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Keys To Build Muscle With Total Body Workouts

Whether your goal is to get bigger and stronger, or improve power and explosiveness for sports, you want to see progress — and pronto.

But building muscle efficiently requires more than just putting in time at the weight rack. Along with your strength training regimen, diet and lifestyle choices all play important roles.

Before you even start thinking about how to build muscle, it’s instructive to know the primary factors that determine just how much of it you can gain.


3 Factors Affecting Muscle Growth

These are the main criteria dictating increases in muscle size, or hypertrophy — and two of them are outside your control.


Simmer down — we’re talking gender. The male persuasion unsurprisingly has a decided advantage when it comes to building muscle. That’s due in large part to far greater levels of testosterone and a higher red blood cell count among men than women, who typically have to go to more extraordinary lengths to gain size.


Similar to the way it governs how much hair you get to keep, heredity determines how much muscle you can develop. Thanks to genetics, a segment of the populace is born with a higher number of type II, or fast-twitch, muscle fibers, which have the greatest potential for growth.

Training Specificity

The factor you can change — and the one we’ll spend much of this article focusing on — is the approach you take to your workouts overall. There are different protocols that distinguish lifting for mass from lifting for strength.

Generally speaking, lifting very heavy weights in low volume is how to gain strength, and lifting moderately heavy weights in high volume is how to gain muscle.

For those seeking tips on how to gain muscle, here are some strategies to get you started.

Constrain Workout Length To 60-Minutes

There is actually some pretty interesting research on the length of training.
Generally what you want to do is keep your sessions around 45 minutes to no more than 60 minutes.
Studies show that when you go beyond that mark your body begins to wear down and a catabolic environment is progressively created.  This has a lot to do with glycogen and ATP.
ATP is the primary fuel source of muscles.
It’s derived from glycogen.
Studies show that when glycogen gets depleted muscle breakdown is significantly enhanced.
And, in the same way, when ATP is depleted it is also enhanced.
It’s really a linear thing.  Glycogen begins to deplete during your training and then ATP generation suffers.  When this begins to happen then cortisol starts rising.
Basically, your body is getting more and more “stressed”.
When you start a lift your testosterone and other anabolics naturally will increase.
Studies show they peak at around the 30-minute mark or shortly before.
They hold there for a bit of time and then they begin to decrease as your cortisol levels build up.  When cortisol goes up testosterone goes down.  And, muscle breakdown begins to increase.
This is a vital piece of information for all exercise sessions regardless of if you are doing total body workouts or not.
However, it’s especially important for total body training in which you have the goal of maximizing your muscle benefits.
People get this idea that when you train every single muscle group in one session it is ok to train longer.
And so what inevitably happens is that they have these big long 90-minute to two-hour sessions.
Well, all that is going to do is begin to get you overtrained.
It makes no difference if all you are training is your chest in a workout or if you are training your entire body (legs, back, chest, shoulders, and arms) the length of that workout must be taken into consideration.

Limit The Number Of Exercises To 5-7

Once again, the length of your workout is vital.
We are focussed on getting the best possible results and to do that we set a hard limit on how long we are in the gym.

Now, this becomes a bit of an issue when you are training all of your muscles within the same session.
At least, it can be.
What you get is this wrong thinking mindset in which you try to simply combine all of your other workouts together.
A prototypical workout split based in which you are training certain muscle groups within the same workout would look as follows:

  • Monday: Chest/Back
  • Tuesday: Legs/Shoulders
  • Wednesday: Rest
  • Thursday: Chest/Back
  • Friday: Legs/Shoulders
  • Weekend: Rest
There are other ways to build muscle.  Some guys actually prefer a one muscle group per session routine that looks as follows:

  • Monday: Chest
  • Tuesday: Back
  • Wednesday: Arms
  • Thursday: Legs
  • Friday: Shoulders
  • Weekend: Rest
Or, something similar to that.

Either way works and it’s really a matter of preference.
However, let’s say you want to cut down on the number of days you train each week.  You only have two days to make it to the gym but you still want good results.
Well, what many will try to do is just carry all of the exercises from each muscle group into their full body workout.
That means they just try to combine all of the workouts they would be doing into one giant workout.
They will do something along the lines of bench press, overhead press, squats, lunges, deadlift, and on and on all in the same session.
You will have a compound dominant two-hour session and it will get you overtrained in a matter of one week.
We discussed a good number to shoot for in the past and that number is no more than 5 exercises per session.  When it comes to full body workouts the same basic thing applies
Although, I generally don’t mind stretching that to 7 exercises.
Just note, you certainly don’t need that.
Which means you need to be doing the exercises that are the best for each muscle group.
An example would be:

  • Barbell Back Squat for legs
  • Bench Press for chest
  • Dumbbell Overhead Press for shoulders
  • Pull-Ups for back
  • You could throw in a superset of bicep curls and triceps push down at the end.
That is just a very rough example.

It contains 4 base exercises and a quick arm superset.  6 exercises in total to be performed in no more than 60 minutes.
You would do that on a Monday and come back and repeat Thursday or something.  That would be training each muscle group two times per week.
Some will find that that is also too much.
Another way to handle your total body weekly routine is to just train each muscle group one time per week.
Actually, I prefer that way.
For your Monday session, you could train only upper body.  For your Thursday session, you could train your lower body and arms.  It’s not a traditional full body workout but it is close to it.
Again, these are just examples.
The point is that you want to limit the number of exercises you are doing for each session.

