In Favor of Total Body Workouts

So a friend asked, in the context of optimal strength training:

"I love being at the gym. Is there anything wrong with body part split training programs, like working each muscle group one day per week?" 

There's nothing wrong with being off the couch and computer chair, finding a way to work hard, be consistent, and make progress with almost any training routine for a while. But here are a few reasons why I don't prefer the Bro-Split approach.
Zombies HATE body part split routines!

1. Ain't Nobody Got Time Fo That:

You're going to set the alarm 90 minutes early, fill a gym bag with food, work clothes and toiletries, drive from home to the gym and from the gym to work, and fall asleep at your desk in the early afternoon...all this for a "shoulders and triceps" workout?

This is just one of the absurd places where you arrive when you split training into body parts. The idea is that you can really BLAST each muscle at every angle if you have an entire workout for each muscle group. The typical Bro-Split looks something like this:

Chest and biceps on day 1
Shoulders and triceps on day 2
Back and calves on day 3
Legs and abs on day 4

If you're going to take the time and effort to get to the gym, for heaven's sake, make it worth it. Do you have time to do some conditioning? Fifteen minutes of heavy overhead presses or tuck jumps or  Farmer Walks do far more for the the abz than a whole hour of tricep pressdowns and crunch machine.  Getting stronger in the big movements including squat variations and the lifting of the deads WILL make your arm muscles grow. A rising tide lifts all boats.

2. Recovery:

But even if you're somehow able to muster the time and effort to move weights around with some muscle groups but not others four or five days per week, it's not ideal for the system. [Unless you're into anabolic steroids]. As I mentioned here [The Best Training Split], body part split training leaves me perpetually sore and stale of progress. Such training takes any given muscle far beyond what is necessary to stimulate growth but without enough frequency to get anywhere.

Split training routines do lend themselves to over training. Every exercise that doesn't have you stabilized in a machine more or less trains the core (lats, glutes, spinal erectors, obliques etc). The endocrine, cardiovascular, and nervous systems are by no means split from muscle to muscle. The body undergoes various types of stress and recovery as a unit.
 3. Function:

The body functions as a unit when you want to run, jump, lift, carry, push, pull, climb, and throw things. There are countless reasons to split your training around the concept of movement patterns (horizontal pull, vertical push, hip hinge, squat, etc) rather than by muscle group.

Unilateral overhead lunge walks work everything
Go ahead and try throwing effectively without use of the legs or jumping without torso and arm swing. Our lower backs are (likely) much less achy when we learn to brace a neutral spine while we hinge the knees and hips. Until the day when we can kick our suitcases through the airport and leg press our groceries upstairs to the kitchen, we should make sure to find a way to intentionally integrate muscles of the upper and lower body and provide ample time for recovery.

So are you an athlete or a body builder?

4. Preference:

The Bro-Split certainly can be done well and can help you improve in fitness and performance. But in my opinion it's not ideal. Maybe that's because I simply can't stand the thought of only training legs once per week. A major leg movement is the meatball on your spaghetti dinner.

This does not mean that you should always avoid isolation moves and throw your seated dumbbell pressed out of the window. What it does mean is that the majority of your training time should probably be spent in multi-joint functional lifts. Once you can squat twice your body weight for reps, see if you really have the desire or need to hit the VMO (medial quadricep) with feet-turned-out leg extensions.


The Slow, Boneheaded Way to a Big Dead Lift

So here's my story of reaching a raw (no lifting gear) 600 pound, triple body weight dead lift. I wrote this because being a strong dude plus personally experiencing my unscientific study of N=1 means that I know everything there is to know about dead lifting.

But really, there are hundreds of good dead lifting resources out there and I don't claim expertise in power lifting. My forte is more in the realm of using weight training to stay healthy and be awesome outside of the gym (sports performance and rehabilitation). But since more than a few people have asked the question...

A past client and friend messaged me:

Hey Bob how did you get your dead lift up so much? I've been stuck for a long failing to hit 315 (lbs).

That question could be taken anywhere. But I can narrow my answers down a bit since I know the person asking the question. His commitment level, access to equipment, coach-ability, and work ethic are definitely not in question.

