Are you ready to give full body workouts a try and target more than one major muscle group in one routine? If your goal is to build, maintain or continue the progress to gain muscle mass, the answer should definitely be a “YES.”
In this article, we will discuss how full body workouts help build muscle and mass, and we will give you a training routine to help you accomplish this goal.
Is it better to do Full Body Workouts or focus on one muscle group?
A full-body workout consists of distributing the training volume for each muscle group (or almost every muscle group), over a period of time, normally 2 to 4 times per week depending on your fitness goals. Full-body training is based on movement patterns (intermuscular coordination) as opposed to only targeting specific muscle groups per training session. The idea behind a full body workout is that every muscle group is best activated (increase in the size of pre-existing muscle fibers) when specific movements are performed taking into account the volume (quantity), frequency, and intensity (load).
The following recommendations1 to maximize muscle growth are developed by a consortium of experts in the field and based on the best available current studies.
4 variables, thought to be the most directly involved in muscle growth
- Researchers conclude that training multiple rep ranges is the best for building muscle.
You can vary rep ranges set to set, 15 reps with a light weight, 10 reps with moderate weight and 5 reps at a heavy weight. Or you can split the load in different training blocks, 4 weeks at a light weight, 4 weeks at a moderate weight and 4 weeks at a heavyweight.
- Choose weights that are difficult to complete but not so hard that you can’t complete the recommended 6 to 12 reps per set.
- Evidence suggests that at least 10 sets per muscle group per week is the ideal number to build muscle.
You can perform all 10 sets for a muscle group in a single session or do those 10 sets over the course of multiple sessions.
- For underdeveloped muscles, it’s OK to add up to 20% more sets to the weekly training program. For example, if you are working on your biceps curls; on week one you will do 10 sets, then you can add up to 2 sets of volume to your next week.
- The researchers say that it’s a good idea to spread out volume over more frequent training sessions.
You can divide that volume between two (or even three) workouts per week.
- When performing exercises that engage multiple joint groups (e.g. back squat); you should rest for at least two minutes. For single-joint (isolation) exercises, rest for between a minute and 90 seconds.
For better time management, you can think of rest intervals as a part of one set.
Summary: Each week an athlete should work each muscle (full body workouts) with at least 10 intense sets (almost muscle failure). It’s important to work the muscles from different angles with a 60-second to 120 second rest period between sets.
Full body workout program
Researchers agreed that the best way of gaining muscle is including compound movements in your total body workout. Compound movements require multi-joint movements to achieve the full range of motion, meaning that they recruit more muscles to perform a specific movement. This results in a higher calorie burn and more muscle stimulation.
With all the previous information in mind, we are going to give you an example of a full body workout routine to give you an idea on how different major muscle groups are targeted. This example of a full body workout was used to analyze maximal strength gains and hypertrophy2 (increase in muscles size). In this strength training program, you will work four sets per muscle group with 8 to 12 RM (repetition max.), meaning at a load heavy enough to do the sets unbroken but challenging enough to almost failure. Find what works for you, each athlete’s body composition and goals are different.
Don’t forget to warm up before every full body workout. To keep it simple, you can do warm up sets doing one set of ten repetitions with 50% of the load that you will use in the first set of each exercise.
Example of Training program design for Full-Body Workout Routine (2 times per week)
Bench press 4 sets x 8-12 RM
Cable triceps pushdown 4 sets x 8-12 RM
Shoulder press 4 sets x 8-12 RM
Seated row 4 sets x 8-12 RM
Biceps curl 4 sets x 8-12 RM
Squat 4 sets x 8-12 RM
Leg curl 4 sets x 8-12 RM
*Rest periods of 2 minutes between movements
Exercise 1: Bench Press
Bench presses are an effective compound exercise that involves the pectoralis major of the chest, the anterior deltoids of the shoulder, and the triceps brachii of the upper arm (chest, arm, and shoulder muscles). It builds strength as well as encouraging the growth (hypertrophy) of these muscles.
