophy, use somewhat heavier resistance (higher intensity than that used for muscular endurance, yet a lower intensity than used for muscular strength) and complete 3-6 sets of 6-12 repetitions of each exercise with a moderate 30-90 second rest interval between sets5
Now that you have a basic understanding of sets and reps, you can then begin to break the schemes down into more complex modalities. The National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) breaks the modalities down as follows:
- “Single-set system: performing one set of a given exercise (as opposed to performing multiple sets of an exercise)
- Multiple-set systems (standard exercise order): performing multiple sets of an exercise before moving on to subsequent exercises
- Complex set: combining a strength exercise followed by a power exercise (e.g., squats followed by depth jumps)
- Compound set: performing 2 – 3 exercises for similar muscle groups
- Circuit training: performing one set of multiple exercises before repeating
- Supersets: performing alternating exercises for opposing muscle groups
- Pyramid loading: increasing training load progressively and then decreasing
- Drop sets: performing a set to muscular failure with a given load and continuing immediately with additional sets at a lighter load
- Heavy negatives: performing eccentric-only work with a load greater than concentric 1RM
- Forced reps: performing additional reps past volitional fatigue with the help of a spotter
- Cluster sets: also known as rest-pause sets, utilize inter-repetition rest intervals of 10 – 30 sec
- Accommodating resistance: incorporating bands and chains to free weight exercises to exert isokinetic resistance throughout the full range of motion
- Partial range of motion: performing an exercise in partial ranges of motion to increase strength at a particular joint angle 6.”
Regardless of how you organize your reps and sets, aim to seek gradual increases in work output from session to session. Muscle growth (hypertrophy) is a function of how much mechanical work you do in each session, regardless of what your rep/set scheme is. If you do more and more work with each new session, you are providing the necessary stimulus for hypertrophy. Stimulate, but don’t annihilate.
Time Under Tension – Does It Matter?
The last concept we will dive in to is time under tension. Time under tension, or TUT, is the amount of time that a muscle or group of muscles is under stress 7. Again, using laymen’s terms, TUT refers to how long the muscle is under strain or resisting the weight during each set.
For example, if you do 12 reps of biceps curls, taking about 1 second to lift the weight and 2 seconds to lower it, your TUT for that set is 36 seconds. Studies have shown that muscle under stress for a long period of time, and stressed to total fatigue, will yield greater muscle fiber recruitment.
“The motor units in the muscle being worked are recruited from smallest to largest. The more time you keep a muscle under tension, the greater chance you have of recruiting fast twitch muscle fibers. Fast twitch muscle fibers produce more force and are larger than slow twitch muscle fibers, so more hypertrophy 8”.
Generally speaking, the greater a muscle’s TUT, the greater its potential growth stimulus is.
As previously mentioned, there is no one size fits all approach when it comes to lifting and you should not narrow your focus to just one concept. If you want to optimize muscle growth, you first need to determine if whole-body training or split body training better suits your needs.
After determining your plan, you need to incorporate a range of rep schemes (low weight/high rep, high weight/low rep, etc.) and set durations into your workout plan. Be selective and methodical.
At the end of the day, all other things being equal, what matters most for hypertrophy is your overall training volume. Overall total volume (total number of sets) is the primary determinant of muscular hypertrophy while intensity (relative to 1RM - i.e. how heavy you lift) is the primary determinant for strength.
Post-Workout Protein – Maximizing Your Gains
Muscle protein synthesis is the process by which new proteins are added to skeletal muscle. Essentially, this is the primary way that muscles grow larger. The amino acid L-Leucine is considered an anabolic trigger for protein synthesis.
Consuming 2-4 grams of leucine is typically thought to be enough to maximize the amount of muscle protein synthesis that can be achieved from a single meal.
However, the actual amount of dietary protein required to have 4g of leucine can vary significantly depending on what type of protein is being consumed. Whey protein has a high leucine content in comparison with most whole foods, so fewer grams of whey protein are required to maximize muscle protein synthesis.
