The Training Split Roundtable - Part 1

With Alwyn Cosgrove, Chad Waterbury, and Christian Thibaudeau

Training Split 1

Hey, wanna tick a lot of people off? Want to start a flame war, a heated academic discussion, or just a good old-fashioned penis-waving contest? Then come out publicly and say that total body training is better than body part split training.

And if that doesn't work, do the election year flip-flop and say that splitting muscle groups into separate training sessions is superior to full body training.

Which one is really better? T-Nation sat down with three strength training experts to hash it out. Let's see if they can reach some kind of consensus without leaving the room too bloody.

T-Nation: Chad, Alwyn, Christian, you've all been frisked and sent through the metal detectors. Your sharpened pencils have been replaced by felt tipped pens and your shock collars are in place. So, I think we're ready to jump into this debate.

Let's start off with your basic stance on this topic. Which is it, split training (chest and triceps day, leg day, etc.) or full body training (hitting every major muscle group in one workout)?

Alwyn Cosgrove: As is often the case, I think T-Nation readers will be disappointed to find that we agree on 90% of our recommendations. And the 10% we disagree about isn't worth focusing on. And for the record, I have nothing but respect for Chad and Christian. I don't want this to be seen as a "fight" between us...

T-Nation: This concludes the politically correct bullshit portion of our discussion. Now, Alwyn, throw some dang punches!

Cosgrove: Okay, as usual I'm the boring guy who has an opinion more in the middle. I'll throw out some theoretical numbers here. Probably around 80-90% of the population, 80-90% of the time, will respond best to total body workouts.

And I'd say that maybe 90-95% of the population, 90-95% of the time, will respond best to either total body or an upper and lower split. Now, the numbers may not be exact, but if you read what I said as "the majority of people" you'll see what I mean.

But also make sure to read my entire statement. I'm also saying that 10-20% of the population will not respond best to total body workouts, and that 10-20% of the time these programs won't work. There's definitely room in my philosophy for other approaches, but I'm comfortable with the "most of the people, most of the time" part.

Recently, the whole split routine vs. total body vs. body parts thing has been hotly debated on this site. The problem is, there can't be an answer that's 100% correct, 100% of the time for 100% of the people.

Will an advanced, genetically gifted (pharmaceutically enhanced or not), full-time professional bodybuilder fall into my 95% of the population? No way. So for these guys my philosophy still fits. They're in that outlying percentage.

But ask yourself what a 40-year-old female beginner who could train only twice a week would respond best to? She falls into the middle of the majority, right? And I think the majority (not all) of T-Nation readers fall somewhere in the middle too.

What I've found amusing though is that it seems that 90% of people seem to think that they're in that advanced 10%. As John Berardi once said, even at an elite level of athleticism, there are only 10% of people who need to stress over the details. Most people think they're there when they're not. You have to understand whether you're a part of the 90% or the 10%.

T-Nation: Okay, Chad, jump in on this.

Chad Waterbury: Whether a person chooses total body or split workouts all comes down to their goals and their available training time. Here's how I approach the issue.

Does the person want to gain more than ten pounds of muscle across his entire body? If so, I'd go with total body workouts because he'll stimulate more muscle fibers per session with a total body workout compared to a body part split. That point can't be debated.

I've made the following statement ad nauseam, but it bears repeating once more: if you want to build bigger, stronger muscles, your sole purpose of training should be to recruit as many motor units as possible in each workout. Now, it's true that statement can be taken two ways. You could say that a body part split will recruit more motor units because most splits use fatigue-inducing methods such as triple drop sets. Or you could take that statement to mean that a person should look to stimulate as many total motor units as possible.

I use the latter approach. I know this will piss many people off, but the fact of the matter is this: five cycles of triple drop sets is a waste of time for the majority of people. The time and energy wasted on the last two or three triple drop sets could've been spent on building another body part. So my question is: Which system is going to recruit more motor units in a given session, a body part split or total body training?

Speaking of points that can't be debated, it's probably no surprise to people that I believe the frequency of training is one of the most important factors for developing more muscle mass. If you organize a plan that allows for more training sessions throughout the week, you'll build more muscle if you manage fatigue. There's absolutely no way in our mathematical universe that someone on a body part split can train with the same frequency as a person who's on a total body plan, with total weekly workouts being the same.

Does the person want to increase his fitness levels and lose fat? Again, I'd go with total body workouts because the metabolic cost of a total body workout is significantly higher than a typical body part split.

