I want to begin this article series with a disclaimer. My goal with these articles is NOT to say everyone should use a whole-body approach with their training. Instead, my goal here is to highlight why it is a valid approach for most to utilize (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 fact in one of the variables that matters 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 with the goal of "increasing the size of your toolbox" when it comes to programming.
Every serious lifter should look back in history at how resistance training has developed since its origin because there is so much we can learn from past successes (and failures). Not only that, but sometimes things get lost over time, and looking back enables us to dig these gems back up and re-integrate them into our own philosophies.
Strength training has existed for a lot longer than most give it credit for, but the 50s and 60s give us the most information to learn from. This is because strength training experienced a "boom" in the 50s, and its rising popularity meant that there is considerably more documentation of the methods being used at that time compared to the decades before, as well as more examples of athletes who excelled using those methods.
History Repeats Itself
In the 40s, 50s, and 60s, no actual research was being done into resistance training, so athletes didn't have science to guide them. Likewise, no one was attempting to sell their "6 weeks to a 400-pound Bench Press Program", so we didn't have the ever-expanding universe of misinformation and sales gimmicks that we have to deal with today. In fact, benches, along with squat racks/stands, didn't even exist at this point in time. People had the bare basics in terms of equipment; there wasn't an option to pu**y out of your squats and do leg presses instead…because there weren't any! Lifters worked hard on the basics and learned about what did and didn't work the old-fashioned way….by doing it!
But more importantly, steroids had not entered the picture at this point in time. Steroids didn't make their way into mainstream strength training until the mid-60s, and even then, the dosages were EXTREMELY low. Taking 10mg of Dianabol three times per week was considered pushing the boat out. This means that the methods that worked during these times GENUINELY worked, some of which worked VERY well. These methods were unsuccessful due to any form of external enhancement or assistance; they worked because they are physiologically sound methods.
I don't want to bore you all to death with a history lesson here but to illustrate how much success some individuals had concerning training at this time, here are some examples.
Bob Peoples – 725-pound deadlift in 1947 at a body weight of 175 pounds. Bob specialized in deadlifting primarily after successfully competing as a weightlifter for several years at the National level.
Herman Gorner – 840-pound deadlift, 730-pound ONE-HANDED DEADLIFT, and 390-pound clean and press at around 260 pounds in the 1920s.
George Hackenschmidt – set the world record in the overhead press at 243 pounds in 1897 and went on to press 268 pounds overhead with one arm a few years later at a body weight of around 220 pounds. He is also attributed with the invention of the floor press, the bench press, and the hack squat – so we have much to thank this guy for.
That's without mentioning the likes of Doug Hepburn, Paul Anderson, John Grimek, Steve Stanko, etc.
It was also common for individuals at this time to excel and compete in more than one discipline. For example, John Grimek and Steve Stanko both won Mr. Universe while being part of the U.S. National/Olympic Weightlifting Team.
What Made Them Special?
The point I'm trying to make here is that despite a lack of equipment, what would most likely be considered a poor diet, and no readily available research/information on training, people still managed to get brutally strong. Yet the best part is that pretty much all of these people also worked harsh manual labor jobs for long hours (makes you re-think what we're capable of, right?)
So, what were these people doing so well that got these results? Were they just made of "tougher stuff" and worked harder than us? Are we just a bunch of lazy Gen-Z crybabies by comparison? Possibly. When your normal day is 12-14 hours in a coal mine or cotton mill, a 2-hour barbell workout probably seems like a walk in the park by comparison. I don't doubt this probably does play at least a small part here.
But there are two main things that lifters did at this time which, to me, are essential and should give us some food for thought:
First, They Saw Training as PRACTICE
During the early years of strength training, many of the best lifters were circus strongmen who had to perform their lifts in front of large crowds. They would have to walk out on stage, often with little to no warm-up, and perform their lift on a single attempt. There wasn't an option for failure here. Otherwise, the show was ruined; these performers had to be able to lift near-maximal weights with complete perfection.
As a result, they NEVER missed lifts in training, and the training sessions were seen as a way of honing and perfecting their craft. Yes, the goal was to get progressively stronger over time. Still, they used longer-term progression systems and emphasized technical mastery and consistent (albeit slow) improvements or increases over time.
You wouldn't find any of these lifters getting revved up, slapping themselves in the face, and attempting a horrible grindy max single. That was seen as pointless, and performing an ugly rep would never "WOW" the audience. To seriously impress them, you have to make it look easy.
They took pride in the technical prowess of their lifting. This is something that bled out into the rest of the strength training world around this time and is also something we could all learn a lot from.
They Trained Their Whole Body as a Unit
Now there were, of course, some exceptions here, but the VAST majority of lifters at this time would train their whole body (to at least some degree) in every session, even those competing in bodybuilding shows like Mr. Universe.
