What a Total-Body Workout Really Means - Example of Full Body Training

Total Body Workouts

Understanding the many options we have with training keeps things fresh

Remember when you started bodybuilding? You saw an announcement at the grocery store one day that a humongous chain fitness center was opening down the street from your house. You went in, signed on the dotted line, and started to learn the meaning of working out.

Those were the days, huh? One set of leg extensions and one set of watching the cute blonde on the lying leg-curl machine, straining to get the weight up. Okay, so not everything has changed. But what has changed is how you view your workouts and what you do to achieve your goals. No Nautilus for you any more. No circuits. No racing between machines as if your life depended on it, or recording every exercise on a card. Most of all no more full-body workouts. Or so you believed.

You're not circuit training any more, and you've nabbed a few local and state-level titles as a middleweight. Congratulations. But while your beginnings in the gym might have taught you to work the whole body, your focus now may be too narrow. Of course, no one is suggesting you go back and start doing full-body workouts again, but perhaps you need to assess what full body actually means in terms of a workout.

In the beginning of your gym career the term full body just meant you trained your entire body all on the same day in a circuit of exercises meant to address each bodypart minimally but completely. Doing that kind of full-body workout today would mean that you wouldn't progress too rapidly. There is, however, a kind of full-body approach to training that can substantial boost your overall development, as well as your ability to support other athletic pursuits. At the very least, it will help quell the boredom and lackluster effort that can occur after many years in the gym doing relatively the same routine.

Doing a total-body workout means you address not only resistance training, but all training issues pertaining to the body. You're probably doing some of that already if you do both weights and cardio. That is what I consider a partial-body workout, although it definitely meets two of the most important requirements of bodybuilding.

However, if you look at all kinds of training and movement that benefit the physique as though it were practicing a specific skill or area of focus, you will be able to understand much more easily what a total-body workout is all about. For example, when you lift weights, you do strength training. The other sort of training you likely do at least semi regularly is cardiovascular training, which ensures your body is lean enough to show your hard work. You probably do cardio mostly to burn fat, though it also has the power to strengthen your heart muscle. You engage in these two different training modalities because they are required for success in bodybuilding. Other specific skills require training as well, and this is what total-body workouts are all about.

That's two kinds of training. So what's left? Quite a lot, actually, and to the extent that we practice more than just one or two types of training, we are more fully training the entire body. In all there are about seven ways to train the body:

Strength / Weight Training

Strength training includes all weight workouts. You do it to build strength and size, as well as to define your muscle for a competition. An infinite number of routines and methods within strength training can keep you busy for months, and you'll never have to do the same routine twice. The key here is to explore one routine long enough to gain benefit and then move on, since the body is resilient and adapts to change rapidly.

Cardiovascular Training

Cardiovascular exercise, or aerobic training as it is called when you do it to burn fat, is commonplace for the bodybuilder. Many competitors feel they don't have time for heart-strengthening work. Certainly you have to economize and condense training according to your priorities and available time, but cardio work is as important to an athlete as fat-burning. It should include both aerobic and anaerobic exercise throughout the week. Whether you do long-duration walking on a treadmill with a slight upward pitch to create an elevation in heart rate that is more akin to fat-burning (60 percent of max heart rate) or a 30-minute jog on level ground to work the heart muscle and condition it (85 to 90-plus percent of max heart rate), the point is to vary the activity for benefit from both ranges.

Agility and Speed Training

You might think bodybuilders wouldn't be interested in agility and speed training, but the development derived from this kind of training cannot be obtained in a gym or on a piece of cardio equipment. Agility and speed are developed by practicing exercises that require some sort of dexterity - running, jumping hurdles, bounding, box jumps anything that demands speed and skill simultaneously. Skiing is a perfect example of a sport that requires both agility and speed. Slalom skiing requires momentum, control, and a quick exchange of weight from leg to leg. You can do speed training on its own without work on agility, as, for example, in sprinting. Bodybuilders can add bulk to quads by incorporating sprinting (anaerobic) into their workouts. Fitness competitors often use obstacle courses in this way, greatly enhancing their speed, agility and physiques. Agility and speed training also benefits athletes in other sports outside of bodybuilding or fitness. It can help you run the width or length of a tennis court with greater speed and ability, ski better, play soccer with quicker feet, and skate faster and with increased control. Remember; however, that when you begin agility and speed training, changes in muscular size and strength will affect how you move in a particular sport.

