Total body training days have their advantages and disadvantages as do every program any athlete has ever done. Many coaches will tell you the best program is the one you’re not on right now. There is always a time and place for a variety of programs a coach may design in an athlete’s long term development. One of the more common constructs of training we see are the 4-Day Upper / Lower splits. This article will highlight some of the advantages that can make total body splits an optimal program from novice to advanced athletes.
CNS / Biological Function
My favorite reason for assigning total body training sessions can be the schedule for the nervous system. Training a high/low approach can help the athlete to recover from high CNS demands before another round of stimulation. This can come in handy during periods of developing maximum speed. Charlie Francis wrote the nervous system requires 48 hours of recovery from high intensity sessions. Not only can this be effective for the nervous system but also the entire biological function of the athlete as well. Atko Viru, in the book Adaptation of Sports Training, wrote about the cascade of hormonal, and cellular changes that occur from back to back continually high intensity training. This can be an effective strategy for restoring the neuromuscular system as well as biochemical function within the body. By programming total body training we can put high intensity means all on one day and allow for recovery and adaptation to take place.
An athlete who may be tight or weak or have horrible movement issues wouldn’t undertake improving these deficiencies just one time per week for an hour. A better strategy would be breaking up those sessions into smaller time frames but many times per week. A pitcher rehabbing from surgery does physical therapy every day, not one big weekly session. Smaller muscle groups, and stabilizers, benefit from frequency more than volume. We have become deathly afraid of high intensity means on back to back days for athletes without the chance to recover. What we forget is athletes have to play their sport on back to back days with high demands coming from the nervous system. Implementing low volume, high intensity means, frequently, over the course of the week can be effective at various times through the year. Think about squatting 3-5x per week but with the same volume you would use with a weekly split program. The effects of squatting often could result in an overall lowered weekly volume as the residual effects are never far removed from the next stimulus. Oftentimes, it can be very positive for an athlete to stimulate the nervous system on back to back days with low volume.
Frequency can become important, especially with less than advanced athletes. Motor skills can be spread evenly throughout the week instead of hammered all on one day. We would much rather have a higher frequency of movement stimuli than to have to program one huge day to outrun the week so to speak. Especially with younger athletes, training with a lighter overall daily volume but more often will stimulate the body to make faster adaptive changes. Novice athletes don’t retain motor skills without frequency. Training residuals are lost quickly. One big weekly sessions for less advanced athletes leaves a gap in time from the retention of the motor skill to when they receive another stimulus. Closing that gap means more rapid learning, and increased movement efficiency.
Volume can play into total body sessions in several ways. As discussed above, we can lower the volume intra session when we spread more of it throughout the week. Instead of 6 sets of RDL’s on a heavy leg day we can allot 2 sets throughout several other days and get less acute fatigue but still maintain the same volume during an in-season period. During an offseason block, we can actually increase the workload through the same concept of spreading the load over the course of the week. Take the same RDL and perform 3 sets every other day and we’ve increased our training load by another 50%. Performing 9 sets of RDL’s on a single lower body day for many athletes would be way too much, but by spreading it over the course of the week it can become easily manageable.
This falls into the same category as frequency but especially with younger untrained athletes we want to ingrain movement patterns over and over. All too often an athlete performs a movement on a designated day of the week and never touches it again until the following week. If you have athletes that aren’t proficient in that movement, you are doing them a big disservice. The nervous system needs repeatable stimuli to become competent. If you were teaching your child to hit or throw a baseball, you wouldn’t let them only do it once a week for 20 minutes. Movement skills need to be a part of daily training to become established within the motor program.
Often when a coach’s program consists of split upper / lower days we see training can become very hypertrophy based. I believe one of the issues you run into with upper body only days are exercises are programmed to fill time and often become geared toward hypertrophy. Within that framework, we as coaches must understand that devoting time and energy to what is necessary should be a priority all the time. There is definitely a time when hypertrophy and splitting upper, and lower is beneficial. The common misconception with total body sessions are that we can’t get as much volume in. In truth, a program that uses a squat pattern, RDL pattern, and possibly a single leg pattern every training day of the week can actually raise the overall workload on the athlete. Total stress can actually be much high due to the compound nature of the training. Training large compound movements instead of isolating muscles can produce equal or more hypertrophy gains while at the same time focusing on complex movement patterns.
Athletes don’t have the ability to separate the upper body from the lower body when on the field of play. They can’t play with only their lower body on this day and upper body the next. The body functions as one unit entire nervous system organizing movement through intermuscular coordination. The upper and lower function together with the core serving as an intermediary to create, and distribute energy. Look no further than the fascial lines in Anatomy Trains by Thomas Myers to see that muscles aren’t distinct entities that function separate of each other. Fascial systems run throughout the body from head to toe. Incorporating total body coordinated movements, like a lawnmower pull, or medball throw, coaches often run into difficulty separating and categorizing each movement into an upper or lower. Total body programs, like Joe Kenn always states, make you think in terms movements instead of muscles.
Compound vs Isolated
This point blends into the above points on movement, and hypertrophy as well. Training the entire body means we must utilize bigger compound movements versus small isolated exercises. Using a total body approach means we may only have one posterior chain exercise for the day. With that being the case we would probably opt for a large compound movement like an RDL instead of something less demanding like a banded leg curl. Total body lifts force coaches to plan around movements instead of muscles. Training the entire body in one session makes coaches become efficient with programs often eliminating “filler” exercises that may have no place in the current training. Coaches are all guilty of this at one time or another, I know I am. Think of a female soccer athlete on an upper / lower split. How much training time and adaptation energy do we need to utilize on less than half the body? And not only that but on the area of the body that isn’t a main contributor on the field of play. Filling up and entire upper body day for an athlete who may not need that much upper stimulation can be counterproductive. What tends to take over is training sessions become bodybuilding, hypertrophy based. Thinking in terms of total body forces coaches to associate more with movements. U/L splits often become very muscle based. What should I do for this muscle, and now this muscle? Total body sessions often eliminate the thinking of only training a group of muscles. A perfect example is the deltoid. In an upper program the deltoid becomes a commonly trained muscle with a variety of lifts solely designated for the shoulder. Whereas in a total body session the deltoid gets trained through the compound movements of pushup variations, and pullup variations.
There will always be a time and place for program variations in an athlete’s long term development. These are just some of the positives qualities to programming using a total body split. The same amount or more could be stated for the negatives on this variation of training.