Train All Muscle Groups At Least Once

This should go without saying.
The goal is to train each muscle group at least one time per week.
How you go about doing that is really up to you.
There is not really much else to say here.  The goal of training is to stimulate the muscle but not annihilate it.  I believe it was 8x Mr. Olympia Lee Haney who first coined that phrase.
In my experience, you can accomplish this just by stimulating each muscle group one time per week.
That is plenty.
Actually, it is optimal if you are over 40.  But, even if you are under 30 it is still an excellent way to go about it.  It will ensure that all of your muscles have plenty of rest time in between workout sessions.
Again, if you are focussed on total body workouts this can be a bit confusing.
The confusion would be that it’s called “total body”.
And so you have this idea that you need to be working your upper and lower body together.
Well, if you do that on Monday and then on Thursday then what you end up with is training each muscle group two times per week.
And, honestly, that is pretty much the traditional way to handle full body training and it’s actually a great way to do it.  At least, keeping in mind that you want to limit the number of exercises you are doing for each session.
However, another way to handle a total body workout is to just do an upper and lower body split.
Or, a sort of hybrid.

An example would be:

  • Monday: Chest, Back, Calves, Abs
  • Thursday: Legs, Shoulders, Arms, Abs
Again, that’s just an example.
There are a lot of ways to segment your total body workouts.
However, just remember that your goal should be to train all muscle groups at least one time per week but typically no more than two.
Limit Your Total Training Volume.
Naturally, if the length of your sessions and the number of exercises for each session is constrained then you will also be controlling your volume.
Studies show that when training at around 60 – 85 percent of your one rep max that somewhere between 90 -180 reps of total weekly volume per each muscle group is pretty much optimal.
Again, that is just research.
Research is certainly flawed.
Some people can handle more volume and some not as much.  However, it is a good amount to shoot for.
And, just keep in mind that the heavier you train the lower on that rep range you will be.
That is just a general estimate it will very much depend on training experience and certain genetic factors.  Generally speaking, younger guys that are less experienced in the gym can handle more volume.
Their bodies have a lot of gains left in the tank.
But, even so, high volume training is not needed to build muscle.
In my experience, the best results are typically achieved by limiting volume.
Total body training can be problematic for the simple fact that it tends to get into super high volume.
You’ll have people trying to do 3 sets of 10 reps for ten or more exercises.  You end up with 300+ reps for each workout and that is just way too much.
Your body cannot recover from that.
That is, not unless you are taking steroids or something.
Just keep in mind that if you want to focus on training each muscle group per workout then you need to keep your volume in check for each session.  It can easily run out of control if you are not paying attention.

Rest At Least 3 Days Between Workouts

We discussed how many days rest you should get between workout in the past.

Studies show that when your body is recovering from a workout all sorts of things are happening:

  • The removal of metabolic end products (lactate, for example)
  • Restoration of intramuscular PH
  • Replenishing phosphagens so your body can regenerate ATP
  • Rebalancing sodium and potassium within muscle cells.
  • And much more

 And this is why research indicates it can take 48-72 hours for the muscle to recover enough in order to begin another workout.
That is two to three full days of not training.
In other words, you do not go to the gym.
The standard protocol with total body workouts is to work out two to three days per week.
The issue is that training all muscle groups at one time will mean you need more rest between sessions.  And, in my experience, the minimum is three full days if you want to optimize muscle gains.
Most people simply cannot go three full-body sessions per week and expect to get good results.
You need more time between the gym.
Failure to understand this is a recipe for getting yourself overtrained and when you do that you will not be building muscle.
It’s the issue that so many people run into with Crossfit.
Crossfit is great but the training is too intense to be doing multiple times per week with only a day or so rest in between.
The same thing goes for intense weightlifting in which you are focussed on compound lifting.
Your body needs time to recover.
Studies also show that the more muscle mass you have the longer it takes to recovery.
It’s why men generally need more time to recover than women.  It’s also why those who have been training for several years are generally going to need more time than newbies.  However, generally speaking, if you are eating right then you should be fine with three days rest in between session.
If you need more time then take it.
Going four days between intense total body workouts is perfectly acceptable in my experience.
Let’s say you Train on Monday at 6:30 p.m.
At a minimum the next training session would be Thursday at 6:30 p.m. if you are taking three days rest.

Final Thoughts On Total Body Workouts

What you’ll often hear is that you can’t make great gains with full body training.

In my experience, that is not true.
The reason most people struggle with it is that they are violating the volume limits of their body.  The number one way this comes about is in trying to do too many exercises per session.
You really only need just one exercise for each muscle group per session.
This is especially the case if you are focussed on the most effective movements.
Squats, for example, would be all you need to do to train your legs during a session.
Again, this is doubly so if you are planning on having another workout that week in which you train your legs again.
The 5 keys listed here are pretty much all geared toward providing just enough stimulation without exceeding your volume limits.  It’s pretty much the central focus of all weightlifting geared toward maximizing gains.
But, it needs to really be hammered home when it comes to a total body focus.