If you're unsure about whether or not you should do workout splits — dividing your routine into "leg days" and "arm days," for instance — or whether you should stick to full-body sessions, you're not alone. It can be confusing and, of course, it depends on a number of factors. When it comes to how you schedule your gym or home exercise time, personal trainer Katie Crewe, CSCS, says that doing what's realistic and sustainable is what's most important. And don't forget, it should be fun. For people who work out three days per week, full-body sessions are best since, that way, you'll be able to hit muscle groups multiple times, she said. It's more efficient.
Let us explain. The total volume that you do a week counts more than the number of days you work out, Katie said, because it's all about challenging yourself. If you're looking to grow muscle, she suggests counting the sets that you do on a body part per week to keep track of your progress, and she identified that a general rule for growth is to aim for 10 to 20 sets per muscle group per week. Then, you split that up throughout the week so you're hitting each muscle group at least two times. Three full-body days weekly will therefore let you target all the muscles you need to with the workouts you can get in.
As for what you do, "my suggestion is always to use the least amount of volume that you need to progress so that you can continue to add more, whether that's more sets, more reps, or more weight," Katie said. The goal is progressive overload — meaning gradually increasing the load on your body, which forces the body to adapt and build strength. So, Katie said, "You don't need to do a ton of lightweight squats. Your time will be better spent doing fewer sets of heavier ones."
Here's an Example of What 1 Day of a 3-Day Full-Body Workout Schedule Could Look Like
For full-body sessions, Katie said to focus on movement patterns. She gave an example of what that might look like, minus the reps and sets.
- Vertical push: Ex. Overhead press
- Horizontal push: Ex. Push-up
- Vertical pull: Ex. Chin-up
- Horizontal pull: Ex. Inverted row
- Squat pattern: Ex. Squat
- Hinge pattern: Ex. Romanian deadlift
- Lunge pattern: Ex. Bulgarian split squat
Core and a Note About Cardio
Add moves such as plank variations, Pallof presses, and deadbugs to the workout. Loaded carries, like a suitcase carry, are other exercises that Katie said are efficient "functional" movements to include. Katie's preference is doing core at the end of her workout — though activating these muscles before you train helps with stability — because you shouldn't "fatigue" your core prior to doing compound exercises that require core stability like squats and deadlifts, she explained.
Katie said it's good to do cardio separately from weight sessions, especially if you plan on running — which is taxing on your legs — after a lower-body strength training workout. "You can do a light cardio warmup to prep your body for lifting, but I wouldn't suggest doing something very taxing if you have lifting goals because your performance will suffer if you're fatigued," she noted.
What If You Work Out More Than 3 Days Per Week?
The more days per week that you work out, the easier it is to split up muscle groups by days, Katie said. "Because you need to manage your volume and recover properly, you do less work on each day the more frequently that you go, and you're able to split up the body parts more." The bottom line is that it's up to you and what works for your schedule.
Plus, you can tweak your workouts based on what you prefer to train. She still suggests hitting all of the muscle groups so that you're "well-rounded and strong." And don't forget recovery. Katie said that resting 48 to 72 hours between working a particularly sore muscle group is a "good general rule" to help those muscles repair. Change your routine up accordingly.