Monday, 23 March 2020

Total Body vs Bro Splits for Size and Strength

You want the BEST program – we all do. If you are investing your valuable time into hitting the gym, you want to get the best results possible. How should you layout your weekly training plan? Should you be using a whole-body program or a bro split? Is one better for building strength verses muscle size? Thankfully, there have been a ton of studies on this topic over the past several years. Let’s look at what the latest research has to say about whole-body vs. bro splits. 

Photo by Alora Griffiths on UnsplashPhoto by Anastase Maragos on Unsplash


Study reference: 
Bartolomei, S., et al. (2020). A comparison between total body and split routine resistance training programs in trained men. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, March 10, 2020 - Volume Publish Ahead of Print - Issue - doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000003573.

Now I’ll give you a quick summary of the training study. If you are not interested in this, feel free to skip down to the practical application section at the bottom (I won’t offended). 

Introduction
Frequency can refer both to the number of training sessions per week as well as the number of times you train a particular muscle group per week. Total body training has been a popular method for training athletes and weightlifters. One argument for total body training is that it allows you to keep a higher training intensity. On the flip side, split routines allow more time for assistance exercises – which can help with strength development. Split routines are still very popular for bodybuilders.

Previous research has looked at total body vs. split routines but did not account for all the training variables. For example, one study used equal volume, did not use the same loads or rest intervals. Another study used a relatively low volume compared to what is used in many gyms. Other studies (Study 1 and Study 2) used untrained subjects. As is always the case in research, each study helps to not only answer a question but also to generate more questions. 

Methods
This study used 21 male subjects ranging in age from 18-35. Subjects have to have trained a minimum of 3x per week for 3 years and familiar with the exercises used in the study. They were drug-free and told to not take supplements during the study. The subjects randomly assigned to total body or split routine group and each group trained for 10 weeks. They used the same exercises and the same total number of reps. 

Here are the two training routines used in this study:

Total Body Routine:
All exercises are done for 5 sets of 6 reps, 1 RIR, 2-minute rest between sets
Note: RIR = repetitions in reserve. 1 RIR = stopping the set 1 rep short of failure

Monday
Bench Press
Parallel Squat
Lat Machine
Behind the Neck Shoulder Press
Front Raises
Barbell Biceps Curls

Tuesday
Deadlift
Military Press
Prone Lateral Raises
Lunges
High Pull
Skull Crusher
Leg Extension

Thursday
Deep Squat
Incline Bench Press
Pulley Row
Lateral Raises
Pull-Ups
Scott-bar Biceps Curl
Standing Calf Raises

Friday
Reverse Barbell Rows
Dumbbell Bench Press
Stiff-Leg Deadlift
Dumbbell Shoulder Press
Leg Curl
Triceps Extension

Split Routine
All exercises are done for 5 sets of 6 reps, 1 RIR, 2-minute rest between sets
Note: RIR = repetitions in reserve. 1 RIR = stopping the set 1 rep short of failure

Monday: Chest & Triceps
Bench Press
Inclined Bench Press
Dumbbell Bench Press
Triceps Extension
Skull Crusher

Tuesday: Legs
Parallel Squat
Lunges
Stiff-Leg Deadlift
Leg Extension
Leg Curl
Deep Squat
Standing Calf Raises

Thursday: Back
Deadlift
Reverse Barbell Row
Prone Lateral Raises
Lat Machine
Pulley row
Pull-Ups
Barbell Biceps Curl
Scott-Bar Biceps Curl

Friday: Shoulders
Military Press
High Pull
Dumbbell Shoulder Press
Behind the Neck Shoulder Press
Lateral Raises
Front Raises

Results
Both groups got bigger and stronger. However, the total body group saw greater strength increases while the split routine group had better gains in muscle hypertrophy. 

Critique
The fact that this is an actual training study is great! If you are a trainer or a lifter, these are the studies that deserve your attention.
While the subjects were not veteran lifters, they had a decent amount of experience and would definitely not be making newbie gains. 

As with most training studies, this one has a small number of subjects. I know it would be great if there were thousands of lifters in each group, but remember these studies are very hard and very expensive to do. However, we do see a similar trend to other studies on training frequency. 

10 weeks is a decent amount of time. However, it leaves us wondering if things would change with a longer study length.

The researchers used self-reporting to determine if the subject were drug-free. While unlikely, it is possible that some subjects were using something since they were not drug testing.

I really like how the researchers designed a study that tried to just look at frequency. They did a good job trying to match the other training variables:  exercises, volume, sets, reps, and effort.

Researchers used ultrasound to measure muscle size. This is more accurate than girth measurements. 

The before and after 1RM (1 repetition max) tests were done the day after the isokinetic and isometric tests. This means that the 1RM tests might be affected by fatigue from the previous day’s testing.

Practical Applications
Okay, now let’s look at how this study can help you and your training.

Many people (myself included) want to gain size and strength. While these goals are both great and are complementary goals, you should still know which one (size or strength) is the most important to you right now. 

If strength is more important, based on this research, you could consider using a total-body training program. Total body training may allow you to repeat the same exercise within your training week (not done in this study) which can help with neural gains. This is how Olympic-style Weightlifters train. Total body training also allows you to move onto different muscle groups and train them when fresh. 

Side note: a 2018 meta-analysis (a study of several studies on this topic) found that when the volume is equated, “…there is no significant effect of resistance training frequency on muscular strength gain.” This does still leave us with the question: is adding more frequency helpful if you are trying to do more volume? 

Based on this research, if muscle hypertrophy is your number one goal, you may want to use a split routine. Split routines have higher metabolic stress because you are hammering one muscle group. Just be aware that split routines do not mean you have to train a muscle group only once per week. A 2016 meta-analysis that shows training a muscle group twice per week seems to be superior to once per week. This is where an upper/lower split might be your best option. 

Consistency remains of the most important “secrets” to success. If you prefer one style of training over another, do it!

Don’t forget to factor in joint stress. In a 4x per week program (such as the one used in this study), you will stress your low back, shoulders, and elbows 4 times per week. Make sure you are using a training frequency that causes nagging joint pain. 

For long-term gains in size or strength, your ability to progressively add weight is very important. If a certain style of training works better for your load progression, it will likely give you better results.

You don’t have to pick a side and stay there. If you like and find that both total body training and split routines work well for you, consider alternating back and forth between the two training styles every 1-3 months. 

Based on the available research to date, training load, volume, and effort seem to be more important than frequency. 
Although frequency is a practical way to get more volume

See frequency is a continuum. You don’t have to choose between hitting a muscle group once a week or hitting it 4+ times a week. You can three times per week, twice a week, or once every five days. You could also try hitting a muscle once directly and once indirectly such as in a Movement Split.



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