Exercise

July 17, 2015


Bro-Split Versus Total-Body Training: Which Builds More Muscle?

Split routines are pretty much synonymous with bodybuilding. A recent survey of 127 competitive bodybuilders found that every respondent trained with a split routine. Every one! Moreover, 2/3 of respondents trained each muscle only once per week (what is popularly known as a “bro-split”) and none worked a muscle more than twice weekly. The theory behind such routines is that growth is maximized by blasting a muscle with multiple exercises from multiple angles and then allowing long periods of recovery.

Things weren’t always this way, though.

Old-school bodybuilders such as Steve Reeves and Reg Park swore by total-body routines, working all the major muscles each and every session over three non-consecutive days-per-week. Proponents thought that the greater training frequency was beneficial to packing on lean mass.

Thing is, the choice to use one type of routine or another has been almost exclusively based on anecdote and tradition. Surprisingly little research has been carried out on the topic, and no study had directly compared muscle growth in a total-body routine versus a bro-split.

Until now.

My lab carried out a controlled experiment to investigate the effect of training frequency on muscular adaptations. The study was recently published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. Here’s the scoop.

What We Did
Nineteen young men with an average of more than 4 years lifting experience were randomly assigned to a resistance training program using either a total-body (all muscles worked in a session) or split-body routine (2-3 muscle groups worked per session). The program consisted of 21 different exercises spread out over a 3 day-per-week training cycle. The volume of the routines were matched so that both groups performed an equal number of sets and reps over the course of each week. All subjects performed 3 sets of 8-12RM per exercise. Training was carried out for 8 weeks. The table below shows the program design for both routines.
Frequency Table

Subjects were tested pre- and post-study. We used B-mode ultrasound to measure the thickness of the biceps, triceps, and quads, and assessed maximal strength via 1RM for the back squat and bench press. Subjects were advised to consume their normal diets and we monitored food intake by analysis of a self-reported diary.

What We Found
Subjects in both groups significantly increased hypertrophy in the arm and leg muscles. That said, muscle mass increased significantly more in the biceps/brachialis for the group performing total body training compared with those in the split routine group. There was a trend for greater increases in the quads (i.e. vastus lateralis) and the effect size – a measure of the “meaningfulness” of results – markedly favored the total body group. Although no significant between-group differences were found in triceps thickness, the effect size again showed an advantage to total body training.

With respect to strength, both groups significantly increased 1RM performance in the bench press and squat from baseline. There were no significant between-group differences in either of these measures, although the effect size for the bench press did seem to favor the total body group.

How Can You Use This Info?
On the surface it would seem that a total-body routine is superior to a one-muscle-per-week bro-split for building muscle. All of the muscles we investigated showed greater growth from a higher training frequency. For the biceps, these results were “statistically significant,” meaning that that there was a greater than 95% probability that results did not occur by chance. While results in the quads and triceps did not reach “significance,” other statistical measures indicate a pretty clear advantage for the higher frequency routine. These results would seem to be consistent with the time-course of protein synthesis, which lasts approximately 48 hours (there is even some evidence that the time course is truncated as one gains lifting experience). Theoretically, repeated spiking of protein synthesis after it ebbs would result in greater muscular gains over time.

Before you jump the gun and ditch your split, a few things need to be considered when extrapolating results into practice.

First and foremost, it’s important to remember that the study equated volume between conditions. This was done to isolate the effects of frequency on muscular adaptations – an essential strategy for determining causality. However, a primary benefit of a split routine is the ability to increase per-workout volume while affording ample recovery between sessions. Since there is a clear dose-response relationship between volume and hypertrophy, total weekly volume needs to be factored into the equation. Certainly it’s possible that a split routine with a higher weekly volume would have performed as well or even better than the total body routine. Or perhaps not. We simply don’t know based on the current literature.

In addition, the vast majority of subjects in the study reported using a split routine as the basis of their usual workout programs, with muscles worked just once per week. This raises the possibility that the novelty factor of the total body routine influenced results. There is in fact some research showing that muscular adaptations are enhanced when program variables are altered outside of traditional norms. It’s therefore conceivable that participants in the total body group benefited from the unaccustomed stimulus of training more frequently.

