Vitamins & Minerals

The Best Full-Body Workout Routines for Building Muscle

Full-body workouts are more or less exactly what they sound like: workouts in which you train all of your major muscle groups in each session.

They’re popular among many in-the-know fitness folk (including Legion Scientific Advisory Board members Dr. Eric Helms and Menno Henselmans) because they’re simple to set up and ensure that you never get overly fatigued on any given day (which is particularly helpful for people who are in a calorie deficit).

However, not all fitness experts are sold on the idea.

Those who disagree say full-body workout routines might work well for beginners, but they quickly lose utility once you go beyond your first year of lifting.

What’s more, because there are so many moving parts they’re easy to mess up, and if you don’t manage your volume and exercises properly, you run the risk of doing too much work while getting too little rest.

Others also believe they’re suboptimal for gaining muscle, for reasons we’ll look at in this article.

The truth is, total-body workouts are great for building muscle and gaining strength, especially for those on the fringes (the people just beginning their weightlifting journey and those who’ve already achieved most of their genetic potential for muscle gain).

However, if you’re going to make progress with full-body weight training, you have to know how to organize your workouts, or you can easily run into issues such as overreaching or injury.

In this article you’ll learn everything you need to know about full-body workout plans, including . . .

  • The benefits of full-body workouts
  • How to make full-body workouts work for you
  • The best full-body workouts for building muscle
  • How to progress in your full-body workouts

What Is a Full-Body Workout Routine?

Although some bodybuilders follow literal full-body workout routines—training every major muscle group in a workout, resting a day or two, and then doing the same workout again—that approach has fallen out of favor because it makes for grueling, unsustainable workouts. 

Most modern “full-body” workout routines are more accurately described as “high-frequency” workout routines that involve training two or more muscle groups per workout and each muscle group at least twice per week.

We’ll get into the science of high-frequency training in a moment, but the long story short is a growing body of evidence shows that training each muscle group at least twice and possibly more than twice per week is optimal for gaining strength and muscle.

To achieve this level of frequency, though, you have to train multiple different muscle groups in each workout. 

You don’t have to train every single muscle group in every workout, mind you, and you certainly don’t have to do the same exercises in every workout, which is why the new evidence-based take on full-body training differs from the early approach.

So much so that many contemporary “full-body” workout routines don’t contain a single true “full-body workout,” because the goal isn’t to merely train every major muscle group in each session but to achieve optimal weekly training and volume frequency for each major muscle group.

Thus, from here on, when I refer to “full-body” training, read “almost-full-body training that involves training two or more muscle groups per workout so as to train each major muscle group at least twice per week.”

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The Benefits of Full-Body Workouts

1. Full-body workouts may make it easier to do “high-quality” volume.

If you want to develop any major muscle group, research shows it’s normally best to train it with a total of 10-to-20 sets per week. 

Generally speaking . . .

  • In your first two or so years of weightlifting you can maximize progress doing 10-to-12 sets per major muscle group per week.
  • When you’re been training for two to four years, you may progress faster if you do 12-to-15 sets per major muscle group per week.
  • When you’ve been training for more than four years, you may make better progress if you do 15-to-20 sets per major muscle group per week.

(Keep in mind that none of these numbers are set in stone and can vary from person to person, but this is a good frame of reference).

The reason for this is that as you approach your genetic ceiling for muscle growth, your muscles become more “resistant” to the muscle-building effects of strength training, and you may have to do more volume (sets) to continue making progress.

If you’re doing 10-to-12 sets per muscle group per week you should have no trouble doing them all in one or two workouts. However, if you’re doing 12-to-20 sets per muscle group per week, you’re better off splitting up these sets across at least two workouts and maybe even more.

This is because you can only do so many productive sets in a workout before fatigue sets in, performance plummets, and the quality of your sets suffers.

For example, if you tried to do 15 sets of chest training in a single workout, you’d probably feel good for the first 6 sets. After that, you’d begin to feel fatigued but probably wouldn’t need to stop. Once you’d done 10 or 11 sets, however, you’d be gassed and grinding every rep, and you’d still have four or five sets to go.

