There was a study recently published by Brad Schoenfeld that examined the effectiveness of full-body workouts vs. body part splits in “well-trained men.”
The results of this study have actually caused a good amount of noise and have some people extrapolating the date to make all kinds of crazy claims.
So what’s the big deal?
Well, basically, Schoenfeld concluded that full-body workouts performed three days per week produced significantly greater increases in forearm flexor muscle thickness than the body part split routine.
Proponents of full-body workouts are using this as a, “See, I told you full-body workouts were the shit and body part splits are a waste of time.”
Unfortunately, jumping to such hasty conclusions and grabbing a seat on the “split routines suck” bandwagon may not be the best response to this study.
I actually don’t have a lot invested in the body-part split circle – I rarely use what is traditionally considered a body-part split in my training programs.
I’m less interested in preserving the sanctity of split routines and more interested in cautioning others of jumping to hasty conclusions based on studies like this one.
Today, I’ll discuss a few reasons why you shouldn’t abandon all isolation exercises and go all “squats and deads” just yet.
COMPOUND VS. ISOLATION?
So here’s the biggest issue I am seeing in response to Schoenfeld’s study on body-part splits vs. full-body training (and others like it): People are equating “body part split” with isolation exercises and “full body” with compound exercises.
I am seeing a lot of people use this study to promote the superiority of compound movements over isolation exercises when this is NOT the focus of the study.
The study isn’t comparing the effectiveness of isolation exercises vs. compound; it’s comparing frequency (working a muscle once per week via a body-part split vs. working a muscle 3 times per week with a full body routine).
Manipulating the study to forward the agenda of proclaiming the dominance of compound movements so prevalent with many “functional fitness” people is irresponsible and dishonest.
So keep this in mind as you see this study referenced as a means of suggesting this proves that compound movements are superior for building muscle.
One of the biggest reasons this study is gaining so much attention is likely because it is one of few that actually tested subjects that have been working out as opposed to people completely new to working out.
Lots of studies make bold claims about muscle gains, but this is compromised by the fact that they tested people who were relatively new to working out and by now we should all know that almost any stimulus works for people new to working out and that results from studies that focus on “newbies” likely has very little carryover to people that have been working out for some time with any kind of consistency.
So when Schoenfeld’s study came out with “well-trained men” as the subjects, the legitimacy of the study is greatly improved.
The issue, however, is that there is one thing that is still not addressed that likely has significant implications on any study comparing two different workout approaches as we have here with split-routines vs. full-body workouts: what were the participants doing before the study?
One thing I talk about some and have heard from others is that if you have hit a plateau, the best workout routine is “the opposite of whatever you have been doing.” The implication of this statement is that changing the training stimulus in a significant way is likely to produce significant results.
So when we have a study like this that has two groups – one that performed a body-part split routine and one that followed a full body workout – it’s important to ask, “What type of workout were each of these ‘well-trained men’ doing before the study?”
Brad actually noted this as one of the significant limitations of the study, saying that 16 of the 19 participants were following a body-part split routine prior to the study.
Revisiting the ‘novelty’ aspect mentioned above about the effectiveness of significantly changing your workout routine having positive effects on your results—it seems clear that this was at play during this study.
Most of the participants were following a body-part split prior to the study – so any of the guys that changed to a full body routine likely benefited from the “novelty” aspect of significantly changing the training stimulus their muscles were subjected to.
So taking a guy who has been following a split routine and changing him to a full body routine and comparing that to a guy who has been following a split routine and continues on a split routine isn’t going to be optimal for determining the effectiveness of one approach compared to the other.
One of those participants gains the benefit of significantly changing his training stimulus while the other gets very little variation in the stimulus he is already accustomed to.
A FEW THINGS NOT BEING DISCUSSED THAT MAY BE MOST IMPORTANT
Rather than using this study as a means of declaring the unchallengeable superiority of full-body workouts over body-part splits, there are a few things we can take away from this article, and the implications of research in general, that will help produce some clarity to simplify the pursuit of your fitness goals.
First, more than declaring the superiority of one approach (full body vs. body-part split), we should note that changing your approach every so often is likely very beneficial to your results.
So if you’ve been following a body-part split that emphasizes daily volume over frequency (hitting a muscle with a lot of sets and reps ONE day per week as opposed to hitting each muscle more frequently but with less volume per workout), you would likely benefit from switching to an approach that includes more frequency.
If you’ve been following a full-body workout for a while, you may try to switch things up and run a body-part split for a while.
In either case, you will have the “novelty” aspect discussed above on your side – by significantly changing your training stimulus, you will likely see a positive impact on your ability to change body composition.
Second, we need to note that research is limited and it probably isn’t wise (or beneficial for finding the most efficient way to build an awesome body) to rely wholeheartedly on research when making decisions about how to structure your workouts.
Yes, this study provides some interesting insights that absolutely can help us better understand what can produce results in building muscle, but it is by no means the end all, be all of muscle-building instruction – so let’s keep that in mind before using one article as a basis for ALL of our ideas about what is most effective.
Note from Eric: The purpose of this article is in no way to call out Brad for faulty research practices or accuse him of misleading anyone – he simply published the results of a study that he has done. When I talk about “issues in response to the study”, I am not referring negatively towards Brad the researcher, I am referring to the response from people who are using this article to make some faulty – or perhaps uninformed – claims and using Brad’s study as “proof.”