Start warming up with 50% of the weight you are planning to use in the workout and focus on optimizing your technique. Pay attention to retracting your shoulder blades, engaging the abdominals, proper breathing and controlling the bar. Start with a standard grip of the bar placing your grip at approximately shoulder-width.
There are some variations of the elbow position that you can explore once you feel comfortable performing the traditional barbell press. These are the close-grip bench press and wide-grip bench press. If you choose a wide grip you will be activating the pectoralis muscles, the largest portion of the chest. But if you position the elbows closer to your body (narrow grip) you will be activating the anterior deltoids, clavicular head of the pectoralis major and triceps brachii (upper chest region). The latter is recommended for athletes who have shoulder injuries or pain because having a narrow grip requires less shoulder horizontal abduction and more shoulder extension.
As time goes and you want to add some diversity to the movement, you could include variations such as the incline bench press, decline bench press, dumbbell chest press, bench press with bands. They all use similar movement patterns to the bench press.
Exercise 2: Cable triceps pushdown
The Cable Triceps Pushdown is a great isolation exercise which targets all three heads of the muscle arm with a bit more emphasis placed on the lateral and medial heads. This exercise also activates a variety of secondary muscle groups such as your lats (latissimus dorsi), abs (rectus abdominis), obliques (exterior obliques), pecs (pectoralis major and pectoralis minor) and traps (trapezius). These secondary muscles engage to stabilize and support the pushdown movement.
Although the cable triceps pushdown are normally performed using a machine with a cable system, it is possible to use a resistance band for at-home tricep workouts. With a stable hook or bar, or even an open door, you can wrap the resistance band over and perform this movement. Try to play around with your grip options to engage different muscles. For instance the underhand grip (with your palms facing away from you) will engage the forearms.
Exercise 3: Shoulder press
The shoulder press (or overhead press) is one of the best compound movements to develop upper body strength focusing on the muscles in the shoulders. It’s popular in resistance training, it can be done using dumbbells, kettlebells or barbells. Using a barbell gives your lift more stability and allows you to lift heavier and engage more muscles overall. It can be done standing and seated.
If you choose to do the shoulder press from a standing position, you’ll work most of the large muscles in your upper body, including the pectorals (chest), deltoids (shoulders), triceps (arms), and trapezius (upper back). You’ll also use the muscles in your core, including your abdominals and lower back to keep you upright and in balance.
In an upright position, you compensate for balance changes during each phase of the overhead press and create stability through the spine to ensure a proper foundation for a loaded overhead movement, explains Brent Rader, DPT, physical therapist at The Centers for Advanced Orthopedics.
If you choose to be seated while doing the shoulder press your back will be supported making the core activation go away. The shoulders and triceps will perform all of the work.
If shoulder press isn’t your thing, maybe you have some shoulder mobility issues, there are some variations of the shoulder press that train the same muscles:
- The Turkish get-up is a movement that uses a kettlebell or dumbbell.
- Any type of rowing exercise like seated row machine, bent-over row, barbell row, or dumbbell row.
- Push ups work some of the same muscles as the shoulder press, including the pectorals, triceps, and shoulders. Plus, you can add a weighted plate, a sandbag or use a weighted vest to get to your RM weight.
Exercise 4: Seated Row
The seated row is a compound exercise that targets muscles in the upper back and the muscle covering the outside of the chest wall, the latissimus dorsi, the rhomboids, the trapezius and the biceps brachii. It also targets other groups of muscles of the core, glutes and thighs.
Besides engaging all the major muscles of the body, rowing also works multiple joints through a large range of motion in a natural, powerful sequence and is a low impact exercise.
If you think about it, the rowing stroke is very similar to a deadlift as Angela Hart explains in her article about Rowing Technique. In the drive (work) phase, the legs initiate the power, and arms remain straight. Then the hip flexors and torso muscles maintain the power through the leg and hip drive. Finally, the arms finish the stroke with an accelerating pull toward the torso that completes the smooth handoff of power from lower
body to torso to upper body.
