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Full Body Workouts Experiment

By Gary F. Zeolla

In the chapter on exercise in my book God-given Foods Eating Plan, I recommend the following "Beginner's Strength Training Routine."

1. Squat
2. Deadlift
3. Bench Press
4. Overhead Press
5. Bent-over Rows
6. Curls
7. Crunches
8. Reverse Crunches (p.212).

This is a full body workout, meaning all the major muscle groups are being worked in this routine. I recommend that this routine be done three times a week. I also recommend doing two works sets for ten reps each, starting with very light weights for the first workout and gradually increasing the weights in subsequent workouts. Further specifics are provided in my book.

            I then state the following:

The beginner's routine should only be followed for a short period. Exactly how long will depend on various factors, but basically, only stay with the routine until doing squats and deadlifts three times a week is too much. It will probably only take a month or so, but it depends on how hard you are working.

At that point, move to the following split routine. Still lift three times a week, but alternate between the two workouts. So you'll only be doing each workout every 4-5 days. Optional and variant exercises are given in parentheses.

I then present the following intermediate routine:

Day One:

1. Squat
2. (Calves)
3. Bench Press
4. Incline Bench Press
5. Pull-ups (or Lat. Pulldowns)
6. Reverse Curls
7. Crunches
8. Reverse Crunches

Day Two:

1. Deadlift
2. Leg Curls (or Low Back machine)
3. Decline Bench
4. Overhead Press
5. Dumbbell Bent-over Rows (or Cable Pulls)
6. Curls
7. Bicycle Ab Exercise (p.213).

I call this a split routine in my book. But it is only "split" in the sense of splitting up squats and deadlifts and the other exercises. Each of these workouts is still a full body workout. Squats and deadlifts, for instance, both work the entire lower body; although squats put more of an emphasis on the quadriceps and hips while deadlifts (done with a close stance) put an emphasis on the hamstrings and low back.

I then recommend:

Follow the intermediate routine until doing lower body work three times a week is too much. This will vary from a few weeks to several months. When you feel it's time for a change, it probably is.

At that point, it would be best to switch to some kind of "split" routine. A split routine refers to working different body parts each workout. In this way, more recovery time is allowed for each body part. This might sound counter-intuitive, but it actually takes longer for recovery as you progress in strength training (p. 213).

My recommendation here is basic practice at most gyms. It is also the most common practice of powerlifters and bodybuilders. In other words, most people as they progress in strength training find that doing a total body workout three times a week is just too much. The legs especially seem not to recover if one works them three times a week, so most lifters begin to split the body parts up.

A commons split would be: lower body on Mondays and Fridays; upper body on Wednesdays and Saturdays. In this case, each body part is worked twice a week rather than three times a week. This requires working out four times a week rather than just three. Many bodybuilders will even split up the body parts further, some to the point of working each body part just once a week, while working out up to six times a week.

However, Men's Health magazine of late has been pushing full body workouts three times a week even for advanced lifters. And "googling" "full body workouts" one can find many sites and lifters recommending full body workouts.

The Rationale

If the consensus among powerlifters and bodybuilders, along with advanced lifters in general, is for split routines, then what is the rationale behind doing full body workouts even for advanced lifters? Summarizing information from Men's Health and various sites, it is as follows.

First and foremost, the claim is that the reason lifters begin to find working each body part three times a week is too much is because they add sets and exercise for each body part.

For instance, in my beginner's routine above, I list bench presses. These are generally thought of as a chest exercise. But regular flat benches only work the chest from one angle and mainly work the middle pectoral muscles (pecs). To focus on other parts of the pecs, incline benches can be done to work the upper pecs and decline benches to work the lower pecs. Other chest exercises that can be included are: dips, flies, pec deck, cable crossovers, along with doing the various benches with dumbbells. So what happens is the lifter begins to feel they need to include at least a few of these varieties of chest exercises to fully work the pecs.

In addition, additional sets are often added. So a lifter might start out doing two sets for each lift, but then increase to 3, 4, or even 5 sets. And it is said it is because of this increased number of sets and exercises that lifters begin to find they need more than two days for a particular body part to fully recover. So the claim of total body workouts advocates is that if a lifter sticks to just one exercise for each major muscle group and just 2-3 sets, then even the muscles of advanced lifters will be able to recover in 48 hours. As such, split routines are not needed.

To work say the pecs from different angles, rather than doing flat, incline, and decline benches all in the same workout, it is recommended to do just one exercise in a given workout, but to rotate through the different exercises each workout. So one would do flat benches on Mondays, inclines on Wednesday, and declines on Fridays. This variety also aids recovery since the muscles are not being worked exactly the same way each time. It also helps to forestall boredom.

The second rationale is that it really is not possible to split up body parts. Attempts to do so often have the lifter actually working the same body part two days in a row, which all agree is not good for recovery.

