Look, I like full body workouts. I don’t love them, but I like them.
They are as simple and basic as can be, and when it’s all put together into an intelligently designed full body workout routine, it can be effective for sure. It’s one of the most popular and proven types of weight training programs you’ll find.
And yes, it can work for all sorts of different goals. Building muscle, increasing strength, losing fat, improving performance. Again, assuming it’s all designed and executed correctly (and everything else is done right), they flat out work. No question about it.
Having said that, I wouldn’t recommend full body training to most people. Let me explain…
What Is A Full Body Workout Routine?
It’s exactly what it sounds like. Whereas some types of training have an “upper body day” or “lower body day” or “chest and triceps day” or “back and biceps day” or “push day” or “arm day” or whatever else… a full body workout routine involves only one type of day: a “full body day.”
And on this day, you train your entire body in some capacity. Exactly what capacity can vary quite a bit.
For example, in some cases this could literally mean doing an exercise for every muscle group (quads, hamstrings, back, chest, shoulders, biceps, triceps and maybe even calves and abs too) so that everything gets trained directly every workout.
In other cases, it can mean doing nothing but one big compound push, pull and lower body exercise (e.g. bench press, row, squat) so that everything gets trained in some way directly or indirectly (e.g. shoulders and triceps get trained during bench pressing in addition to the chest).
In other cases, it can fall somewhere between those two extremes.
But the basic gist of a full body routine is that you’re training all or most of your body to some degree in a single workout rather than splitting the body up into different parts or muscle groups that are trained separately on different days. This is the opposite of that.
From there, you’re typically doing this type of workout 3 times per week as part of a full body split:
- Monday: Full Body Workout
- Tuesday: off
- Wednesday: Full Body Workout
- Thursday: off
- Friday: Full Body Workout
- Saturday: off
- Sunday: off
Sometimes you might repeat the exact same workout 3 times. Sometimes you might repeat that same workout 3 times but with some kind of intensity modification (like heavy, medium, light). Sometimes you might have 2 different full body workouts that you alternate “ABA BAB” style. Sometimes you might have 3 completely different workouts altogether.
There’s really a lot of ways it can go. But again, the basic gist of it is this: you train all or most of your body to some degree in every workout, usually 3 days per week with 1 or 2 days off in between each.
What Is Full Body Training “Best” For?
Beginners, beginners, and more beginners. There is no form of weight training that will work better for a beginner than full body training when it comes to building muscle and/or increasing strength as quickly as possible.
This of course is why the most popular and proven beginner programs around are all full body routines. Starting Strength, Practical Programming’s Novice Program, and even my own Beginner Weight Training Routine. Plus dozens of others.
Full body is pretty much universally agreed to be optimal for beginners with virtually any goal.
But, that’s about it. I wouldn’t consider it to be the single “best” way to train for anyone else.
What Is Full Body Training “Good” For?
Good? Oh… it’s good for lots of stuff.
- For those training specifically for strength, a full body routine can certainly be good (e.g. Bill Starr/MadCow 5×5). For most people however, I think upper/lower is what’s going to be best. The majority of people with strength specific goals tend to agree. Just look at how most non-beginner powerlifters train. It’s almost always upper/lower (or something very close to it), and almost never full body (e.g. 5/3/1, Westside, etc.).
- It’s also good for those training for some type of performance or sport/athletic goal. Then again, so is upper/lower. And based on what I’ve seen, upper/lower tends to be used more often by athletes and the coaches who train them.
- It’s also good for people doing some form of metabolic training or just weight training specifically to burn as many calories as they can in the shortest period of time. Other splits can do this too, though.
- It’s also good for people with very little time for working out. They can only lift 3 times per week, and maybe those workouts need to be kept pretty short. A basic full body workout routine is one good option out of a handful of good options for that.
- It’s also good for people whose training preferences lean towards the basics. You know, a few big compound exercises and call it a day. Full body is good for that.
- And for many non-beginners, full body can also be good for building muscle. No question about it. It can certainly work for muscle growth if it (and everything else) is done right. I just wouldn’t consider it the best way to do it. Just look at how the vast majority of legitimately natural bodybuilders or physique/figure competitors train. I don’t know a single one who is training full body past the beginner stage, nor do I know a single reputable coach/trainer who would consider it ideal for growth.
Basically, a full body workout routine can be quite good for damn near everything. But in most cases, something else (like upper/lower) can be just as good or more likely even better. Beginners are the primary exception.
Here’s Why Full Body Sucks For Most People…
Alright, “sucks” might not be the right word. Because again, an intelligently designed full body routine is capable of being “good” and working for you for almost every single goal you can think of. This is 100% true.
I didn’t write this article to shit on full body routines like I wrote a previous article to shit on bodybuilding routines. This is a little different, because this type of training is actually intelligent and effective (again assuming it’s all designed properly).
But the big point I’m making here is that we are comparing what’s “good” to what’s “best.” And for the majority of people who are past the beginner stage, full body is just NOT going to be “best” for most goals.
There’s a handful of reasons why. Here now are the 4 biggest ones…
1. Three Times Per Week?
Once you get stronger (which is something that happens as you get into intermediate territory and beyond), workouts become harder because the weights being lifted become heavier and significantly more taxing on your entire body (and mind).
So when you’re squatting or deadlifting or bench pressing or whatever with some typical beginner-level amount of weight, you can do those exercises 2 or 3 times per week without much of an issue, if any at all.
