Classic Push/Pull/Legs Split

5x5 Routine
One of the most enduring types of split routines is the so-called “Push Pull Legs” splits for many good reasons. Functionally, it is a logical way to split one’s muscle groups and physiologically, it might well be the routine that allows for the best recovery as well.

When looking at designing any workout routine, one has to keep in mind several things, including consistent overall volume between days, balance between amount of time spent on each bodypart and also the synergy and overlap that the exercises compliment each other as they contribute to overall training volume. The push-pull-legs routine is perhaps the most efficient routine out there, as the body is split in terms of type of movement pushing, pulling and leg work – and the muscle groups get an overall benefit from the overlap of the movements. This type of training was popular in the late 80s-early 90s (Lee Labrada apparently was one of those who used to train using a push/pull routine)

For example, when I am pounding out 5 heavy sets of bench presses for five sets, I have been stressing the heck out of my anterior delts and triceps too, so that when it is time to do 5 sets of a shoulder and the 5 sets of a tricep exercise, the shoulders and tris have received the stress of the overall volume of 15 sets. This makes it the most efficient split, in my opinion.

Your body is essentially split into three parts, in terms of “movement”:

  1. a) upper body movements that move resistance away from the center of your body
  2. b) upper body movements that move resistance towards the center of your body
  3. c) movements which target the muscles of the legs

The reasoning behind this is that there is so much overlap in these natural muscle groupings that one can deploy relatively few overall exercises and maintain maximal growth stimulation. And since the legs comprise 1/2 of the body’s musculature, they require at least one day of dedicated training. This overlap creates a “overlap effect” between the muscles involved in the heavy compound movements. After hitting chin and rows, your biceps will already be warmed up and will benefit from the extra stimulation. I have also found that this is the routine that tends to cause the least training injuries as you hit related joints on the same days and then rest them out for a week.

Training the chest, shoulders and triceps together gives the tendons in your elbows, and the front delts more recovery time than would say splitting them into separate days of the week, where you may find yourself doing triceps or shoulders just 48 hours after a heavy chest workout. Again, same goes for the bicep tendons after all the pulling on back day. Training 3 days a week on this sort of split will achieve better gains than those who split their body into 5 separate parts because of the extra recovery.

The following is the basic routine. It makes sense to strip things down to essentials as it forces you to think what works best for you, and what’s really important.


The Basic Push Pull Legs Routine:

Day One – Pull

Deadlifts (conventional, sumo, snatch-grip,trap bar) – 5 sets x 5 reps
Rows (barbell, dumbbell, machine or t-bar) – 5 sets x 5 reps
Weighted Pull-Ups or Chins – 5 sets x 5 reps


Day Two – Push

Flat, Incline, Dumbbell, or Machine Bench Press – 5 sets x5 reps
Military, Dumbbell or Machine Shoulder Press – 5 sets x 5 reps
Dips or Close-Grip Bench – 5 sets x 5 reps


Day Three – Legs

Back or Front Squats or Leg Press – 4 sets x 6 – 10 reps
Lunges, Split Squat, or Step-Ups – 4 sets x 6 – 10 reps
Calf Raises – 3 sets x 6 – 10 reps


Exercise Selection:

Use only the compound, multi-joint movements described above. Heavy bench presses and weighted pullups are in and cable crossovers and concentration curls are out! A simple way to remember this routine: its three days a week, three exercises a day (not counting a touch of accessory movements you want to throw in, one or two after each workout, ie., neck work, rotator cuff, grip work etc.) It is best to take a day off training between workouts. For most people, the Push Pull Legs split should be done 3 days a week, and at best on a one on, one off perpetual cycle, thus hitting each muscle group once every five days.

The Parameters:

As far as sets and reps, a classic “5×5″ protocol (five “working” sets of five reps, not counting warmups) which has, over the years, proved to be the best middle of the road compromise between hypertrophy and strength might work best for most people. The most famous of the 5×5 implementations is the classic Bill Starr 3-day full body routine from 1976. Since then programs like Mark Rippetoe’s Starting Strength, Madcow’s 5×5 and “Stronglifts” have also popularized 5×5 routines to pack insane amounts of muscle on trainees in a relatively short period of time.

Training a bodypart or muscle group every 5-7 days is the best balance between volume and frequency. (Volume and frequency have an inverse relationship. What I mean by this is that as the overall volume in a given training session goes up, the frequency of the sessions have to be adjusted (lowered) to accommodate for the extra inroad into your recovery ability the increased volume has made. The opposite is true for increasing frequency, as this happens, the volume has to be decreased)

For example, the Push Pull Legs can be done every 3 (to train every bodypart once every 7 days) or by juggling them around by doubling them up on a 4 day rotation (training them once every 5 days) :

Day 3 Days A Week 4 Days A Week
monday legs legs
tuesday off push
wednesday pull off
thursday off pull
friday push off
saturday off legs
sunday off off
monday legs push
tuesday off pull
wednesday pull off
thursday off legs
friday push off
saturday off push
sunday off off


More Thoughts On Parameters

If you are an older trainer or have a fair recovery ability, then you could adjust the volume down to 3×5 and work up from there. This might also be something you may have to do from time to time given the amount of external stress factors in your life at a given time, ie., job stress, periods of insomnia, etc. Your training needs, limitations and abilities will always be at different levels. The main point I am trying to make here is that there are no set-in-stone 100% “right” parameters as far as volume or frequency go, as they are not only individual specific, but also very greatly in the individual over time. There are only generalizations and guidelines when dealing with setting optimum frequency and volume.

