TBT vs. Splits: An Analysis

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Lately there’s been much discussion about whether it’s more
beneficial to do total body training (TBT) or some version of a
split system where parts of the body are separated for different
workouts.

There are diehard followers in each camp, and usually the
discussion breaks down into two people yelling at each other as if
they’re talking about politics or religion. Sometimes, to avoid
serious debate, people focus on what they have in common instead of
the important differences of each system. My goal is to avoid both
of those situations and detail the benefits and drawbacks of both
methods of training so that you can decide which method is the most
appropriate for you at the current time.

The Definitions

First, we need to define what we’re talking about. I think most
people know a total body program when they see it, but to be clear
I define it as doing at least one of each of the following
exercises in one workout session:

• Upper body pushing exercise (chest and/or shoulders)

• Upper body pulling exercise (lats)

• Compound exercise for the lower body (glutes, quads, and
hamstrings)

A split program is defined as doing two or less of the
previously listed exercises. Examples would include upper/lower,
push/pull, or doing just one or two body parts per
workout.

When discussing these two systems, it’s imperative that we do
everything possible to just analyze the systems themselves and not
other variables. How can we do that? Simple, make everything else
about the two programs the same.

The real question asked by debating TBT vs. splits is: what
frequency is best for muscle stimulation? Frequency in this case
refers to how often, usually per week, each muscle or movement is
getting stimulated. The vast majority of people fall into one of
three frequencies. Those who train each muscle group three times a
week, those who train each muscle group twice a week, and those who
train each muscle group once a week.

First, we should ask ourselves, is this a valid question? Does
it really matter? I believe the answer is yes to both questions.
This is a valid question because essentially all coaches and
trainers agree that having the proper frequency is crucial to
achieving success in the gym. It does matter because this question
tries to address one of the key training paradigms: as a
person’s fitness level increases, he needs to do more work to
further increase his fitness. The flipside of that paradigm is that
the more work you do, the more recovery time you need. So I believe
that any attempt to solve this puzzle is a worthwhile endeavor.

The Variables & The Workouts

So let’s get down to it. What we’re really talking about is
frequency, so in order to judge only that, all the other variables
must be the same. That means you do the same exercises over the
course of the week, same sets, same reps, same weight, same rest
time, same total workout time, and the same number of sessions per
week. Everything is the same; the only thing that changes is the
frequency.

I mentioned above that most people either train each body part
once, twice, or three times per week. Training each group two times
a week is kind of a compromise. The total body guys seem to agree
that sometimes two times a week is good; the once a week guys agree
that sometimes twice a week is good as well.

That is all fine and dandy, but we want to see the differences
between these two plans, so let’s get twice a week out of
there. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that twice a week
training is bad by any means, but the following discussion will
focus on the pros and cons of training every muscle group three
times a week or just once a week. Twice a week fits essentially in
the middle of the two and tries to bridge the gap between
them.

We said before that both workouts are the same except for the
split. Since some people are visual learners, here’s how the two
workouts might look side by side. The set-up for the TBT workout
was taken from how I understand Chad Waterbury’s
recommendation for his program that he calls (get ready for
it) TBT. The exercises are listed in the order that
they’d be performed. Generally this workout would be preformed on
Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

Day 1 – TBT

Day 1 – Chest and Back

Bench Press

Bench Press

Pull-ups

DB Incline Press

Military Press

3-Board Press

Front Squats

Pull-ups

Tricep Pushdowns

Bent Over Row

DB Bicep Curl

DB Row

Day 2 – TBT

Day 2 – Legs and Lower Back

DB Incline Press

Squats

Bent Over Row

Front Squats

Push Press

Deadlifts

Squats

Good Mornings

Decline Skull Crushers

Seated Leg Curl

Seated Leg Curl

Day 3 – TBT

Day 3 – Shoulders and Arms

Deadlifts

Push Press

Good Mornings

Military Press

3-Board Press

DB Rear Delt Raise

DB Row

Decline Skull Crushers

EZ Curl

Tricep Pushdowns

DB Rear Delt Raise

EZ Curl

DB Bicep Curl

As you look over the above workouts you may see something you
particularly like or don’t like. Let’s say you hate leg
curls and think people should do glute ham raises instead. Simply
substitute in any exercise you want. To be balanced, you just have
to substitute the same exercise in both routines.

In addition, if you feel like something is missing, say abs,
feel free to add abs in there, just be aware that whatever you do
to one routine, you do to the other routine. The purpose of
outlining the workout like this is simply so people can see the
differences and how they might appear in a practical
sense.

So, now that we have the workout down, let’s begin by
analyzing it. First, the good stuff:

The Pros of Total Body Training

• More frequency may be better for increased neuromuscular
coordination – this is one crucial component of strength, a
big benefit. Practice makes perfect and generally you get a better
practice effect by doing it shorter and more often then just one
long session.

• You’re relatively “fresh” for each exercise since you hit one
area of the body and move on, so there’s not much of an accumulated
specific fatigue effect.

