Movement-Based Training vs. Split Training, Which is Better?

Posted December 24, 2010 by

I tend to put gym goers into two camps when it comes to resistance training. One camp is made up of the “strategists,” those who plan out their workouts and have a fitness goal in mind, while the other camp is made up of the “from the hip-sters,” those who have no real goal other than to fill up the hour-long workout with any exercise they can think of. In general, men tend to form the “strategists” camp while women tend to form the “from the hip-sters” camp. This is completely understandable—there are tons of resources for guys to share resistance training knowledge with one another and it is widely-accepted that resistance training is “what guys do” in the gym—most guys want to be muscular and know that resistance training is the best way to accomplish this.

On the other hand, many women tend to associate resistance training with “bulkiness” and an intimidating atmosphere, and likely have visions of steroid-pumped female bodybuilders running through their minds when they think of it. Because of this, there is less of a discussion on the subject of resistance training among women. Thus, even when a woman decides she wants to take up resistance training (which is critical to health), she still has to overcome the obstacle of finding information on how to approach training effectively. This inevitably leads to a lot of aimless wandering in the gym, performing only those exercises that are familiar enough not to be intimidating and staying out of the “guy zone.”

Bullshit, I say! Women and men need weight training equally, and the truth is that the type of training that works best for men ALSO WORKS BEST FOR WOMEN. Once you can get over the myth that weights make women bulky, you can really focus your efforts and see some great results in the process.

What does this have to do with movement based training vs. split training? Above I stated that what works BEST for men also works best for women, but unfortunately most guys do NOT know what works best for them. If you’ve ever talked to a guy about his training program, most likely he performs split training—he has “chest day,” “legs day,” “arms day,” etc. In other words, most guys train each muscle group once per week and perform a ton of exercises for the muscle on that one day they work out.

This works great for advanced bodybuilders with 3 hours per day or more to spend in the gym, with steroids coursing through their veins to accelerate muscle repair. For the rest of us, split training is greatly inferior to movement-based training, which means rather than designating the days to particular muscle groups, you designate each day to a specific movement—generally either “pulling” days (consisting of movements that target the back, biceps and hamstrings), “pushing” days (consisting of movements that target the chest/shoulders, triceps, quads and calves), “core” days (consisting of movements that target the abdominal and lower back muscles) or “total body” days (consisting of movements that incorporate many different muscles of the body). This allows more muscles to be trained each day (in a much more functional manner, might I add) and thus more frequently per week.

In my experience, training muscles more frequently, with less volume per workout yields better results than training them less frequently with more volume per workout. Additionally, it avoids the risk of overtraining and allows for greater energy use in the allotted time, due to more muscles being worked simultaneously. This means more calories burned per workout!

Lets make an example: say we have two trainees, both of whom have lifted for over two years and neither of whom compete as bodybuilders or use steroids. We have “Brad” who trains in the typical bodybuilder fashion from some workout he read in Muscle and Fitness magazine, and we have “Kate” who has an awesome personal trainer who put her on a movement-based training program. Brad’s workout schedule might look like the following:

  • Monday: Chest – 12 total sets, various exercises, 10-12 repetitions each set
  • Tuesday: Back – 14 total sets, various exercises, 10-12 repetitions each set
  • Wednesday: Arms – 14 total sets, various exercises, 12-15 repetitions each set
  • Thursday: Shoulders – 12 total sets, various exercises, 10-12 repetitions each set
  • Friday: Legs – 16 total sets, various exercises, 10-12 repetitions each set
  • Saturday/Sunday: Rest

Kate’s workout schedule on the other hand might look more like the following:

  • Monday: Pulling Group – 12 total sets, various exercises, 12-15 repetitions each set
  • Tuesday: Pushing Group – 16 total sets, various exercises, 12-15 repetitons each set
  • Wednesday: Rest
  • Thursday: Core – 12 total sets, various exercises, 15-25 repetitions each set
  • Friday: Total Body – 20 total sets, various exercises, 7-9 repetitions each set
  • Saturday: Rest
  • Sunday: Rest

Let’s assume during Kate’s “pulling” workout on Monday, she performed 3 sets each of straight-leg dead lifts, cable rows, glute-ham raises and pull-ups for 12 total sets. Cable rows and pull-ups both target the back muscles, so for this day she would have completed 6 sets of exercises that work the back effectively, compared to Brad’s 14 sets that he would have completed on Tuesday. So far, it appears Brad is performing way more work on his back and thus should be netting much better results, but with further analysis it becomes clear that this isn’t the case.

Kate’s Tuesday workout ignores the back for the most part, as does her Thursday workout, but let’s imagine that for her Friday total body workout she performed 4 sets each of dead lifts, dumbbell step-ups, clean and jerks, walking lunges and cable rows with lunges. This means that she performed 8 additional sets of exercises (dead lifts and cable rows with lunges) for a total of 14 sets of exercises that targeted the back over the week  period. In other words, she completed more sets than Brad, just broken up over more days. In the process, she also gained an additional rest day because she only has to work out 4 days per week with this routine.

Total body rest is very important, and shouldn’t be equated to muscle group rest. In a split training program, your muscles effectively get 6 whole days of rest between workouts because you only train then once per week, but you only get two days of total body rest per week. Besides the fact that this isn’t enough total body rest for the average trainee, 6 days of muscle group rest between workouts is actually TOO much rest, and will result in a large portion of the strength gained during the workout to actually be lost over the week—a true “2 steps forward, 1 step back” approach!

In conclusion, movement-based training allows for similar (or even more) volume compared to split training over the course of the week, while keeping workout frequency high enough to prevent strength loss between workouts (unlike split training). Additionally, it can accomplish all this while still allowing for more total body rest days, which are critical to the recovery of the immune, central nervous, and muscular systems.

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