Push-Leg-Pull Split Workout

dumbbell rear flySome people find it difficult to organize their training schedule so that all the main muscle groups are worked within a short enough period that there is no wasted down time, but with enough recovery in between to ensure optimal growth and strength gains.

It can be an added stress just figuring it all out, and for some, it’s enough to just abandon the programme planning altogether and wing it. Unfortunately, it’s often the case that when people improvise like that, they tend to overemphasize the muscle groups they enjoy working out, and neglect the ones they don’t. It’s common to find guys walking around the gym that have huge chests and biceps, but weak backs and legs.

This doesn’t just make people look a bit odd, but it can affect posture and form, and it might be the cause of painful injuries followed by long rehabilitation spells if the problem goes on unchecked.

The Push-Leg-Pull system might work for you if the above sounds familiar, or any of the following:

  • you’re a novice and you want somewhere to start that works
  • you have been training a while and want to change things up
  • you’re pressed for time and want to get the most from your workouts
  • you’re afraid you might be overemphasizing in some areas and underemphasizing in others
  • you don’t want to take a complicated programme to the gym

Let’s have a closer look at the Push-Leg-Pull split and you can see if it might work for you.

Basics of the Push-Leg-Pull Workout Split

bench press manGenerally speaking, the optimal recovery period between training the same muscle group is about 72 hours, for example if you do benchpress on Monday at 4pm, the best time to repeat the exercise is Thursday at 4pm. There are many variables to consider before this can be assumed as a rule.

People recover at different rates, depending on experience, age, genetics, nutrition, rest, stress and so on. However, a baseline must be used, so we’ll use that one. We’re going to take it one step further and say that a muscle group should be worked out twice every 8 days. This is where the push-pull split comes into its own.

Push – These are the exercises where the elbow joints are straight during maximal muscle contraction. Examples of push exercises are:

  • Bench Press
  • Shoulder Press
  • Tricep extensions
  • Dips

As you can see, this isn’t rocket science. When you think of each exercise, they are quite literally pushing movements.

Pull – These are the exercises where the elbow joints are bent at muscle contraction. Examples include:

  • Lat pull-downs
  • Rows
  • Bicep Curls
  • Pull-ups
  • Vertical lifting (e.g Dead-lifts and shrugs)

NOTE: You can see that Push and Pull movements are the upper body exercises split into these two basic functions. A day should be devoted to the legs, which fits quite well between Push and Pull.

Example Schedule

pull down exerciseTo keep things in the spirit of simplicity, we’ll look at a 4 day cycle which can be repeated. This is the basic outline of a schedule in which I won’t indicate quantity of reps or weight specifically. For upper body exercises you can use a rule of thumb:

For Strength use heavy weight for 3 to 6 reps per set
For Hypertrophy (growth, size) use moderate to heavy weight for 8-12 reps per set
For Muscle Tone and Endurance use lighter weight for 15 to 20 reps per set

Day 1 – Push Exercises

muscle group: chest, front shoulders (delts), triceps

  • Bench Press
  • Inclined Bench Press
  • Shoulder Press
  • Inclined Dumbbell Press and Fly super set
  • Side shoulder raises
  • Dips with Tricep Extension compound set
  • Core and Cardio

Accomplish 3, 4 or even 5 sets of each depending on your fitness level and goals.

Day 2 – Legs

muscle group: glutes, quads, hams and calves

  • Barbell Squats
  • Barbell/Dumbbell Lunges
  • Deadlifts (optional for Leg day or Pull day)
  • One-leg dumbbell squats (keep other leg behind you on a bench)
  • Calf-raises

NOTE: Leg exercises yield better results from higher rep sets. 15-20 reps x 3 sets is a good starting place.

Day 3 – Pull Exercises

muscle group: lower back, rear shoulders (delts), lats, traps and biceps

  • T-Bar Rows
  • Lat pull-downs or Wide-Arm Pull-Ups
  • Dumbbell shrugs and dumbbell rows superset
  • Barbell curls
  • Alternate and Hammer Dumbbell curls compound set
  • Concentration/preacher curls (to really finish of the biceps)
  • Core and Cardio

Cardio Exercise

Cardio should be done on both Push and Pull days. It takes a bit of getting used to but it’s best to do cardio after the weights so that you don’t burn up your carbohydrate stores and limit your lifting capability.

The treadmill or spin bike, or whatever cardio you choose, is difficult after a heavy upper body session but once you get going it’s fine. The idea is to do 20 to 30 minutes of high intensity intervals. This will dig quite heavily into your fat stores after you’ve used a lot of energy in your weights programme.

Core Exercise

Again completed on both Push and Pull days, the Core should be hit after the main sets just to improve general stability and overall strength. There could be a whole article just on core exercises (which will be on here sooner or later), but for now just think in terms of the plank position and other isometric exercises.

Day 4 – Rest Day / Active Recovery

For those who want a complete day off then Day 4 is perfect, after you have done 3 days of load. More experienced people may want to incorporate some light recovery work in the form of low intense aerobic exercise like swimming.

Abdominal Work

You’ll notice that there is no real isolation of abdominal work here. Slot that in at your own discretion and pace. In my humble opinion, Core work is the real key to abdominal strength, and sit-ups and crunches are mere fluff. Dynamic abdominal work can also be overemphasized leading to some back tension problems. If a defined six pack is of utmost importance to you, then introduce it after a few months of gradually building your strength with this system first.

Real Beginners

If you are a true novice then 5 or six rounds of exercises might be too much. That being the case, dial it back to the big muscle groups and do only 3 or 4. The smaller muscles are being worked anyway so don’t worry, they will come. You can increase your volume as you get a better base.

Further Reading

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