For example, benches, as indicated, are generally though to be a chest exercise. However, they also work the shoulders. So to do benches on Monday but then to work the shoulders using say overhead presses on Tuesday would have one working the shoulders two days in a row. And if triceps are then worked on Wednesday, then the triceps would actually have been worked three days in row since benches and presses both also use the triceps.

The third rationale is that by doing a bunch of sets and exercises for the same body part in the same workout, one is not able to provide full exertion for the latter sets and exercise. So if you do flat, incline, and decline benches in that order in the same workout, by the time you get to declines, you'll be burned-out and not able to put much effort into them. So they will not benefit you as much as if you did them on a separate day.

The fourth rationale is that there is a greater "training effect" from doing totally body workouts than from split routines. By working the whole body each workout, the body must work harder, pumping blood to all parts of the body, thus increasing the cardio effects of the workout.

The fifth rationale, which concerns hormones.

I explain in my book:

After a strength training workout, testosterone levels will drop for a period of time, but then rebound. Ideally, when they rebound, they will be higher than before the initial workout. Over time, the average testosterone level should become elevated as a result of strength training. This is especially the case if the workouts are done at an intense level.

Along with intensity, the degree of testosterone production is related to the amount of muscle mass that was worked in the workout. Since total body workouts utilize more muscle mass than working just one body part in a given workout, then there's greater testosterone production after the workout.

Related to this is a problem with split routines that I mention in my book:

However, it takes 48 hours after a heavy strength training workout for testosterone levels to fully recover. So even though on a split routine the specific body parts that are being worked have time to recover, the body as a whole and most importantly hormone levels do not. So working out more than every other day can lead to depressed hormone levels (p.213).

The final rationale is that by doing total body workouts, one is able to work each body part more often. So rather than working the chest just once or twice a week, one is working it three times a week. Over time, more workouts for the chest are done thus leading to greater progress.

My Take and Experiment

I obviously agree with the issues related to hormones since I quoted myself in that regard. And there is no doubt that doing one exercise for two sets is nowhere near as demanding as doing say four different exercises for four sets each.

I would also agree that it aids in recovery and helps to ward off boredom to do different exercises for the same body part in different workouts than to try to include them all in the same workout. And there's no doubt one will tire doing several exercises for the same body part in an workout, leading to less effort being expended on the last exercise. And there is obvious overlap between muscles groups when doing compound exercise like benches and presses, making it hard to truly split up the body parts.

It is for these reasons that in my book I recommend only working out three or four days a week. I specifically state that "5 or 6 days a week is just too much." I then present a three day a week split routine. I also recommend mixing things up by substituting different exercises that work the same muscles groups in different workouts.

However, reading the claims of total body workouts being more effective, I decided to give it a try. I had just entered a contest on September 22, 2007, and I knew I wouldn't enter another contest until at least next year. So that gave me time to experiment.

I took a week off after the contest and started my new routine on Monday, October 1. I basically followed the intermediate routine presented above, except I simplified it some. My plan was to alternative the following two basic workouts:

Day One:
Upper Back (rows or lat. pulldowns).

Day Two:
Bench assistance exercise
Biceps or forearms exercise
Abs exercise

So on Day One I did three exercises and on Day Two, four exercises. But I also included a "speed" exercise and a rotator cuff exercise at the start. I only did two work sets for most exercises, although I did three sets a couple of times. That seemed to be as simple and easy as a workout could get and still be effective.

Initially, I alternated between two different sets of exercises for each day. For example, Day One, I did raw squats the first time and chain squats the second time.

However, very quickly, I felt like it was too much. My legs especially were constantly sore. So I dropped off the speed work and rotator cuff work to shorten the workouts even more. I also eventually dropped off doing stretching after the workouts like I always have done as I was dragging at the end of my workouts.

By Friday of the third week, my legs were really feeling sore. So for squats, instead of doing raw squats, I just did speed squats. This would basically be a "light" workout. Then Monday of the fourth week (October 22), I put in my first workout using powerlifting gear, namely, for deadlifts. And that workout went terrible. Afterwards, my legs were extremely sore, and I felt like I had hurt my hip. I could just tell that I was overtrained, at least in my legs. It was obvious at that point there was no way I could work legs three times a week, even with only doing one exercise for two or three work sets each time. For my full workouts logs for this period, see Full Workout Logs: Starting 10/1/07: Initial Eight Full Body Workouts.

What was kind of strange is that I followed this very type of routine when I first started lifting again, and I was able to follow that routine for over three months before feeling like it was too much. I started the routine on 9/12/02 and stopped it at the end of that year (see Training Routine and Five Phase Cycle). So why did it get to be too much this time after just three weeks?

