Full-body vs. Splits and Training for Aesthetics

I’m an advocate of being fit and healthy using the methods that work best for you. I like keeping things positive with a not-one-size-fits-all approach. It’s up to each of us to stay educated about fitness and choose the path rocks the party for us. To me, the most important component of being fit and healthy is enjoying getting there and staying there. Or we’ll never even get started.

There are strong forces out there telling us all to do things a certain way. Lots of messages saying we need “it,” are doing it wrong, or must do it a certain way. I choose to reject many of these messages and question what I hear, including the following two areas.

“Do only full-body, functional workouts.”

The media push is SO strong here. You almost want to duck your head and hide these days if you still do a split weight-lifting routine. I even read (in a very good article) that split body-part training is a “virtually thing of the past.”

Now I do agree that relying too heavily on isolation exercises (such as the leg extension or bicep curl) instead of compound exercises (such as the squat) isn’t wise and could weaken the functioning of the body as a whole. Muscles and joints need to fire efficiently together, not by one muscle overcompensating for the others. In fact, as a personal trainer I’ll be using full-body, functional workouts with most of my new clients. Why? Because this type of workout is best for new lifters, people pressed for time, and people interested in overall conditioning but not necessarily hypertrophy.

However, you can use a split routine effectively and safely and still be well-rounded, conditioned, and athletic. I’ve used a split routine for years and am very conditioned and do not suffer from injuries. I can break into a run any day and never feel aches or pains. I feel strong and capable of jumping into (almost) any physical situation. I love taking my sweet time in the gym and focusing on different areas and I love the results.

I do try to integrate full-body exercises into my routine once a week, such as the one-armed snatch and step-curl-to-press. But I’m not changing the basic way I work out just because the media and “experts” are telling me to. Which leads me to the next message I’ve chosen to ignore.

“You shouldn’t train for aesthetics.”

Well why not? Looking good isn’t the only reason I lift weights, as anyone who follows this blog knows. But I do train for aesthetics too and I’m not ashamed of it, even though many authoritative voices say you should only train for athletic or “functional” purposes.

One of the things that drive people to get fit in the first place is to change how they look. Why shouldn’t they want bigger arms, leaner legs, more shapely calves? Weight lifting is one way to do that. Why do people who lift and strive for aesthetics get a bad rap but people who do cardio to lose weight do not? They both want to change their bodies.

Lifting weights to change your body is different than the sport of bodybuilding, by the way. There are long-term negative consequences of training like a bodybuilder, such as muscle imbalances and injuries. Those who participate in the sport are making choices and doing what they love. I don’t train like a bodybuilder and can still get the desired physical effects and do it safely.

Not everyone trains the same or has the same goals, so why should we all listen to the same advice? There is so much good information out there to learn from, and I take advantage of it every day. But we have to parse it or we’ll become frustrated and unmotivated. Always remember the most important component of being healthy and fit: enjoying getting there and staying there.

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Comments

  1. I hit a plateau when I don’t strength train while losing weight. As soon as I pick the weights back up the inches start disappearing again!
    Kathryn Barrett recently posted..The crinkley wrinklies are back!My Profile

  2. I started out PURELY for aesthetics..but quickly learned that FEELING better was actually even better than looking good. 🙂
    ragemichelle recently posted..If You Have A Sheep, You Might As Well Name It BradMy Profile

  3. I think working out for aesthetics is a great idea, it provides a sense of accomplishment. However, I do agree that ignoring a whole-body workout is a bad thing. A good balance of both seems like the best solution. If you see results you keep at it, motivation is super important!
    Yolanda recently posted..5 Big Myths about Small Business Price StrategiesMy Profile

  4. I agree with Michelle – I would bet that many start for aesthetic reasons only to discover you FEEL GREAT and miss it if you … miss it! the benefits are far more than aesthetic – although that is nice too. 😉
    Kristina @ spabettie recently posted..spinach blini with pimiento spreadMy Profile

  5. It’s unrealistic to think that everyone has the time, motivation, or energy to complete a full body workout everytime they hit the gym. It is much more practical to set a goal in focusing on different parts of the body during different workout sessions, while making sure to hit all muscle groups during your weekly routines. It’s important to strengthen all parts of the body when aiming to improve your overall health and fitness, and targeting certain areas on different days, can keep your conditioning goals in perspective and can keep you motivated in accomplishing those goals. While some may truly only be excerising to stay healthy, it’s much more likely that the majority of us work out to see our bodies in top (or close to) physical shape. Its not shallow to exericse in order to look good, and those who do jump on the tredmill solely for this reason, will soon see their attitudes change as they realize how much better they feel on the inside after a good workout. It doesn’t hurt either that the “happy hormone” endorphin is released when you exert physical energy. Those who exercise on a regular basis become hooked to feeling that great rush!

