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The Definitive Guide to Full-Body Workouts

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If you want to know the pros and cons of full-body workouts and how to get the most out of them, then you want to read this article.

Key Takeaways

  1. Full-body workouts train every major muscle group in your body.
  2. They work best for beginners and people who have minimal time for working out.
  3. Most intermediate and advanced lifters do better with different types of workout routines.

Choosing a workout routine can be a daunting task.

You have to decide how many days to train, which muscle groups to work on which days, which exercises to do, how many sets and reps to perform, how to program in progressive overload, and on and on.

It’s no wonder that so many people find weightlifting overwhelming and confusing, and why they often choose the simplest option: full-body workouts.

Most entail just a handful of exercises, don’t take too much time, and hit every major muscle group in the body, and popular strength training programs like Starting Strength, StrongLifts 5×5, and The Texas Method have conclusively proven that they produce results.

Seems like a 360-degree win, right?

Not necessarily.

The long story short is you can build a great physique using full-body workouts, but you’re probably going to get faster and better results with a different approach.

This is especially true if you’ve already been lifting weights for a bit, and in this article, you’re going to learn why.

By the end, you’re going to know what full-body workouts are, who they do and don’t work well for, and how to get the most out a full-body workout routine if you choose to follow one.

Let’s start at the top.

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What Is a Full-Body Workout?

A full-body workout is one that trains all the major muscle groups in your body in one workout.

Instead of organizing workouts by major muscle group, e.g. “upper body,” “push,” or “chest and triceps,” you train everything in every workout.

To accomplish this, most full-body workouts are built around a handful of compound exercises, like the squat, bench press, deadlift, and military press, and that’s part of why they’re so popular–they “Keep it Simple, Stupid.”

Two other reasons is they don’t place great demands on your time and are dead simple to program and follow. Most entail just three 60ish-minute workouts per week on a Mon-Weds-Fri schedule, and some repeat the same workout every session while others have you alternate between two or three different workouts.

The Problem With Full-Body Workouts

So far, full-body workouts are looking pretty appealing, and rightfully so. They’re simple to understand and do, and they work.

They’re not the end-all for everyone, though, for two reasons:

  1. They don’t lend themselves well to heavy compound weightlifting.
  2. They don’t allow for much flexibility in volume and frequency by muscle group.

If you’re familiar with my work, you know where I stand on exercise choice and rep ranges.

Specifically, I believe that natural weightlifters looking to gain muscle and strength as quickly as possible should focus on heavy (80%+ of 1RM) compound weightlifting in their training.

I spun my wheels for years before learning this lesson and haven’t looked back since discovering its importance, and it’s one of the key principles I come back to again and again in my writings.

If we’re to apply this philosophy to full-body workouts, then we’ll have to perform heavy squats, deadlifts, and presses back-to-back in each workout. And while that may sound reasonable on paper, give it a try and you’ll quickly realize that you’ve created the hardest workouts imaginable, and not in the good way but in a “this shit is seriously going to kill me” kind of way.

The bottom line is when you try to string together a lot of heavy compound weightlifting in one workout, you lose steam quickly and the quality of your workout gets worse and worse with every set.

For example, if you started your full-body workout with heavy deadlifts and then moved on to heavy bench pressing, you’d likely find that you can’t press as much weight as you could if you started the workout on the bench. If you did that the next workout, however, you’d likely find that you couldn’t pull as much on the deadlift in the #2 slot than in the first workout.

Those are just the first two exercises of your workouts, too. The performance drop-off becomes more and more pronounced as you move on to subsequent lifts, with each suffering more than the last.

The same is true of any workout, of course, but the later stuff in other workout splits is usually less-taxing isolation exercises (“assistance work”), not major compound movements for other primary muscle groups.

This progressive fatigue caused by full-body workouts is problematic because it hinders your ability to maximally overload your major muscle groups (which blunts muscle growth potential), and makes for grueling workouts that you dread–workouts that you’re likely to give less than 100% to, look for reasons to skip, or abandon altogether.

Now, you might be thinking that you could get around this limitation by reducing the amount of heavy compound reps that you do in each workout and using lighter loads for the rest.

This works to a point (and, quite frankly, is necessary if you’re going to do full-body workouts), but in the end produces inferior results to other workout splits that allow for more flexibility and specificity in terms of frequency (how often you train a given muscle group), intensity (how heavy the weights are), and volume (how many reps you do).

And that brings me to point number two from above.

