Looking to build muscle but short on time? Like, really short on time. A 2 or 3 day a week full body workout plan to build muscle could be exactly what you need.
If you’ve heard of full-body workouts but don’t know where to start, I’ve got you covered.
In this guide, you’ll discover everything there is to know about full-body workouts, how to do them effectively, and exactly who could benefit.
You’ll also find a sample evidence-based workout plan so that you can hit every muscle group covering your entire body throughout the week, including plenty of rest days and recovery in between (something you’ll likely never have to worry about with a full-body workout routine!).
- The full body workout routine is an effective way to build muscle for people who only have 2-3 days a week to dedicate to the gym
- It is a compound exercise focussed routine with very little accessory work
- It has its pros and cons.
Pros include: suits a busy lifestyle, allows time for other activities during the week.
Cons include: longer gym sessions and the plan perhaps not being optimal for advanced trainees who require more volume
What Is a Full Body Workout Plan?
A full-body workout plan involves training every muscle group in a single gym session.
A full-body split is usually among the best workout splits for muscle growth if you only have 2 to 3 days a week to commit to the gym, but still want to hit the weekly training volume needed to grow muscle, according to the science.
For example: in a typical 4 day per week (or more) workout split, it’s generally preferred to split your body into muscle groups like an upper body exercise day, while working out the lower body another day or separate push/pull/leg days.
This can’t be done if you only have 2 days a week to work out, while hitting the scientifically accepted optimal set range for each muscle group (10+ sets per week). In this case, the full-body split would be the way to go.
Overview of an Effective Full-Body Workout Routine For Muscle Growth
|Rest Periods||2-3 minutes|
|Training Frequency||2-3 days per week|
|Session Length||80-120 minutes per workout |
(but can be made shorter. Explained a bit later in this post)
|Progression Method||Single Progression or Double Progression |
(explanation later in the article)
Before we get into the sample workouts you’ll be performing in this plan, and the days you’ll be doing them, let’s talk about the types of exercises you need to include to make this routine work.
You can swap exercises out for others in this plan as long as the follow a similar plane of movement to the ones described below..(We explain the exercises further down this article)
Exercises That Should Go in Every Full-Body Workout Plan
While you can change up the exercises that I’ve recommended in the full-body workout plan, there are some essential movements that you should keep in each full body day.
The best full body workouts will contain each of the following compound movement patterns, per workout:
- Hip Flexion/Extension (squats/deadlift/leg press)
- Vertical Pulling/Horizontal Pulling
- Vertical Pushing
- Horizontal Pushing
Sample Full Body Workout Routine
|DAY 1||FULL BODY WORKOUT DAY|
|Exercises||Sets and Reps|
|Deadlift||4-5 Sets of 4-6 Reps|
|Barbell Bench Press||4-5 Sets of 6-8 Reps|
|Lat Pulldowns||4-5 sets of 8-12 Reps|
|Seated DB Shoulder Press||4-5 sets of 8-12 Reps|
|Incline (15 degree) Single DB Skull Crusher||2-3 Sets of 8-12 Reps|
|Barbell Curls||2-3 Sets of 12-15 Reps|
|Seated Calf Raises||2-3 Sets of 12-15 Reps|
Day 2: Rest Day
Day 3: Rest Day
|DAY 4||FULL BODY WORKOUT DAY|
|Exercises||Sets and Reps|
|Barbell Back Squats||4-5 Sets of 6-8 Reps|
|Standing Overhead Barbell Press||4-5 Sets of 6-8 Reps|
|Barbell/Pendlay Rows||4-5 Sets of 8-12 Reps|
|Incline Dumbbell Press||4-5 Sets of 8-12 Reps|
|Close-Grip Bench Press||2-3 Sets of 8-12 Reps|
|Seated Decline DB Curls||2-3 Sets of 8-12 Reps|
|Standing Calf Raises||2-3 Sets of 12-15 Reps|
Day 5: Rest
|DAY 6 (optional)||REST/FULL BODY (*only if training 3 days a week)|
|Exercises||Sets and Reps|
|Pull Ups/Lat Pulldown||2-3 Sets of 8-12 reps – (weighted pull ups if you can do more than 12)|
|DB Rows||2 Sets of 8-12 reps each side|
|Decline Bench Press/Machine Press||4 Sets of 8-12 Reps|
|Machine Shoulder Press||4 Sets of 8-12 Reps|
|Leg Press||4-5 Sets of 8-12 Reps|
|Tricep Extensions of your choice||2-3 Sets of 8-12 Reps|
|Bicep Curls of your choice||2-3 Sets of 8-12 Reps|
|Calf Raises of your choice||2-3 Sets of 8-12 Reps|
Day 7: Rest
Full Body Workout Routine Summary
In this full-body workout program, you’ll be working on all the major muscle groups of the whole body in every session, with rest days in between.