At the extreme, 20-25g of protein from whey can contain as much leucine as 40-50g of protein from a grain source.
So why should athletes use Whey Protein Isolate?
Compared to other forms of whey protein, whey protein isolate is the purest form of whey protein with higher protein content and less filler, i.e. carbs and fat per serving. It is an ideal post-workout recovery supplement for all athletes. For years, athletes have used whey protein to meet the body’s increased protein demands and increase muscle mass adaptations to exercise.
These results are backed by research which shows consuming protein immediately before or after exercise helps to increase muscle mass. Whey protein isolate is an excellent protein source because it digests quickly, is absorbed by the body rapidly, and has a complete amino acid profile, which is crucial for helping build muscle.
Furthermore, new scientific evidence suggests using specific types of whey protein can be better for muscle hypertrophy than others. Several studies have demonstrated whey protein isolate to be superior in terms of potency to other forms of protein for increasing muscle protein synthesis, which ultimately leads to increased muscle mass.
For an ultra-clean, all-natural WPI, make sure to check out our Whey Protein Isolate. Using only cocoa, stevia, and Himalayan rock salt for flavoring, we developed a protein powder that not only tastes great, but also one that mixes quickly and smoothly, digests easily, and allows you to focus on what matters most.
- Monteiro, A. G., Aoki, M. S., Evangelista, A. L., Alveno, D. A., Monteiro, G. A., Piçarro, I. da C., & Ugrinowitsch, C. (2009). Nonlinear Periodization Maximizes Strength Gains in Split Resistance Training Routines. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 23(4), 1321–1326. https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0b013e3181a00f96
- Schoenfeld, B. J., Ratamess, N. A., Peterson, M. D., Contreras, B., & Tiryaki-Sonmez, G. (2015). Influence of Resistance Training Frequency on Muscular Adaptations in Well-Trained Men. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 29(7), 1821–1829. https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0000000000000970
- Kerksick, C. M., Wilborn, C. D., Campbell, B. I., Roberts, M. D., Rasmussen, C. J., Greenwood, M., & Kreider, R. B. (2009). Early-Phase Adaptations to a Split-Body, Linear Periodization Resistance Training Program in College-Aged and Middle-Aged Men. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 23(3), 962–971. https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0b013e3181a00baf
- Rakobowchuk, M., McGowan, C. L., de Groot, P. C., Bruinsma, D., Hartman, J. W., Phillips, S. M., & MacDonald, M. J. (2005). Effect of whole body resistance training on arterial compliance in young men. Experimental Physiology, 90(4), 645–651. https://doi.org/10.1113/expphysiol.2004.029504
- Matthews, J. (2010, February 17). When strength training, is it better to do more reps with lighter weights or fewer reps with heavier weights? Retrieved September 29, 2020, from www.acefitness.org website: https://www.acefitness.org/education-and-resources/lifestyle/blog/534/when-strength-training-is-it-better-to-do-more-reps-with-lighter-weights-or-fewer-reps-with-heavier-weights/
- Clayton, N. (2015). Foundations of Fitness Programming. Retrieved from https://www.nsca.com/contentassets/693872c8a25245a7ba49fc5527a236b9/foundations-of-fitness-programming-quiz-preview.pdf
- Nicastro, R. (2020). How to Use Time Under Tension to Help Clients Gain Muscle | ISSA. Retrieved 2020, from www.issaonline.com website: https://www.issaonline.com/blog/index.cfm/2018/how-to-use-time-under-tension-to-help-clients-gain-muscle
- Burd, N. A., Andrews, R. J., West, D. W. D., Little, J. P., Cochran, A. J. R., Hector, A. J., … Phillips, S. M. (2012). Muscle time under tension during resistance exercise stimulates differential muscle protein sub-fractional synthetic responses in men. The Journal of Physiology, 590(2), 351–362. https://doi.org/10.1113/jphysiol.2011.221200