Should athletes have upper and lower body training days? Or is total body training best?

The world has changed a lot in recent years, that’s for sure. Ten years ago, the average high school athlete had relatively little access to training programs and training protocols outside of what their coaches taught them. Sure, there were things there, but you still had to pay a premium and wait forever for the DVD or VHS tape to be delivered by carrier pigeon.

Today, if you’re even thinking about running faster, you’ll probably come across several advertisements and promoted videos of downloadable or free products that promise you a 4.2-second 40-meter sprint in 3 weeks. Or maybe you’re looking on Youtube for how to throw a baseball harder. Suddenly, you start getting emails offering you a guaranteed five mph increase in your fastball speed in the next 30 seconds! I may be exaggerating a bit, but you know what I mean.

Today’s athletes can easily be overwhelmed with free information and limited-time discounts on products that promise to up your game in new ways. I was a high school athlete just over a decade ago. I knew I had the edge over my teammates because I used to find whatever research I could and apply it to my game. That (at least in my head) gave me the edge to become the best pitcher on my team. These days, real-time press strength and conditioning research is free and brought to you on your phone, without even asking. It was easy to work a little harder than your teammates, which could easily help you get to college, start, or become the best player in your school. Now, it’s not a question of whether you have access to products that will help you run or throw faster or gain 20 pounds of muscle this offseason. There are many methods to achieve this, and they can easily be sampled to see which methods work for you.

With this new generation of athletes, all of this information comes with greater knowledge. Today’s athlete is more knowledgeable than your average physical therapist or chiropractor when it comes to strength and conditioning. Most athletes outside of soccer players didn’t lift weights ten years ago. Now, just about every serious athlete does. With this comes tougher questions from athletes regarding their training. Perhaps the most common question is: how should we schedule our lifting? Should x athlete have upper and lower body days? Or should every session be a full body workout day? Let’s investigate.

The Case for Upper and Lower Body Days

If you train regularly in a large gym, you will notice certain trends. Monday is International Breast Day. Every gym bro knows that Monday is bench day, or “push day.” Tuesday tends to be more of a “pull” or “arm” day. Wednesday is all about legs, which is why gyms are less crowded on Wednesdays. Thursday and Friday are repeats of Monday and Tuesday. Again, of course, this is an exaggeration, in a way. There really are a lot of programs dedicated to these types of split routines. But is it good for athletes? May be. It depends on the athlete’s situation. It depends on the sport, the goal and if you are in season.

There is a basic formula that most strength and conditioning coaches (including myself) follow. The start of the offseason is a good time to focus on building muscle. Adding muscle mass allows the athlete to gain size and the extra strength that comes with it. Having workouts dedicated solely to your upper body is the most effective way to build muscle. It effectively overloads particular muscle groups, creating a good environment for muscle building. Let’s say you’re doing pull-ups. If you want to build bigger arms, following pull-ups with bicep curls or rowing exercises will help you achieve that. Squats after pull-ups are of course not the best choice for arm building. The same logic can of course apply to the lower body.

So if your goal is to build muscle, then yes, upper and lower body workouts are ideal for that. Accumulating more bulk on the same muscle groups can force the body to build more muscle in those areas. For athletes, it is best to do this at the beginning of the offseason. Having bigger muscles helps achieve other goals you’ll want to achieve in pre-season and in-season.

The Case for Total Body Training Days

As the season approaches, so do training and time commitments. Athletes have less time to train alone. More time is spent learning the games and perfecting their craft during the pre-season. Total body workouts will be more effective in providing a training effect with less time available. The biggest benefit is that total body training tends to be more sport specific. For building muscle, I mentioned that pull-ups and curls are good options for the arms. But for a total body workout, pull-ups, squats, deadlifts, planks, or push-ups may be better choices. These exercises work for multiple muscle groups. Working multiple muscle groups at once is also what athletes do during competition. This makes total body training more sport specific. Developing coordination and learning to use the kinetic chain effectively with medicine ball throws, jumps, TRX drills, overhead squats, and other full-body exercises are more athletic and can better translate to athletic performance. Again, sport-specific drills will be most helpful closer to the season and even during in-season training.

It is also theorized that total body training may be a better way to build strength. Let’s say you want to build your squat numbers. After heavy lifting on the squats themselves, it may be best to do an upper body exercise next to give the legs a break. Even if you continue to train, you allow the legs to recover so that you can lift again with heavier squats or with another heavy leg exercise. It’s harder to do on leg day or arm day.

The case for split routines and total body training

Of course, the answer to most questions about strength and conditioning is: maybe, and it depends. I presented a fundamental thought process as to when each method might be useful. As for the research body, building muscle is ideal in the offseason, and building strength becomes more appropriate as the season approaches. Once the season arrives, we have to do our best to retain as much muscle and strength as possible.

There are many things to consider. Baseball players play more games than any other sport. They have to worry more about losing strength over a long season. Footballers, however rigorous their sport, only play once a week. They have more time on their side and can afford to continue having training days dedicated to rebuilding lost muscle and maintaining high strength levels. Swimmers can compete all year round. They tend to have much shorter off seasons that don’t give them much time to build muscle. Strength training is probably more of a priority most of the year, and muscle-building protocols are sprinkled in between meets once in a while if there isn’t much of an offseason.

Each sport and athlete has different requirements depending on their season and their own body. Again, this information is only the basics and should not be taken as gospel. I encourage any serious athlete to find a physical trainer and create a personalized year-round program to help them become the best athlete they can be.

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