Due to the nature of equipment available at this time, the vast majority of lifts were whole-body. Remember, there were no squat racks at this time, so if you wanted to do an overhead press session, what did you need to do with the bar….get it from the floor to your shoulders! So, your "shoulder press workout" would have been a clean and press workout.
The two things most people were interested in were: how much they could lift over their heads (in various ways) and how much they could lift from the floor (in various ways).
The other thing we need to consider is that, at this point, many gyms still had separate days for women and men to work out. Generally, men could train Monday/Wednesday/Friday, and women could train Tuesday/Thursday/Saturday. So, by default, most of the training population trained three days per week.
RECENT: Gold Medal Deadlift Training
At this time, the most popular training routine was the Milo training course:
They would start with five reps per set on each movement in their first workout (starting light/conservative).
They then added one rep per workout until they did ten reps per set.
They then added a small amount of weight, dropped back down to 5 reps, and repeated the process.
They would use this scheme for a few lifts per workout and perform three whole-body workouts weekly.
Simple but effective (at least for beginners).
So there was no option to do the vast majority of training splits we see today. And you certainly couldn't have done a 5/6 day per week "bro" split with a whole day devoted to arms!! When these lifters had the chance to train, they made the most of it and trained EVERYTHING.
But they made it work, and, in many instances, it worked VERY well. Furthermore, many of the physiques and strength standards achieved at this time (remember when steroids were non-existent or, as a minimum, incredibly rare or lowly dosed) would still be very impressive by today's standards. So, something somewhere must have been working...
The Modern Take on Whole-Body Training
For the sake of transparency, I will say upfront that I have many of my lifters and athletes trained using a whole-body approach (so perhaps I'm a little biased). These include a range of athletes, from pretty high-level strength sports athletes to athletes from a wide variety of sports. Now, I acknowledge that when dealing with strength athletes at the elite level, the rules do change about how you can utilize whole-body training (mainly adjusting frequency and loading) due to the loading being used. But it is still very much possible to do it. In fact, of the few who didn't tolerate it well, they acknowledged that it was more of a GPP/fitness issue than a loading issue.
When I put forward whole-body training to people now, the most common responses I get are:
Isn't that only for beginners?
There's no way I can recover from that!
That's only good for strength/I won't be able to train everything efficiently.
So, I'll address each of these concerns separately.
Misconception #1 - Whole-Body Training is Just for Beginners
Yes, whole-body training is a very good starting point for beginners. Why? Because beginners are primarily limited by skill/motor control and benefit from practicing the main movement patterns more regularly, as it will speed up the learning process. Not only this, but beginners have a high trainability (low training input required for improvement) along with a low recovery ability, so training the "more bang for buck" exercises gives them the best returns as they can achieve the desired stimulus with pretty low volume; they won't have the recovery capacity to train each individual muscle group individually to the desired level.
But just because it is suitable for beginners doesn't mean it's ONLY good for beginners. In fact, a high proportion of the world's most highly performing athletes will be training using a whole-body approach. For example, you have Olympic weightlifters who train the whole body every session due to the nature of their competitive lifts. I mean, plenty of weightlifters snatch/clean/squat in some capacity 5+ days per week. Likewise, most NFL, rugby, and ice hockey players (and athletes from just about every other sport) will be using a whole-body approach to some degree. It's hard to argue with the results we see with some of these athletes! In addition, athletes training for power-dominant Olympic sports such as bobsleigh, shot-put, and so on will often use training methods centered around a whole-body approach.
So if whole-body training is good enough for these guys, then it's probably good enough for most of us!
Misconception #2a – It's Too Much to Recover From
As with most misconceptions, there is an element of truth here; by performing a whole-body session, you will be swapping between movement patterns, which is more demanding from a nervous system/motor control standpoint. That is, if you compare it to doing a workout solely based on one movement pattern (e.g., squatting). The greater range of motor patterns you perform in a session, the "harder" your motor cortex and nervous system have to work to swap between them; just think about how a lift can feel rusty for the first few sets and then start to feel better as your nervous system begins to coordinate that pattern better. With a whole-body session, you must go through that process multiple times.
So while this could be seen as a valid argument, I wouldn't say I like it for many reasons. Firstly, the number of exercises/movement patterns in a session contribute to neurological fatigue. Still, it contributes much less than variables such as volume and intensity, which should be programmed according to your training approach.
Also, suppose all the athletes I mentioned previously can handle and recover from whole-body training (especially those who are utilizing it on top of sport-specific practices and competitive games). In that case, there's no way you can convince me that the system is too demanding from a recovery aspect. As always, it comes down to programming it correctly for the individual. Any system can be impossible to recover from if you don't program it appropriately to the level of the athlete.
Misconception #2b - Don't Do Too Much Too Soon
Secondly, this argument is usually made by people who had very little to no experience with training using a whole-body approach and who just jumped into squatting/benching/deadlifts three days per week (usually at the same intensities they were previously) and felt beat up within a week. Well, no shit.
