Monday 22 January 2024

The Truth About Push Pull Legs

What is the best training split? If you know your iron game history, you will know that different splits have been popular at different times. Whole-body, Arnold, 3 days on, 1 day off, push-pull-legs, body part, upper-lower, and movement splits, have all had a turn in the popularity spotlight. Today the old push-pull-legs split has resurged in popularity. Regardless of who is using it, the real question is, should YOU use push-pull-legs? To help you answer this question, Let’s look at the pros, cons, and programming tips for push-pull-legs.

Defining Push-Pull-Legs

Just so we are all on the same page…
This training split divides your body into three parts:
  1. Push Day: Chest, shoulders, and triceps
  2. Pull Day: Back and biceps
  3. Legs: Quads, hamstrings, glutes, and calves

Pros of Push-Pull-Legs

It works
All reasonable training splits can work if your programming is decent, and your work ethic (in and out of the gym) is superb. The push-pull-legs split has worked well for many bodybuilders, and it can work for you.

Train muscles that naturally work together on the same day
Since your pushing muscles naturally work together, it can make sense to train them together. The same goes for pulling muscles and legs.

No overlap between days
Because you are grouping similar muscles into the same session, you get minimal to no interference between training days. This gives you the flexibility to train the next day without being hindered by sore, tired muscles.

Lower frequency
After the recent high-frequency trend, many people think that low frequency is a bad thing. The truth is that some people do well with a lower training frequency. If you are one of these people, you may really like push-pull-legs. Each day you hammer a certain area and then give it plenty of time to rest and recover. It may also help certain joints like your elbows get a well-needed break. 

Huge warm-up time saver 
If you are doing a whole-body routine, you will have to do warm-up sets for at least your first leg exercise, first upper-body pushing exercise, and first upper-body pulling exercise. This is not a big deal for a beginner who only needs 1-2 warm-up sets. However, the stronger you get, the more warm-up sets you need (possibly 3-5) and the longer your training session takes. In contrast, if you are doing a push day, you will only need those extra sets on your first exercise (e.g., bench press). If your second exercise is also a chest exercise (e.g., incline dumbbell press), may only need a quick 1-2, low rep sets to get used to that movement and you are good to do. If after your chest work, you move to your shoulders – which are very warm from your chest work, you can get quickly get into your shoulder exercises. The same goes for your triceps exercises.

Cons of Push-Pull-Legs

No alternating sets
With alternating sets, you combine two non-competing exercises. You do a set of exercise 1 (e.g., bench press), take a short rest, do a set of exercise 2 (e.g., row), take another short rest, and repeat until you are finished with all your sets for both exercises. By using some of your normal rest time to train another non-competing muscle or movement, you can save a lot of time time. However, when you are doing a push or pull day, alternating sets do not work because there is too much overlap between these muscles. Leg exercises do not work well for alternating sets unless you are doing leg extensions and leg curls (i.e., never try alternating sets with squats and deadlifts – there is too much overlap!). Some people hate alternating sets, so this is not a big deal. However, if you like the idea of alternating sets to save time, a push-pull-legs split is not for you. 

Low Frequency
Because you separate your body into 3 different training sessions, you only hit each muscle once a week if you train 3x per week. While this may be ideal for some, it might be too little frequency for you. This is a bad choice for beginners as they only get to practice each lift once a week. If you want to train a muscle 2x per week, you would need to train 6x per week. This means a lot of time in the gym and not a lot of rest for recovery and growth.

Exercises later in the workout suffer
Regardless of your training split, the same principle applies – you will get the best results with what you do first in your workout. If you start your push workout with your chest, the accumulated fatigue will negatively impact your shoulder and triceps exercises that come later in your training session.

Not great for bringing up lagging arms
While you can find examples of bodybuilders with large arms who use push-pull-legs, these are likely short-armed guys with great arm genetics. If you are trying to bring up your triceps, training them at the end of a bunch of hard chest and shoulder pressing exercises is not ideal. The same is true for biceps after a bunch of hard rowing and pull-up exercises. 

I still remember the first time I ran a 3x per week push-pull-leg split. It worked great for increasing my body weight and I got to 200 lbs for the first time in my life. However, most of the growth was in my chest, lats, and legs. This disproportionate growth made my long, skinny arms look even further behind the rest of my body.

Can be hard on the lower back
If you do your push-pull-leg routine in this order, you end up training back the day before your legs. If you do exercises such as deadlifts or bent-over rows on your pull day, your lower back won’t be ready for squats the next day. 

Push-Pull-Leg Programming Tips

Don’t be afraid to try low-frequency training
While the high-frequency training fad has passed, many people get stuck thinking you “have” to train a muscle at least twice per week for it to grow. While this is a good approach for many people, many others have thrived training a muscle once per week. If you have never tried a lower training frequency, you might be pleasantly surprised. If nothing else, it will give your body and joints a break before you go back to higher-frequency training. 

Order your days based on your needs
Just because the split is called push-pull-legs, does not mean that you must use this order. What you do earlier in the week when you are the freshest will progress the best. For example, if your legs are lagging, train legs on Monday while everyone else is doing International Chest Day. 

Order your exercises based on your needs
If your chest is good, but your shoulders need work, start your push day with shoulders, then move on to chest exercises and finish with triceps. If your upper back is lagging behind your lats, start your pull day with rows and then move on to pull-ups.

Don’t hit your lower back hard two days in a row
If you are doing your pull day right before leg day, make sure one of these workouts gives your lower back a break. For example, you could do deadlifts and bent-over rows on your pull day and then low-back sparing exercises on your leg day (e.g., split squats, leg presses, leg curls). Alternatively, you could skip the deadlifts and do chest-supported rows on your pull day and be ready for back squats and Romanian deadlifts on the following leg day. If you want to do deadlifts on your pull day and squats on your leg day, try legs on Monday, push on Wednesday, and pull on Friday. 

Try a rotating split
With a rotating split, you have set days per week that you train, but you rotate through your workouts. This ensures you get sufficient rest days and keep your training days in synch with a 7-day week. In this example, you train 4 days per week and simply rotate through the push-pull-legs while always having weekends off.

Week 1
Monday: Push
Tuesday: Pull
Wednesday: Rest
Thursday: Legs
Friday: Push
Saturday & Sunday: Rest

Week 2
Monday: Pull
Tuesday: Legs
Wednesday: Rest
Thursday: Push
Friday: Pull
Saturday & Sunday: Rest

Week 3
Monday: Legs
Tuesday: Push
Wednesday: Rest
Thursday: Pull
Friday: Legs
Saturday & Sunday: Rest

Related article: Training Splits for Drug-Free Lifters

Try using Push-Pull-Legs as part of a specialization routine
To create a specialization routine, increase the volume and frequency of the muscle you are trying to bring up while decreasing the volume and frequency of other muscles. Start the week with the lagging muscle(s) and then finish the week with push-pull-legs in a logical order (based on what muscle you are specializing in – the specialized muscle gets hit Monday & Thursday). Example: push-pull-legs with arm specialization:

Monday: Arms
Tuesday: Legs (gives arms a break)
Wednesday: Rest (give your whole body a break)
Thursday: Push (short chest and shoulders session, then onto your 2nd triceps session)
Friday: Pull (short back session, then onto your 2nd biceps session)
Saturday & Sunday: Rest and grow!

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