The only way you can push, pull, and squat heavy weights several times per week is by keeping volume relatively low, which isn’t isn’t optimal for maximizing muscle growth.

Unfortunately, us natural weightlifters can’t have the best of everything–we can’t program for high intensity, volume, and frequency without eventually overtraining or getting hurt.

A well-designed workout program not only emphasizes heavy, compound weightlifting for each major muscle group; it puts you in a “sweet spot” in terms of total weekly volume as well.

How you reach that volume in terms of number of workouts–one, two, three, etc.–is of secondary importance.

What is that sweet spot, though?

Well, there aren’t any studies that give a definitive, one-size-fits-all answer as to how hard and how much you can train to maximize your results, and there many never be.

Optimal volume is modified by intensity, as you know, but there are many other factors that come into play as well including diet, training experience, sleep hygiene, genetics, and more.

That said, there is enough clinical and anecdotal evidence available to derive some sensible guidelines.

Let’s first look at a large and extensive review of weightlifting studies conducted by scientists at Goteborg University.

Their research found that, when using weights in the 60 to 85% of 1RM range, optimal volume appears to be in the range of 30 to 60 reps per major muscle group per workout when 2 to 3 workouts were performed each week.

Thus, a total weekly volume of somewhere between 60 and 180 reps per major muscle group.

As you can guess, the heavier the training, the fewer reps you can and should do every week.

If you were training exclusively in the 80 to 85% of 1RM range, like you do on my Bigger Leaner Stronger program for men, you’d want to be around 60 to 80 total reps per major muscle group per week.

If you were doing a low-weight, high-volume type of program, however, you’d want your weekly volume for each major muscle group to be closer to 180 reps.

And if you were doing something in between, like with my Thinner Leaner Stronger program for women, your total weekly reps would be somewhere in between as well.

These findings also agree with another large review conducted by researchers at Arizona State University.

When lighter weights are used, more sets per week is optimal. As the weights get heavier, however, total sets must come down.

Now, if we try to apply those guidelines to full-body workouts, the problem becomes clear: achieving an optimal workout volume for each major muscle group would mean 3+ hour workouts, and achieving optimal frequency would mean working out just once or twice per week.

All this is why full-body workouts just aren’t for everyone, and work best for people new to weightlifting whose bodies are hyper-responsive to training, and intermediate or advanced weightlifters who have very limited time for training and want to at least maintain their muscle and strength.

If you’re not one of those people–if your newbie gains are long gone and you have at least a few hours to spend in the gym every week–then you’ll do much better with a different workout split.

If you are, though, then keep reading, because you’re about to learn how to get the most out of your full-body workouts.

The Best Exercises for Full-Body Workouts

As you know, one of the advantages of full-body workouts is they revolve around a handful of exercises, which not only makes them simple to understand and do, but allows you to quickly improve your ability to perform each (which aids in progression).

Specifically, here are the primary exercises that I recommend you focus on in your full-body workouts:

  1. Barbell Back Squat
  2. Barbell Deadlift
  3. Flat Barbell Bench Press
  4. Military Press
  5. Barbell Lunge
  6. Barbell Row
  7. Chin-Up
  8. Lat Pulldown

If you just work at getting as strong as possible in those exercises, you’ll be very happy with the results.

Let’s take a look at each.

1. Barbell Back Squat

The barbell back squat is the single most effective leg exercise you can do for gaining size and strength.

Its benefits extend beyond that, too, because it’s really a whole-body exercise that engages every major muscle group but your chest.

You want to make sure you do it correctly, though. Bad form not only reduces the effectiveness of the exercise, it also increases the risk of injury.

2. Barbell Deadlift

The deadlift is at the core of any great weightlifting program. My back sucked in both strength and size until I started really working on my deadlift and I’ve never looked back.

Many people are afraid of it, though, because they think it’s inherently bad for your lower back or dangerous.

At first glance, this fear would seem to make sense: putting all that pressure on your back, and particularly your low-back and erector spinae muscles, has to be a recipe for thoracic and lumbar disaster, right?

Well, research shows otherwise.

In fact, when performed with good form, the deadlift is actually a fantastic way to build lower back strength and prevent injury.

That said, if you have sustained a lower back injury in the past or have a disease or dysfunction affecting the area, you may not want to deadlift. Unfortunately, I have to recommend that you consult with a sports doctor to see if it will or won’t work for you.