At this point, the only way to finish the workout would be to decrease the amount of weight you’re lifting or doing fewer reps, or by taking every set to absolute failure, both of which will hamper your strength and muscle gain over time.

If you do full-body weight training, however, you can spread your 15 sets across two, three, or more workouts per week.

Programming your workouts like this theoretically . . .

  • Makes it easier to fit in a lot of volume each week (if needs be)
  • Allows you to maintain a higher average intensity across your sets (which could translate into greater muscle growth over time)

I say “theoretically,” because while there’s strong evidence that dividing your weekly sets for a muscle group into at least two workouts per week is better than one, there isn’t much evidence that training a muscle group three or more times is better than twice per week.

2. Full-body workouts may limit soreness and fatigue.

Research shows that you generally perform better on the exercises you do early in your workouts because that’s when you feel freshest.

As you progress through a workout, however, the fatigue caused by the exercises at the beginning of your workout negatively affects your performance on subsequent exercises.

The same principle applies over the course of a week.

For example, if you “crush” your chest on Monday (naturally), your triceps and delts may still be sore when it’s time for overhead presses on Thursday, which may limit your performance. 

The thinking behind full-body weight training is that you can avoid these problems by rarely training any one muscle group to the point of exhaustion. In theory, this means . . . 

  • You experience less muscle soreness and fatigue from individual training sessions.
  • Your training at the end of the week isn’t negatively affected by the workouts you did earlier in the week.

3. Full-body workouts may increase muscle protein synthesis.

After a workout there’s a period of time when muscle protein synthesis increases and the muscles you’ve trained are primed for growth (provided you feed them with enough protein and calories). 

The more frequently you raise muscle protein synthesis, the more muscle you’ll gain . . . at least that’s the theory.

In reality, however, it’s not clear whether smaller but more frequent increases in muscle protein synthesis throughout the week are better than fewer larger ones, and even if it were, it’s likely only meaningful for experienced weightlifters.

This is because people who are new to weightlifting benefit from a much more prolonged increase in muscle protein synthesis after a workout.

For example, in a study conducted by scientists at the University of São Paulo, the researchers found that average muscle protein synthesis was about three times higher among untrained weightlifters than trained weightlifters over the two days following an intense workout.

You can see the relative change in muscle protein synthesis among the two groups in this chart:


Muscle-Protein-Synthesis

So, after training on Monday, a new weightlifter’s muscle protein synthesis levels might still be elevated come Friday or even the next Monday. Thus, training the same muscles again during this time might not be necessary or beneficial.

It’s a different story for more advanced weightlifters, though, who only get several hours of elevated muscle protein synthesis rates after a workout. In this case, training a muscle group several times per week could help to keep muscle protein synthesis rates elevated for longer and indeed increase muscle growth over time. 

Again, that’s the theory, and a few studies have shown that a higher training frequency may result in more muscle and strength gains.

Au contraire, though, three recent, large scientific reviews found little benefit to training a muscle group more than twice per week. In fact, one review even concluded that advanced weightlifters might experience more muscle growth from reducing their training frequency and doing more sets in each workout.

Thus, the “do-more-workouts-to-bump-up-protein-synthesis” theory may look better on paper than it does in practice.

4. Full-body workout plans are flexible.

Many workout routines don’t accommodate schedule changes, but this isn’t the case with full-body workout plans.

Missing a day on a body-part split might throw the rest of the week into scheduling turmoil, and leave you shoehorning a shoulder workout into your leg day. 

When you follow a full-body split, this isn’t so much of an issue.

If you can’t reshuffle your remaining workouts so that they include any major exercises you missed while you were away from the gym, you can simply continue on as normal in your next workout, since you have multiple opportunities each week to train every muscle group.

This isn’t ideal, of course, but it’s far less problematic than when you miss a day on a body-part split.

5. Full-body workout routines are time efficient.

To make full-body workout routines more time-efficient without compromising performance, you can alternate between exercises that train different muscle groups (a technique known as “supersetting”).

The best way to implement supersets is with antagonist paired sets, which involve alternating between two exercises that train different muscle groups and resting longer than normal between sets than regular supersets.