Drawing Evidence-Based Conclusions
Given the available info, here’s my take on how the findings can be applied to your training program. There does seem to be a benefit to more frequent training sessions if max muscle is the goal. In this regard, it’s best to directly work each muscle at least twice a week; any less and you’re probably not stimulating protein synthesis frequently enough to optimize hypertrophy. Training each muscle three times a week, at least for periods of time, may provide additional benefits for spurring further gains.

Given the novelty factor, it’s reasonable to speculate that periodizing frequency over the course of a long-term training cycle might be the ideal option. Progressing from periods of working muscles twice to three times per week (and perhaps more) and then cycling back again will conceivably provide a novel stimulus that elicits continued gains. But remember: any discussion of training frequency must take total weekly volume into account. Greater training frequencies (from the standpoint of total training sessions per week) using a split routine can be employed to maximize total weekly volume and thus potentially drive greater hypertrophy over time.


48 Comments

  1. Yet another great masterpiece by Brad! Thanks a lot.

    Comment by Greg — July 18, 2015 @ 10:36 am

  2. hi,brad. I think that the diference between biceps and triceps is because of the bench press works the triceps too, therefore the triceps is working two days, I imagine that if you had been worked with exercise more isolated by the chest, the diference between triceps of the two groups had been bigger. because your three back exercise that you had choosen i think that the best biceps work is in the seated row.

    congratulations for your blog and i sorry for my writing but my english is limited

    Comment by ivan navarro — July 20, 2015 @ 8:24 am

  3. I think it’s well known that most of one’s muscular gains occur during the first part of training, and it becomes increasingly difficult to build muscle. I would assume almost 100% of the males who volunteered practiced the bro split (given the first paragraph in your article). Do you think this biases your study?

    Comment by ryan — July 22, 2015 @ 2:17 pm

  4. […] […]

    Pingback by *Der offizielle [HWLUXX] Fitness-Muskelaufbau-Sammelthread - Seite 2103 — July 23, 2015 @ 7:38 am

  5. Can you please tell me the specific average amount of muscle each group gained after the 8 weeks of the study? I want to know how inferior spilt routines are to full body routines.

    Comment by Henry Menh — July 23, 2015 @ 9:46 am

  6. […] This blog post by Brad Schoenfeld sums it up nicely. What Brad found is that if two programs are matched by volume (sets x reps x weight) then a total body program results in more muscle gain. The reason for this increase in muscle gain is simply that the muscles are worked more often. Instead of working your legs one day per week, you can train them three or four times per week. This increased frequency increases muscle gain since muscle protein synthesis will only be elevated for about 48 hours after training for any given muscle. If you work a certain muscle every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, it should theoretically by undergoing some amount of protein synthesis for the entire week. Brad also notes that in this study the volume was matched between the total body split and the body part split. The reason why body part splits can be effective is that you get an incredible amount of volume in one workout. In order for the body part split to work you would need to get an entire week’s worth of volume in one workout. Does that sound tough? Well, that’s because it is. To me it seems much more realistic to do a total body routine three or four days per week. That way every workout doesn’t have to suck (especially your weekly leg day). Imagine that you have to do 10 sets of 5 reps with 80% of your max on back squats during a week. Would you rather spread that over three training sessions or do it all in one? If you’re unsure, try doing 10 sets of 5 with 80% of your max in one workout and get back to me. […]

    Pingback by 3 Muscle Building Basics - Halse Strength and Fitness — July 24, 2015 @ 9:54 am

  7. Thanks for the amazing article! It’s very interesting to understand the effect of frequency while controlling for volume, and there hasn’t been much in the literature in that sense.

    Perhaps even more rare are studies that investigate the effect of overall workout frequency while controlling for frequency of exercising each muscle. For example, between:

    UB+LB – X – UB+LB – X – UB+LB – X – X
    vs.
    UB – LB – UB – LB – UB – LB – X

    where both upper-body and lower-body muscles are trained 3x/week and volume is equated, which protocol gives the best results in terms of hypertrophy? Do you have any ideas on this?