3. Flat Barbell Bench Press

There’s a reason why every well-designed weightlifting program focuses on the bench press for upper body development:

It’s one of the best all-around upper body exercises you can do, training the pecs, lats, shoulders, triceps, and even the legs to a slight degree.

That said, although it looks simple enough, the bench press is a fairly technical movement, which is why learning proper form is crucial.

4. Standing or Seated Military Press

The military press is one of the most effective exercises for building your shoulders and increasing overall upper body strength.

Like the bench press, it’s also tricky to master. Start with a weight that’s lighter than you think you should, and gradually adding weight as your form improves.

Now, there are two variations of the military press–standing and seated.

Here’s what the standing version looks like:

And here’s the seated version:

Give them a try and you’ll quickly learn that the standing military press (also known as the overhead press) is significantly harder than the seated. And harder usually means better.

The standing military press also causes slightly more shoulder muscle activation than the seated military press.

That said, there are two significant drawbacks to the standing military press:

  1. You have to use lighter weights.
  2. You have to be more careful when you’re trying to move more heavy weights.

You see, the standing press places a lot more stress on the lower back and core than the seated press, which means you won’t be able to lift as much weight and and you’ll be at a higher risk of injury if your form is sloppy.

This makes the standing military press a better whole-body exercise but if you’re trying to maximally overload your shoulders, the seated military press allows you to “target” your shoulders with heavier weights.

My personal preference is the seated military press (barbell and dumbbell) because I feel that my heavy deadlifting and squatting is more than enough for my core and back. Every few months, though, I like to alternate between standing (barbell) and seated (dumbbell and barbell) military pressing.

5. Barbell Lunge

Although the lunge is generally thought of as a quadriceps exercise, research shows it relies more on the hamstring and glutes.

Nevertheless, it’s a worthwhile inclusion in your leg workouts. I like to include at least some single-leg work in my routine to avoid muscle imbalances.

6. Barbell Row

Like the deadlift, the barbell row is a staple in many weightlifting programs because it works everything in the back from top to bottom.

Now, my favorite style of barbell row is known as a Pendlay row, which is named after the strength coach Glenn Pendlay.

It increases the range of motion, which means your back has to work harder. And, generally speaking, the harder you make your muscles work, the better progress you make.

Here’s how to do it:

Oh and in case you’re worried that this type of row is going to strain your lower back, if you maintain proper form and do other exercises to strengthen your lumbar spine (like the deadlift), you have nothing to worry about.

7. Chin-Up

The chinup engages every major muscle in your back and involves the biceps to a significant degree as well.

8. Lat Pulldown

If you aren’t quite strong enough to do a chin-up, you can do lat pulldowns instead.

The Best Full-Body Workout Routines

Now that you know all about the exercises that make for the best full-body workouts, let’s turn them into workouts!

The 1-Day Per Week Full-Body Workout Routine

If you can only train once per week, don’t despair–you can at least maintain your muscle and strength, and possibly even make gains.

Here’s the workout:

Barbell Back Squat

Warm up and 3 sets 4-6 reps (80-85% of 1RM)

Flat Barbell Bench Press

Warm up and 3 sets of 4-6 reps (80-85% of 1RM)

Barbell Deadlift

Warm up and 3 sets 4-6 reps (80-85% of 1RM)

Barbell Row

3 sets of 4-6 reps (80-85% of 1RM)

Military Press

3 sets of 4-6 reps (80-85% of 1RM)

The 2-Day Per Week Full-Body Workout Routine

Day 1

Barbell Back Squat

Warm up and 3 sets 4-6 reps (80-85% of 1RM)

Flat Barbell Bench Press

Warm up and 3 sets of 4-6 reps (80-85% of 1RM)

Military Press

3 sets of 4-6 reps (80-85% of 1RM)

Barbell Row

Warm up and 3 sets of 4-6 reps (80-85% of 1RM)

Day 2

Barbell Deadlift

Warm up and 3 sets 4-6 reps (80-85% of 1RM)

Flat Barbell Bench Press

Warm up and 3 sets of 4-6 reps (80-85% of 1RM)

Barbell Row

Warm up and 3 sets of 4-6 reps (80-85% of 1RM)

Chin Up

3 sets of 4-6 reps (80-85% of 1RM)

The 3-Day Per Week Full-Body Workout Routine

Day 1

Flat Barbell Bench Press

Warm up and 3 sets of 4-6 reps (80-85% of 1RM)

Barbell Back Squat

Warm up and 3 sets of 4-6 reps (80-85% of 1RM)

Barbell Row

Warm up and 3 sets of 4-6 reps (80-85% of 1RM)