But once you get more advanced and double, triple or quadruple those weights on each exercise, you’re going to find that training your whole body 3 times per week is pretty damn tough. And not in a “I’m more hardcore than you bro, beastmode 4 life!” way. But rather in a “I’m doing more than I should be doing for superior progress” way.
And it’s not so much your muscles that are the real issue here. It’s your CNS (central nervous system), joints, tendons, mind and more.
Muscles can take quite a bit. These other things are what will often give out long before muscles do. And when you’re training your entire body fairly heavy 3 times per week and pushing yourself to make progress, something is going to be more likely to eventually give (recovery, performance, injuries, mindset, etc.). Or at least require making some kind of suboptimal adjustment to compensate.
But when you’re a beginner who’s able to make consistent linear progress quite easily and you’re lifting significantly less weight than you’ll be lifting after a few years of consistent training, this is all really a non-issue.
2. Everything In One Workout?
Similar to the previous point, as you get stronger, it also gets harder to include too much stuff in a single workout.
So again, when you’re a weaker beginner, you can get away with doing various combinations of quad dominant exercises (like squats), hip dominant exercises (like deadlifts), single leg exercises (like lunges), upper body pushing exercises (like bench press and overhead press), and upper body pulling exercises (like pull-ups and rows) in a single workout.
But when you get stronger, that shit is gonna kill you.
Actually, it won’t kill you. You just won’t be capable of training hard enough to reach the point where that would happen… and that in itself is the problem.
Meaning, when the weights become heavier and progression becomes slower and harder to make happen, you’re going to find it mighty tough to go from one big demanding exercise (like squats) to another big demanding exercise (like bench press) to another big demanding exercise (like weighted pull-ups) to another big demanding exercise (like Romanian deadlifts) and so on without a significant drop-off in performance.
The same is true in every type of workout of course, not just full body. You won’t be as fresh for the stuff that comes later in your upper or lower workout, or your push or pull workout, or whatever else.
However, the big difference here is that the stuff coming later in those workouts is usually just secondary exercises, accessory work and/or isolation movements. With a full body workout routine it’s usually more big primary compound movements for other major muscle groups.
That’s the thing about full body training… you’re training your “full body” every workout to some extent, so it requires putting more demanding stuff into each workout than you would with any other type of training.
And honestly, even the thought of it kills me. For example, sometimes after doing just part of a leg workout (let’s say squats and RDLs), I finish my last set and try to imagine what it would be like to now first go on to something like bench press and/or pull-ups and/or overhead press and/or rows.
Um, no thanks… that’s just not going to go very well. At that point, hitting some higher rep single-leg leg presses, leg curls and finishing up with some calf raises sounds like a much better idea. I’d do infinitely better putting that upper body stuff in its own separate workout.
And it’s not that I can’t do it, mind you. I can. I’m sure you can too. I’m capable of pushing myself pretty hard. It’s just that I know that no matter how hard I push myself, those later exercises are all going to suffer significantly as a result of the massive amount of mental and physical fatigue that has been generated during the training that came before it.
Unless of course you consciously or subconsciously make yourself hold back during those earlier exercises, which can be just as big of a problem.
You just reach a point once you hit intermediate level and beyond where trying to train your whole body in a single workout stops being the best way for you to train.
NOT an impossible way for you to train… just not the most ideal way.
3. I Have To Do All Of That Again?
And I don’t want to just breeze past the mental aspect of this either. It’s not easy to lift heavy things.
They’re… ya know… heavy.
It’s not easy to get under a bar, or above a bar, or stare down some heavy ass weights thinking “alright, I worked as hard as I possibly could last time and got 6 reps with this weight. It was the most I was capable of doing. This time however, I must somehow work even harder and get 7.”
That’s just as demanding mentally as it is physically.
And knowing that you have a bunch of equally big/heavy/hard exercises to go for other major muscle groups after this where you’ll need to push yourself just as hard… that’s just some mentally draining shit right there (and then add in the fact that you’re going through this 3 times per week).
So even if your body still has plenty of more to give at that point (which, as mentioned a minute ago, it probably won’t), your mind might be ready to go home. But again, when you’re a beginner, the weights are WAY lighter and the progression is WAY easier. It’s a non-issue.
4. What About Volume Per Workout?
Total overall volume is important, as is total volume per body part per week, as is total volume per body part per workout. In fact, I think that 3rd one is extra important when the goal is muscle growth.
(I cover all of this in much more detail in Superior Muscle Growth, by the way.)
And with a full body workout routine, it’s just not possible to get in the amount of volume per muscle group that is optimal for an intermediate/advanced trainee without something negative happening (e.g each workout becoming insanely long due to the number of sets and exercises needed, sacrificing recovery since you’re training everything 3 times per week with just one day in between, etc.).
Full body workouts just aren’t suited for anything but fairly low volume. That’s just what it requires by design to actually be effective.
For some goals, this isn’t much of an issue (and for beginners, it’s not an issue regardless of their goal). But specifically for building muscle, the amount of volume that is optimal per muscle group per workout is higher than the amount of volume that full body training is capable of supporting.
At least not in any way that would be considered ideal.
Full Body = Good For Most, Best For Few
That title above pretty much summarizes this article and my overall feelings on full body workouts in general.
For beginners with any goal, it’s almost always the best way to train. For everyone past the beginner stage, it’s often a good way to train. And for some, it can still be better than good… even great.
But for most, full body is just not likely to be the ideal way to train at that stage for most goals. More often than not, you’ll do better with some other training approach.