**I want to begin this article series with a bit of a disclaimer, as it were. My goal with these articles is NOT to say everyone should use a whole-body approach with their training. My goal here is to highlight why it is a valid approach for most to utilize at some point (should they wish) because, in my opinion, whole-body training is an under-represented methodology in the current strength training landscape. No training approach is optimal for everyone, and no single training approach is superior to another outright; it all depends on context. In fact, the reality is that the training split you choose to use is the fact in one of the variables that matter the least when optimizing your training. Simply, what I want to achieve is to bring the benefits of a whole-body approach to your attention to "increase the size of your toolbox" when it comes to programming.**
Welcome back, dear reader.
In Part I of this 3-part series, we dove back through history to the mid-1900s and saw how whole-body training was once essentially the only training split that existed. We looked at the reasons behind this and examples of athletes who excelled using this training methodology, many of whom would still be considered freakishly strong by today's standards. We also examined how perhaps the mentality towards training was different at this time compared to now, along with some common misconceptions that have developed over time towards whole-body training.
The goal of this next article is to address what I believe are the pros and cons of utilizing a whole-body training style. Of course, no training system is perfect, but they all have their own merits, and there will always exist a set of circumstances where one training system is optimal in that specific scenario.
Unfortunately, this is a fact that often doesn't get spoken about in the fitness industry because "every training system works" isn't a useful tagline for a coach who is trying to get you to buy into using THEIR training system (which is obviously superior to every other system out there and is the one missing piece that is preventing you from becoming immensely jacked and strong).
However, if we know the pros and cons of each training system, we can then make informed decisions about which system is best to use for ourselves or our clients/athletes at that specific juncture.
So let's jump into the potential pros of whole-body training…
The Pros of Whole-Body Training
Pro 1 – It Makes Lifters Focus on the "Big Basics" and Better Exercise Selection
Most will agree that most lifters would do well to focus most of their efforts on multi-joint compound movements. For 90% of us, these will be the lifts responsible for the vast majority of our progress, especially if your goal is strength or athletic performance.
When you adopt a full-body approach, a large degree of your training volume will be spent automatically on these types of movements, or at least it should. In general, a full-body session will involve a main compound lift for each of the main movement patterns: press, squat, hinge/pull (or some variation thereof).
Suppose we are performing three whole-body sessions per week. In that case, we are doing three variations of those movement patterns in our weekly training, which for most, will be very beneficial, provided the correct variations are chosen.
Yes, we can add one or two assistance/isolation exercises at the end of each session, but the compound movements will make up most of the workload.
One of the most common issues I see with trainees, in general, is the tendency to use too much variation or too many exercises to make up for their inability to select the correct exercises to achieve their goal. As a result, you end up with the following:
"Bro, I need to get my chest bigger/stronger, so I will do incline, flat, and decline press along with five different variations of flys. That'll do it."
In our example here, we get nine main movements per week (3 compound movements in each of our three weekly workouts). This should be MORE THAN ENOUGH to work on your weak points and get the progress you want. If you need more than this, you/your coach aren't selecting your exercises well enough.
Can we use more variation than this? Yes! But we should not be DEPENDENT on it, and sometimes it is very beneficial to boil down the number of exercises you are performing and ask yourself, "What is the stuff in my program that I really need to do to progress and what is in there just for the sake of it."
Pro 2 – Increased Frequency = Increased Motor Learning
When it comes to motor learning, frequency is king. If you want to be good at something, do it regularly.
What would you do if you wanted to learn how to play the guitar? Would you pick it up once a week and play it for three hours, or would you play it for 30-40 minutes every day?
Likewise, if someone came up to you and said, "If you don't put 50 pounds on your squat in the next four weeks, I'll make you do CrossFit for the rest of your life," how often would you be squatting? Something tells me it wouldn't be once per week.
*Apologies to the single CrossFitter who will read this article. Guess I'll never have a WOD named after me now…*
Now, most of the more recent studies illustrate that there IS NOT an increased rate of strength gain from increased training frequency, as illustrated by a good meta-analysis by Grgic et al. (2018). Now I'm usually very much in favor of research and studies, but there is a major flaw with many of these studies.