Has the person already built a physique with the general proportions that he desires? And does he merely want to bring up a few lagging body parts without regard for athletic performance? If so, a body part split could be an option.

If a person is within 10% of his goal, I think a body part split is fine. What do I mean by within 10%? If a person has 17" arms and wants to bring them up to 18", a body part split might be the way to go because he can focus all his energy on the biceps, triceps, and shoulder girdle.

Does a person have an unlimited amount of time to train? If the answer is yes, whether I recommend total body or splits is based on how much muscle they want to gain.

I'm not completely against body part splits; I'm against the notion that they're better than total body training for hypertrophy for the vast majority. The majority of T-Nation readers that I encounter want to gain more than ten pounds of muscle across their entire body, and they want to increase their fitness levels too. That's why I focus on total body methods in my T-Nation articles.

As far as I know, there's no company that sells total-body training stock. And even if there is such a company, I don't own any of their stock. So the fact that I usually advocate total body training over body part splits is because my experiences have shown that it's more effective to add overall mass.

If a body part split worked better – and I've spent years experimenting with them – I'd advocate body part splits. There's no hidden agenda on my part.

T-Nation: Alright, let's get the big Canadian in on this. Take it away, Thib!

Christian Thibaudeau: My own stance is really not that controversial (I can already hear the boos of readers eagerly waiting for a bloodbath). There's no universal training split that's ideal for all purposes. The potential efficacy of a mode of training organization will be highly dependant on goals, schedule, experience, and individual physical make-up.

Even though we're all lifting weights in the gym, the orientation of our training will vary depending on our objective. For example, an athlete trying to improve his performance won't train muscles per day, but rather movement patterns, whole body synergy, and energy systems.

A powerlifter will also train movements, highly specific movements, as well as physical capacities in the strength-speed spectrum (relative strength, limit strength, strength-speed, speed-strength). Another difference between powerlifters and athletes from other sports is that they don't have to add sport-specific practices since the training they do in the gym is also "technique practice." An athlete, on the other hand, must add other forms of training to his schedule: speed training, sport skills training, conditioning work, etc.

As for the bodybuilder, well, he'll obviously focus on building muscles, so he isn't really lifting weights but rather contracting muscles against a resistance. These different goals call for different training methods as well as loading schemes which require various types of training splits.

Chad has a great point in stating the relationship between training and recovery. However, I think that it's somewhat erroneous to limit the relationship to the frequency of training vs. restoration/recovery management. I prefer to see it as a damage vs. recovery ratio.

You can create muscle damage either via a cumulative effect (i.e. causing a lesser amount of damage per session, but more often) or via an acute effect (i.e. causing a lot of damage in one session, but less often).

Basically, and I think Chad will agree with me, the more muscle damage you cause in any given session, the more recovery time will be needed to "heal" that injury and cause muscle growth. Bodybuilders who rely on a higher volume of work, more exercises and intensive methods such as drop sets, extended sets, partials, etc. will create more muscle damage and thus require a longer recovery period.

Cosgrove: Christian makes some great points there – it's all about our objectives. That has typically determined the "split" per se. But should it? Not always.

One of the most impressive physique transformations I've ever seen was Christian himself. He lost over 30 pounds of fat and built nearly four pounds of muscle in 15 weeks. We all saw what a great physique he had once he cut the fat! Amazing.

But, Christian built that physique, by his own admission, using mainly Olympic lifts and performance based training! He said himself that he "hadn't done serious upper-body work for three years" and if he were to start his transformation plan again, he'd definitely keep using some form of Olympic lifting in his program.

In my eyes, I think Christian Thibaudeau is the poster boy for total body training being superior to any split routine! That's why its nuts to me that he's become the spokesman for the body part split!


The biggest change in his physique came a few years ago when he got lean and showed the massive amount of muscle he'd already built – from years of total body training. Would most readers be ecstatic with the physique CT presented when he got lean? Absolutely. Total body performance-based training was the basis of that physique.

Thibaudeau: I like your strategy, Alwyn, give the man his props so that he can't argue your point! You're partially right. I'd say that most of my legs, back, and shoulder mass come from my Olympic lifting background. In fact, my legs were probably bigger at the time than they are now.

However, I basically added very little in the way of chest and arms development (even though I was bench pressing over 400). But the thing is that, yes, while my transformation was relatively impressive, it wasn't the first time I dieted down.