The answer lies in a quote I include in my book. "It takes longer for a man to recover from a workout handling 405x8 in the bench press than a man handling 150x10"(Parrillo, p.16) When I first started lifting again, I wasn't lifting near as much as I am now. So my workouts are more demanding now.

Moreover, I am five years older now (I'm 46 at this writing), and being in your mid-40s is different from being in your early-40s. And frankly, my health situation is poorer now than it was five years ago. But maybe if I were much younger, like in my 20s, and healthier, I could have handled this type of routine, at least for longer.

So Now What?

My total body workouts three times a week experiment ended in a failure. So now what? I have three options, and these would be the three types of routines I generally recommended.

The first would be to go back to using a four day a week split routine. As indicated above, a basic split routine is lower body on Mondays and Fridays; upper body on Wednesdays and Saturdays. With this routine, each body part is worked twice a week. Or in powerlifting terms, the split would be:

Monday:        Squat
Wednesday:   Bench
Friday:           Deadlift
Saturday:       Bench Assistance

This four day a week routine is very popular among powerlifters as it is very effective. I followed if for some time and made great progress. However, eventually, lifting four days a week seemed to be too much. I had to start skipping a workout at least once a month to keep from getting over-trained.

I also had problems with lifting two days in a row. This probably relates back to the discussion on hormone levels needing 48 hours to recover. Being in my mid-40s, my testosterone levels are not what they used to be. But what this means is for those much younger than me, say in their teens or 20s, then this four day a week routine probably would work out just fine. In fact, when I powerlifted in college, I followed just such a routine for some time.

When the four day a week routine became too much, I switched to the second possible routine, which was simply lifting three times, but still following the same basic split. So what that meant is I was only working each body part every 4-5 days. I present this type of routine in my book, and the workout logs of the last couple of years on my site present this split. See for instance the workouts leading up to my recent contest (Full Workout Logs: Starting 7/2/07: In-Season - Weeks 1-4 of 8).

I've made progress with this routine, but not as good as I would like. My thinking has been that working each body part just 4-5 days is just not quite enough. So that is why I was open to the total body workouts three times a week idea. That didn't work, but a similar option just might and would be the third possible routine. It would be to continue to use the above total body workouts, but to work out just twice a week. Such a routine was recommended in a recent issue of Powerlifting USA magazine and on various Web sites.

This would of course have me working each body part twice a week, just like with the four day split routine. But it will not have me lifting two days in a row. And to keep the workouts sufficiently short, I will still stick to just one exercise per body part, but I might increase to three rather than just two work sets, at least for the powerlifts and other major exercises.

For variety sake and to include all that I want, my plan is to rotate through doing the powerlifts in four different manners: speed work, raw, via a major assistance exercise, and with full gear. But I will stagger the order so that I am not doing each powerlift in the same manner each week. I will also rotate all the minor assistance exercises, using different exercise for each of the four weeks. For further details, see Full Workout Logs: Starting 10/19/07: Full Body Routine One.

I've used similar rotations with my split/ three times a week routine. So this should work. It will provide plenty of variety, and doing each lift in a different way each time aids recovery. The down side is that each "rotation" lasts 28 days, and thus I will only be doing the powerlifts with full gear every four weeks. But I've done them that little before with success (see Full Workout Logs: Starting 9/11/06: Rotation I).

My main concern is if lifting just twice a week will keep me in "lifting shape." But currently I am walking twice a week, and that seems to be working out just fine. And the walking and lifting workouts together will have me working out in some capacity four times a week, so that should be sufficient for general conditioning.


Trying to figure out what training routine works best can be difficult. I'm not sure if this two day a week routine will work out or not. If it doesn't, then I will go back to a three or four day a week split. To follow my progress, see Full Workout Logs: Starting 10/19/07: Full Body Routine One.

I have experimented a lot in my training. And hopefully, my experiences and experiments will help the reader to nail down what workout plan works best for you.

Bibliography: Weightlifting & Exercise: Split Routines vs. Full Body.

Bodybuilding Blog. Archive for the ‘Workout Routines' Category. What Is The Best Full-Body Workout For Muscle Gain?

Bodybuilding Universe. Training for Competitive Powerlifting By Bill Piche, M.S.

Iron Magazine Forums. Designing a Full Body Routine.

Men's Health. Inside the Muscle Laboratorie.

Men's Health. Your Big Muscle Plan. July/ August 2007, p.184.

Parrillo, John. Performance Press. January 2007. "Training 101," pp.14-16.

Powerlifting USA (sorry, but I wasn't able to find the exact issue).

Zeolla, Gary F. God-given Foods Eating Plan. Copyrighted 2007 by Gary F. Zeolla. Lulu Publishing, 2007.

The above article was posted on this site October 24. 2007.
The update was added October 27, 2007.

Powerlifting and Strength Training

Powerlifting and Strength Training: Training Routines and Program Design

Powerlifting and Strength Training: Full Workout Logs

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