First, here are a few principles:


Believe it or not, lifting as much as you can for one rep is absolutely not the best way to drastically increase how much you can lift for one rep (at least not for a while). You probably need to spend a long time consistently dead lifting weight that is relatively heavy for you but you can handle with perfect form. If 315 pounds is your assumed 1-rep max that means multiple sets of something around 275 - 300 pounds for 3 to 5 reps. This is heavy but totally within your power to crush and repeat. You do need to lift heavier weights and practice pulling heavy singles (like >90 % of your 1 rep max), but give it at least 8 weeks before you increase the load and cut reps.

This was 590X1
Appreciate the inverse relationship between load and time under tension. Heavy loading (like one rep for max effort) does wonders for improving the nervous system but the time under tension is insufficient to stimulate muscle growth. Lighter loading (like something you can handle for 8 to 12 reps) provides plenty of time under tension, but the load often isn't heavy enough to really cause muscle tearing and rebuilding process that provokes sizZZE.

That's why the magical formula for actually increasing your YOU is to hit between 10 and 20 reps total, usually over 3 to 5 sets of somewhere around 80 to 85% of your 1-rep max. This applies to all of the major lifts.


Also - you definitely need to recover better. Ensure at least 2 days of recover from any leg or back work prior to your regular dead lifting day. Really, recovery is everything. Let go of the machine training altogether.


Should include chin-ups, row variations, and squats. Some big lifters swear by glute-ham raises but I've never done-a-one. Getting your lats and hips strong through is key. But again, rest from these at least 2 days prior to dead lifting and don't squat so intensely that it interferes with recovery for dead lift day.


Cool it with conditioning. I'm not saying to be lazy or go Sumo. But you MUST understand that exercising for specific, focused performance is not the same as exercise for what our culture is obsessed with - namely wellness and weight loss. Exercise for the sake of creating energy balance (burning calories) is a time-consuming, labor intensive, and recovery hindering endeavor. Get leaner by adding muscle to your frame and eating relatively clean, not through burning calories through "cardio."

It's such a basic idea, but one I see poorly handled quite often. A focus on strength means that you will save the "leaning out" or weight loss or what-have-you for another time after you are a dead lift beast.

Now here are a few specifics of my experience:

I had my first go-round with dead lifts at the age of about 24 right after graduating from college. That ended after five (or so) months when I experienced a fairly significant lower back strain (and likely disc herniation) while trying to dead lift 365 pounds.

It was a while before I went at it again. By 30 years of age I could pull 405 fairly easily but I was focused on squatting very heavy and for high reps.

[See 20 Rep Squats Are Not For Everyone.]

At the age of 34, after a two year dead lift sabbatical and no preparation, I threw 405 on the bar and hurt my back severely. About 6 months after that I decided to build back the correct way, as if I were training a client. 405 came back easily and then increased to about 455. At the age of 35, after a long cycle of regular heavy training, I was able to eek out 500 lbs for one rep.

At the age of 36 I tore my right pectoral muscle and then about 9 months after that broke my left hand. I was able to keep strong through turning my gaze back to squats which didn't involve those areas. By my 37th birthday I was back to dead lifting around 475 for reps. I once got 500 for 5 reps.

Then...THEN...something profound happened. I started to actually listen to someone else. Matt said I still was not recovering well enough. He said I should practice more single reps, even with relatively less weight, and build it up. He said I should cycle intensity rather than pushing my limit with 4 heavy sets of 3 to 5 reps each and every week.

So 10 weeks before hitting my 600 pound goal, dead lift days looked something like this:

Week 1: Four sets of 500 X 5
Week 2: 500 X 3, 535 X 1, 535 X 1, 555 X 1
Week 3: 500 X 5, 535 X 3, 555 X 1, 555 X 1
Week 4: 500 X 5, 535 X 1, 555 X 1, 565 X 1
 and then I'd take a week of lighter work like 405 X 20

At one point I hit 565 X 2 and 585 X 1, took a de-load week, then gradually pushed it back up over four weeks in the above manner.

Did I mention that this requires patience and a lot of awfully hard work?

On PR day I wore my PR shirt and after warming up pulled 500 X 1, 535 X 1, 565 X 1, put a good song on and pulled 600.

[For some reason I find the missing beats and discordant sounds of this 
particularly worthy for providing the calm-crazy it takes to hit a big rep.]

What else did I do (and not do)?

I quit playing basketball Monday nights since this left little recovery for Tuesday afternoon, my only option for heavy lifting day.

When the weights were getting up there or I was due to push some jumps in loading, I backed off the intensity of sprint training. For a while I made my weekly "Plyo Fridays" more into power events with short sprints and powerful jumps but nothing grueling. 

