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Full body workouts

Full body workouts

There is no doubt that a full body workout can be a great way to get into shape. It is suited to the way the body works naturally.

Let’s get the first part out of the way….which is…….Everyone is different and many people think there is a one size fits all workout plan, however sadly this doesn’t exist. This is why the subject is debated so much. The fact is what works for one person may not work for another, there is your goal, genetics, diet, rest/stress, performance enhancing drugs and many other factors that can affect your choice of what workout you should do and will work best for you.

Genetics you can’t do anything about, your diet is covered elsewhere, performance enhancing drugs is not what my website is about. So that leaves your goal and it is one of the most important questions in deciding what type of workout you should do and how to plan it. You need to know what you want to achieve, whether that be fitness, weight loss, strength training or muscle development or even a combination of all of these.

In this post I’m going to be talking about full body workouts and how it can be used in different ways to help achieve any of the above goals, but also mention alternatives that may also be more suited for each of those specific goals.

What is a full body workout?

A full body workout is where you train directly most of the major muscle groups of the body in a single workout. That is your shoulders, chest, back and legs. It can also include direct or indirect training of the arms (biceps, triceps and forearms), rear delts, rotator cuff, trapezius, rhomboids , lower back, hamstrings, glutes, calves, oblique’s and abs and many more smaller muscles.

There are a number of disadvantages, but they are mostly to do with muscle development and I have mentioned them below in the appropriate section. However there are some advantages that can apply to most types of training, such as being able to miss a workout and still get to train a body part regular enough to maintain its muscle and tone and maintain fitness. If you are too busy to workout, you can do just 2 workouts per week and spend less time in the gym. You are able to apply different types of training and even sports into a full body style workout routine. You also get more rest days, suffer less central nervous system overload, less aches and DOMS.

It is also great for total body conditioning, functional training, doing more natural multi-muscle stimulus exercises and you are more likely to be able to train for strength, muscle development, agility, flexibility, co-ordination, speed, and cardio fitness in a combination training system (see below).

So let’s take a look at the most popular goals people have:

Full body workouts for fitness, cardio and fat loss

I have tied these three together as the type of full body training for each of these is pretty much the same with just a few minor changes.

First up if you are looking to improve your fitness and/or lose fat, then your first port of call is to sort out your diet.

Full body workouts are a great way to lose body fat as this type of training can really boost your metabolism and burn a good amount of calories. The more muscle fibres used during a workout session the more calories will be burned. You are able to split your workout sessions into different types of training, so you could do HIIT one day, rest then do steady state cardio the next day, then do weights training for a third workout during a week period. This is a great way of training the entire body in multiple areas. And all three will provide different ways to attack body fat and also keep you from getting bored.

When training for fitness reasons, many people will use the lower body to get fit, such as riding a bike, walking, jogging, running, doing aerobics, dancing etc. And while it is true that with the legs having the largest and easiest muscle to use to get the cardio system going, this type of training can over tax your legs, so why not spread the exercises to incorporate the upper body. There are many more muscles in the body, so why not try doing a circuit style full body workout or incorporate rowing, press-ups, or combination exercises like the squat to press, dive bombers, dumbbell press rows, goblet squats, kettle-bell swings, jumping jacks, crossover jacks, squats jumps, squat trusts, burpees, sprints, walking DB lunges, mountain climbers, boxing, etc. You could also add an abbreviated workout with HIIT that works great for the cardio system and also use moderate cardio as well for endurance fitness, which also works well for active recovery.

Circuit training gives you the ability to combine cardio and weight training and will also help add or retain muscle.

Now many rest days you have will be dependent on the intensity you workout at. If you workout with full out intensity them 3 times per week is a good workout plan. If you go a little easier, you can split the training to two HIIT circuits, two steady state/moderate cardio workouts and maybe even some weight training. Or as suggested combine some workouts types by doing circuit training to get the weight training and cardio benefit in a single workout.

Full body workouts for strength training

When it comes to training for strength there are several types. You can train for functional strength and do explosive movements, strongman exercises, such as log lifts, sled pulls, farmers walk, tyre flips, sandbag lifts or you can do kettlebell exercises or body weight exercises. Or you can train for getting strong or good at specific exercises such as the squat, bench press, power cleans and snatches by doing power lifting or Olympic lifting. Regardless, being able to hit a muscle several times per week if training low volume can increase your strength and skill level with these types of exercises noticeably. It is an opportunity to be able to stimulate a muscle on a very regular basis.