    Comment by Marcelo Mattar — July 25, 2015 @ 11:47 am

  8. […] Bro-Split Versus Total Body Training: Which Builds More Muscle– Brad Schoenfeld […]

    Pingback by FAMILY FIRST, Lateral Lunges + Favorite Fitness Reads! - Stacey Schaedler Strength — July 25, 2015 @ 7:02 pm

  9. […] Bro-Split Versus Total-Body Training: Which Builds More Muscle? via Brad Schoenfeld […]

    Pingback by Good Fitness Reads of the Week: 7/26/2015 | AdamPine.com — July 26, 2015 @ 9:22 pm

  10. […] Bro-Split Versus Total-Body Training: Which Builds More Muscle? – Brad Schoenfeld […]

    Pingback by Weekly Picks: July 29th, 2015 – Shadoe Fox — July 29, 2015 @ 4:43 pm

  11. I can’t recover fast enough when training the full body 3 times per week. I seem to breakdown after a few weeks and old injuries start to flare up. Might be my age 49……. Recovery much slower.

    Comment by Rod — August 1, 2015 @ 8:24 am

  12. What were the rest periods between sets for both groups? Was diet tracked at all during this period? Thanks.

    Comment by James — August 1, 2015 @ 9:24 pm

  13. Oops, just re-read and saw where diet was tracked. Sorry! Still curious about the rest periods though. :)

    Comment by James — August 1, 2015 @ 9:26 pm

  14. Great stuff as usual, really nice to have more studies on trained subjects rather than novices. If only funding was adequate to allow larger data sets I am sure there would be more statistical significance rung out of the study.

    Comment by johnnyv — August 3, 2015 @ 7:42 pm

  15. Question, Did both groups perform Day 3 or only the full body workout? The amount of volume on that day would be a killer workout and would take a long time

    Comment by Sully — August 4, 2015 @ 2:29 pm

  16. Where are the replies to he comments above.

    Thx

    Comment by Rodney Legendre — August 7, 2015 @ 6:51 am

  17. Fantastic info.

    Comment by Greg — August 14, 2015 @ 12:40 pm

  18. I’m curious, how far did the subjects in the full body routine take their 8-12RM sets? To concentric failure or 1-2 shy off it?

    Comment by John — September 5, 2015 @ 6:22 am

  19. All sets were carried out to concentric failure

    Comment by Brad — September 6, 2015 @ 9:49 am

  20. Not sure what you mean? Day 3 had similar volume to the other days?

    Comment by Brad — September 6, 2015 @ 9:49 am

  21. Rest was 90 secs. Diet was tracked at beginning and end of the study.

    Comment by Brad — September 6, 2015 @ 9:50 am

  22. […] according to the study that Dr. Schoenfeld published (make sure to check his site out for even more information about hypertrophy), this particular routine showed “significantly […]

    Pingback by This Circuit Will Train Every Muscle In Your Body in Less Than 45 Minutes « Weekly Gravy — November 2, 2015 @ 6:19 pm

  23. Hey Brad,
    Found your stuff from all the guest posting you do in the AARR. Now I follow you on FaceBook too. Pumped there are other people out there as science based as Alan.

    I currently train each muscle group three times per week but still in a split for a total of six days. Seems you reckon this would give results more similar to the full body group correct?

    Comment by Jason — November 27, 2015 @ 12:29 pm

  24. PS, I only just started and am three weeks in to the six day per week schedule.

    Comment by Jason — November 27, 2015 @ 12:32 pm

  25. Just started the six day per week that is. I’ve done 5×5 Starting Strength for a year but desire something new and more hypertrophy oriented. Before that it was 2 years of CrossFit. Sorry for not just putting that all in one comment.