• It’s easier to incorporate total body exercises like the
Olympic lifts, gymnastics moves, and strongman stuff into this type
of routine.

• Essentially all fitness professionals agree that total body is
ideal for beginners.

• TBT may better prepare an athlete to handle total body fatigue
(as in a game) than split training.

• As Waterbury has pointed out, TBT hits a higher percentage of
the total motor units in the body per day than a
split plan.

• Because you’re working your whole body, TBT may be better at
burning calories and promoting fat loss.

• TBT is good for recovery from an injury or a layoff because by
default the intensity is reduced so you’ll get more out of it
practicing more often.

• If you miss a workout or two for the week, you still provided
some training stimulus to your whole body instead of neglecting it
for that week.

• Having a greater frequency can help prevent
undertraining.

• It’s easy to implement supersets (antagonistic sets) which
save time.

• Easy total body days are harder than easy split days (i.e.
total body vs. arms).

• You don’t get the deep soreness from a TBT routine that
you do from a split routine.

• You can get a good overall workout in only three days a
week.

• Personal opinion – I’ve found that it seems easier to do
a hard TBT session without a partner than a hard split program
without a partner.

Pros of Split Training

• Split training allows for maximum intensity regardless of
level of advancement.

• Repeated sets on a fatigued muscle will build muscular
endurance better (particularly multiple set endurance).

• Split training allows you to workout more than three days a
week easily.

• Extra training days allow more time to devote to weak points
in physique or performance.

• Split training gives muscles more time to recover which can
help prevent overtraining.

• Essentially all fitness professionals agree that split
training is better for bodybuilders and fitness
athletes.

• Split training hits a higher percentage of the total motor
units in the body per week than a TBT plan. As a
muscle is fatigued you recruit more motor units, which is better
for hypertrophy (muscle size).

• The hardest split day is usually harder than the hardest total
body day (i.e. legs vs. total body).

• Easy to do intensity techniques (i.e. drop sets, compound
sets, etc.)

• May do a better job of teaching someone to lift
intensely.

• You tend to get very sore and feel the muscle you worked
several days afterward (some people like this feeling, some
don’t).

• Split training is better if you have to train multiple days in
a row (i.e. Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday are the only days you
can lift).

Cons of Total Body Training

• High frequency combined with high intensity may overtrain
certain areas of the body (ex. shoulders from pressing three days a
week, tendonitis in elbows, etc.).

• Most split programs allow a person to workout 4-5 plus times a
week. It’s difficult to do more than three days a week on a TBT
plan because then you start training on back to back
days.

• TBT may not allow enough recovery time, particularly if you
work at a high (relative) intensity or if you lift a lot of weight
(high absolute intensity).

• May not allow enough work to improve or correct weak points.
Or if weak points are addressed along with regular training, that
may lead to overtraining.

• Lifters may be tempted to decrease intensity because they’re
doing basically the same thing again in a few days.

• May not build up local muscular endurance or resistance to
fatigue (lactate threshold) as much as a split plan.

• It’s difficult to implement most intensity techniques (i.e.
drop sets, compound sets) due to short recovery time (in days)
before the muscle is stimulated again.

• You don’t get much of a pump in a specific muscle group, which
some people like (and Arnold says it’s the greatest feeling you can
get).

Cons of Split Training

• Lack of frequency may not increase neuromuscular coordination
as much, which may limit strength.

• You’re somewhat fatigued after your first exercise for a
certain body part, so continuing to train that area forces a slight
reduction in weight.

• Splits must be planned out properly to prevent overtraining of
susceptible body parts or areas (i.e. lower back, front delts,
etc.).

• Hard to fit in and place total body exercises or combination
exercises (thrusters, Olympic lifts, etc.).

• Splits may not promote total body fatigue and thus the lifter
may not be prepared for that.

• Lifter may not be stimulating the muscle intensely enough to
require such a long recovery time (in days).

• You may feel the need to train 4-5 times per week and thus it
takes up more time.

• Opinion – You may need a workout partner to regularly
have really good split workouts.

Anecdotal Evidence

Looking at past and current athletes, both systems have
anecdotal evidence in their favor. That evidence is:

• Total body training has been used successfully in the past to
build big and strong athletes.

• Olympic lifters, gymnasts, some athletes, and some strength
coaches continue to use total body training with good
results.

• Essentially all bodybuilders and fitness athletes use a split
system.

• Most regular people who lift weights in the gym (average
person in Gold’s Gym) use a split system.

• Split training seems to be (at least in my experience) more
fun for most people and that isn’t to be discounted. The number one
reason why people continue to do something longer term is because
it’s fun.

The Poor Arguments

In addition, during this debate both sides have made some claims
that don’t really have much merit and which should be
debunked. Some of those claims are:

Poor Argument #1: “Muscles always work together in real life and
you can’t separate muscles in the gym.”

The body is an amazing unit and we have yet to fully understand
it; however, the idea that not always doing a full body routine
will lead to less functional muscles makes no sense.