For example, you could do a set of bench press (which trains your chest, shoulders, and triceps), rest a minute, and then do a set of chin-ups (which trains your back and biceps), and rest another minute. Then, you’d keep alternating between the two exercises until you’ve finished all of your sets for both exercises.

This allows you to use the sets for one exercise as rest periods for another (your “chin-up muscles” are resting while your “bench press muscles” are working, and vice versa). As a result, you don’t have to rest as long in between sets, which helps you finish your workouts faster.

Of course, you don’t have to follow a full-body workout routine to implement antagonist-paired sets, but the two strategies complement each other nicely.

The Problems with Full-Body Workout Routines

If you’ve been reading between the lines, you’ve probably noticed that I’m not entirely convinced full-body training is the paragon of workout programming.

While there are some compelling arguments in favor of very high frequency training (which I’ll loosely define as 3+ times per week), most of these are based on supposition and theory rather than ironclad research. 

What’s more, there’s also some scientific evidence that you can train with too few sets per workout to optimally stimulate muscle growth, in which case “sprinkling” your sets throughout four or five workouts per week would be inferior to concentrating them into ~two workouts per week (as most workout splits do). 

There’s also the issue of repetitive stress injuries. 

One advantage of training a muscle group, say, twice per week with a few days of rest between workouts, is that your joints and other connective tissues have at least a few days to recover before getting bludgeoned again. 

Although your joints might not get thrashed as much in any individual workout with full-body training, they also don’t get much of a breather throughout the week, which could cause aches, pains, and injuries for some folks down the line. 

All in all, I think high-frequency training can work for some folks, but it would be premature to say it’s better than traditional workout splits like push pull legs, upper/lower, and so on. And given that even die-hard proponents of full-body training concede that its main benefit is allowing you to squeeze more volume into the week, if you’re still making good progress on a low- or moderate-volume training program, you’re unlikely to notice much benefit. 

All of that said, if you’d like to try your hand at full-body (high-frequency, really) training, here’s how to go about it correctly.

How to Make Full-Body Workout Routines Work for You

1. Emphasize one or two exercises or muscle groups in each workout.

Although you’re training multiple muscle groups in each workout, you still want to pick one or two to prioritize. This simplifies your programming and ensures you’re emphasizing the muscle groups you most want to develop.

2. Do your compound exercises at the beginning of your workouts.

Compound exercises involve multiple joints and muscle groups, and are the most physically and technically demanding exercises. Thus, you want to do them at the beginning of your workouts.

For instance, even if you care more about building your biceps than your legs, it’s still usually best to do squats before curls, because it’s harder to maintain good form on your squats when you’re fatigued.

3. Train each muscle group with one or two exercises per workout and 10-to-20 sets per week.

By using moderate levels of training volume in each workout, you’ll minimize soreness and fatigue that would cut into your other workouts, and by doing 10-to-20 sets per major muscle group per week (and the high end if you’re experienced), you’ll give your muscles a powerful signal to grow.

The Best Full-Body Workout Plans for Building Muscle

The following workout routines embody all of the key principles we’ve discussed so far.

Anyone familiar with my Bigger Leaner Stronger and Thinner Leaner Stronger routines will immediately recognize that these whole-body workouts are basically higher-frequency adaptations of those programs, too.

The 5-Day Full-Body Workout Routine

Workout 1: Press Emphasis

  • Barbell Bench Press: 3 sets of 4-to-6 reps with 2-to-3 min rest
  • Seated Cable Row: 3 sets of 6-to-8 reps with 2-to-3 min rest
  • Dumbbell Side Lateral Raise: 3 sets of 8-to-10 reps with 2-to-3 min rest
  • Lying Leg Curl: 3 sets of 8-to-10 reps with 2-to-3 min rest

Workout 2: Squat Emphasis

  • Barbell Back Squat: 3 sets of 4-to-6 reps with 2-to-3 min rest
  • Standing EZ Bar Curl: 3 sets of 6-to-8 reps with 2-to-3 min rest
  • Cable Triceps Pressdown: 3 sets of 8-to-10 reps with 2-to-3 min rest
  • Seated Calf Raise: 3 sets of 8-to-10 reps with 2-to-3 min rest

