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Bro splits versus full-body routines

An age-old question in gym corridors is whether it is best to follow full-body or split routines to build muscle?

A full-body workout consists of doing exercises where you train your entire body. A split muscle group schedule, also known as the bro split, on the other hand, targets one or two different muscle groups per workout.

Results from a recent study that was published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning have shown lifters who followed a full-body routine, hitting all their muscles each time they lift, gained more strength and size than those who followed a typical body part split.

Frequency is a key factor when you follow a split schedule and isolate body parts because you have to hit your muscle groups twice a week to accumulate overall training volume (load x sets x reps).

In a study carried out on the subject, Brad Schoenfeld a well-known researcher who specialises in hypertrophy, found full-body workouts more advantageous for muscle growth. “Those performing the full-body routine experienced significantly greater increases in biceps growth compared to split-body training,” said Schoenfeld. “Although differences in the other muscles analysed were not statistically different, the increases favoured the full-body routine for both the triceps and the quads. Moreover, determination of effect size— a statistical gauge of the meaningfulness of results— showed a clear advantage for the full-body routine in all of the muscles we measured. These findings suggest a benefit to training a muscle more often over the course of a week.”

According to Jim Stoppani, who holds a doctorate in exercise physiology, full body training is better for burning body fat than split-body routines.

“Split-style training has been a staple of the bodybuilding community for years,” says Stoppani. “With splits, you can lift more volume per individual muscle groups, but you sacrifice frequency. Whole-body training involves less volume per body part per workout, but each muscle group gets worked more frequently.”

Using results from the Crewther, Heke and Keogh study of 2016 (The effects of two equal-volume training protocols upon strength and body composition), Stoppani gave four main reasons for lifters to switch to whole-body training:

  • Greater fat lossFull-body training boosts greater fat loss than split-style training
  • Greater muscle growthLifters who follow a whole-body approach gain slightly more muscle mass through an improvement in testosterone-to-cortisol ratios than the split training group
  • Greater strengthLifters in the whole-body programme have shown greater strength gains than individuals assigned to split-style training
  • Greater overall healthWhole-body training is advantageous for activating genes in every muscle fiber every single day which contributes greatly to stopping the onset of various metabolic diseases

Adhering to a split routine should however not be discounted. “There is a benefit to training muscles frequently throughout the course of a week,” said Schoenfeld. “Although evidence is somewhat limited, it would appear that at least twice-weekly stimulation of a given muscle is beneficial to maximise growth. This can be accomplished with an upper body/lower body split carried out four days per week (i.e., two days on/one day off, two days on/two days off) or a three-way split (i.e., push/pull/legs) performed six days per week (i.e., three days on/one day off).”

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