Pretty much all of the studies (at least that I have seen) addressing strength gains and frequency (with equal volume) use exercises that are low skill levels and require very little neurological adaptation. They will often use exercises such as the leg extension or, at best, machine chest press or leg press. These are neurologically very simple exercises that have a minimal learning curve. You don't need to practice machine chest press regularly to maintain neurological efficiency (skill).
Complex movements, like the powerlifts or Olympic lifts, require A LOT of learning to become truly efficient; even lifters who have been performing these lifts for over a decade will tell you they are still learning and perfecting them (or at least, they should be). So, we really can't compare strength gains derived from neurological efficiency on a leg extension to those on a back squat; they are motor tasks that are worlds apart.
There's also almost endless "in the trenches" evidence that training lifts more frequently increases strength, at least in the short term. So probably the most common answer to "My X has been stuck at 275 pounds for two years" will be "Do X more often." As strength athletes approach a competition, their training variation will generally dwindle, so more and more of the workload is focused on the competition lifts. Why? Because they need to learn to apply their strength to the specific motor task, the competition lifts.
One of the most mythical training programs ever, Smolov, works through the mechanism of increased frequency. Want to get a stronger squat? Then drop most of the other work and squat four times a week. And as if by magic, your squat goes up! Now yes, you can argue that throughout the full Smolov cycle, a decent proportion of those gains come from increased muscle mass. But I've seen plenty of lifters run this program without gaining or losing weight. Is this smart? No, it's really not, but they still put a good amount on their squat, and I assure you, it wasn't down to muscle gain. They just became better squatters.
When it comes to the big, compound movements, an increased frequency certainly aids in increasing neurological efficiency and maximizing your skill. Does this mean you need to use high frequency all the time? Of course not. But it certainly has significant potential benefits when we are either:
A – Trying to learn a new lift or after we have made adjustments to our technique that we need to "embed."
B – Looking to maximize our performance in specific lifts.
Pro 3 – It Can Make Peaking or Deloading More Effective for Competition
This is possibly one of my favorite reasons to favor a higher frequency approach, at least "in-season."
The issue here is that if you only perform your competition lifts once per week, you don't have many places to go when it comes to peaking for a competition. You need to lower training stress for increased intensity/loading. So, your only option is to reduce the volume of that squat session to achieve this. This leaves you squatting once per week for low volume, which isn't necessarily optimal from a skill perspective.
Now if you take a lifter who is used to squatting, pressing, and pulling (in some variation) with reasonably high intensity three times per week, when it comes to peaking, we have a whole bunch of options for reducing the training load to accommodate for increasing intensity:
Keep three weekly sessions but turn one into a skill or speed session.
Keep three weekly sessions but turn TWO of the sessions into a skill or speed session (if a greater reduction in training stress is needed).
Drop to two weekly sessions and keep both sessions at high intensity.
Drop to two weekly sessions but turn the second session into a skill or speed session.
Drop to two weekly sessions and use the second session to work on a weak point or to do some supra-maximal work to help neurological gains.
I could go on. But the point is that ALL of these options represent a drop in training stress COMPARED TO THE LIFTER'S BASELINE. The higher your baseline of maximal recoverable volume (MRV) for a movement pattern, the more room you have to bring down training volume while still keeping a good amount of work in for the target lift (to ensure ample practice).
Most of my lifters will be doing the competition lifts, or variations very close to them (either for a weak point or to overload the movement), twice per week up until a few weeks out from a comp as a minimum. What those two workouts consist of can vary massively, but it means they go into their competitions feeling 100% comfortable and familiar with their technique on the lifts and gain even more from the pre-comp de-load when training stress is dropped right down.
There's also an argument here to be made for specificity. If you're a powerlifter, Olympic lifter, or competitive strongman, you need to be able to perform all your competition lifts to a high level in a single day. In my opinion, this is something you need to condition yourself to; if you go to your first powerlifting competition and you have never attempted to bench heavy after squatting, enjoy.