Although you’ll be working on the same body parts in each workout session, they will contain differing exercises from one session to the next, and a rotation in exercise order in an attempt to ensure each body part gets equal intensity throughout the week.
Eventually, you could change the exercise order if you notice lagging body parts and put them nearer the start of your workout when you’re less fatigued.
If you’re a beginner, stick with the exercise order recommended and start with the lower end of the sets suggested.
Pros and Cons of a Full-Body Workout Program
Now that you know more about how to perform full-body workouts, you should know the benefits that the routine gives you, as well as the drawbacks.
I’ve listed these below in summary, with a longer explanation underneath the table.
|Pros of Full Body Workouts||Cons of Full Body Workouts|
|Suitable for beginners or those with limited time for multiple weekly workouts.||May require more time and effort per session compared to split workouts.|
|Balanced development of the entire body.||Doesn’t allow for as much specific focus on individual muscle groups.|
|Increases overall strength and muscle mass just as well as a split routine.||Physically demanding sessions, with many compound exercises per workout requiring adequate rest and recovery.|
|Efficient use of time, targeting multiple muscle groups in one session.||May not be suitable for advanced bodybuilders aiming for maximum muscle hypertrophy who need more volume|
Benefits of a Full Body Workout Routine
1) Effective – All Major Muscle Groups Get Hit At Least Twice a Week
The most important benefit of full-body workout plans is that muscle groups are still targeted with the evidence-based recommendation of at least twice a week, for gaining muscle.
Even if you can only get to the gym twice or three times a week, your full body split means you’ll have 2-3 days to work on every body part.
You can’t really do this with any other training program if that’s the only frequency per week you can manage at the gym.
More on this in a bit.
2) Flexible Days
Another advantage of the sheer number of rest days in this program is the flexibility it affords you.
You can move the workout days around your schedule if something comes up because you’ll have a rest day just around the corner. This allows you to accommodate for any change of plans in your week.
3) Rest Days and Recovery
Rest is important for recovery. And it’s something you’ll rarely have to worry about when you’re doing a total body workout routine, since you have 4-5 days of rest.
Whether you choose the 2-day or 3-day full-body workout plan I’ve laid out in this post, you’ve got ample time for rest and recovery between workouts.
4) Gives You Time for Other Physical Activities
Rest days don’t have to mean no physical activity at all.
If you love other activities like jogging, family activities, sports, classes or other cardio exercises, but still want to build more muscle, then the full-body training plan will fit your lifestyle perfectly.
Cons of Full Body Workout Plans
1) Long Training Sessions
A single workout session of a full body routine will take a minimum of around 80 minutes if you’re taking the recommended rest periods of 3 minutes between sets for compound movements and 2 minutes for accessory movements.
This could increase to around 100-110 minutes when using the higher ranges of sets and reps suggested.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with this for building muscle (you don’t need to pay attention to the outdated “bro” advice of having to be in and out of the gym in 60 minutes), but it is worth mentioning that your workout won’t be the quickest.
PRO TIP: you could save time by performing opposing muscle group super-sets on smaller muscle groups like biceps and triceps. This will allow you to get more done with minimal performance decreases. Not recommended for compound movements and exercises that require heavy weights, like the flat bench.
2) Inflexibility (exercises and body parts)
While full body training plans are flexible in the choice of days it gives you to attend the gym, the same can’t really be said for exercise selection.
You’re trying to fit so much into a single workout that it’s hard to include things like accessory exercises for smaller muscle groups, or unilateral movement, unless you’re happy for your workout to spill over into a couple of hours or more.
This won’t be a problem for novice lifters who don’t really need much accessory work, but may prove annoying for more advanced lifters who want more uniform intensity in their workout across multiple muscle groups.
