Monday 16 September 2019

Whole Body vs. Lower/Upper for Size & Strength

You want to get stronger and pack on some lean muscle. In your search for the best way of building muscle, you come across the raging debate over whole-body routines vs. split routines. Should you split things up like you see the other big guys at your gym doing? Or, should you follow the “experts” who claim that whole-body, high-frequency training is best? Let’s see what the latest research on that topic has to say.

Study Reference: 
Thiago, L, et. al. (2019). Similar muscular adaptations in resistance training performed two versus three days per week. Journal of Human Kinetics, 68, 135-143, DOI: 10.2478/hukin-2019-0062.

The previous research measuring muscle protein synthesis would suggest you want to use high frequency to build muscle. Higher frequency is also thought to be better for motor learning and thus strength gains. If you look at the overall trend from training studies, you find that training a muscle group twice a week is better than one. Because most studies compare training a muscle one time per week to train a muscle 3 or more times per week, researchers from this study wanted to investigate training a muscle group 2 times per week vs. 3 times per week. 

The study was done with 28 males with a minimum of 1 year of consistent training experience. All of the subjects used the bench press and squat in their training. Half the group did a whole-body routine 3 times per week, while the other half used a lower/upper split training each muscle group twice per week. Both groups did the same exercises and the same total weekly training volume. The study lasted for 10 weeks. Here is what each training program looked like: 

Whole Body Routine
Days 1, 2 & 3:
Smith machine squat: 4 sets
Leg press: 4 sets
Leg extension: 4 sets
Bench press: 4 sets
Lat pulldown: 4 sets
Triceps pushdown: 4 sets
Biceps curl: 4 sets

Lower/Upper Split Routine
Lower Body Days 1 & 3:
Smith machine squat: 6 sets
Leg press: 6 sets
Leg extension: 6 sets

Upper Body Days 2 & 4: 
Bench press: 6 sets
Lat pulldown: 6 sets
Triceps pushdown: 6 sets
Biceps curl: 6 sets

The other training variables remained the same: 8-12 reps to concentric failure, 90 seconds rest between sets, tempo: 2 seconds up, 2 seconds down. Loads were increased by 2.5% when subjects could get 12 reps and decreased by 2.5% when subjects could not get 8 reps. 

Note: I'm just sharing the training program used in this study. While it worked, I would change some things around. I'm not recommending you follow this exact routine. 

The results of this study showed that both the whole body routine and the upper/lower split worked. Both groups gained size and strength. However, in each of the variables that the researchers measured, the results for both size and strength were superior in the lower/upper split group. 

I love that this was an actual training study. These are harder to do, but so much more important for those of us who care about getting the best possible real-world results! 

Too many studies use untrained subjects. The problem with that is that anything works for someone during the newbie phase. While the subjects were not veteran lifters, it is nice that this wasn’t their first time under a barbell. 

As with most good training frequency studies, they used equal volume. This is important so you can isolate the variable of training frequency. An important thing to remember is that splitting up your routine can allow you to do more volume. If you are able to add even more volume (without exceeding your recovery ability), this may further increase the results that the split group attained. 

One potential downside to this study is that there were only 28 subjects. The study did start with 36 subjects, but 4 dropped out from each group (non-training related). While this study would ultimately have a lot more power if it was done with more subjects per group, this is not always possible when conducting a training study. 

10 weeks is not a long time. This always leaves us wondering if the results would have been different in the long-run. However, again due to the challenges of implementing a well-designed training study, you can’t be too picky. Maybe this study will inspire other researchers to replicate it with more subjects and longer training time.

What about women? With all male subjects, this leaves us the question: would there be a difference if the subjects were female? I know from my coaching experience while split routines do work for women, many ladies seem to like and do better with whole-body routines. 

Practical Applications
Many of the proponents of high-frequency training have used protein synthesis studies to support their claims. While these studies shed light into the mechanisms behind muscle growth, they don’t necessarily show what really counts – RESULTS! If you want a scientific basis for your training or you are a trainer who wants to use evidence-based practice, use actual training studies to guide you. 

Consider how many days you can train. If you can only train 3 times per week, you might get better results on a whole-body routine. You should also consider how long you can train. You may find that 4, shorter training sessions is more practical for your schedule than 3, longer sessions. 

This study was done on trained lifters. If you are a beginner, you may still want to start on a whole-body routine done 3x per week. Beginners have a limited ability to build muscle because they lack strength and skill. By doing the same exercises three days a week, you get 3 opportunities to practice each lift. In addition, during the beginning phase of training, it is easy to progress your exercises. As a result, training more often can help you gain the strength and skill you need to maximize your gains with a higher-volume upper/lower program.

The overall trend we see in the research is that training a muscle group more than once per week seems to be a good idea. However, once you are getting more than once a week, you probably don’t need to worry about trying to get even more frequency. Instead, focus on things that are even more important such as exercise selection, proper form, progression, and sufficient volume.

Always remember that research in this area is not cutting edge. As a coach, I’ve used lower/upper splits for over 20 years. It is also the type of split that I have used the most for my own training. I know lower/upper splits work and I would have continued to use them even if this study was not done. I would even continue to use them if the study had shown the opposite results. Why? Because while I appreciate good research studies like this one, I know from trying whole-body routines countless times over the years that I personally do better with some type of split. Remember, always track your training sessions, regularly measure your progress, and continually reflect on what is and is not working. Learn from research and other experts, but ultimately you need to do what works best for YOU!

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  1. It's amazing what research tells us. Great work coach.

    1. Thanks mate. Yes, this is an exciting time for hypertrophy research - more great stuff coming out all the time! Thanks for reading and commenting Shane - always appreciate your support and encouragement.

  2. I have tried many trategics of gaining muscle, but to no avail, what else should i do?

    1. I have a whole book on this coming out soon...