Strength routines are normally done at a slower pace. With rest normally around 2-3 minutes between sets or even longer for legs. This allows your body to replenish some of the lost energy (ATP) needed for these types of lifts.

Do these workouts 2-3 times per week. Which will help greatly to retain and gain even more strength on a regular basis.

I would also recommend some core work for your lower back and abs as this is often a key area in improving strength.

Alternatively those looking for strength gains who would rather do regular style weight training would also do well on an upper/lower or push/pull workout. Working each muscle group twice per week.

Full body workouts for muscle development

This is going to be the largest section here as it is the most debated and most confusing area for many trainers.

Doing a full body workout allows you to hit the muscles more often per week, the more stimulus per week, the more growth possible, providing you have your diet and recovery sorted. By training the body as a whole you can include many exercises that can train more than one muscle group in a single exercise. This is the body’s natural way it handles movement. Also stimulating as many muscle fibres of the body in a single training session produces more growth hormone and testosterone.

Most people when they train a muscle with enough effort/intensity will go through a process of recovery, repair and growth that will take 24-72 hours. So getting just the right stimulus and be able to recover is very important in order to make progress. Therefore it is also important to realise that it is possible to easily over-train doing full body workouts three times per week, but get it right and you get 2-3 growth workouts in a week. However, there is also no day to day overlap from high volume split training. For example if you train chest on day one, shoulders on day two and arms on day three, your triceps will be hit 3 days in a row. One thing full body workouts are not ideal for, is for those that lift heavy all the time, your ligaments and tendons need a rest and heavy lifting places a lot of stress on them, so it is best to rotate between light and heavy lifting and rotate the intensity and exercises used. Another issue can be training your legs in a full body workout as they tend to be done last and you could be too tired to give it enough attention, so look to swap body parts around to change things up.

Given the above it is possible to get more growth stimulus more often if you train smartly and therefore there seems little reason to wait a week to train a muscle again.

OK, so the much debated and controversial part:

Having just said all that above it must be pointed out that it has been argued that to maximize muscle development, full body workouts are not ideal….

Whether full body workouts are better than any of the split routines has been debated and will be debated by all who train to gain muscle…….The fact is we are all different in our abilities, goals and personal circumstances. How we respond to different stimulus and how we handle our workout routines will be different from person to person.

Some of the problems with doing a full body workout for muscle development is that it is harder to train weak areas and you can’t really do advanced techniques due to the short number of sets per body part. Some people will struggle to warm-up and do proper workable sets to give enough intensity to individual muscles. However, beginners seem to do well with muscle development from full body workouts. This is due to the fact that they require a minimal amount of stimulation to affect growth.

However as you progress you need more stimulus, intensity, added volume and heavier weights to further stimulate your muscles to grow as your muscles get used to the stimulus you place on it and that doing this as a full body workout can lead to long drawn out workouts and over working your central nervous system. This is why the development of the body split workouts came about. It allows you to hit the muscle from multiple angles with volume and then rest a full week before working the muscle again.

However it is important to realize that many of the split workout plans used by both amateur and professional bodybuilders you read about in magazines or the internet are geared towards those that have great genetics or use steroids. People seem to forget that before steroids were widely used, bodybuilders like Reg Park and Steve Reeves used full body routines on a regular basis and developed great physiques. Body part splits were also popularized by professional bodybuilders in order to try to hit a muscle group from as many angles as possible to essentially over develop all the muscles of that group to the max and this may not be ideal for many.

This is why body part splits have become popular as those looking to develop muscle see these professional routines and believe that in order to give your muscles a complete workout you need a certain amount of work load that many believe cannot be achieved with a full body workout. They see full body workouts limiting and not able to provide the workload and volume necessary to maximize muscle development. However, those that are using steroids can extend this growth period and take in large amounts of nutrition and therefore can hit a muscle extra hard, recover, grow and then not train it again for a week. Hence why they can grow big following a once a week body part split. Where we mere mortals and non steroid users will not be able to stimulate a muscle then recover and grow from such a high volume professional built workout and may even begin to lose some of the muscle within that time frame. As a side note, the body doesn’t like to retain too much muscle either. Research suggests 2-3 weeks before you lose muscle, but I’m not too sure about that. I say that as it is known that the body wants to put itself in a state that makes it energy efficient and having lots of muscle needs more energy to maintain itself. It is therefore natural for the body to reduce muscle mass to just the necessary amount needed and it will do this sooner than later.