It is difficult to consistently give some body parts as much intensity as others, since they’ll always be in the middle of your workout and never at the start, while you’re fresh. But you can adjust the exercise order if you notice some body parts have started to lag over time.
Ultimately, the program involves training the same muscles, with generally the same exercises and movements over and over again, which could become boring (but still effective!).
(3) Potentially not Ideal for Advanced Lifters
Following on from the inflexibility of full-body workout plans, although previous studies generally concluded 10+ sets a week were optimal for muscular hypertrophy, recent studies have shown that advanced lifters MAY benefit from higher sets, all the way up to 30-45 sets per week. (1)(2)
Achieving this would be virtually impossible with two full body workouts per week, but these studies should be taken with a pinch of salt.
One of the studies was performed with only 1-minute rest intervals between sets, which has been found to be sub-optimal for hypertrophy and would probably warrant more sets for similar hypertrophic effect.
The other caveat is that measurements were taken 48-72 hours after the training session. While this is usually enough to alleviate swelling (not actual muscle growth), there is some evidence to say swelling can last longer.
It may not be necessary to go so high in volume but it is generally accepted that the more advanced the lifter, the more they stand to benefit from higher training volumes. Something to bear in mind.
When you consider yourself an intermediate-advanced lifter, it may be worth looking to move on to a program with increased training frequency that allows for more volume to be achieved and spread over the week.
How to Use Progressive Overload to Build Muscle With the Full Body Training Program
The objective of this total body workout is to increase your muscle development. Any routine with this goal in mind will need to progressively overload the muscles over time.
Progressive overload is a term used for gradually increasing resistance or intensity to induce muscle adaptations, enabling them to build back bigger and stronger.
You need progressive overload to develop your muscles as they get used to the stresses put on them. This can be done through increasing the loads you are lifting when feel like exercise is getting too easy at the top end of your rep ranges or adding more sets for greater volume.
This will help you to avoid stagnation or reaching a plateau and continue progressing your muscle development.
How to Progress When Following a Full-Body Workout Program
Here are some tips for maximizing the results of your full-body workout sessions.
#1 Increasing Volume – Reps, Weights and Periodization
This is where the previously mentioned progressive overload comes into play, but what’s a smart way to achieve it?
Single progression is likely the model you’ll be ok using when you first start your journey to gain muscle.
“Single” in this case, refers to a single variable. That can be weights (most common), reps or sets.
If we increased sets, this will eventually be self-limiting because, I don’t know about you, but I don’t have the time to keep increasing sets every week (you’re adding 4+ minutes to your workout for every added set!). So, let’s ignore sets for now.
You can’t keep increasing reps either, because eventually, you’ll go out of your prescribed range.
Let’s say the range for an exercise is 6-8 reps.
Week 1: you’ll aim for 6 reps
Week 2: you’ll aim for 7 reps
Week 3: you’ll aim for 8 reps
If you continue in this way, by week 10, you’ll be at 15 reps and it’s likely you’d be unable to do that with the same load.
So weight is usually the variable for single progression. Here’s what single progression might look like:
|Week||Weight and Reps Achieved|
|Week 1||150lbs x 6 reps, 150 x 6, 150 x 6|
|Week 2||160 x 6, 160 x 6, 160 x 6|
|Week 3||170 x 6, 170 x 6, 170 x 6|
You’ll likely make progress in this way when you’re a novice lifter but you’ll hit a plateau after a few months. If using heavier weights every week with the same reps were that easy, you’d have 250lb muscle-bound behemoths walking around after a year of training. We know that doesn’t happen.
That’s when you move on to..
Double progression means adjusting two variables to try and achieve progressive overload in your lifting program, most commonly weight and reps.
How I usually program double progression is by allowing for each set to fall within the prescribed rep range.
Let’s use 6-8 reps again as an example, and a starting load of 150lbs. Our target is to progress to lifting 160lbs.
