In this article I want to open your eyes to a method of ‘bodybuilding’ that is completely misunderstood and underutilised: Whole Body Training.
The ‘Body Part Split’
The typical bodybuilder will follow a ‘body part split’ that looks something like this:
Monday: Chest and Triceps
Tuesday: Back and Biceps
Friday: Shoulders and more arms
Most of these workouts will consist of one or two ‘compound’ exercises, like the bench press, for 3 sets of 10 followed by a load of machine work and isolation work such as machine fly’s, tricep push downs and curls.
It Should Be Obvious
If this is what your current training program looks like then take a moment and be brutally honest with yourself. Has it got you where you want to be? For a beginner/intermediate lifter, a decent diet and training program should produce dramatic changes in size and strength, without the use of drugs, in 8-12 weeks. If you’re looking in the mirror and feel ‘pretty sure’ something has happened in the last 3-6 months you are doing something wrong. It should be obvious.
Show and Go
When I talk about body building I mean creating a body that is both show and go. One that is bigger, leaner and more defined than it was, as well as stronger and more powerful. The method I use to do this is not the same as the one you will have read about your favorite body builder doing. You are not your favorite bodybuilder so that shouldn’t matter, but I will try to explain the difference in a bit more detail in case it does.
Volume vs Intensity
One of the biggest obstacles most people face when trying to increase strength and size is the massivevolume of training load required to stimulate extreme muscle growth.
In training terms volume is measured by the total amount of weight lifted by a person. It’s calculated by adding together the weight lifted in each rep of each exercise. 3 sets of 10 reps with a 60 kilos means a total volume load of 1800kg (3x10x60=1800) for that exercise.
The flip side to training Volume is training Intensity. Intensity is measured as a percentage of your maximum capability. A Powerlifter bench pressing his 1 rep max of 200kg is working at a very high level of Intensity but with a very low training Volume (200x1x1=200kg).
To build muscle size volume is generally more important than intensity but on the flip side, the amount of weight you can lift is key to a high training volume: 3 sets of 10 reps with 50kg will give you half the training volume of 3 sets of 10 with 100kg!
If You’re Using 60kg it’s not Going to Have the Same Effect
When an elite body builder puts ‘incline bench: 3 sets of 10 reps’ into their program it is not unusual for them to be doing it with 140+ kilos. 140kg x 10 x 3 is a total training volume of 4200kg, not including warm up sets…in one exercise, and that’s just the start of their session! It’s no wonder they need to rest a full week before hitting a chest again. Trust me, if you’re using 60kg it’s not going to have the same effect. This is also the reason you will see lots of Isolation work in their programs. If they were to try to work their triceps using only big compound movements such as close grip bench and dips, the amount of weight they would have to use to trigger a response would be ridiculous and extremely difficult to recover from. As I said high level bodybuilders are strong, conditioned to cope with ‘volume’, and their programs reflect that.
The traditional body part split is a way for high level body builders to tweak, shape and add to the vast amounts of muscle they have, while giving them the chance to recover and grow. Even the weakest elite body builder is stronger than many would give them credit for. Their workouts are long, heavy and brutal. They are (usually) drug assisted and have the time and resources to do nothing in between training but eat and sleep. Literally.
So we’ve established that volume is key to growth, and that it’s likely you can’t inflict enough of it on yourself just yet to get the most out of training like a pro. So what do you do? The way I see it you’ve got two options.
1) Become a Powerlifter: Many of the best body builders in the world started off as Powerlifters. The list includes, Ronnie Coleman and the greatest of all time (in my opinion) Arnold Swarzenegger (who was an advocate of whole body training ‘splits’ for bodybuilding himself). You could dedicate a year or two to getting as strong as possible then switch over to bodybuilding once you have the strength to rep big enough weights to trigger decent growth.
2) Give ‘whole body training’ a try!
Acute Accumulated Fatigue
The concept of training volume being key to muscle growth is central to the success of whole body training. To illustrate the problem with most body building programs imagine the beginner bodybuilder has planned the following session for his Monday workout.
1) Flat bench press 3×10
2) Decline bench press 3×10
3) Incline dumbbell press 3×15
4) Machine Chest press 3×15
5) Cable cross over 3×15
Looks great doesn’t it! 15 sets of chest exercises, 195 reps that’s loads of volume! What this fails to take into account is the impact that ‘acute accumulated fatigue’ will have on this session. Remember that total volume is weight x reps. The beginner/intermediate body builder will not have the strength levels to move particularly heavy weights, even at the start of his or her session. As he progresses through the workout each exercise will suffer the effects of accumulated fatigue. The muscles of the chest, shoulders and triceps will be tired after the flat bench, limiting the amount of weight you can use on the decline. The effect will be even greater as you move on to the dumbbell press and when you finally reach the cable crossover your chest is so fatigued that the weight on the cables is negligible. You might pump some blood into the muscles, but the chances are the ‘bodybuilding’ effects will be small.
