You’ve probably heard the debate about which type of strength training is most effective — total-body workouts or split training (e.g., arm day, leg day, etc.). Poll a handful of fitness experts about which type of training they prefer, and you’ll likely get a variety of answers.
That’s because there’s no “right” answer for everyone. So how can you determine the best strength-training protocol for you?
First things first: The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends resistance training two to three times per week if you’re a beginner, and four to five times per week for advanced training.
But should those strength sessions be full-body workouts or splits? Both types of training protocols get the ACSM’s stamp of approval, and each type of training has its own unique benefits — so the best type of strength workout for you depends on how much time you have and your fitness goals. Here’s what you need to know.
The Benefits of Full-Body Strength Workouts
One major benefit of total-body strength training is that you’re working multiple muscle groups in the same workout.
“Total-body workouts ensure that you hit each muscle group multiple times per week, which is important for muscle growth,” explains Trevor Thieme, CSCS, Openfit’s senior manager of fitness and nutrition content.
Full-body workouts help beginners lay a solid fitness foundation to build upon. “If you’re a novice, you can get great results from total-body training three days a week,” says personal trainer Chris Gagliardi, medical exercise specialist for the American Council on Exercise. After you’ve been consistent for three months, he adds, “You can change it up and add another day of training, or try splitting your routines into upper body and lower body.”
Total-body training also allows you to make more efficient use of the time you have to work out, reducing the amount of rest required between exercises by allowing you to work one muscle group while another one recovers. That, in turn, allows you to sustain a higher level of intensity and effort during your workout, increasing your caloric burn and cardiorespiratory gains.
The Benefits of Split Training
Split training targets specific areas of the body on different days. In practice, that might mean alternating upper-body and lower-body workouts each week or focusing on different muscle groups each day (e.g., back and bis, chest and tris, legs, etc.).
“The advantage of split training is that it allows for a greater volume of work per muscle group, helping to maximize hypertrophy,” Thieme says. But the caveat is that the higher volume needs to be spread out between at least two workouts per week. “If you follow a split-training program that hits each body part just once a week, then you’ll likely get too much rest between workouts for each body part to optimize muscle growth,” he adds.
Split training also requires more of a time commitment since you’ll likely need more rest between sets to maintain a high level of performance, and more workouts per week to ensure that you hit every muscle group. “The more you split it up, the more workouts you’ll need,” Gagliardi says.
But if you have the time to follow a split-training program correctly, it can be highly effective for building muscle. “If you follow a split-training program that hits each muscle group at least twice a week, then there really aren’t many drawbacks compared to total-body training as far as muscle growth is concerned,” Thieme says.
Bottom Line: Find What Works Best for You
“The best protocol for building muscle varies from person to person,” Thieme says. “Some people might find total-body workouts the most efficient way to do it. Others might see better results with split training. Every body is different.”
And keep in mind that the best program for you might be a mix of both training styles. “Motivation-wise, it helps keep people interested in what they are doing,” Gagliardi says. So think about how much time you have to work out each week, your fitness goals, and how easily you get bored — and pick your fitness plan accordingly.