    • Wow Kelly, I really couldn’t agree with you more. Full-body workouts might be the perfect thing for many, but you really can’t target specific areas like shoulders by doing them. For overall fitness – perfect. For strengthening or bringing up/out a particular area, no. Thanks for your comments!

  6. Great post! Functional training is wonderful—but certainly not the only game in town. It’s as though people make the assumption that the traditional lifts and traditional strength training *do not* enhance function, and of course, they do. Old-style strength training is still the backbone of my program—and the heart of what I recommend for other women.

    As for aesthetics, I think seeing one’s body become more beautiful is one of the best possible motivations to train. There are many, many benefits to lifting, but if it hadn’t been for vanity, I probably would never have started, lo these many years ago.
    Mary C. Weaver, CSCS recently posted..Fast-food smoothie: meal or dessert?My Profile

  7. From my personal experience – I just don’t have the time to complete a full body workout every time I hit the gym. I found this article interesting (as usual!) and will rethink my approach to fitness based upon it.
    Sarah Arrow recently posted..Warning: Using pop ups will grow your email list fastMy Profile

    • Fabulous! I suppose I should post more “quickie” full-body workouts… most people probably do think they take too long but they can actually be done in 30-60 minutes.

  8. I love how you attack the status quo! 🙂

    It seems to me that most of this stuff (strength training methods) is cyclical. The masses move to one extreme until someone notices that nobody’s on the other side. Then, in a counterfeit moment of clarity, they profess to have the “secret” everyone’s look for if they’ll only move to the side of the minority (rinse repeat, rinse repeat). I try my best to focus on principles… I do open myself to methods for variety sake, but not because of trends.

    I’m in agreement with RageMichelle. I started working out for aesthetic reasons, but I’ve since grown pretty addicted to the process, and I LOVE to see progress. Remember that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so make yourself the “you” that you want to be and forget the haters!

    Rock it,
    -Matt
    Lean Muscle Matt recently posted..Vacuum Your Way to Six-Pack Abs?My Profile

    • Love your comments as usual Matt! You have to be right about the cyclical.. and could it be that the media just need something new to push and promote? People get bored and boom – now the new thing is better. Love how you say you focus on the principles… this is key! And keeping an eye on the goal… be it aesthetics or just quality of life!

  9. No topic has caused me to pull my hair out more than this one — these ones, whatever. Most people are willing to give me 2 hours a week (some 4-5) and in exchange they want me to give them EVERYTHING. Well, as close as I can get to EVERYTHING for them is mixed, full-body workouts twice per week. It’s not ideal, but for those who work hard and also get it done at the dinner table, aesthetic progress can be made. No time for isolation movements though.

    For me, the reason I own a gym is so I can be in it every day. Yes, Chest/Tris, Quads/Calves, etc. The only difference now vs. from my bodybuilding days is that after every strength movement there is a plyo movement — non-stop. At 50 I don’t push as heavy as I once did, but the intensity is supreme, and my conditioning is great. And, despite the occasional weekend in bed with a pizza and a bottle of tequila, I look pretty fair for 50.
    Emergefit recently posted..Nothing Is Perfect…My Profile

    • Always interesting to hear it from your perspective Roy. And for sure, trainers have such limited time, why wouldn’t they focus on full body workouts? Surely they don’t expect everyone to do a different body part every session. Most people don’t have the time, patience, or desire. Trainers do what they need to do for the client. I sure wish I could do plyos, now that’s one recent trend that I’d like to partake in. Damn knees.

  10. Hi Suzanne

    It seems to me that most things go in and out of fashion in cycles, from clothes, shoes, holiday destinations, foods, drink and beyond. And many of them, thankfully, are designed to make us feel good and/ or look good.

    I’m all for that and I guess exercise is no different! 🙂

    Reminds me though, for example, of Callanetics with its multiple repetitions and no weight work that had its hey day back in the late 80s/early 90s (from memory). It got very good results for me shape- and tone-wise but I’m not sure in retrospect about strength, and it would probably be laughed at now…

    What do you suppose folk will be doing in another 20 – 30 years’ time, and maybe poking gentle fun retrospectively at us with their future knowledge? 😉
    Linda Mattacks recently posted..Selling: Men, Women, Emotions, Logic and Persuasion or is that Manipulation?My Profile

    • SO true Linda. I remember the calisthenics, believe me. Now they’re called plyometrics, lol. You are right that you were probably working on endurance with those moves. It may not take 20-30 years to cycle back to the “endurance is better” philosophy ;).

