Some people have all the time in the world for working out. They devote at least five days a week to gym time, and designate each day to specific muscle groups. Others lack this luxury, and thank their lucky stars when they can manage three weekly workouts. This, however, is not such a bad thing. If those three days include total-body workouts, you might reap greater benefits than those performing split routines.
Muscles as Team Players
The muscle groups of your body function as a coordinated unit. Rarely do they act in isolation, yet an obsession with "problem areas" and an erroneous belief in "spot reduction" inspires people to dedicate entire sessions to one or two muscle groups. This potentially benefits bodybuilders, who place a premium on extreme muscular definition, but it might interfere with other commitments. Full-body workouts train all the muscles of your body to work as a team, just as they do in real life.
The primary muscle group in any workout always has its own little helper. The triceps assist the pectorals during the bench press. Your biceps help out during the lat pull-down. Split routines do not leave adequate time for muscle recovery. If you perform a heavy triceps routine on Monday and a chest routine on Tuesday, your triceps will display a distinct lack of enthusiasm when your pectorals ask for assistance. Three weekly full-body workouts allow for recovery days.
A total-body workout engages multiple muscle groups -- in some cases, simultaneously. Full-body routines place a higher metabolic demand on your body, says Rodney Corn of the National Academy of Sports Medicine, and thus burn additional calories. If your fitness goals include losing weight and enhancing aerobic fitness, you probably juggle your time allotment between cardio and resistance training. Three weekly total-body workouts leave you four days of the week for longer cardio sessions.
Compound exercises, which engage multiple muscle groups, should make up the bulk of your total-body workouts. For your lower body, emphasize squats, lunges, deadlifts and the leg press. When time permits, add the leg curl and the abductor/adductor machine. Upper-body compound exercises include pushups, bench presses, military presses and lat pull-downs. Save the isolation exercises -- such as triceps extensions, lateral raises and biceps curls -- to the end of your session. When time is particularly tight, multitask by combining upper-body and lower-body exercises. Examples include lunges with biceps curls and squats with overhead presses.
Elastic resistance bands, weights, gym equipment, medicine balls and kettlebells all facilitate full-body workouts. Use what's available, but, if possible, vary your equipment. Resistance bands and cable equipment allow a larger movement repertoire, which includes rotational movements and exercises performed in multiple planes of motion. Substitute balance devices such as a stability ball or balance board for the weight bench. This type of equipment imposes a balance challenge, which puts greater demands on your deep core muscles while minimizing the need for long abdominal sequences. For safety, choose a lighter weight when using balance equipment.