Look again at the workouts described above. To say that the
total body person will get a better effect for sprinting because
they trained their lats and glutes together – as opposed to the
split person who trained lats and glutes on separate days – makes
no sense.

If I develop strong biceps in the gym, even if I just had a
single day for biceps, those strong biceps will help me in whatever
activities I do that involve the biceps, be it rope climbing or
tug-of-war or arm wrestling. The frequency component of the routine
has very little to do with how well abilities in the gym transfer
over to other abilities outside of the gym.

Poor Argument #2: “Many muscles are working in an exercise (like
an oblique in a lateral raise, abs in a military press, calves in a
squat), so how can you separate out what muscles an exercise
really works?”

This is basically saying that doing something like a chest day
or a back day makes no sense. I’m not sure where this claim came
from, as it seems like this question was addressed and solved years
ago and now it’s popping up again.

True, many muscles work in an exercise, and muscles rarely work
in pure isolation. However, the problem is the definition of
“work.” Many muscles do contract during an
exercise, but that’s much different from muscles receiving a training stimulus from an exercise. A training
stimulus means the muscles will respond from the exercise by
getting bigger, stronger, increased endurance, etc.

Here’s an easy way to think about it. When you’re doing an
exercise, ask yourself, “If I just do this one single exercise and
that’s it, what muscles will respond to that?” For example,
are the biceps working in a bench press? If by “working” you mean
contracting, then yes, absolutely, the biceps contract during a
bench press. Rip your biceps and then bench the next day and you’ll
realize that they do contract.

However, will doing only the bench press give you bigger and
stronger biceps? No, it won’t. The biceps don’t receive much
training stimulus from the bench. The triceps certainly do and the
delts do, but not the biceps. If all you do is bench and then you
expect to have a very good biceps curl (a measure of biceps
strength) you’re going to be very disappointed.

Going back to our original examples, the idea that doing lateral
raises will improve your obliques so that you’re better at side
crunches or rotations doesn’t hold water, just like doing
military presses isn’t going to make you much better at
crunches and squatting isn’t going to give you great
calves.

Poor Argument #3: “Total body training is too easy; only wimpy
people use it.”

This is simply not correct. It’s load, exercises, sets, reps,
and rest that make a workout easy or hard. Look at the workout
above: deadlifts followed by good mornings and then board press and
dumbbell rows – all of those are tough movements. Doing them all
in a row with heavy weight would be brutal.

Ask any powerlifter if a powerlifting meet (a total body
workout) is easy and obviously they’ll say no. You can make a total
body workout easy just like you can make a split easy, but is it
automatically easy? Definitely not.

Poor Argument #4: “Total body training may be good for
beginners, but that’s about it.”

Again this doesn’t have to be the case. Look at elite Olympic
lifters; they’re stressing the whole body all the time and have
great performance. Sheiko oriented powerlifting programs have
lifters training with a very high frequency on a regular basis.
While it’s true that you have to balance out the intensity of the
workout with the frequency of the workout, there are enough
examples to prove that TBT can work with advanced
people.

Conclusion?

So what’s the conclusion? Hopefully you can see that both
methods do have significant benefits, and most people would benefit
from spending time on both methods. A key point to remember is that
the ideal frequency for you isn’t static; it’s dynamic because
you’re changing and by default your training intensity is changing.

In general, it’s true that many people start out with total body
training and then move on to twice a week for a while and then once
a week for while, and this matches the increase of their training
intensity. However, once a week isn’t necessarily the pinnacle that
everyone is striving for. Periodically, you should reassess where
you are and where your training is to see if that’s still a good
place for you to be.

The Take Home Message

Total Body Guys – TBT can be very effective, as you know,
but as you progress you may find your body would benefit by
training hard with a more direct, intense stimulus on the muscle
and then letting it have more time to recover, particularly if
you’re looking for muscular growth or if you’re lifting very heavy
weights.

You may also find that it’ll allow you to focus on some weak
points that you haven’t been able to prioritize. You can
always try a split routine (once or twice a week frequency) for a
while and go back if you don’t like it. You won’t lose the
gains you’ve made.

Split Guys – Split training can be very effective, as you
know. However, as you reach very intense levels of training you may
find that your ability to work yourself out now exceeds your
ability to recover, even training each muscle group only once a
week. As Lee Haney said, “Train to stimulate, not annihilate.”

So you may find that you’ve been slightly decreasing the
intensity over time, perhaps as you got bigger or stronger, or
maybe your training partner moved away. Your body may now be ready
to respond better to a higher frequency and a (slightly) lower
intensity. You can always try a higher frequency (twice or three
times a week) for a while and go back if you don’t like it.
Nope, you won’t lose the gains you’ve made.

The Bottom Line

How will your body respond to training each muscle group or
movement X number of times per week? If you don’t know the
answer to that question, that may be a signal that it’s time to
change things up.

You can always try doing one month of three times a week, one
month of twice a week, and one month of once a week and find out.
Think about it, try it, and see what happens!