If I'd never jogged a day in my life and then jumped head first into a marathon training program, guess what the outcome would be? Yes, this is an extreme example, but you understand my point.
You can't simply go from squatting once per week for years to squatting three times per week without altering intensity/volume and so on. That's just stupid.
You need to jump in at the level that is appropriate for you. But ask yourself this: If you want to have a big squat/bench press/deadlift, why would you NOT want to be able to perform those lifts more regularly than once per week? I'm not saying you need to train that way all year round, but wouldn't having the ability to squat at least twice (or maybe three times) per week if you wanted to focus on your squat for a while be beneficial?
It's simply about laying out a progression system to get there. Elite Olympic lifters can snatch, clean and jerk, and squat every day because they've probably been performing them since they were nine. Even though the Olympic lifts are very technical, they are so second nature to these athletes that they can perform them with their eyes shut. Imagine getting to a similar level with your squat, bench, or deadlift. But again, they have spent YEARS building up to tolerate this level of workload, and they are programmed to have a lot of sessions that are purely technical (often in the 60-70% range).
Misconception #3 – It's Not Optimal for Hypertrophy or Leaves Some Muscles Under-Stimulated
On the face of it, this is a valid argument. However, some muscle groups are very difficult to stimulate via the big compound movements (e.g., lateral delts). However, which muscle groups are left under-stimulated by your big basic lifts is more often dependent on body proportions and exercise selection.
But this assumes that using a whole-body approach leaves NO room for isolation work, which is not the case. A whole-body approach means that we stimulate the whole body (to some degree) in every session. So yes, the bulk of the session comprises compound movements because that is the most efficient way to achieve this. But that doesn't mean we cannot include some targeted work for lagging or weak muscle groups.
I will talk about setting up a whole-body approach in a later article. Still, I will perform isolation exercises targeting weak or lagging muscle groups at the end of the whole-body sessions. On top of this, you can also add an extra workout at the end of the week, where you do isolation work for muscle groups that require extra attention.
In fact, this is one of the reasons I like people to try a whole-body approach. It makes you more selective about what isolation and assistance work you choose!
Many people perform a large variety of exercises to "cover their bases" with regard to isolation work because they're too lazy to identify their weak points. In reality (in most scenarios), isolation work should be used to target weak points/lagging muscles (obviously, this is different if we're talking about competitive bodybuilders and the like). There's no point expending energy on isolation work for a muscle group already dominant/over-developed, after all.
To that same end, most people and coaches should aim to progress and improve using AS FEW exercises as possible. Some will argue that whole-body training doesn't allow enough movement variation to allow optimal progress. First, how often you vary exercises is entirely separate from the training split you use. But more importantly, a good coach should be able to target and strengthen your weak points with very few exercises. In a general whole-body program, my lifters will perform nine main movements per week (usually three squat variations, three press variations, and three pull/hinge variations); if that isn't enough variation for you to progress, then you need to improve your exercise selection.
More Volume + More Frequency = Better Results
Back to hypertrophy, there is also some evidence that training using a whole-body approach improves your follistatin-to-myostatin ratio more than other training splits (such as Bagheri et al., 2019). Now I'm not going to go into a nerdy science lesson here, but basically, follistatin promotes muscle growth, and myostatin inhibits it. So if whole-body training increases follistatin and reduces myostatin relatively more than other training splits, then, in theory, it could increase muscular growth (for an extreme version of this, lookup Belgian blue cows).
Recent studies now illustrate that training frequency for muscle growth isn't important so long as the volume is standardized (Schoenfeld, Grgic, and Krieger, 2018), which used to be a strong argument in favor of whole-body training (arguing more frequency stimulation would mean more hypertrophy). BUT in my opinion, whole-body training still has some potential benefit here.
When you do a 1.5-2 hour leg workout, you obviously become fatigued both on a global and a local level. So when we do all of our leg volume in one session, a greater proportion of that volume will be done in a greater level of fatigue (both global and local). However, if we split that same amount of volume across three workouts, we perform a higher proportion of that work in a fresher state, at least from a local fatigue standpoint. Could this mean that a higher proportion of that work is performed at a higher quality and/or effort level? I can't give you any studies here, but I believe this could be a benefit, even if it is small. I mean, if you are going to do the same amount of volume and splitting it up across the week makes it more effective, then why not? Food for thought there.
So, that's article one over. If you made it this far, have a cookie because most people nowadays (fuck I sound old) can't concentrate long enough to get through half of that article! Keep an eye out for the next article in the whole-body training series next month.
1. Bagheri, R., Rashidlamir, A., Motevalli, M.S. et al. Effects of upper-body, lower-body, or combined resistance training on the ratio of follistatin and myostatin in middle-aged men.
2. Schoenfeld, B., Grgic, J. and Krieger, J. How many times per week should a muscle be trained to maximize muscle hypertrophy? A systematic review and meta-analysis of studies examining the effects of resistance training frequency. Journal of Sports Science, V37, Issue 11. 2019.
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.