Day 2

Barbell Deadlift

Warm up and 3 sets of 4-6 reps (80-85% of 1RM)

Military Press

Warm up and 3 sets of 4-6 reps (80-85% of 1RM)

Chin Up

3 sets of 4-6 reps (80-85% of 1RM)

Day 3

Barbell Back Squat

Warm up and 3 sets of 4-6 reps (80-85% of 1RM)

Flat Barbell Bench Press

Warm up and 3 sets of 4-6 reps (80-85% of 1RM)

Lat Pulldown

Warm up and 3 sets of 4-6 reps (80-85% of 1RM)

A few points to keep in mind when doing these workout:

  • Rest 3 to 4 minutes in between each set.

This will give your muscles enough time to fully recoup their strength so you can push yourself to your limit on each set.

The subject of whether to train to failure (the point at which you can no longer keep the weight moving and have to end the set) or not is controversial.

Experts disagree left and right, and there are good arguments both for and against training to failure. Many people find success with different approaches.

I break the topic down in this article, but here’s the gist:

We should be training close to failure, but not so much that we risk injury or overtrain.

Personally, I never train to failure for more than 2 to 3 sets per workout, and never on the squat, deadlift, bench press, or military press, as it can be dangerous.

I save it for my accessory (isolation) exercises, and it’s usually just a natural consequence of pushing to add reps and weight to the exercises.

Instead, the majority of your sets should be taken to the rep preceding failure (the last rep you can perform without help).

If you’re new to weightlifting it can be hard to find this point, but you’ll get a better feel for it as you gain experience on different exercises.

  • Once you hit the top of your rep range for one set, you move up in weight.

This is the easiest way to ensure you’re progressively overloading your muscles.

For instance, if you get 6 reps on your first set of your close-grip bench press, you add 5 pounds to each side of the bar for your next set and work with that weight until you can press it for 6 reps, and so forth.

What About Supplements?

I saved this for last because it’s the least important.

The truth is most supplements for building muscle and losing fat are worthless.

Unfortunately, no amount of pills and powders are going to make you muscular and lean.

That said, if you know how to drive muscle growth with proper dieting and exercise, certain supplements can accelerate the process.

Here are the ones I use and recommend:

ATLAS Mass Gainer

atlas mass gainer supplement

In an ideal world, we’d get all of our daily calories from carefully prepared, nutritionally balanced meals, and we’d have the time to sit down, slow down, and savor each and every bite.

In the real world, though, we’re usually rushing from one obligation to another and often forget to eat anything, let alone the optimal foods for building muscle, losing fat, and staying healthy.

That’s why meal replacement and “weight gainer” supplements and protein bars and snacks are more popular than ever.

Unfortunately, most contain low-quality protein powders and large amounts of simple sugars and unnecessary junk.

That’s why I created ATLAS.

It’s a delicious “weight gainer” (meal replacement) supplement that provides you with 38 grams of high-quality protein per serving, along with 51 grams of nutritious, food-based carbohydrates, and just 6 grams of natural fats, as well as 26 micronutrients, enzymes, and probiotics that help you feel and perform your best.

ATLAS is also 100% naturally sweetened and flavored as well, and contains no chemical dyes, cheap fillers, or other unnecessary junk.

So, if you want to build muscle and lose fat as quickly as possible and improve the nutritional quality of your diet, then you want to try ATLAS today.

RECHARGE Post-Workout Supplement

recharge creatine supplement

RECHARGE is a 100% natural post-workout supplement that helps you gain muscle and strength faster, and recover better from your workouts.

Once it’s had time to accumulate in your muscles (about a week of use), the first thing you’re going to notice is increased strength and anaerobic endurance, less muscle soreness, and faster post workout muscle recovery.

And the harder you can train in your workouts and the faster you can recover from them, the more muscle and strength you’re going to build over time.

Furthermore, RECHARGE doesn’t need to be cycled, which means it’s safe for long-term use, and its effects don’t diminish over time.

It’s also naturally sweetened and flavored and contains no artificial food dyes, fillers, or other unnecessary junk.

So, if you want to be able to push harder in the gym, train more frequently, and get more out of your workouts, then you want to try RECHARGE today.

WHEY+ Protein Powder

whey protein supplement

Whey protein powder is a staple in most athletes’ diets for good reason.

It’s digested quickly, it’s absorbed well, it has a fantastic amino acid profile, and it’s easy on the taste buds.