Stretching and Flexibility Training

Maintaining or increasing flexibility is an important aspect of keeping muscles, connective tissue between joints and muscles, complete freedom of movement, strength and muscle fascia supple and pliable. Flexibility, in turn, prevents injuries. Increasing flexibility through stretching also helps to increase the range of motion possible during a workout. Keep in mind that muscles shorten every year if you don't stretch them. When a person continues to train with weights while this shortening occurs, muscle development suffers, and short stodgy muscles mar an otherwise nice physique with flowing lines. Stretching before and after workouts can greatly help to avoid this problem. Make your preworkout stretching slightly different from your post workout stretch sessions. Think about what elements are needed in both and why. A trainer can help you with this perspective if you're stymied.

Specialty (Balance and Core) Training

Training with methods such as proprioception (placing the body in a state of imbalance to find true balance and strength - e.g. squatting on a balance disk) or pilates (core strength exercises on apparatus or using specific floor exercises) can accomplish a great deal. Every bodybuilder or fitness competitor should include at least one of these activities to enhance his/her physique and train muscles along a nonlinear curve. Both proprioception and Pilates can effect major change in your physique when you practice bodybuilding-specific exercises within each discipline. Many trainers work with proprioception and pilates and can help you learn how to incorporate them into your routine.

Sports-specific Training

Everything we do leaves its mark on our physiques. One can easily spot a dancer with the sort of selective development that activity leaves behind. Nor is the difference between a sprinter and a long-distance runner hard to determine. Sports-specific training can help enhance strength training by working a muscle group in a way that weights cannot. Typically, connections surrounding muscle groups (insertions) can benefit from this kind of training without the stress placed on them by weight training alone. Everything you do to train for a specific sport can greatly benefit you once you get back into the gym, just as your strength workouts enhance your sport of choice. As with speed and agility training, remember that training in a specific sport will change somewhat because of increased muscular size and strength derived from weight training.

Recovery and Rehab Training

Recuperation from workouts is a kind of training unto itself. Knowing when to train and when to back off is important for rehab. Bodybuilders need to learn how to alter workouts and adapt to a different pace, set of exercises or apparatus to work around an injury, a temporary soreness, or other physical limitation. When we're injured and making our way back to and range, we often work with rubber bands, aerobic balls, and other nontraditional strength-training apparatus that we might not normally use. In so doing, we may strengthen areas we don't usually have the opportunity to work on. Recovery, and knowing when to back off and not train are very important to a bodybuilder. Recuperation is physical, yes, but it's also a mental strength that requires building to know when to apply rest and when to get back to work.

Nutrition / Dietary Training

Although nutritional knowledge and practice do not fall under the heading of physical training, they still create the same fertile ground for gains as strength training. In fact, some people are convinced diet is more important than the actual exercises one does in the gym. I've met a lot of folks who believe knowing how to diet correctly is much more crucial than being able to stay on a piece of cardio equipment for two hours a day before a competition. I like to think of dietary knowledge and nutritional know-how as a form of training. I think you have to be familiar with all aspects of why your body responds to outside stimuli, including food, and how to eat to support your athletic pursuits. Because bodybuilding isn't just a performance-oriented activity, involving also an aesthetic component, knowing how to eat properly for your goals is doubly important.


The benefits of engaging in a total-body workout are obvious. However, I must mention a few cautions. Making time for a total-body workout means you could run the risk of becoming rapidly overwhelmed. Rather than packing your schedule with all the elements of a total-body workout right from the start, I advise adding just one additional training modality into your schedule every couple of months. I recommend starting with flexibility/stretching training. Stretching is the best place to begin. Then add pilates or exercises that work proprioceptors in the spine and legs. Incorporate two days per week of a sport-specific type training, and build from there. Remember, you didn't see improvements right away when you began weight training. Likewise, the benefits of total-body training will take some time to appear. Don't get frustrated. Just keep plugging away and eventually you'll see a new and improved physique emerge.

The best part about total-body training is that your physique will become much more functional and able to master different activities effortlessly. Using only strength and cardiovascular training limits you to bodybuilding and being a part-time mover for friends on the weekends!

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