Full body workouts are one of the best workout splits for muscle growth and strength regardless of your training experience. They not only enable you to optimize your training frequency and recovery throughout the week but are also time efficient - and in this case requiring only 3 workouts per week.
However, in order to maximize the benefits of a full body workout routine, you need to adequately target all of your major muscle groups within each workout:
And you need to do so in a balanced manner such that your muscles grow and strengthen proportionately overtime. Leading to not only a more aesthetic physique but also minimizing your risk of injury.
In this article, I’ll show you exactly how to do so based on current scientific literature and our anatomical understanding of the human body.
Every aspect of your training will benefit if you take the time to really understand the anatomy of your muscles (including small ones, like the serratus). That's why every single one of my programs walks you through the science behind every programmed exercise - and why you're doing what you do. Interested?
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First off, to clarify, this full body workout routine consists of 3 workout days per week and will alternate between two different full body workouts like so:
Monday – Workout A
Tuesday – Rest
Wednesday – Workout B
Thursday – Rest
Friday – Workout A
Saturday/Sunday – Rest
Monday – Workout B
Tuesday – Rest
Wednesday - Workout A
Thursday - Rest
Friday – Workout B
Workout A will be covered in this article and workout B will be covered in a follow-up article.
Each workout will consist of mainly compound movements with a mix of various accessory exercises to minimize any potential muscle imbalances.
So with that being said, let’s take a look at what the optimal full body workout might look like.
The first exercise is the barbell bench press and is going to be your main chest exercise for this workout. It’s going to be responsible for contributing to most of your chest’s overall size and thickness overtime.
More specifically, due to the flat angle of the bench, it’s going to emphasize the sternal portion, or middle part, of your chest while also developing your shoulders and triceps muscle.
So as you perform this exercise you’ll want to focus on feeling the below highlighted muscles working, with most of the tension being felt in the chest:
Now the bench press was chosen for various reasons.
First off, it’s great at activating the chest.
Multiple studies like this 2000 EMG paper by Behren’s & Buskies have found bench press to elicit the highest chest activation when compared to other common chest movements:
...and this seems to translate to better chest growth as well.
Suggesting that in most cases, a strong bench does indeed equate to a big chest.
And regarding form, you’ll want to come all the way down to your chest to accomplish a full range of motion.
This is because multiple papers have found that for compound movements like the bench press...
A full range of motion is more effective for muscle growth, even if heavier weights are used with a partial range of motion.
So unless you have previous shoulder injuries preventing you from doing so or you’re goal is to improve a specific sticking point...
Then aiming for a full range of motion with this exercise would be your best bet for growth.
Next, we’re going to move onto a lower body exercise before proceeding onto the next upper body movement. This just helps to optimize our recovery and performance with each exercise throughout your total body workout.
The barbell back squat is the exercise of choice here since it’s been repeatedly shown in multiple papers to elicit very high quadriceps activation. However, it will also heavily involve the glutes and various other lower body muscles.
You should mainly feel the tension in the muscles highlighted below as you perform the exercise:
And again with this compound movement you want to utilize a full range of motion to maximize growth.
In fact, illustrating the importance of this...
A 2014 paper by McMahon and colleagues found that there was a two-fold increase in muscle size after only 8 weeks for subjects using full ROM squats compared to partial range of motion squats:
And although what constitutes full range of motion will vary based on your anthropometry, I’d stick with what the research recommends as optimal. Simply aim to come down to at least slightly below parallel or deeper if your mobility enables you to do so safely.
Pull-ups are going to be the next upper body exercise and your main back exercis
e for this workout.
The main muscle worked will be the lats. But as shown below, various shoulder and scapular stabilizers and other muscles will be involved as well:
As you perform this movement, you should feel the above highlighted muscles working, with most of the tension being felt in the lats.
And once you’re able to successfully complete around 10-12 bodyweight pull-ups straight, you’ll want to then progress it. You can do so by slowly loading it with weight using a weight belt or holding a dumbbell between your feet.
But on the other hand, if you’re currently unable to do pull-ups, then you have a few options. Band assisted pull-ups, machine pull-ups, and/or sets of slow negative pull-ups are decent alternatives to start with and progress until you’re able to successfully complete bodyweight pull-ups.
Knowing how to tweak/replace exercises that suit your training goals is pretty complicated. Thankfully, though, the team here at BWS has the necessary expertise to do just that. Our 3-on-1 coaching program takes the guesswork out of training, nutrition, and even mobility work - so you can focus on what matters: making gains. If you're interested:
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Next, going back to the lower body muscles, we’re going to be using lying leg curls.