Angela suggests thinking of explosive power as you row, as if you are placing your feet on the back of a competitor and pushing away with every stroke.
Exercise 5: Biceps curl
A bicep curl is a type of isolated exercise that exclusively targets the biceps brachii, that runs from your shoulder to your forearm. Other muscles are also involved in this upper body exercise like the ones in your upper back to stabilize your torso and in your forearm to stabilize your wrists joints.
The biceps muscle is key in most pulling movements in resistance training. For example, anytime you do deadlifts, pull-ups, barbell rows, your biceps are involved.
Bicep curls are effective at recruiting your biceps and thus can be used to build size. Strengthening the biceps will help you increase muscle activity and therefore muscle hypertrophy.
Exercise 6: Barbell Back Squat
The barbell back squat is a compound exercise that targets several major muscle groups including the quadriceps, glutes, hamstrings, hip flexors, calves, and abdominals.
Besides activating several muscle groups, the barbell back squat is a full range motion movement. This is going to help you improve your ankles, knees, and hips mobility and with that increase the amount of weight you can lift, and support muscle building.
Since the barbell is resting across the trapezoids, you are able to load it up with more weight than you could by lifting dumbbells. Studies on barbell back squat effectiveness show that muscle growth can be effectively triggered when using 70% of your one repetition maximum for several sets of fewer repetitions. This goes in line with our proposed full body program, squat for 4 sets x 8-12 reps. At this volume and frequency you will increase muscle mass, enhance strength, and reduce body fat.
Exercise 7: Leg curl
The primary muscle worked by the leg curl is the hamstring.This is an isolated exercise that tons of athletes use to build strength and power in the hamstrings (the muscles in the back of your thighs). Other muscles worked include the calves, shins, glutes and quads. By building strength in the hamstrings, lifters have more support and also increased mobility and flexibility in the lower body.
There are several alternatives with different equipment for leg curls. The most common are the seated leg curl and the lying leg curl (both with machines). But if you are at home you can use a dumbbell. Try each leg curl out to see which works best for you.
Don’t forget to rest at least 2 minutes between sets. This time will allow your muscles to regain their strength so you can go ahead and give your best effort each set. It’s also a good idea to rest a little longer after doing sets of compound exercises (back squat, bench press, shoulder press, etc.). For those, take 3 to 5 minutes to rest if you need it.
Is it OK to do a full body workout everyday?
Research suggests strength gains are driven by the increase in training volume and not the frequency. This means that having several days of full body workouts in your fitness routine does not seem to provide additional benefits than just a couple of sessions per week.
Another study showed that resistance training focusing on the full body and not only one muscle group, performed 4 days per week provides no additional strength gains in relation to resistance training twice per week.
So yes, you can do a full body routine everyday, but if you are looking for efficiency in muscle growth and strength, use science and limit full body workouts to 2 to 3 times per week.
How to calculate one Repetition Max?
It’s possible to test one RM in practice by simply increasing the load on your barbell; but if you can do a certain amount of repetitions with a light weight, it’s possible to know your maximum lift. In this link you only need to enter the weight and select the maximum number of reps you can lift it (1-10). The table in the bottom will show what weight you can lift for different numbers of reps to failure as predicted by the formulas of various researchers.
Keep in mind that performing these exercises with a lighter load than your RM, may improve motor learning and proper technique. If you are a beginner, you do not need to perform an abundant amount of sets or repetitions. Keep the volume relatively low to avoid overtraining and unnecessary muscle soreness until you master the movement and feel comfortable and safe to add loads. Speaking of safety, it’s always useful to get a spotter buddy during your exercises.
Giuliana is a yoga instructor and Crossfitter from Peru who is currently living in Chiang Mai, Thailand with her Crossfit Coach (and husband) Tim.