Here’s a 6 week double progression example:
|Week||Weight and Reps Achieved|
|Week 1||150 x 7, 150 x 7, 150 x 6|
|Week 2||150 x 8, 150 x 8, 150 x 7|
|Week 3||150 x 8, 150 x 8, 150 x 8 (top end of rep range achieved for 3 sets)|
|Week 4||160 x 6, 160 x 6, 160 x 6|
|Week 5||160 x 8, 160 x 7, 160 x 6|
|Week 6||160 x 8, 160 x 8, 160 x 8 (top end target achieved – in week 7 move weight up to 170)|
With double progression, when you’re at the top end of your rep range and can perform every set with GOOD form, you can increase the weight used and start again at the bottom end of the rep range.
This will help with progressive muscle gain and growth over time.
#2 Proper Nutrition and Supplementation
I won’t spend much time on this area, as nutrition is probably both obvious and simple to you, but here are some basic guidelines.
Calories: Start with eating 5-10% above your maintenance calories. Use our macro calculator to find your starting number.
If your body fat is over 25%, you could even start with eating maintenance calories if you want to do a body recomposition (drop fat and build muscle at the same time). This is possible if you’re brand new to strength training or have been out of commission for a long time.
However, if you’re already lean and losing weight week to week, increase your calorie consumption by 5-10% until you’re not.
Protein: Consume between 0.64g-0.82g per lb of your bodyweight daily for natural bodybuilders. This was found to be where a natural athlete maxes out the benefits of protein for muscle building (in contrast to the previously given blanket advice of 1g per lb of bodyweight).
Carbs and Fats: Let your carbs and fats make up the rest of your calories in ratios that you prefer. If you prefer to eat low carb, fine. If you prefer to eat more carbs and fewer fat calories, also fine.
The evidence is quite clear that both methods work for both muscle gain and fat loss.
Supplements: Creatine is the most studied safe and effective supplement for muscle building and performance, so pick some basic creatine monohydrate up and take 5g per day.
Maybe nab some whey protein if you’re struggling to hit your protein target and caffeine if you’re struggling with energy pre-workout. Done and dusted.
#3 Proper Warm-Up Sets
One study (3) confirmed multiple Warm-up sets of around 6 reps x 80% of your working load are important for maintaining force outputs during your working sets. Lower reps and lower loads weren’t enough to optimize squat and bench press performance.
Of course, warm ups also reduce the risk of injury before exerting full effort in your working sets.
#4 Rest 2-3 Minutes Between Sets
Studies show (4) that strength and muscle mass is significantly increased when you rest 3 minutes vs 1 minute between sets. This study was also done using a full body workout plan over 8 weeks.
Although it might be tempting to take shorter rest periods, it’s likely you’ll fatigue faster and before your muscles have maximized the effectiveness of the set.
Meaning, you’d need more sets, which ironically, may take you longer to complete. Ultimately, take as long or as little time as you need to perform the next set to the best of your ability.
#5 Sleep and Recovery
Doing a full-body workout or any workout for that matter while sleep deprived isn’t ideal. on four hours of sleep isn’t ideal.
One study (5) showed even a single night of total sleep depravation is enough to create a catabolic (muscle breakdown) environment in your body, with cortisol increasing 21%, plasma testosterone decreasing by 24% and protein synthesis rate decreasing by 18%.
Exercise Summary For Full Body Workouts
Here’s a summary of the exercises you’ll be performing for each muscle group(s) in your full body workout:
Barbell Back Squats
The barbell back squats are a great exercise for building muscle in the glutes and the quadriceps.
For this exercise, you’ll want to utilize a full range of motion.
Start with the bar on the fleshy part of your traps, retract your shoulder blades, keep your chest up and start with a shoulder-width stance. Brace your core and keep your chest up while lowering yourself into a squat.
This means lowering yourself until your glutes drop below your thighs, maybe stopping a little higher, or even deeper depending on your natural bone structure and flexibility, among other things.
Once you get used to the weight, while performing the squat correctly and feel less resistance at the top end of your rep range, you can add more weight to continue the progress and encourage muscle growth.
Be sure you don’t start with weights that are too heavy because this exercise has potential to cause injury if not performed correctly. Master the movement first.
You can either do a traditional deadlift or a Romanian deadlift, but I’d recommend a traditional or sumo deadlift when performing a total body workout, since you get more of the lower body engaged.
The difference between the two is that the Romanian deadlift stops within a shorter distance and your knees stay relatively straight (besides a slight bend). You only hinge at your hips and push your glutes back, providing more focus on your hamstrings.
Start with the barbell around your hips and lower it to your lower shins, using the cues I explained above.