    Comment by Jason — November 27, 2015 @ 12:34 pm

  26. […] brad Schoenfield had an amazing study regarding this topic http://www.lookgreatnaked.com/blog/bro-split-versus-total-body-training-which-builds-more-muscle/ […]

    Pingback by Bro-Split versus Total-body Training: Which Builds More Muscle? | TwinNation-Fitness — December 16, 2015 @ 8:02 am

  27. what i get out of this is that there is not much difference between 2x a week & 3x week. The triceps were trained twice in the bro-split, while thrice on the fullbody and results were marginally better for the fullbody.

    Comment by Mo — December 29, 2015 @ 7:22 pm

  28. A study comparing a upper-lower split vs fullbody might bring further insights Brad.

    Comment by Mo — December 29, 2015 @ 7:26 pm

  29. […] The routine will be a 3 days per week full-body workout. Research has clearly shown that a full body routine is superior to the standard bro-split. […]

    Pingback by StrongLifts 5x5 Alternative Workout — March 6, 2016 @ 4:50 pm

  30. […] Just like any other goal—fat loss, muscle growth, or strength gains—science has proven over and over again the benefits of having a specified, short time period for any specific goal. I could literally list 100 studies that show why you must periodize—or cycle—your training. Or maybe just as important, you must realize that frequency is an important part of growth. […]

    Pingback by Rethinking Arm Workouts - Health Insurance Companion — March 24, 2016 @ 8:57 am

  31. […] Just like any other goal—fat loss, muscle growth, or strength gains—science has proven over and over again the benefits of having a specified, short time period for any specific goal. I could literally list 100 studies that show why you must periodize—or cycle—your training. Or maybe just as important, you must realize that frequency is an important part of growth. […]

    Pingback by Rethinking Arm Workouts - Trainerous Community — March 24, 2016 @ 2:36 pm

  32. […] Just like any other goal—fat loss, muscle growth, or strength gains—science has proven over and over again the benefits of having a specified, short time period for any specific goal. I could literally list 100 studies that show why you must periodize—or cycle—your training. Or maybe just as important, you must realize that frequency is an important part of growth. […]

    Pingback by Rethinking Arm Workouts | Eugene Myers' Blog — March 25, 2016 @ 1:00 am

  33. […] This blog post by Brad Schoenfeld sums it up nicely. What Brad found is that if two programs are matched by volume (sets x reps x weight) then a total body program results in more muscle gain. The reason for this increase in muscle gain is simply that the muscles are worked more often. Instead of working your legs one day per week, you can train them three or four times per week. This increased frequency increases muscle gain since muscle protein synthesis will only be elevated for about 48 hours after training for any given muscle. If you work a certain muscle every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, it should theoretically by undergoing some amount of protein synthesis for the entire week. Brad also notes that in this study the volume was matched between the total body split and the body part split. The reason why body part splits can be effective is that you get an incredible amount of volume in one workout. In order for the body part split to work you would need to get an entire week’s worth of volume in one workout. Does that sound tough? Well, that’s because it is. To me it seems much more realistic to do a total body routine three or four days per week. That way every workout doesn’t have to suck (especially your weekly leg day). Imagine that you have to do 10 sets of 5 reps with 80% of your max on back squats during a week. Would you rather spread that over three training sessions or do it all in one? If you’re unsure, try doing 10 sets of 5 with 80% of your max in one workout and get back to me. […]

    Pingback by 3 Muscle Building Basics - Henry Halse — April 3, 2016 @ 12:16 pm

  34. […] Just like any other goal—fat loss, muscle growth, or strength gains—science has proven over and over again the benefits of having a specified, short time period for any specific goal. I could literally list 100 studies that show why you must periodize—or cycle—your training. Or maybe just as important, you must realize that frequency is an important part of growth. […]

    Pingback by Rethinking Arm Workouts | Sports Fitness & Exercise — April 13, 2016 @ 5:13 am

  35. […] Just like any other goal—fat loss, muscle growth, or strength gains—science has proven over and over again the benefits of having a specified, short time period for any specific goal. I could literally list 100 studies that show why you must periodize—or cycle—your training. Or maybe just as important, you must realize that frequency is an important part of growth. […]