Not all whey proteins are created equal, though.

Whey concentrate protein powder, for example, can be as low as 30% protein by weight, and can also contain a considerable amount of fat and carbs.

And the more fat and carbs you’re drinking, the less you can actually enjoy in your food.

Whey isolate protein powder, on the other hand, is the purest whey protein you can buy. It’s 90%+ protein by weight and has almost no fat or carbs.

Another benefit of whey isolate is it contains no lactose, which means better digestibility and fewer upset stomachs.

Well, WHEY+ is a 100% naturally sweetened and flavored whey isolate protein powder made from exceptionally high-quality milk from small dairy farms in Ireland.

It contains no GMOs, hormones, antibiotics, artificial food dyes, fillers, or other unnecessary junk, and it tastes delicious and mixes great.

So, if you want a clean, all-natural, and great tasting whey protein supplement that’s low in calories, carbs, and fat, then you want to try WHEY+ today.

PULSE Pre-Workout

pulse pre-workout

Is your pre-workout simply not working anymore?

Are you sick and tired of pre-workout drinks that make you sick and tired?

Have you had enough of upset stomachs, jitters, nausea, and the dreaded post-workout crash?

Do you wish your pre-workout supplement gave you sustained energy and more focus and motivation to train? Do you wish it gave you noticeably better workouts and helped you hit PRs?

If you’re nodding your head, then you’re going to love PULSE.

It increases energy, improves mood, sharpens mental focus, increases strength and endurance, and reduces fatigue…without unwanted side effects or the dreaded post-workout crash.

It’s also naturally sweetened and flavored and contains no artificial food dyes, fillers, or other unnecessary junk.

Lastly, it contains no proprietary blends and each serving delivers nearly 20 grams of active ingredients scientifically proven to improve performance.

So, if you want to feel focused, tireless, and powerful in your workouts…and if you want to say goodbye to the pre-workout jitters, upset stomachs, and crashes for good…then you want to try PULSE today.

The Bottom Line on Full-Body Workouts

Full-body workouts, “bro splits,” upper/lower routines, and push/pull/legs can all work for building muscle and strength.

If you’re a beginner, full-body workouts can work particularly well because they’re easy to understand, don’t require too much time, and quickly bring you up to speed on the key barbell movements.

Once you’ve put in 6 to 12 months of high-quality training, though, it’s hard to continue progressing in strength and size with full-body workouts. In this case, you’ll do better with more compartmentalized workouts that allow you to optimize volume and frequency for each major muscle group.

Want More Workouts?

Chest Workouts

How to Get a Bigger and Stronger Chest in Just 30 Days

The Ultimate Chest Workout

This Is The Last Upper Body Workout You’ll Ever Need

Shoulder Workouts

How to Get Bigger and Stronger Shoulders in Just 30 Days

how to get bigger stronger shoulders

The Ultimate Shoulder Workout

best shoulder workout

4 Rotator Cuff Exercises That You Should Be Doing (and Why)

rotator cuff exercises

Arm Workouts

How to Get Bigger and Stronger Biceps in Just 30 Days

how to get bigger stronger biceps

How to Get Bigger and Stronger Triceps in Just 30 Days

big triceps

The Ultimate Arms Workout

best arm exercises

Back Workouts

How to Get a Bigger and Stronger Back in Just 30 Days

bigger stronger back workout

The Ultimate Back Workout

best back exercises

Leg Workouts

How to Get Bigger and Stronger Legs in Just 30 Days

how to get bigger legs

This Is The Last Lower Body Workout You’ll Ever Need

The Ultimate Legs Workout

best leg exercises

Butt Workouts

How to Get a Bigger and Rounder Butt in Just 30 Days

how to get a bigger and rounder butt

The Best Butt Exercises for Building Head-Turning Glutes

best butt exercises

What’s your take on full-body workouts? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!

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I'm Mike and I'm the creator of Muscle for Life and Legion Athletics, and I believe that EVERYONE can achieve the body of their dreams.

If you like my articles, then you'll love my bestselling books. They'll show you exactly what you need to do to build muscle and lose fat without hating your diet or living in the gym.

If you're a guy, check out Bigger Leaner Stronger, and if you're a girl, Thinner Leaner Stronger is for you.

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If you want a "paint-by-numbers," step-by-step blueprint for building a muscular, lean, strong body...faster than you ever thought possible...then you want to check out my bestselling books.

Here's a little sneak peek of what you'll learn inside...

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Thinner Leaner Stronger

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