Full-Body Workouts for Gaining Muscle and Losing Fat

Training each muscle using a split routine (in addition to a clean diet) provides highly satisfying results, especially if you’re into crazy muscle definition and hypertrophy. It’s also a sweet deal if you’re into hours of hammering your shoulders, legs, or back (or whatever muscle) with specific (and sometimes isolated) movements.

But a big drawback of using a split routine is the time involved; spending six hours a week on hypertrophy alone simply isn’t feasible for many. If you’re trying to lose a few pounds or want to keep your heart optimally conditioned, you want a bit of cardio in there too, right?

So if your primary goal is hypertrophy (gaining muscle mass), you have limited time, and you want to include cardio in your workout week, how do you accomplish all of this? To save time, a full-body workout three times a week would seem obvious, but then you don’t have time to for your hypertrophy goals – 3-4 exercises per body part with 6-12 reps each/3-4 sets apiece. For hypertrophy to occur, you need to hit each muscle group at least twice a week or deconditioning can occur between workouts.

How to Meet All Your Goals?

One answer to this problem is to do a short morning workout and a short evening workout. Whether this addresses the time issue is debatable, but there’s nothing wrong with dividing up your workouts. Or you can try what I’ve done for the last few years – a four-day split, which consists of hitting each muscle twice in a five-day period with some cardio thrown in. What usually happens, however, is that cardio goes by the wayside. If I’m spending 75-90 minutes in the weight room, it’s highly unlikely I’ll be able to do cardio on the same day. And nowadays I’m interested in speeding things up a bit.

Another solution to gaining muscle size and losing fat, all while saving time? Full-body (compound) exercises done together, three times a week can provide strength, some hypertrophy, and fat loss. Mini-complexes and circuits accomplish this (see more below). You use less weight in order to get through the series of movements, but with a lower end repetition scheme and a higher number of sets, you’ll gain some muscle and strength while elevating your heart rate.

Keep in mind that the more your heart rate goes up during your workout, the more calories you’re burning. So if you don’t want to waste your hard-earned muscle away, don’t make every workout a bring-it-home cardio session. Your best bet is to mix up your repetition, set, and rest range regularly. Examples of quick full-body schemes using mini-complexes or circuits:

  • Mini-complex. Five reps of a mini-complex, 60 to 90-second rest, for five sets. You can go heavy here while still getting your heart rate up. Pick several mini-complexes or add in some core work as well.
  • Circuit. Higher reps with less rest. Do several compound exercises or mini-complexes together without rest in the 8-12 rep range, then rest for 60 seconds. Repeat for 3-4 sets.

If fat loss and/or endurance is your primary goal, you can add plyometrics between sets or do metabolic resistance training. I’m focusing mostly on hypertrophy here with fat loss and time saved as secondary benefits, but you can certainly use MRT or circuits with higher reps if you’re not interested in building lots of mass.

Don’t forget to get enough calories for hypertrophy goals; intense workouts make you hungry. If you’re trying to build muscle and you’re exercising intensely, you need to eat more.

The Exercises

You can do these workouts in about 20-30 minutes, three times a week, with a day of rest in between. Keep in mind you’ll typically need to use less weight than if you were doing three sets with a minute of rest in between.

The following list focuses on weight-lifting exercises; it doesn’t include things like Tabata and Cross-fit, which rely more on body weight instead of equipment and increase endurance while burning calories.

Mini-Complexes and Circuits

With complex training you are performing whole body movements that flow together in a fashion that allows you to keep your heart rate up while also improving neuromuscular coordination.”

Traditional complexes involve compound movements without rest (or with plyometrics between sets) to train your body as a whole and burn mega calories. Complexes (or mini-complexes, several moves combined) can be done using a barbell, kettle bells, dumbbells, or a combination of equipment. Read the article above and this one by JCD Fitness. Then check out the following ideas to get started.

Please note! Complexes and mini-complexes are not for novice weight lifters. Practice and learn the individual movements with light weights before attempting.