To make it even more confusing, there’s even more controversy in that some research has also shown no real significance from those who do full body workouts and those that do once per week split training. Interesting that research has shown that if the total volume of work is the same whether you do 3 sets of an exercise 3 times per week or 9 sets of an exercise once per week, the increase in strength and muscle mass isn’t that significantly different. Therefore the frequency seemed to make no difference if the total work sets were the same per week. I did say this subject was controversial didn’t I!

So where does all this leave us? When looking to cause hypertrophy you really should be looking to stimulate a muscle just enough to make it compensate for the work required. Compensation and growth can only take place if you are eating correctly, able to repair and recover from the workout and then not work the muscle again before this process is completed. It also has to be said that many natural trainers do not need 15-20 sets for a muscle group. A muscle only needs 3-5 sets to get enough stimuli for growth. Any more that this and you are going to get significantly less return for your effort with diminishing results and wasting energy in return. As Lee Haney said, stimulate don’t annihilate. With full-body workouts being done very close to each other, i.e. after 48 hours, you do not necessarily need to train to failure, but just to the point of finding it hard to complete the last few reps of your final set. Don’t over train and don’t get carried away with long routines.

Finally in this section, I want to mention protein synthesis. This is where your body creates its new protein molecules which takes amino acids to build muscle (anabolism), while the opposite of this building of muscle is called catabolism, which is the breaking down of muscle. Training of a muscle can cause catabolism, so make sure you are getting enough protein in your diet to then allow the rebuilding process which will occur after you workout.

With that said, research has shown that after you lift weights, muscle protein synthesis increases for more than 36-48 hours. During this period your body is looking to build more muscle and if you have stimulated a muscle enough with the right type of exercise and intensity and fed it with the right nutrients then it should rebuild itself stronger and bigger.

Worth noting then that a good full body workout could allow you to work a muscle three times per week, meaning you get the chance to increase the rate of protein synthesis for a muscle group each of those workouts. Where hitting a muscle once per week you only get one rate increase.

Now to find out whether one type of workout routine suits you over another will come down to many factors, but you may need to train smart and experiment to find out.

Alternatively those that want to progress to more volume may benefit from also doing an upper/lower or push/pull workout. Working each muscle group twice per week. In fact if all you wanted was to maximize muscle development and nothing else I’d suggest an upper/lower split over anything else. These types of workouts are the best compromise. (see the workout routine section).

Combo training

Just to finish off this article, I wanted to mention my favourite type of training. Training in a way to combine all areas, such as fitness, strength, muscle development and maintain or improve my body composition and I find full body workouts to be one of the best ways to do all this.

Here is an example of my full body combo training schedule:

Monday – Full body heavy weight training using 5-6 compound exercises 3 sets per exercise

Tuesday – 30-45 minute non-stop steady state cardio

Wednesday – Circuit training with weights/body-weight exercises done in a HIIT style routine doing 2-3 exercises in a row, short rest then another 2-3 exercises until I have completed all my chosen exercises

Thursday – Complete rest

Friday – Full body medium weight training with mostly assistant/isolation exercises, around 8-9 exercises and 2 sets per exercise

Saturday – 10-15 minutes all out HIIT cardio

Sunday – Rest/active recovery. Active recovery may be just doing house work, washing/waxing the car, DIY, tidying up, a physical hobby, anything that gets me moving. If I’m too tired I’ll just have a complete rest day.

As you can see this type of training is a master of none, so I am not maximizing any one area, but I am able to benefit from all the areas without over taxing anyone area. If you are a beginner and want to do the same start with weight training one workout, steady state in the next and then HIIT. Make sure you get a days rest between each workout and work your way up to a more complex routine/schedule if ready and needed.

For another example of a different type of combo training I do please see here.


So there you have it. This article took much longer than I thought to write, but I wanted to cover all the bases, rather than write a general article on the subject. For beginners and those looking for overall fitness and muscle development I think full body training is generally more efficient, allowing you to easily train the body with more natural and efficient exercises.

Even after all these years of training I still do full body training on a regular basis and as I get older my priority to maintain physical health over maximizing muscle development means that full body workouts allow me to do this.

Choose your goal and create routines that allow you to accomplish that task and remember there is no one routine fits all and that anything is better than nothing. Get training.