You won't know what to do when your lower back starts cramping up or when everything just feels heavy and slow. If you train this way frequently, yes, you get better adapted to this, but you also learn how to do well in those circumstances. For example, you learn that you need to foam roll and decompress your back before you bench, learn not to panic when your bench warm-ups feel heavy, and so on.
Pro 4 – You Get Roughly Equal "Whole-Body Fatigue/Soreness"
Ok, so this is really only applicable if you are a non-strength sports athlete, but this can be a pretty important factor. It's important to remember that athletes are not powerlifters, Olympic lifters, or strongmen; they do not JUST lift. In fact, lifting is pretty low down the pecking order in terms of importance.
What matters is their sport-specific practice and their performance on game day.
The issue we can run into if we do, say, an upper/lower split or do workouts that focus on one lift is that we get a very uneven distribution of fatigue.
Let's use an example of a basketball player who performed an intense upper body session the morning before their evening practice session…
They are going into the session with a lot of local fatigue in their upper body. Now this will likely mean that their throwing mechanics are off. Or at least their reflexes, movement speed, and timing will be poorer. The athlete will probably "feel" fatigued in their upper body, and that perception alone can change their movement patterns to a small degree. Not only that but when you have them sprint, even their sprinting mechanics will be off due to the upper body being in a different state of fatigue to their lower body (their arms won't "swing" as well or as in time with their gait).
This may sound like semantics, but when you're talking about athletes whose success is based on perfecting these very precise skills, trying to train through large degrees of localized soreness can really start to throw things off.
With whole-body training, we split the training stress of each session across the whole body. So, they do not get a high level of local fatigue in any location, and the whole body is in roughly the same state of readiness/fatigue. This ends up having a much less detrimental effect on their performance.
Ok, our basketball players may still go into their evening practice feeling a little fatigued, but it will be less pronounced, their movement patterns will be altered less, and we will see less compensation patterns. As a result, they may feel a little "off" or slow compared to when fresh.
Again, I know these may sound like incredibly minor details to some, but they can make quite a big difference, especially when you look at this effect over a longer period.
Pro 5 – Whole Body Training MAY Increase Follistatin and Decrease Myostatin
This is potentially a very interesting point in favor of whole-body training. For example, Baheri et al. (2019) found that whole-body training increased follistatin and decreased myostatin twice the amount compared to lower-body-only training and nearly three times more than upper-body-only training.
To put this in context, follistatin and myostatin are myokines (cytokines released by muscle tissue, usually during muscular contractions), which ultimately affect how much muscle your body is "allowed" to grow. Follistatin favors and encourages the growth of new muscle tissue, whereas the role of myostatin is to ensure a muscle does not grow "too big."
Remember, these systems developed when we were cavemen with no reliable food source. Muscle tissue is extremely energetically expensive to maintain, and having too much of it when food is not plentiful would be really bad for your survival chances.
So essentially, follistatin is our friend, and myostatin is the enemy. If you want to see how much of an effect these myokines have, simply look up Belgian Blue cows. This is what happens when a cow develops a mutation that means it does not produce myostatin. So now it has nothing limiting how much muscle it can grow as follistatin has nothing to counteract it.
If whole-body training does, in turn, lead to a greater increase in follistatin and a greater suppression of myostatin compared to upper/lower training, this could mean the upper ceiling for muscle growth is greater using this training approach.
Now, it is worth mentioning that the use of PEDs* affects this mechanism, so this will be less meaningful for those using these. But I do genuinely believe that this is at least a small part of the reason why some of the individuals we spoke about in the first article of this series got such good results from their "old-school" training styles.
*Of course, by PEDs, I mean Personal Electronic Devices. None of us morally upstanding individuals here would ever contemplate using any other type of PED…*
I've ranted on plenty about the benefits of implementing whole-body training for you and/or those you coach. So now it is only fair that we address the potential downsides.
The Cons of Whole-Body Training
Con 1 – It Can Make It Difficult to Fully Develop Your Physique
The big, basic movements are great for putting on muscle mass. Still, individuals will always have natural biases in muscle recruitment based on body proportions, exercise/sports background, and other factors.