I’d suggest trying out this variation with a dumbbell held between your feet as it helps ensure that you’re controlling the weight throughout each rep.
As shown below, this exercise will mainly target the hamstrings:
Again, as you perform each rep, you’ll want to focus on feeling the hamstrings working while avoiding any lower back involvement by keeping your abs engaged.
Now the main reason why this exercise is included is to further strengthen the hamstrings.
This is crucial because as shown in this 2009 EMG paper, the back squat doesn’t sufficiently activate the hamstrings. In fact, as shown below, the hamstrings only reach about 27% activation during the squat:
...which is much lower than other common hamstring movements.
So since the hamstrings need to be balanced out with the quadriceps for injury prevention, this exercise is vital to include.
More specifically though, research has indicated that it’s the eccentric strengthening of the hamstrings that’s important for both enhancing athletic performance and preventing injury.
Meaning that when performing this movement, you want to really control the weight and use a slow eccentric of a few seconds on the way down of each rep.
Just be aware that this exercise will cause quite a bit of post-workout soreness if you’re not used to it, so take it easy in terms of load and progress from there.
The last major compound movement of this workout will be the standing barbell overhead press. This shoulder exercise is essential when it comes to upper body development and strength. Although the full body is involved, the main muscles at play here will be the anterior deltoids, triceps, and the serratus anterior:
As for the reasoning for this exercise, it has been shown in studies like this one by Behren & Buskies to be the best exercise for the anterior deltoid:
In addition, when compared to other similar shoulder pressing exercises, it enables you to lift the most weight. And from a practical standpoint is also the easiest shoulder exercise to overload with more weight as you progress, which is why I’d recommend incorporating it into your routine.
However, research does also show that the seated dumbbell press elicits similar activation, so feel free to use that as an alternative if it’s a more comfortable movement for you.
Next up in this total body workout routine, we’re going to move onto a couple more accessory exercises to help minimize any potential muscle imbalances as you progress.
The first accessory movement is going to be the facepull. This movement is essential for shoulder health, posture, and balancing out the pulling repetitions with all the pressing in this full body workout.
The main muscles worked are the rear delts, mid and lower traps, and the various rotator cuff muscles as shown here:
Focus on feeling the above highlighted muscles working as you perform this exercise.
These can be done kneeling or standing, but regardless you want to keep the elbows high and drive them back as you pull the rope towards your face.
At the end position, your shoulders should be externally rotated such that you’re in a biceps flexing pose in order to best emphasize the rotator cuffs and rear delts. You also want to ensure you aren't compensating by arching your lower back as you perform the movement:
I’d definitely suggest using relatively lighter weights for these and really focus on activating the right muscles.
The last exercise of this full body workout routine is going to be a biceps exercise; the drag curl.
Due to the shoulder extension component of this exercise, it will help preferentially target the long head of the biceps, or the outer head, which otherwise doesn’t get as much attention with our previous exercise selection:
To perform it, simply use a weighted bar or barbell
and lift the bar as close as possible in front of your body by driving the elbows behind the body. Lower the weight in the same fashion.
I’d suggest using a much lighter weight than you would in a standard biceps curl and perfecting the movement before progressing.
So to sum the video up, here’s what your full body workout A could look like:
Barbell Bench Press: 3-4 sets of 6-10 reps
Barbell Back Squat: 3-4 sets of 6-10 reps
Pull-Ups: 3-4 sets of 6-10 reps
Lying Hamstring Dumbbell Curls: 3-4 sets of 10-15 reps
Standing Overhead Press: 3-4 sets of 6-10 reps
Face Pulls: 3-4 sets of 10-15 reps
Drag Curls: 3-4 sets of 8-10 reps
Calves and/or abs exercises can definitely be added as part of the accessory movements as well.
Just keep in mind that if you’re a beginner lifter, sticking to just the main compound movements and the low end of the range of sets per exercise would likely be best to start. And then you can gradually add more volume overtime.
So by knowing what each exercise in this workout targets, you can re-arrange the exercises based on what you want to prioritize. For example, if you wanted to focus on pull-up strength and back growth, you could simply perform the pull-ups first rather than the bench press.
For your convenience, I’ve compiled all of this information into an easy to follow, completely free PDF for you to download and reference while you’re at the gym:
It shows you the full workout, rest periods, what muscles each exercise targets, step-by-step tutorials with visuals, and more:
No email opt-in is required on your end, just simply hit the button below to get to the download page and you’ll be able to access it with no strings attached:
Click the button below to download Workout A:
Click the button below to download Workout B:
...But if you want to take things one step further and are looking for a workout and nutrition plan that combines all the research I do into a step-by-step program such that you can transform your body as efficiently as possible from your starting point...
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