Workout 3: Press Emphasis

  • Standing Military Press: 3 sets of 4-to-6 reps with 2-to-3 min rest
  • Pull-up (weighted if possible): 3 sets of 6-to-8 reps with 2-to-3 min rest
  • Dumbbell Bench Press: 3 sets of 8-to-10 reps with 2-to-3 min rest
  • Leg Extension: 3 sets of 8-to-10 reps with 2-to-3 min rest

Workout 4: Pull Emphasis

  • Barbell Deadlift: 3 sets of 4-to-6 reps with 2-to-3 min rest
  • Standing EZ Bar Curl: 3 sets of 6-to-8 reps with 2-to-3 min rest
  • Dumbbell Rear Lateral Raise: 3 sets of 8-to-10 reps with 2-to-3 min rest
  • Cable Triceps Pushdown: 3 sets of 8-to-10 reps with 2-to-3 min rest

Workout 5: Press Emphasis

  • Incline Barbell Bench Press: 3 sets of 4-to-6 reps with 2-to-3 min rest
  • Leg Press: 3 sets of 6-to-8 reps with 2-to-3 min rest
  • One-arm Dumbbell Row: 3 sets of 8-to-10 reps with 2-to-3 min rest
  • Leg Press Calf Raise: 3 sets of 8-to-10 reps with 2-to-3 min rest

The 4-Day Full-Body Workout Routine

Workout 1: Press Emphasis

  • Barbell Bench Press: 3 sets of 4-to-6 reps with 2-to-3 min rest
  • Seated Cable Row: 3 sets of 6-to-8 reps with 2-to-3 min rest
  • Dumbbell Side Lateral Raise: 3 sets of 8-to-10 reps with 2-to-3 min rest
  • Lying Leg Curl: 3 sets of 8-to-10 reps with 2-to-3 min rest

Workout 2: Squat Emphasis

  • Barbell Back Squat: 3 sets of 4-to-6 reps with 2-to-3 min rest
  • Pull-up (weighted if possible): 3 sets of 6-to-8 reps with 2-to-3 min rest
  • Dumbbell Rear Lateral Raise: 3 sets of 8-to-10 reps with 2-to-3 min rest
  • Cable Triceps Pushdown: 3 sets of 8-to-10 reps with 2-to-3 min rest

Workout 3: Pull Emphasis

  • Barbell Deadlift: 3 sets of 4-to-6 reps with 2-to-3 min rest
  • Dumbbell Rear Lateral Raise: 3 sets of 6-to-8 reps with 2-to-3 min rest
  • Standing EZ Bar Curl: 3 sets of 8-to-10 reps with 2-to-3 min rest
  • Dumbbell Side Lateral Raise: 3 sets of 8-to-10 reps with 2-to-3 min rest

Workout 4: Press Emphasis

  • Standing Military Press: 3 sets of 4-to-6 reps with 2-to-3 min rest
  • Leg Press: 3 sets of 6-to-8 reps with 2-to-3 min rest
  • One-arm Dumbbell Row: 3 sets of 8-to-10 reps with 2-to-3 min rest
  • Seated Calf Raise: 3 sets of 8-to-10 reps with 2-to-3 min rest

The 3-Day Full-Body Workout Routine

Workout 1: Press Emphasis

  • Barbell Bench Press: 4 sets of 4-to-6 reps with 2-to-3 min rest
  • Seated Cable Row: 4 sets of 6-to-8 reps with 2-to-3 min rest
  • Dumbbell Side Lateral Raise: 4 sets of 8-to-10 reps with 2-to-3 min rest
  • Lying Leg Curl: 4 sets of 8-to-10 reps with 2-to-3 min rest

Workout 2: Squat Emphasis

  • Barbell Back Squat: 4 sets of 4-to-6 reps with 2-to-3 min rest
  • Standing Military Press: 4 sets of 4-to-6 reps with 2-to-3 min rest
  • Pull-up (weighted if possible): 3 sets of 6-to-8 reps with 2-to-3 min rest
  • Standing EZ Bar Curl: 4 sets of 8-to-10 reps with 2-to-3 min rest