I quit squatting intensely, made them into a DL accessory rather than a main event. I squatted hard but not like I prefer to be ground into the floor.

I committed to eating a lot. I thought this may cause some weight gain and I would have to accept at least a little softer middle. But I gained only around 5 pounds and noticed no real difference for better or worse in my abs.

Of course, you can always not listen to me and plow your own slow, injury laden, boneheaded road to something ; )


My Top Secret Fitness...Secrets

When you're a physical therapist and trainer and appear to be "in shape," the question of "what you do" comes up quite frequently. Many people assume that I spend a lot of time in a gym or kitchen or Whole Foods. I don't.


I don't measure portions or time nutrients or count calories or macros or the number of times I eat per day. I don't tally steps, miles, or caloric expenditure. I don't use supplements before, during, or after my workouts (unless you count coffee). I don't eat gluten free or organic.
flipping out on the beach

I do try to eat minimally processed and altogether avoid fried foods. My diet is a cheeseburger and a grilled chicken sandwich without the fries. Many times after work I eat from the plate of food that's a conglomerate of kid leftovers one step removed from the dog dish. No, really. I have some ice cream when I feel like it.

I'm certain this diet depends on who I'm with. By fitness culture standards it's shameful and sloppy. By general American standards it's Puritanical borishness.

You will not be healthy and look fit if you're into heavy drinking, if you must have desert after every meal, or you frequently eat out at chain restaurants. You just won't - unless you make some MAJOR sacrifices in other areas. And your time and body cannot afford that for long.

When you make an honest effort at simply eating a balanced and healthy diet but don't make a huge deal of it, you will tend to lose the taste for dieting gimmicks, indulgent foods, and obsessive eating behaviors. Or, at least that's my hope.

For further detail, I'm the author and strict adherent of The Perspective Diet.


I don't train 5 days per week. I don't do many Olympic lifts or yoga. I don't perform a series of dynamic warm-up drills before training and cool down with static stretches after training. I often don't warm up at all. I don't do (traditional) cardio except in the rare instance that I have some kind of endurance based competitive event.

I do visualize whatever it is that I'm working towards. I see what it's like to pull off an easy side flip. I mentally stick the balance point on a mountain bike trick. I mentally feel the position of my legs and trunk under the weight of a big pull (dead lift).

I do stay active with my family and friends, and with various domestic tasks around the house and yard. I play formal and informal pick up sports and have fun.  

But alas, HERE IS THE REAL SECRET to feeling and looking good without life revolving around diet and exercise:

1. Be super consistent.
2. Do (relatively) heavy total-body resistance training.

Here is exactly what I do in terms of structured exercise:

Tuesday - (warm up sets not listed) 3 to 4 sets of a horizontal press - think bench press/variation
                 3 to 4 sets of dead lifts
                 3 sets of split squats (single leg variation)
                 2 to 3 sets of some kind of core/conditioning circuit

car push!
Friday - PlyoFriday is usually a series of various jumps, leaps, short sprints, and pushing an old Subaru down Bonny Lane.

Saturday - 4 sets Weighted Chin-ups
                  4 sets of overhead press variation
                  3 sets of dumbbell "lawn mower" rows
                  20 reps squats!!!
                  2 to 3 sets of some kind of core/conditioning circuit

At a little over 6'1", I carry around 200 lbs of mostly muscle because I regularly lift heavy, total body movements. I can lift heavy, total body movements because my flexibility, stability, and movement patterns are good (thus I don't often get injured). My movement patterns are good because I've been at it for a while, it's part of my day job, and most importantly, I enjoy it.
This training program is not top secret or high tech or complex or quick and easy. But it keeps me heavy to the point that my body is resilient to the demands of life. Being heavy allows me to eat like a normal human and yet maintain muscle definition.

More on this at Get Heavy to Lose Weight. 

Skipping warm-ups and eating 3 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches per day is most definitely not for everyone. Hell, I don't claim that anything listed here is for everyone. My story is a work in progress with the outcome still unknown. When I'm old and lean and my knees and lower back ache, will it be from the resistance training? Or the amateur gymnastics? Or chasing my kids through the woods and over rocky creek beds? Or from mountain bike crashes? Or the 30+ years of trying to play basketball?

I guess we'll see. But hopefully you get the picture.