Buckle into your time machine and set it for 1950. TV is still a novelty. Doo-wop is cutting edge. And bodybuilders are training their entire physiques in every workout. This may sound ridiculously quaint, but weight trainers then didn’t follow split routines. The break-it-up revolution occurred in the 1960s. Before then, greats like 1950 Mr. Universe Steve Reeves earned their Herculean builds while hitting every body part in every workout. Despite lacking modern nutritional and technological advantages, the legends of six decades ago still attained physiques that are admired today. So let’s go way back in time to see why full-body routines worked then and how they can still work for you now.
“When you work your whole body in each workout, it forces you to think about symmetry. Your focus is always on the whole and not the parts.” —Steve Reeves
So here we are in 1950, and 24-year-old Reeves is toiling in a gym in Oakland, CA. In a way, we’ve gone full circle, because Reeves and his contemporaries focused on functional strength, which has returned to fashion in recent years. You’ll see a lot of cleaning and overhead pressing and unique exercises like Jefferson squats (a favorite of Kai Greene), free-weight hack squats, and pullover-and-presses. Routines consisted mostly of compound lifts.
Let’s compare the physiques then with those of now. Today’s best bodybuilders are, of course, much larger, especially when it comes to hamstrings, back density, and lower pecs. Those areas weren’t prioritized then. But, relatively speaking, 60 years ago there was a greater focus on overall proportionality—that classical Reeves look that corresponds to today’s men’s physique competitors. In part, this came about via all those functional-strength and compound exercises. For example, Reeves didn’t earn his famous shoulders with lateral raises. Instead, delts were worked thrice weekly via not just standing overhead presses but also by assisting in lifts like incline presses and barbell rows.
In a full-body routine, you simply can’t exhaust each muscle with 12–20 sets. If you tried, the workout might last eight hours. So you need to do sets that hit more than one muscle. Deadlifts, for example, work many areas. In our sample routines, most of the exercises are compound. You’ll also need to push sets to failure. That’s the only shot you have at stimulating growth with such few sets per muscle. Also, never do the same exercises in consecutive workouts. So if you train on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, do completely different exercises each day and then repeat the sequence the next week. This lets you incorporate greater variety and avoid strength plateaus.
FULL OF IT
The full-body system stretches your workload out over multiple days. Do two or three full-body sessions per week and you can total as many weekly sets per body part as you would doing a typical split routine that hits each muscle only once weekly. And you’ll spend a lot less time going to the gym, which is the system’s greatest advantage. Full body isn’t an ideal long-term system for most advanced bodybuilders, but when used occasionally it is effective. You do less volume per body part in each workout and you do fewer overall workouts, but you also hit each body part more frequently. This unique stress can trigger growth. And the schedule can provide a revitalizing break from daily trips to the gym.
- All body parts are trained in the same workout.
- Workouts are done twice or thrice weekly with at least 48 hours between workouts.
- Aim for 35–45 total sets per workout.
- This is an ideal beginner’s system.
- If you’re an advanced bodybuilder, do full body when time prevents you from performing your typical split, when returning from an extended layoff, or for occasional variety.
FULL-BODY TIP SHEET
- Focus on compound exercises for larger body parts.
- Supersetting unrelated body parts can cut down on the overall time of the workout. The best way to do this is work calves and abs during rest periods for smaller body parts.
- You need to impart variety. We’ve provided two sample routines. Note that each has 12 exercises, none of which repeat. Alternate these two workouts. If you train thrice weekly, add a third routine with another dozen different exercises and alternate the three routines. - FLEX