  • Best Full-Body Workout for Muscle Gain. Scroll down in the article and pick one exercise from each group to create your own full-body workout.
  • Complexes from Randy Couture, heavyweight champion and wrestler.
  • The Number One Fat Burning Exercise of All Time.” Yes, if you do this for a high number of reps you’ll burn lots of calories. So to avoid wasting muscle, only do it once a week or combine it with some heavier lifts.
  • The Spartacus Workout. More weights circuits from Men’s Health.
  • Fellow workout beast @debroby knows her stuff and does the following for 5×5: Barbell deadlifts/hang cleans/front squats/push press. Drop bar behind neck for reverse lunge left leg/good morning/reverse lunge right leg. Repeat for 5×5. You can also use dumbbells and do transverse lunges to mix up the planes of motion.

Full-Body Exercises

Here are a few of my favorite full-body exercises, which you can combine in complexes or circuits:

Have fun with these exercises and get creative. Mini-complexes can consist of any number of exercises and you can create your own. Be sure to change up your workouts every 4-6 weeks to meet your goals.

30 thoughts on “Full-Body Workouts for Gaining Muscle and Losing Fat

  1. This is a terrific piece. I wish I had known these things when I first started lifting many moons ago. I thought everybody needed to do a multi-split routine and lift five days a week. After all, that’s what all the steroid-fueled people in Muscle & Fitness magazine were doing. But that was a fast track to overtraining for me.

    I finally figured out that I make my best gains (strength and size) on an upper-lower body split performed just three days a week. When I’m in the gym, I lift intensely. Might sound lazy to a lot of lifters, but everyone’s recovery ability is different, and this is what works for me. Your mileage may vary!


    • Aw Roy, that’s silly. I mean, look how many links I have here? 😉 I must not want people to stay at my blog very long, lol. Actually I’m just mostly interested in making sure people get what they need. I think you need a too-tight hug and a sloppy cheek kiss!!!


  2. well well well – you KNOW how I feel about sneaking cardio in with resistance 🙂
    great article!
    hmmmm – but ARE you working in a smidge different workouts? I know you love your splits and hypertrophy 🙂
    me? well, my body responds well to pushups and pullups… and I’m lazy….
    But I have a new combo for you
    Squat thrust (hands on dumbells on ground), pushup, L/R row (yep!), jump back up, clean + press with dumbell.
    I think they’re called man makers – they KILLED ME! Workout called for 12 reps – I struggled through 6. Between the thrust, ups/downs, pushups, back, squats, presses – YOWZA!
    xoxo and thanks for the linky love!


    • Haha! It’s all just trickery… weights with increased intensity. You’ve got my number! Love your combo, btw… that’s kill you in about, oh, six reps ;). Thanks for sharing!


  3. I must admit I’m liking the idea of quick full-body schemes, 20 – 30 minutes, 3 times a week 😉

    TBH, realising you can get good effects for that minimum amount of input has to be a no brainer, doesn’t it?

    Thanks Suzanne 🙂


  4. i did tone some muscles and lose weight by doing yoga 🙂 been doing yoga for eight months now and i just love the effects mentally, spiritually and physically.


  5. Full body workouts are great for losing fat. I would just add that if you choose to do 3 full body workouts a week, that you need to make sure you are getting in enough recovery time. If you are working out at a high intensity, full body workouts can place extreme stress on the body. Start off at 3 workouts a week and see how it goes. If you find that you’re not making progress, you might need to back off to 2 full bodies a week.


    • Thank you for pointing that out. You can overtrain doing any workout if it’s too frequent. Three times a week is what I recommend and even two for beginners. It all depends on a person’s goals and what they can tolerate. I work out four times a week but it’s already been five days since I trained that muscle group.


  6. A big problem on why some people never see results is that they continue to believe that isolation exercises are the way they should be training. When it comes to having total body fitness nothing can beat total body training. Compound exercises when done correctly are sure way to get results.


    • I really do agree Mike. Doing bicep curls, crunches, and leg extensions just doesn’t train the body to work efficiently as a whole. Squats (with an overhead press) rule! 😉


  7. Not a topic I know much (if anything) about, Suzanne, but I know your guidance is always well founded and high quality, and it’s interesting to me to find out how other people are exercising, it has opened my eyes, reading your posts – always does, thank you 🙂 And I certainly want to lose fat and gain muscle, so I know I will be following along here.


  8. Suzanne, I just started reading your blog today, and WOW, enlightening, interesting and informative. You can count on me coming back all the time. Thanks from someone that is re-learning.


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