A traditional deadlift is performed similarly but you can hinge at both the hips and the knees (knees bend).
The deadlift is one of the best full-body exercises to utilize muscles from much of the whole body, from the upper back and traps, down to the legs.
A valid alternative to squats.
While it’s probably not quite as functional as a squat, it’s certainly functional if your main goal is to make your legs bigger, as this study (6) showed similar outcomes for body composition.
Though, squats do tend to work a slightly larger range of muscles on your body including the lower back and core muscles due to needing to stabilize yourself during the exercise.
Barbell Bench Press
The flat barbell bench press will be your main chest exercise for this day.
The flat bench performs well for both upper and lower chest activation in studies (7) and is a great overall chest exercise for developing strength and muscle growth.
Secondary muscle groups like your triceps and your anterior delts (front shoulder) will also be activated during this exercise.
Incline Dumbbell Press
In day 2 of our workout, we switch from the flat bench press to a 15-30 degree incline dumbell press to target the upper pecs more (we also switch this to the back end of our upper body exercises on this day to give the back and delts priority this time, where chest got priority on day 1).
We don’t want to take our bench incline above 30 degrees here, as this is where the anterior deltoids (front shoulders) take over and the pecs are less active.
Pull-ups or lat pulldowns with an overhand grip slightly wider than your shoulders, are one of the most popular and effective compound exercises that work your back.
While the main muscle group focus for pull-ups is the lats, other muscles like the rear delts, biceps and scapular stabilizers will also assist.
A pull up is a difficult exercise to perform properly for a beginner, as it’s a bodyweight based pulling exercise.
I find many beginners struggle to pull their own bodyweight up difficult, and end up swinging from the bar like a drunken sloth. Not great for targeting the muscle group you’re intending to with pull ups.
Start with lat pulldowns which are just as effective, if not more, since they’re actually easier to load from a fixed and stable position.
You can always revisit pull ups when you’ve made progress with lat pulldowns.
Barbell Rows/Pendlay Rows
Standing Overhead Press
The standing barbell overhead press is one of the best exercises for building muscle across the entire shoulder complex.
This exercise focusses on the anterior deltoid, medial deltoid, and triceps. When you perform this exercise, have a start position with your arms around shoulder-width apart (or a little wider).
With your glutes and core braced, push upwards while moving your face out of the way of the bar and pushing it through with a finishing position on top of, and in line with the back of your head.
NOTE: If your arms are much wider apart or closer than this, you may not be creating tension on the muscles as effectively as you can, and may be increasing your chances of a shoulder joint injury. You can go slightly wider or closer to make the movement feel comfortable for your body structure, but don’t stray to far wide or go super-close.
Skull Crushers/Lying Tricep Extensions
You’ll need a flat or an incline bench and an e-z barbell or dumbbells for the skull crusher.
I’d start with the barbell for stability but the choice is yours.
You’ll be lying flat on the bench, or with the bench at a small 15 degree incline and your head hanging slightly over the end. Grip the EZ bar inside the inner bend with palms facing up (or palms making a “diamond” shape if you’re using dumbells.
Here’s where the term “skull crusher” is a bit of a misnomer if you’re performing the exercise most effectively; it’s more of a lying tricep extension.
The barbells’ fully lowered position shouldn’t be on top of your forehead, but rather the bar should finish behind the top of your head to put the triceps into their most stretched position.
From this fully stretched position is where you can most effectively build muscle mass in your triceps, particularly the long head, which isn’t targeted as much by your pressing exercises like the bench and overhead presses.
Seated Tricep Extension
The tricep extension is similar to the skull crusher, except it’s done while either standing up or sitting down.
The main difference between the two is that you have less back support since the dumbbell or barbell will need to be lowered to where the back support of the bench would normally be, making it a slightly less stable exercise.
Bicep Curl Variations
You can choose a bicep curl variation of your choice.
My personal preference is alternating dumbell curls with the bench declined around 45-60 degrees (not as low as the bench is in the image below) to allow for a full stretch of the bicep.
Alternative and Accessory Exercises For the Full Body Workout
Here are some alternative or additional exercises you can include in the full body training program:
Dumbell Lateral Raises
The lateral raise focusses on isolating the medial or lateral deltoid.
