Monday, 13 July 2015

Whole Body vs. Split Routines for Size and Strength

If you want to pack on muscle and get stronger, should you do a full body workout or a split routine? This question has been asked and debated countess times. There are many “experts” in both camps, each with compelling arguments. However, let’s put opinions aside and look at what the latest, cutting-edge research has to say on this topic. 
Image courtesy of https://stocksnap.io/

Study Reference:
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 & Conditioning Research: July 2015 - Volume 29 - Issue 7 - p 1821–1829.

Methods
20 male university students with a minimum of 1 year of lifting experience (average 4.5 years) were randomly placed into either a split routine group or a total body group. Each group trained for 8 weeks. Here is the training program that each group used: 

Split Routine Group
Day 1 – Chest & Back
Bench press: 3 sets
Incline Press: 3 sets
Hammer Strength Chest Press: 3 sets
Lat Pulldown (wide grip): 3 sets
Lat Pulldown (close grip): 3 sets
Seated Row: 3 sets

Day 2 – Legs 
Squat: 3 sets
Leg Press: 3 sets
Leg Extension: 3 sets
Stiff-Leg Deadlift: 3 sets
Hamstrings Curl: 3 sets
Good Morning: 3 sets

Day 3 – Shoulders and Arms
Shoulder Press: 2 sets
Hammer Strength Shoulder Press: 2 sets
Upright Row: 2 sets
Hammer Curl: 2 sets
Barbell Curl: 2 sets
Preacher Curl: 2 sets
Cable Pushdown: 2 sets
Skull Crusher: 2 sets
Dumbbell Overhead Extension: 2 sets

Total Body Group
Day 1
Squat: 3 sets
Stiff-Leg Deadlift: 3 sets
Bench press: 3 sets
Lat Pulldown (wide grip): 3 sets
Shoulder Press: 2 sets
Hammer Curl: 2 sets
Cable Pushdown: 2 sets

Day 2
Leg Press: 3 sets
Hamstrings Curl: 3 sets
Incline Press: 3 sets
Lat Pulldown (close grip): 3 sets
Hammer Strength Shoulder Press: 2 sets
Barbell Curl: 2 sets
Skull Crusher: 2 sets

Day 3
Leg Extension: 3 sets
Good Morning: 3 sets
Hammer Strength Chest Press: 3 sets
Seated Row: 3 sets
Upright Row: 2 sets
Preacher Curl: 2 sets
Dumbbell Overhead Extension: 2 sets

Each exercise was done for 8-12 reps and each set done until momentary muscular failure with proper form.

Results
Both groups got bigger and stronger with the total body group doing a bit better. Here are the details:

Biceps Size Gains
Split Routine: 2.1mm
Total Body: 3.2mm

Triceps Size Gains
Split Routine: 2.3mm
Total Body: 3.6mm

Thigh Size Gains (Vastus lateralis)
Split Routine: 1.2mm
Total Body: 3.6mm

Bench Press 1RM Strength Gains
Split Routine: 6.3kg
Total Body: 10.2kg

Back Squat 1RM Strength Gains
Split: 12.1kg
Total Body: 13.8kg

Critique
I really like Brad Schoenfeld’s research. He is not only a great researcher; he is also a great trainer with tons of real-world experience. Therefore, when he designs research studies, he does them in a way that is real-world relevant. He answers questions that real trainers have.

The great thing about the study was that each group did the exact same exercises and the same number of sets. They also had the exact same number of gym visits – this is important as some previous studies failed to do this (click HERE for more details). 

It is also nice to see a study done with subjects who had some lifting experience. Too many studies are done on untrained beginners which loses real-world relevance for those of us who have been training for years or for us trainers who work with advanced clients and athletes. 

Ultrasound imaging for hypertrophy measurements improves accuracy over just using a tape measure.

The study lasted only 8 weeks which begs the question – what would happen if it went longer?

Novelty factor: the authors wisely point out that 16 of the subjects where already doing a split routine – was the whole body routine better or just something new?

Few subjects: only 20 subjects (19 of whom completed the study)

Although number of exercises and sets were matched, weekly volume load was slightly greater for the total body group. Because volume is significant driver of muscle hypertrophy, was this more than the frequency the reason the total body group had slightly better gains?

Conclusion: Real-World Application
If you can train 3 times a week, a whole body routine seems to be better than a split routine – especially if you are used to split routines. However, this question still remains: if you can train more than 3 times a week, is it better to move to a split routine (e.g. 4 day per week upper/lower split or 5 day per week body part split)? Would these styles of training be better than a 3 day per week whole body?


How about you? What is your experience with whole body and split routines? Which have you found to work better? I welcome your comments/questions below or on my Facebook Page.



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