For example, a person with a long wingspan will always get pretty poor recruitment of their triceps and biceps in pushing and pulling movements (respectively) due to their lever lengths. Not only that but because of these lever lengths, they will also be better at recruiting the muscles that have more good levers in these movements because they use them more.
Let's use the bench press as an example here:
Our long-armed lifter will naturally be pec (and perhaps front delt, depending on clavicle width) dominant due to those muscles going through a greater ROM in the lift and being recruited more. So, the bench press for them will not be great at stimulating the triceps. Moreover, because of their natural biases with muscle recruitment, they will even turn more tricep dominant pressing variations (i.e., close-grip bench press, top half bench press from pins) into more pec dominant exercises. Essentially, they will always try to leverage their naturally strong muscles into the exercise.
Can you address weak points/muscle groups using the correct exercise variations of the big, basic lifts? Most of the time, yes. But in some cases, isolation work will be needed to teach the lifter how to recruit and use that muscle without the possibility of their natural biases taking over. Targeted isolation work can also help that lifter learn to recruit the target muscle group in the exercise variations you use to strengthen it.
This is why it is important to have SOME isolation work in a whole-body program. This could be one or two exercises added after the main work at the end of each session or a separate workout where you group all your required isolation work together. But the very nature of a whole-body split does give less room for isolation work, so it needs to be chosen well.
Furthermore, some muscle groups are just very difficult to develop using only big barbell lifts. For example, lateral delts, rear delts (to some degree), calves, abs, and forearms generally need targeted isolation work to develop well.
Con 2 – It Can Be Time-Consuming
By their very nature, whole-body sessions can take more time to complete. First, more of your workload is done on larger, more demanding movements requiring more rest between sets. For example, it takes longer to recover from a set of RPE 9 Romanian Deadlifts than it does an RPE 9 sets of cable curls (bro). So, on average, your rest periods will be longer than if you were doing a workout based around smaller movements. However, this is usually counteracted by the fact that you will be doing fewer sets overall.
Where the extra time usually comes from is warming up. Let's say you do a bench press session that looks like this:
- Bench Press (main lift)
- Close-Grip Incline Press (main accessory movement)
- Dumbbell Bench Press (second accessory movement)
- Cable Fly
- Rope Tricep Pressdown
After you have completed your sets on Bench Press, you may only need one or two warm-up sets on the close-grip incline press to get a feel for the movement and determine what weight you need to use. All the required muscles and joints are already warm and ready to go. Likewise, if you know roughly what weight you need to use, you may perform one warm-up set for the dumbbell bench press and possibly not need any warm-up sets for the isolation movements. You only have to warm up "properly" for one movement.
Now let's compare that for a full-body workout:
- Paused Front Squat
- Floor Press
- Trap Bar Romanian Deadlift
- Straight Arm Pulldown
- Cable Rear Delt Fly
You will spend a decent amount of time warming up for the front squat, as it's the first exercise of the workout. But then, when you move on to floor press, you haven't warmed up in a manner that helps this movement. So, you will likely need to warm up NEARLY as much as if you had just walked into the gym and were doing this first. Then we move on to the Trap Bar RDL; by this point, pretty much everything will be warmed up from the previous two movements, BUT you haven't done any hip hinge movements yet, so you may still require a few sets to get a feel for the movement.
By the time we get to the isolation work at the end, we're in the same position as the example above, we may need one warm-up set to determine the work weight, but that's it.
The other factor is that these compound movements generally use higher loads, so they naturally require more warm-up sets to get to work weights.
Now, I will say that when you perform the main movement patterns more regularly, you do require less and less warming up over time because you are "greasing the groove" more regularly. So even warm-up time will often reduce significantly after just a few weeks. But, nonetheless, it will still take up MORE time than the above example.
This is also where smart exercise selection comes into play; if it takes you 30 minutes to warm up enough to perform a movement pain-free or well, is it a good movement for you?
Con 3 – I Don't Get a Pump (Bro)
In all seriousness, for some, this will be a big downside. If you're a person who likes training "like a bodybuilder," then whole-body training probably won't sit well with you. Neither will focus your training primarily around big barbell lifts in general.