While I wouldn’t recommend it as an alternative to the overhead barbell press or dumbbell press, if your shoulders become a lagging body part, you could add 2 sets of lateral raises at the back end of your workout to hit the middle portion of your shoulders.
Seated Cable Row
An alternative to the barbell row.
The leg extension machine isolates the quads. If you are going to use this as an alternative to the compound leg exercise recommended in the workouts, I’d superset it with lying leg curls (see below).
Lying Leg Curl
Lying leg curls isolate the hamstrings and are best paired with leg extensions if you need an alternative to the compound leg movements I recommend. Although, using these as an alternative will leave your glutes without as much work to do as squats/leg press/deadlifts.
Hip thrusts target the glutes primarily but you’ll also feel some activation in your quads, hamstrings and adductors.
The hip thrust is a worthy addition if you want to focus more on glute development.
I’d recommend performing ab exercises on your rest days unless you’re ok with your workout sessions going overtime. It’s your choice.
Pick from the following ab exercises for 3-4 sets of 15-20 reps.
- Hanging leg/knee raises
- Cable crunch
Frequently Asked Questions
Even knowing more about how a full-body workout plan works, you may still have a few questions relating to them. I’ve answered the most commonly asked ones below.
Is a 2-Day Full Body Workout Enough to Build Muscle?
Yes, despite the many disbelievers, the science is quite clear that you can build mass on a 2-day split.
If you can hit 10+ working sets per muscle group, per week, then you’re in the optimal range for building muscle; and you can do this with a 2-day full body workout plan.
NOTE: advanced athletes could benefit from up to 30-40 sets!
Is a 3-Day Full Body Workout Enough to Build Muscle?
Yes, it’s more than enough to develop your muscles. You’ll build muscle at a consistent rate across all muscle groups if you’re hitting them all with similar consistency, frequency and intensity, and reduce the chances of some lagging behind another.
The rest days in between allow for muscle recovery and fatigue is generally not something you’ll have to worry about on a 3-day training program due to the number of rest days.
However, at 3 days a week, I might consider switching to an upper body/lower body workout plan.
How Can I Make my Full Body Workout Shorter?
You can make your full body sessions shorter by super-setting your opposing muscle group accessory exercises.
These are called antagonist super sets and a study found that super-setting opposing muscle groups actually IMPROVED performance when little to no rest (0-30 seconds) was taken between antagonist super sets.(8)
The example that sticks out straight away is biceps and triceps. The way this would be performed is by doing your tricep exercise, followed immediately by your bicep exercise and then taking your standard recommended 2 minute rest period between the super set.
Why Do Accessory Exercises Have Fewer Sets Per Week?
Accessory exercises like bicep curls and tricep extensions have fewer than 10+ sets per week because they will be assisting in all of your compound exercises i.e. triceps in pressing exercises and biceps in any pulling exercises.
You can increase the sets for these smaller muscle groups without sacrificing time by utilising the antagonist superset method outlined above.
What Is the Ideal Training Frequency for Full Body Workouts?
At a minimum, you should be training twice a week, with a maximum of three times a week.
It probably goes without me saying, but you shouldn’t exercise using a full body routine more than 3 times a week, since the frequency with which you’ll be hitting your entire body will be overkill.
At this point, if I wanted to train 4+ times per week, I’d be personally looking at a different training program instead of a full body routine, like the PHUL routine or a similar powerbuilding workout.
You’ll not be giving your muscles enough recovery time to perform at their best and avoid injury if you’re doing a full body workout at full intensity 4+ times per week..
While a full-body weight training program seems like a daunting and challenging type of training program as you’re hitting all of your body parts in one training session, it’s actually one that gives you an opportunity to build muscle optimally (according to the science) if you have no more than 2-3 days a week to dedicate to the gym.
If you’re busy and only have a couple of days to spare every week for the gym, but still want to build muscle, this is the training plan for you.
Among its other benefits, are that it promotes equal muscle development rates across different body parts and is a very time-efficient routine.
Full-body workouts an effective workout and are among the best exercise options for people who are short on days they can hit the gym.
If you want to hit the gym 3+ times a week, the full body training program is probably not optimal. I’d look at splitting the volume up on your different muscle groups with a different routine, like an upper body/lower body, PPL or PHUL plan.
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