    Pingback by Rethinking Arm Workouts - Trouble Spot Nutrition Reviews — May 4, 2016 @ 8:29 pm

  36. […] Just like any other goal—fat loss, muscle growth, or strength gains—science has proven over and over again the benefits of having a specified, short time period for any specific goal. I could literally list 100 studies that show why you must periodize—or cycle—your training. Or maybe just as important, you must realize that frequency is an important part of growth. […]

    Pingback by Rethinking Arm Workouts | Non Humans — May 5, 2016 @ 7:50 am

  37. […] Just like any other goal—fat loss, muscle growth, or strength gains—science has proven over and over again the benefits of having a specified, short time period for any specific goal. I could literally list 100 studies that show why you must periodize—or cycle—your training. Or maybe just as important, you must realize that frequency is an important part of growth. […]

    Pingback by Rethinking Arm Workouts | Tod Harkins — May 5, 2016 @ 8:20 am

  38. In this study, and in your other studies, lifters have more than 1 year experience. In other words, these were advanced lifters. But if that’s the case, wouldn’t they need more than 3 sets per muscle to elicit a growth response? Because from what i I’ve heard, the longer you’ve been lifting, the more sets you need to see growth.

    Comment by Alex C — May 10, 2016 @ 5:33 pm

  39. […] Just like any other goal—fat loss, muscle growth, or strength gains—science has proven over and over again the benefits of having a specified, short time period for any specific goal. I could literally list 100 studies that show why you must periodize—or cycle—your training. Or maybe just as important, you must realize that frequency is an important part of growth. […]

    Pingback by Rethinking Arm Workouts – OK Web Reviews — June 3, 2016 @ 12:50 pm

  40. […] Just like any other goal—fat loss, muscle growth, or strength gains—science has proven over and over again the benefits of having a specified, short time period for any specific goal. I could literally list 100 studies that show why you must periodize—or cycle—your training. Or maybe just as important, you must realize that frequency is an important part of growth. […]

    Pingback by Rethinking Arm Workouts | Yury Z — June 11, 2016 @ 3:25 pm

  41. A great article and very informed comments. It is good to see solid research science on the subject, not just individual preferences. I agree with the importance of short term quantifiable goals for any training, mostly to support consistency of training, whatever the method or frequency.

    Comment by Graham Forbes — June 21, 2016 @ 2:09 am

  42. […] learn more check out this Brad Schoendeld […]

    Pingback by How Often Should I Strength Train? – Taylor Cartee — July 25, 2016 @ 7:14 pm

  43. […] Just like any other goal—fat loss, muscle growth, or strength gains—science has proven over and over again the benefits of having a specified, short time period for any specific goal. I could literally list 100 studies that show why you must periodize—or cycle—your training. Or maybe just as important, you must realize that frequency is an important part of growth. […]

    Pingback by Rethinking Arm Workouts – Cardio Win — August 31, 2016 @ 7:32 pm

  44. […] 1. http://www.lookgreatnaked.com/blog/bro-split-versus-total-body-training-which-builds-more-muscle/ […]

    Pingback by Understanding the Importance of Training Frequency  - Redcon1 Online Official — September 15, 2016 @ 4:14 pm

  45. […] does not mean that you should completely forgo intense training for low intensity frequent workouts. Instead, try adding more short and low-intensity workouts to your current routine. These workouts […]

    Pingback by 3 Variables that Control Muscle Growth - BootStrap Fitness — October 24, 2016 @ 12:22 pm

  46. I can’t wait to see a study that shows a normal bro split with a lot of volume, or at least more volume compared to a full body routine. But for now we know that for same volume full body is better.

    Comment by Diego — December 2, 2016 @ 7:24 pm

  47. Diego:

    That study is currently underway. Stay tuned.

    Comment by Brad — December 5, 2016 @ 7:36 am

  48. Now You Can Research The Full Body

    […] did not occur by chance. While results in the quads and triceps did not reach â? […]

    Trackback by Comparative Blog — December 18, 2016 @ 4:43 pm

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