CNET logo Why You Can Trust CNET

Our fitness advice is expert-vetted. Our top picks are based on our editors’ independent research, analysis, and hands-on testing. If you buy through our links, we may get a commission. Reviews ethics statement

Full-body workout vs. split workout: Only one is worth your time

For busy people, full-body workouts are key to getting fit.

Amanda Capritto
5 min read

Unless you have six or more hours per week to work out, bicep curls really aren't in your best interest.

Getty Images

Hate to break it to you, but you should probably stop doing bicep curls if you only have a couple of hours per week to work out. They're kind of useless if you're time-limited and want to improve your fitness . Quadricep extensions, calf raises, tricep push-downs and other isolation exercises also won't do much for you if you don't have time to dedicate to functional movements like squats, deadlifts, push-ups and shoulder presses

There's no skirting the fact that functional, full-body movements provide the most value for time and effort. Exercises like lunges and push-ups will always be more effective than exercises that isolate a single muscle -- and for those of us with limited time, we owe it to ourselves to get the most out of each and every workout. 

Full-body vs. split workouts


Full-body workouts are a time saver.

Getty Images

A full-body workout engages all of your muscle groups during one session, and takes many forms -- HIIT, high-intensity resistance training (HIRT), bodyweight workouts or conventional weightlifting

Split workout plans, on the other hand, are designed to separate muscle groups from one another. People partake in split workout programs to maximize muscle growth and reduce the number of rest days they need to take. By dedicating an entire day to one muscle group, such as your chest, you can fully fatigue the muscles and target them from a variety of angles, ensuring you develop a muscle to its full extent.

The problem is, split plans lose effectiveness if you don't have five or six days to work out each week. Take the common bodybuilding "push-pull-legs" plan as an example.

On this split plan, you rotate pushing movements, pulling movements and leg movements with a rest day after completing all three. Pushing movements isolate your chest and triceps, while pulling movements isolate your back and biceps. And leg movements, well, you know. 

You could also simply rotate upper- and lower-body days or dedicate entire days to smaller muscle groups. For example, I once knew someone who followed this split plan:

  • Monday: Chest and triceps
  • Tuesday: Legs
  • Wednesday: Back and biceps
  • Thursday: Shoulders
  • Friday: Legs
  • Saturday: Core
  • Sunday: Rest

So this person dedicated an entire day to shoulders and an entire day to abs, which worked for him but is excessive for most people. This simply doesn't work for people who can't exercise six days a week. If you miss one workout on this plan, you neglect an entire muscle group that week. Split workouts plans also work best if you can dedicate at least 45 minutes each day to your workout -- working your arms for 20 minutes won't benefit you nearly as much as working your whole body for 20 minutes.

Full-body workouts work best for most people 


Compound movements like deadlifts give you the most bang for your buck (buck = time).

Getty Images

There are a few reasons for this, but the main reason most people should do full-body workouts over split workouts is time. Most people don't have enough time to dedicate an hour a day to exercising in the first place, let alone spend that much time on a single muscle group. 

Full-body workouts maximize your time, and instead of spending your one hour (or less) pumping up your biceps, you could be chasing real gains like whole-body strength, core stabilization, functional mobility and endurance

Other reasons for choosing full-body workouts instead of split workouts include: 

  • Full-body workouts generally yield a higher total energy expenditure per session (i.e., you burn more calories).
  • It's no big deal if you miss a workout. If you train three times per week and miss one workout, you've already worked all of your muscle groups twice. On the contrary, missing a workout on a split plan means you neglected a certain muscle group for that week. 
  • Full-body workouts force you to focus on functional movements, which you need for longevity and a high quality of life. 
  • Full-body workouts tend to include more movements that improve core stabilization and posture.

When to add muscle isolation to your workout


Isolation movements have their place if you have lots of time to work out.

Getty Images

I usually advise personal training clients to add muscle isolation into their workouts if and when any of the following three scenarios occur: 

  • They're nursing an injury that requires strengthening a particular muscle (for example, strengthening the quads to help an injured knee heal).
  • They have a schedule change that allows them to work out longer or on more days.
  • They become advanced enough to safely and smartly incorporate both into the same workout.
  • They have a specific aesthetic goal and/or want to compete in a bodybuilding competition (this requires more time than most people have).

If none of the above apply to you, you're likely better off sticking to full-body workouts focused on functional movement, longevity and overall health. 

You can incorporate both if you want to


Some movements, like Bulgarian split squats, seem to isolate one muscle but actually recruit most muscle groups.

Getty Images

All this isn't to say you have to choose one over the other all the time. You can definitely include full-body workouts and muscle isolation movements into your workout routine if you want to -- you can even do both in the same workout if you plan smartly or have good programming from a trainer.

If you already work out several days each week, you can dedicate some of those days to muscle isolation. Try this example for a good balance of full-body, functional exercise and isolation workouts: 

  • Monday: Full-body HIRT workout
  • Tuesday: 30-minute walk and 30 minutes of core work
  • Wednesday: Lower-body day 
  • Thursday: Rest
  • Friday: Full-body HIIT workout
  • Saturday: 30-minute walk and 30 minutes of upper-body work
  • Sunday: Rest

In the above example, you get a nice combination of intense full-body exercise, steady-state cardio and muscle isolation work across five workouts. 


Good programming allows you to incorporate full-body movements and muscle isolation movements into your workouts.

Getty Images

To include full-body and muscle isolation work in the same workout, throw in a few supersets like below. 

Full-body day with legs and glutes focus:

Part 1: Complete three sets

Part 2: Complete three sets

Part 3: Complete three rounds

The above workout includes full-body movements (squat to press, deadlifts and broad jumps) along with isolation movements (quad extensions, hip thrusts and barbell rows). 

All six movements primarily work your legs, glutes and back while requiring engagement of your core and upper body, making this a great full-body but also targeted workout. 

If you do something similar with an upper-body focus and another with a core focus, you have a fantastic weekly workout routine with just three sessions each week.

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.