The year was 2017 - I had been in the health and fitness industry for over a decade and I’d thought I’d had it all figured out.
Break up my workouts into muscle groups.
Fit cardio into my routine whenever I can.
I had been conditioned to believe that this was not only the best way, but the only way to do it.
How wrong I was.
The one thing I wasn’t doing was listening to my body.
I mean, I thought I was, but I wasn’t.
I didn’t know how to listen, because I couldn’t understand what my body was telling me.
I could deadlift 2.5x my bodyweight, but single-leg movements gave me a ton of problems - so I tended to avoid them.
I appeared to have “great posture”, but in reality I was actually suffering from chronic, persistent lower back pain.
My right shoulder was racked with instability and pain, due to years of athletics combined with insufficient and irrelevant strength training.
I had suffered a hip injury playing baseball, which left me dealing with long-term sciatic pain that no amount of stretching could help.
I had been dealing with plantar fasciitis and lateral foot pain due to years or poorly fitting footwear.
I felt lost, broken and unmotivated.
I needed to put on a brave face for my clients to help them with their own fitness goals, but in reality I was struggling with my own.
My goals had changed - I went from wanting to look a certain way, being as strong and fast as possible, and playing sports at a high level in my twenties, to maximizing every movement pattern and remaining pain-free - and playing sports at a high level in my thirties (and beyond).
It turns out that the solution was treating myself like I was one of those clients.
I knew there were several patterns that needed work, and that there were exercises that I needed to stop avoiding.
I started doing full-body workouts, primarily because of the aforementioned movement issues, but also because my busy schedule made me realize that I could never improve by working on a specific area once, maybe twice, per week.
The traditional upper-lower split program wasn’t going to cut it, and it’s very likely that it isn’t working for you either - whether you realize it or not.
Before we dive into why full-body workouts are better for a majority of people, let’s first figure out what exactly everyone needs to consider when doing any type of fitness program.
Exercise should always be about building your bodies’ capacity to do work, which means gradually progressing exercises to increase overall strength, endurance and well-being.
The four major principles of exercise that are important to keep in mind whenever you start a new routine: Specificity, Overload, Progression and Reversibility.
Simply put - if you want to improve any aspect of health and fitness, your routine should largely focus on that aspect.
If you want to get stronger, exercises that involve resistance primarily using large muscle groups must be employed.
If you want to improve endurance, performing exercises that maximize breathing/heart rate are non-negotiable.
If you want to improve your mobility and flexibility, having a routine that emphasizes quality movement are essential - especially for “problem areas.”
The first thing that people think of when they hear overload, is that they need to lift heavy as soon as possible.
This is NOT the case for most people.
Gradual overload means that we
must continually, intelligently and realistically increase the physical demands placed on the body - this refers to work capacity or ‘volume.’
General Equation = [ Sets x Repetitions x Weight/Resistance = Volume ]
When people start a new routine, they usually do so with the intent of achieving results as fast as possible. This could be self-imposed, or the result of an empty promise from a trainer.
Whatever the case may be, what you need to know is that trying to increase all aspects at the same time will NOT speed up desired results
It will only increase the likelihood of fatigue, stiffness/soreness and eventually, injury.
So, how should you actually monitor gradual overload?
That’s called progression, and it’s actually a lot easier to do than most people understand.
While there are no hard-and-fast rules on how rapidly an individual should progress for a given exercise or workout, it is reasonable to maintain activity levels for at least 1-2 weeks before changing any aspect at all.
In fact, for some exercises, you may never see (or require) a drastic difference in weight or reps.
Here is an easy guide for increasing:
10% increase in weight/resistance using the same number of repetitions from previous workouts
2-5 additional repetitions using the same weight from previous workouts
10-20s increase in time holding a static position or time under tension
In short - if you don’t use it, you lose it!
Staying consistent is extremely tough to do if you’re constantly overshooting your capacities, because you can’t do it if you’re hurting or injured. The vicious cycle of over-working and being forced to rest and recover will diminish results and program adherence.