The Whole Body Training Program
Whole body training is a way to increase training volume by reducing the impact of acute accumulated fatigue. This is achieved by spreading each individual body part’s workload over multiple separate workouts throughout the week.
Instead of looking like this:
1) Flat bench press 3×10
2) Decline bench press 3×10
3) Machine chest press 3×15
4) Dumbbell fly 3×15
5) Cable cross over 3×15
6) Triceps push downs
1) Deadlift 3×10
2) Lat pull down 3×10
3) Bent over row 3×10
4) Dumbbell row 3×10
5) Dumbbell pull over 3×10
6) EZ bar curls
1) Squat 3×10
2) Stiff leg deadlift 3×10
3) Hack squat 3×10
4) Leg extension 3×10
5) Leg curl 3×10
Friday: Arms and shoulders
1) Ez bar curls
2) Hammer curls
3) Lat raises
4) Front raises
5) Kick backs
The whole body training week looks something like this:
1) Back squats 5×5
2) Flat bench 5×6
3) Incline bench 5×8
4) Pull ups 3x as many as possible
5) Seated cable row 3×10
6) Split squats 3×10
1) Deadlift 5×5
2) Incline dumbbell press 5×6-8
3) Dips 5×10
4) Lat pull down 3×10
5) Bent over row 3×6
6) Stiff leg deadlift 5×10
1) Front squats 3×6
2) Military press 5×10
3) Flat dumbbell press 3×10
4) Chest supported rows 3×10
5) T-bar rows 3×10
6) Leg press 3×10
1) Hack squat 5×8
2) Seated shoulder press 5×6
3) Floor press 3×8
4) Hand over hand rope pull 5x20m
5) Hammer row machine 3×8
6) Kettle bell swing 3×10
It might not look like you are doing enough work on each body part in each session to build muscle, but if you look at the week as a whole you will have done 8 different exercises each for your chest, back and legs. If you combined those into a single ‘chest’, ‘back’ or ‘leg’ session it would be brutal. Because you’ve spread those exercises out over the week you will be able to use more total weight on each exercise as you are able to avoid acute accumulated fatigue in each muscle group over the course a workout. There is also the added benefit of increased calorific expenditure when hitting every muscle in the body multiple times a week. This will help to reduce body fat levels, the enemy of the true body builder.
Things to Notice About the Program
1) There are often a higher number of sets and a lower number of reps than you might see in a traditional bodybuilding program. Doing sets of 5 reps will allow you use more weight than you could for a set of 10. This will build greater strength lead to a greater overall training volume
2) There are no ‘isolation’ exercises included. I know that many people believe that you can’t build a muscle without isolating it but this is simply not true. In the introduction I covered some of the reasons they feature so heavily in bodybuilders programs. The chances are these reasons don’t apply to you. If you choose front squats over leg extensions you are working your quads and your glutes and your hamstrings at the same time (as well as your abs, upper and lower back!), increasing the total volume of work carried out by all of these muscles over the course of a week. If you need reassurance that you don’t need leg extensions and other isolation work in your program to build muscle have a look at Olympic weightlifting champion Dmitry Klokov. He doesn’t isolate.
Doing it Yourself
If you choose to give ‘whole body training’ a try feel free to use which ever exercises you like to fill each session. The ones I have listed are simply suggestions based on what I would do. If you do decide to use alternate exercises bear in mind the guidelines about compound vs isolation exercises. That being said, if you want to chuck in a few curls on a Friday before heading out for the night it’s not going to hurt! Try to add weight to every exercise, every week. You won’t always be able to but the more you can the more volume you will accrue and the bigger and stronger you will become.
It is important to remember that while whole body training allows you to lessen the effects of acute accumulated fatigue, the overall impact of training each body part multiple times a week does start to add up. I would not recommend following a program such as this for more than 12 weeks before taking a break. This type of training is tough. I’ve written a 4 day per week breakdown here but 3 works well too.
The last thing to say is that I am well aware that this is not the only way to build muscle. I am also aware that when I refer to ‘traditional bodybuilding programs’ I am in danger of over simplifying a varied and complex area of weight training. The reason that I have chosen to write this article is that I have seen too many eager, motivated people pouring heart and soul into training programs which don’t address their needs or get them the results they are after. If you are following a program which focuses on body part splits and isolation exercise and it’s working for you then great, carry on. But if you’ve been frustrated by a lack of progress despite doing exactly what the ‘expert’ bodybuilders say you should do then give this a try. I can honestly say that when I trained in the manner described in this article I packed on more muscle than I have training any other way and that it has also worked for clients of mine where other methods have failed.
How to #BeMoreAwesome
If you would like some help trying out Whole Body Training feel free to drop into the gym and ask for Will!