When I was still competing in Olympic lifting I'd often have to shed 15 to 20 pounds of body fat to make weight for a competition. I normally stood at a bodyweight of around 215-217 but often competed in the 85kg (187 pounds) class and also in the 94kg class (207 pounds). When I dieted down for these competitions I was below 10% body fat and had decent abs and definition. Yet I basically had nothing in terms of chest and arms development or definition.

So I really think that this story proves both sides of the coin! Yes, I did build a lot of muscle mass using a whole body approach, but I had to switch to split training to get my body into proper balance and improve the weak points I had.

Another point worth mentioning is that before I started Olympic lifting (I was 20 years old at the time), I'd been weight training for six years to increase my football performance. While it wasn't a typical bodybuilding program, it wasn't whole body training either. In fact, it was:

  • Day 1: Legs
  • Day 2: Push
  • Day 3: Pull
  • Day 4: Isolation split

This was pretty effective. But I think the take-home message is that when an individual has little in terms of muscle mass, then he should focus on big compound movements trained relatively often: either a whole body or an upper/lower body split.

But when someone has built a decent base and decides that he wants to train to further his muscular development and build his whole body in perfect balance, then splitting his training might be the better option.

T-Nation: Okay, one thing we need to be clear on here is why a person is weight training. Some train for aesthetics: bodybuilders and those who just want to look good naked. Others train for sport: team sport athletes, strength athletes, etc. Does that make a difference in the split vs. full body debate? You know, like "Splits are for advanced bodybuilders; total body training is for athletes."

Cosgrove: This is where it gets murky I think. Someone training for aesthetics and a "bodybuilder" are not necessarily the same, although they do overlap a little. Some people are looking to get smaller. Some are looking to get bigger and stronger.

A bodybuilder, to me, is a competitive athlete training for a specific sport. It's the same as powerlifting, Olympic lifting, and strongman training. The sport determines the training.

But to take that training approach and apply it to someone who's never going to compete, doesn't much care about striations in their glutes, and just wants to look better, is an overreaction. As Christian said in his bulking article, lots of bodybuilders look bad most of the year. Are we just ignoring that? That's not the goal of most T-Nation readers – to look bad most of the year. So we need to tweak the approach anyway.

An athlete is trying to train his body to function as a unit, therefore he needs to train that way. That can still occur with an upper-lower split too, though. But if you're a regular Joe or Jane training purely for aesthetics, doesn't it make sense to train your body the way it was designed to move?

I don't have a problem with splits per se. I keep getting misquoted on that. I'll confess though that I still have a problem with "body part" based splits. I'll explain my thinking and you can agree or disagree...

Now, I've read the Weider system. I've read Arnold's book. I've read pretty much every fitness magazine that's been released over the past twelve years at least, including the bodybuilding ones. And I still can't see any rhyme or reason to the allocation of body parts to a training day. It seems completely arbitrary to me.

Different splits I've seen: chest-only day; chest, shoulders and triceps; chest and biceps; chest and back. I've seen all of these once a week and twice a week. (Incidentally, I don't think most drug-free individuals with work or school can make optimal progress hitting a muscle group once a week.)

It doesn't mean these splits are wrong or don't work; I just can't see how there are any solid guidelines there based on physiology. It's hard for me to shape a physical training philosophy around anything but physiology. And body part allocation isn't physiology.

Do I use further splits than just upper/lower? Of course. But I'm concerned with loading parameters through each joint and prefer to use a loading classification that takes that into account to help prevent non-impact injuries. So I try to match antagonistic joint movements within each workout (e.g. horizontal push and pull around the shoulder girdle).

Is this a better way? Who knows? It's flawed as well. But at the very least, it's based on joint and muscle action and movement (i.e. physiology and biomechanics) and it's been a great way to practically eliminate all training induced injuries with our clients.

T-Nation: Okay, Chad, what's your take here?

Waterbury: You bet that a person's goal is the key factor! As I said, if a person already has most of the mass he desires, and if he's not looking for athleticism, a body part split could do the trick. But if a person is more than ten pounds of muscle from his goal, and if he wants the muscle added across his entire body, a total body plan is better in my book.

Splits are for advanced bodybuilders. I can't think of another group who would greatly benefit from a body part split. The reason is because bodybuilders don't need athleticism to win a competition.