Don’t be a statistic!
The most neglected aspect of performance is the movement pattern quality, which essentially means how well you are able to maintain body control during a given movement.
Don’t worry about things you can’t control, and instead, place all of your focus on what you CAN:
✔ Slow, controlled movement through a full range of motion for every single exercise, even if it means lowering the weight or losing it altogether - get as close to a perfect repetition as you can get!
✔ Focus! Many people use the ‘buddy system’ when working out, but it can be a hindrance if you truly want to improve a complicated movement. Get locked in and make the most of every repetition. Quality over quantity always!
✔ Use a REGRESSION! Many people require these for exercises, which essentially means the difficulty level needs to be modified - studies show that this is the single, best way to learn/maximize a new movement pattern!
Based on the aforementioned, here are the top 5 reasons that you should be doing full body workouts:
Hands down, the best reason to use full-body training is time efficiency.
If you intelligently employ a variety of movements that use large muscle groups, focusing on strength and stability of the major joints of the body with minimal rest in between, you’re not only improving strength, you’re benefiting from the cardiovascular effect as well. It also allows you to better identify strength imbalances and any issues with particular movement patterns.
Not only that, it works for every kind of lifestyle.
Whether you are just aiming to be more healthy and active, or you enjoy other sports such as running or cycling, full body workouts provide flexibility in that you won’t be overworking certain muscle groups, so you are more free to enjoy the other activities you love to do.
Full body workouts are amazing for variety - and when I say variety, that doesn’t mean changing the workout every single time.
It means doing a certain movement in a variety of ways and directions.
Using the lunge as an example, you could perform a split squat, a reverse lunge, a walking lunge or a lateral lunge. They all have different benefits, and maximizing performance in all of them will ensure a strong, stable lower body in all directions.
This easy manipulation will lower boredom levels and improve movement patterns at the same time, which is amazing for improving strength imbalances and injury resistance over time.
Most people simply overdo it by training a particular muscle group once a week. Although it seems counterintuitive, training them multiple times per week will allow you to recover more efficiently.
Allow me to explain.
A generic leg day usually results in a number of exercises that often results in poorly executed movements, and the dreaded delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), which affects the quality of your workouts for days afterwards.
By doing full-body workouts, you can reduce the amount of exercises for a particular muscle group, improve the quality of a given movement pattern, recover quicker and still see the same strength benefits.
Instead of doing 6-10 leg exercises in one day, spread them out over the course of a week.
Your body and your mind will thank you.
Training full-body movement patterns allows you to better understand the types of movements that are more applicable to you and your goals.
By learning more about the movements, you become more adaptable in that you will better understand how/when you can change the exercise based on available equipment.
This allows you to exercise anywhere - whether it’s outside, at home, or in the gym.
Picture this - you are doing a split program that alternates between upper and lower body days, but you miss a workout due to unforeseen circumstances.
Life gets in the way - it happens!
So what do you do? Either you will skip it altogether, or try to make up it for by cramming the workouts into the next couple of days. This usually results in lower quality workouts on both ends, and a longer recovery period (see 'DOMS' above)
One of the biggest advantages of full body training is not worrying about missing a workout. Aiming to train every second day is a fantastic and realistic goal to have, and in the event you miss a day or two, you can pick up right where you left off without missing a beat.
Full body workouts can be a game-changer for anyone, regardless of skill level or the specific goal you may have.
Practicing movement patterns more often - especially the ones you struggle with - will provide longevity and the ability to stay active and pain-free for life.
Studies show that the largest limiting factor for exercise progression isn't a lack of strength, it's a lack of joint mobility and stability.
By practicing more often, we create a more mobile and stable environment for improvement, as opposed to doing a ton of exercises, and not doing them again until the following week.
While it isn't reasonable to attain perfection right away, it's much more attainable by having an intelligent game plan that aims to maintain and build on your strengths, while simultaneously working on any weaknesses.
Any other approach is setting you up for failure.