I won't start debating whether training "like a bodybuilder" (I dislike using this term, but we all know what I mean by it) is optimal because that isn't what this point is about. At the end of the day, a big part of training hard enough and long enough to get meaningful results is… actually enjoying what you do.
Sure, if we were NFL players getting paid millions, we'd simply do whatever we were told, but chances are that isn't you (it's certainly not me). So, it's important that your training is at least mildly enjoyable to you; otherwise, in the long term, you won't be consistent or, at minimum, work as hard.
If you enjoy getting a pump, pushing to failure a lot (which is never really appropriate on big compound lifts), and like the feeling of completely exhausting a certain muscle group, then whole-body training will probably be like pulling teeth for you.
This is perfectly fine, no one training system is optimal or suitable for everyone, and that's why so many different training systems exist. A big part of being a good coach is creating good programs that match the athlete's personality and motivations. You won't get very far trying to put square pegs in round holes…
Con 4 – It Can Be Difficult to Accumulate Enough Volume for the Whole Body
This point is more relevant to more advanced physique athletes. Once you reach a certain level of muscular development, the amount of stimulus a muscle group requires to be stimulated to grow can get very high. This makes it very difficult to get enough volume for each individual muscle group without exceeding your capacity to recover.
As an aside, this is why I'm a big fan of specialization training for advanced athletes (but that's a whole other article series…).
This is, in essence, what caused the creation of body-part splits. In addition, once steroids entered the fray and bodybuilders started becoming considerably bigger and stronger, they began to run into issues with the "traditional" approach to training:
- Their strength had drastically increased, which meant so had their training loads; doing high volume on the "big" lifts started to tax their nervous system and soft tissues too much.
- As they became progressively more muscular (due to their newfound enhancements), the volume per muscle group required to grow became higher and higher. As a result, it became almost impossible to achieve through only compound movements.
In essence, it was a loading and volume issue exacerbated by the fact they were still trying to train "only" three days per week in most cases. A body-part split allowed them to accumulate more volume per muscle group and favor a larger proportion of isolation movements to counteract the neurological and soft tissue stress. It meant more training days per week, but they could fit in the required volume to grow.
Now, for beginners or intermediates, you will probably not run into this problem. But for those who have hypertrophy as their primary goal and are advanced or have been training for a long time, you may struggle to get in all the volume you require for each muscle group.
CAN a whole-body split work well for hypertrophy? Absolutely, if you're not already very advanced. But I would lie if I didn't say it worked BETTER for strength and performance.
More arguments could be made in either direction, but these are the most important ones that will resonate with most trainees. No training system is optimal for everyone, and no training system is optimal for one individual at every stage of their training "career."
So as an athlete or coach, the more training systems you understand and have in your toolbox, the better equipped you will be to progress in the long term.
In Part III, I will address the different methods you can use to program or structure a whole-body training cycle. So keep your eyes out for the next one.
Until next time,
- Grgic J, Schoenfeld BJ, Davies TB, Lazinica B, Krieger JW, Pedisic Z. Effect of Resistance Training Frequency on Gains in Muscular Strength: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Sports Med. 2018 May;48(5):1207-1220. doi: 10.1007/s40279-018-0872-x. PMID: 29470825.
- Bagheri R, Rashidlamir A, Motevalli MS, Elliott BT, Mehrabani J,
- Wong A. "Effects of upper-body, lower-body, or combined resistance training on the ratio of follistatin and myostatin in middle-aged men." Eur J Appl Physiol. 2019 Sep; 119(9):1921-1931.
Tom Sheppard is a UK-based strength and powerlifting coach. As a coach, he has worked with professional athletes from a wide variety of sports worldwide, including rugby, baseball, MMA, and high-level powerlifters. Tom is the co-owner of Phoenix Performance and the Head Coach at Thibarmy. He also contributes content for companies such as elitefts and T-Nation. Tom presented at the 2022 SWIS Symposium alongside some of the biggest names in the fitness industry.