Workout 3: Pull Emphasis

  • Barbell Deadlift: 4 sets of 4-to-6 reps with 2-to-3 min rest
  • Dumbbell Bench Press: 4 sets of 6-to-8 reps with 2-to-3 min rest
  • Leg Press: 4 sets of 6-to-8 reps with 2-to-3 min rest
  • Dumbbell Side Lateral Raise: 4 sets of 8-to-10 reps with 2-to-3 min rest

How to Progress in Your Full-Body Workouts

1. End every set 1-to-2 reps shy of muscle failure.

In order to maximize muscle and strength gains, you need to take most of your sets close (but not all the way) to muscle failure, which is the point at which you can’t complete a rep despite giving maximum effort.

To ensure you’re taking your sets close enough to failure, ask yourself this question at the end of each set, just before re-racking the weight: “If I absolutely had to, how many more reps could I get with good form?”

If the answer is more than two, then you should increase the weight or reps to make your next set more challenging. This ensures you’re including the right balance of volume and intensity in your full-body bodybuilding workouts.

2. Warm up before each workout.

Doing a thorough warm up before your first exercise in each workout . . .

  • Helps you troubleshoot your form and “groove in” proper technique
  • Prepares your muscles for your heavy sets, which can boost your performance and thus muscle and strength gain over time

When you do a total-body workout, you don’t need to warm up before every exercise. 

Instead, a thorough warm up before your first exercise in each workout should adequately prepare you for the rest of your workout.

(And don’t worry about having to do a warm up for a lower-body exercise at the end of a workout when you’ve otherwise only done upper-body exercises. By that point in your workout your body should be plenty warm from all the moving around you’ve done in the gym that day, so there’s no need to do more warm-up sets.)

When you do warm up for an exercise, here’s the protocol you want to follow:

  • Estimate roughly what weight you’re going to use for your three sets of the exercise (this is your “hard set” weight).
  • Do 10 reps with about 50 percent of your hard set weight, and rest for a minute.
  • Do another 10 reps with the same weight at a slightly faster pace, and rest for a minute.
  • Do 4 reps with about 70 percent of your hard set weight, and rest for a minute.

Then, do all of your hard sets for your first exercise, and then the rest of the exercises for that workout.

3. Rest at least 2-to-3 minutes between sets.

This will give your muscles enough time to fully recoup their strength so you can give maximum effort each set.

That said, if you’re feeling gassed between heavy sets of big, compound exercises like the squat or deadlift, it’s probably best to rest a little longer—anywhere from 3-to-5 minutes should do the trick.

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

For instance, let’s say your workout calls for 4-to-6 reps of flat barbell bench press. If you get 6 reps on one set, add 5 pounds to each side of the bar (10 pounds total) for your next set and work with that weight until you can (eventually) press it for 6 reps, and so forth.

If you get 3 or fewer reps with your new (higher) weight on your next sets, reduce the weight by 5 pounds to ensure you can stay within your target rep range (4-to-6) for all sets.

Follow this same pattern of trying to add reps or weight to every exercise in every workout. This method is known as double progression, and it’s a highly effective way to get fitter and stronger.

5. Take the right supplements.

Unfortunately, no amount of pills and powders are going to automagically help you build full-body muscle.

In fact, most muscle-building supplements are completely worthless.

But here’s the good news:

If you know how to eat and train to build muscle, certain supplements can speed up the process.  

Here are the best supplements for supporting your whole-body workouts:

  • 0.8-to-1.2 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day. This provides your body with the “building blocks” it needs to build and repair muscle tissue and help you recover from your workouts. If you want a clean, convenient, and delicious source of protein, try Whey+ or Casein+.
  • 3-to-5 grams of creatine per day. This will boost muscle and strength gain, improve anaerobic endurance, and reduce muscle damage and soreness from your total-body workouts. If you want a 100% natural source of creatine that also includes two other ingredients that will help boost muscle growth and improve recovery, try Recharge.
  • One serving of Pulse per day. Pulse is a 100% natural pre-workout drink that enhances energy, mood, and focus; increases strength and endurance; and reduces fatigue. You can also get Pulse with caffeine or without.

+ Scientific References

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