  11. I very much consider myself a beginner weight lifter, and I focus on compound moves twice a week. I also run, as I have quite a bit of weight to lose. Your posts are very informational and inspiring to me. I do have a question. What are your thoughts and suggestions for someone who is significantly weaker on one side of the body. For example, Im right handed, and my right side is my dominant side. This is VERY apparent when doing seated shoulder presses. My left gives out well before I feel the tremble on my right side. Should I be doing single exercises? Should I use less weight on my left side, until it catches up to the capabilities of my right? Will my left side capabilities ever catch up to the capabilities of my right? Wow, sorry for being so long winded.
    I would love, love to hear some thoughts on this.

    • Hey Necia, thanks so much for taking the time to write and it’s cool to hear you’re into weights. It’s not unusual at all for people to have one side that’s stronger or bigger than the other. Our bodies simply aren’t born symmetrical, and then we add to it our right/left-handedness. However, we can train with this in mind and try to bring up the lagging side. Your strategy should be to use single-armed exercises instead of two-armed. For example, use dumbbells instead of a barbell for presses. Doing alternating presses instead of using both arms at once will allow that weak side to do all the work on its own instead of allowing the strong side to overcompensate. Instead of using less weight, try doing fewer reps on the weaker side – so you’re basically building *strength* by lifting heavy for fewer reps. If you train that side for strength, it will soon catch up and be strong enough to lift the same amount. Please write me and let me know how it’s going or if you have any other questions.

  12. Great post – I like full-body workouts because it’s easier to work everything more times per week. It does take longer than a split workout, but i find that I can shave off time by lifting a little bit heavier for less reps, and still get the same benefit. It’s not necessarily how long you’re working out, but how hard your body is working.
    Lisa recently posted..How to Use Akismet to Protect Your Contact FormMy Profile

    • Good point. It’s funny and I haven’t thought of it much, but full-body *seems* like it’d take longer but it can be done in 45 minutes flat. On the other hand, it takes me 1-1/2 hours to train two muscle groups. That’s a misperception I think.

  13. Ah! Another debate – LOL. I think I got turned on to the full body approach because it was so different and so interesting! It became a way for me to work in resistance and heart raising cardio (although your weight workout swaps ALWAYS got my HR up LOL). So with time and energy and motivation being an issue, it seemed to fit into my “perceived” barriers.

    Thanks!
    Kris @Krazy_Kris recently posted..Mobility Warm Up – My New Favorite | The Reluctant ExerciserMy Profile

    • I should do a post on full-body workouts because there’s so much interest. You especially know how to maximize your time with cardio AND weights combined. Again, some misperceptions that I might want to address soon!

  14. Hello Suzanne,

    I’ve never commented on your site before, but I’ve been enjoying it. I like this article a lot because you make such a wonderful point – the most important component of being healthy and fit: enjoying getting there and staying there.

    I’m not someone that hits the gym nearly as much as you folks do, however, as someone who suffers from manic-depression (among other things), I find that a good workout will really help boost my mood. In fact, a lot of people can tell when I’ve hit an emotional wall, because I get a bit more ripped.

    Reading your blog has been a big help to me for those days when, frankly, I just don’t care. YOU help me feel motivated during a lot of those times when all I want to do is curl up under the covers and say “screw it.” I appreciate that, more than you know.

    Anyway, I just wanted to say hello and tell you that I think your blog is great. I love the message of your site and I really think that many people can benefit from the joy of working out and looking the way they want to look. Keep up the great work!
    Warren recently posted..Heart in a CageMy Profile

    • Warren thanks for taking the time to connect. A comment like this helps me realize that writing this blog is worth the time and effort. I am sorry to hear you suffer from depression (among other things)… I am not surprised exercising helps. I feel like it’s probably the best anti-depressant I’ve ever had. I suffered from depression much of my life but it’s disappeared since getting back into a consistent exercise routine several years ago. I always recommend it to people who are depressed and I know actually getting in there and doing it is a challenge. So kudos to you for making it happen for yourself – RESPECT for that.

  15. Great post as ever Suzanne, thought provoking and inspiring.

    As someone rebuilding my fitness and reshaping after a long pause from activity, I value your expertise and advice.
    Christine Miller recently posted..11/11/11My Profile

  16. I love your philosophy, Suzanne! The latest program I created for myself rocks (just the way *I* like it) that’ll take me into the new year. I love a good challenge, and I am totally kicking my ass for aesthetics purposes as well. Can I get a hi-5??
    Yum Yucky recently posted..Get Into My Food Trap! Silver Palate Cereal, Green Giant Steamers and Veggie Patch Broccoli BitesMy Profile

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