With regard to athleticism, intelligent MMA fighters, for example, don't use body part splits because those who follow splits incur more sport injuries when they leave the weightroom to fight. That's a fact that I've seen for the last ten years. I've seen more sport injuries with body part splits than any other type of training. The reason is because body part splits are often arranged without respect for biomechanics.

The fact that I've seen more real world injuries from body part splits really concerns me. So I take that into account whether I'm working with a competitive bodybuilder or a world-class athlete or a weekend warrior.

But who cares if you only want to look good naked, right? Well, the human body functions as a whole, so I train it with that in mind. I've found that a whole body, systematic approach to training yields better results whether the goal is more muscle mass, more efficient energy systems, more strength, or a combination of those elements.

Case in point: let's say a guy is trying to make his biceps bigger. He can look at the biceps as an isolated unit and train them with curls, curls, and more curls. Or he can look at the biceps as a single element in a complex organization of structure and function.

With the whole body approach, it must be understood that the forearms, shoulder girdle, upper back, and posterior chain all play a major role in how big the biceps can grow. Since I've spent time in the clinical field of neuroscience, I can tell you that those who have nerve damage to their shoulder girdle and/or upper back muscles lose upper arm mass very quickly.

Since the forearms, shoulder girdle, upper back, and posterior chain are all determinants of how big and strong the biceps can get, I take that into account. So for a bodybuilder I'll train all of those muscles in each session. There's no reason not to. And with a body part split, that's simply not possible.

Now, if someone simply wants to look good naked, and if they've never trained before, I'll typically put them on an upper/lower body split for a few months. That's exactly what my Anti-Bodybuilding Hypertrophy program is based on. But after the first few months are over, I'll merge them into total body plans. The reason is because if they have limited time to train, I want to train their primary movers with the highest frequency that their schedule allows.

Many people can only make it to the gym three or four times each week. With a body part split, they're hitting each body part only once every week or so. And if you're training the muscles that infrequently, your mass gains per month will be very limited.

If you think that higher frequency plans are only for genetic prodigies, I'll retort by saying I've never worked with anyone who couldn't recover from a workout within 48 hours. I can say this because I know how to manage fatigue and I know how to instill and incorporate volume and intensity fluctuations so that they can recover.

Thibaudeau: I can attest to Chad's point about nerve damage and loss of arm mass. I know a competitive bodybuilder who's had nerve damage to his left shoulder girdle and the guy basically lost all pectoral and arm size on his left side. It's also my opinion that the same thing happened to Ronnie Coleman at this year's Olympia. Most observers noticed that his left side (except his chest) was smaller than his right side. This was especially visible in his left triceps and lat.

However, I still stand by my point that not everybody can grow all muscles optimally from using only compound movements because the body will look for the easiest biomechanical solution to a motor problem. If you're doing a bench press, your body doesn't care if you're trying to build a large chest; it only knows that it's holding a weight that's about to give it a deep cardiac massage! So in the interest of survival, the body will look for the muscle recruitment pattern that will bring the best chance of survival.

If someone is "shoulder dominant," the shoulders will take on a greater workload, and as a result it'll diminish the stimulation placed on the pectorals. If we were to stick only to the bench press, over time the problem would get worse because the shoulders (which receive more growth stimulus) would become increasingly dominant. As a result, it'll become more and more difficult to fully stimulate the chest.

Now, some people do have a balanced build and will get an equal stimulation throughout all muscles involved in a compound lift. These individuals won't need much, if any, isolation work to make every muscle grow optimally. But the majority of gym rats aren't built that way: they have their strong points and their weak points and that requires a broader exercise selection.

Also, Alwyn makes a good point when he mentions that bodybuilding, powerlifting etc. are sports, and that T-Nation readers (or most serious gym rats for that matter) don't have competitive goals in mind. As a result, most will fall in between training categories.

I also agree that training the body the way it's supposed to move sounds about right for the average Joe or Jane. However, who's to say that using certain body part splits aren't adequate in that regard?

If I say "today is chest, shoulders, and triceps day" it sounds like a body part split; however, if I were to say "today we train pushing movements," now it sounds like it's more functional. Yet in both cases the content of the training session could be exactly the same!

Stay tuned tomorrow for the next half of this debate!

Chris Shugart is T Nation's Chief Content Officer and the creator of the Velocity Diet. As part of his investigative journalism for T Nation, Chris was featured on HBO’s "Real Sports with Bryant Gumble." Follow on Instagram