You could also use the 8×8 parameters of German Volume Training with the Push-Pull-Legs split as well. By using a weight that is around 60-65% of your one rep max for 8 sets of 8 reps. So, if you can bench press 300 pounds for one rep, you would use 200 pounds for that exercise for a full 8×8. This is a killer way to pack on size and give your nervous system time to get a break after a stretch of heavy training. Alternating between 5×5 using 85% 1RM and GVT 8×8 with 60% 1RM for stretches of 6 weeks at a time might be a great idea to keep gains coming year round.

Customizing Things

As with frequency, there are no set-in-stone rules about exercise selection other than using compound exercises. If you cannot squat, there is no rule that says you cant use leg press, hack squat or Hammer Strength leg machines. There have been times where I have been injured and couldn’t do bench press with the bar, so my push day was comprised of either dumbbell bench press or Hammer Strength iso-lateral chest press. The vital thing here is not to add any extra exercises to the template – keep it one compound movement per bodypart, and scorch that bodypart with that one compound! For a trainer with some issues in multiple bodyparts, you could either use all dumbbells or machines if you feel that best suits your situation.

Remember, the Push-Pull-Legs split is a template, and not a “routine”; what makes it, or anything, a “routine” are the parameters..

Update December 1, 2014: Here is an example on of PPL used by someone pursuing substantial weight loss over time. Note the simplicity of the routine vs the results: my two year transformation from 220-157 pounds

Rest Pause Training:

Make it even more brutal! To make this routine extra effective, we are going to employ another old school technique, popularized by the late great Mike Mentzer: “Rest Pause Training” on the last set of every exercise. What rest pause is, in a nutshell, is going to near failure on the last rep, then either locking out the weight or racking it, and then taking 3-5 breaths and then cranking out another rep, racking or locking out again for another rest of 3-5 breaths and hitting another rep. This is done 3-4 times after the end of the last straight set on every exercise! Rest pause is what makes another great routine “DC Training” so effective as well.

Caveats With Rest Pause

  • There is plenty of work per muscle group, so most people will not need to add anything. You might be thinking “why can’t I add incline bench presses or tricep pushdowns”? Trust me, there is more than enough with the rest pause set at the end of every bodypart. Done right, this is brutal and efficient.
  • You also need to add some small accessory work to the workouts to cover small parts, specifically grip work, neck work, rotator cuff work and core work. 15 minutes of this at the end of the three sessions will suffice.
  • After about 4-5 weeks you will plateau if you do not schedule one “deloading” week. Deloading involves reducing the intensity via reducing load by 25% and not doing the rest pause. The key here is not so much about giving the muscles a break as it is about letting your nervous system take a break.
  • Change exercises regularly. After the week of deloading, it is a good idea to change the exercises; change from flat to decline bench presses, from barbell to dumbbell shoulder presses, from squats to leg presses, etc.


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13 Responses to Classic Push/Pull/Legs Split

  1. Clint October 15, 2014 at 12:25 pm #

    Ran across this recently and I like the simplicity yet proven effectiveness. Thoughts on time between exercises and sets? I do the movements pretty close together and then take a rest between sets for a couple of minutes and do some ab work.

  2. Busar November 11, 2014 at 9:44 am #

    Hi ! I’ve seen in your e-book that you include curls and some triceps extension, but not in this article, is that a forget or anything .. ?

  3. admin November 11, 2014 at 7:07 pm #

    Hi Busar, actually you might get more bang for your buck with chins vs curls. This posted today at T Nation:

    But you can add some isolation stuff to the base of compounds in the sample routing above.

  4. admin November 11, 2014 at 7:10 pm #

    Clint, rest time is something like everything else, will vary. If you’re doing heavy 5×5 or 3×3 with 80-90% 1RM, then you will likely need 3-4 minutes. You can cut the rest time down for exercises which are not as intensive on your nervous system, like single joint/isolation stuff.

  5. Busar November 12, 2014 at 1:22 am #

    Ok, thank you, but is it possible to do chin-ups just after pull-ups ? quite hard no ?

  6. admin November 16, 2014 at 2:23 pm #

    Busar, I would actually alternate them from workout to workout.

  7. OldNewb November 17, 2014 at 12:14 pm #

    so how does the progression work ? I read the E-book and it shows this example

    “Week 1 75% 5×5 Week 2 80% 5×5 Week 3 85% 5×5 Week 4 60% 5×5 (deload)”

    so after the week4 deload, add 5 lbs to your lifts?

    how is the progressive overload programmed into this?

  8. admin November 17, 2014 at 7:32 pm #

    OldNewb: you can add 5& to each of the poundages, so week 1 is 80%, week 2 85%, week 3 90%.

  9. foxinsocks December 1, 2014 at 8:51 am #

    Thank you so much for this article…confirmed the benefit of a lot of things I was moving toward naturally in my training. Love how you just laid it all out and yet I see how I can tailor each workout to my specific needs at that specific time. Time to get some MASS!

  10. craig January 10, 2015 at 2:41 pm #

    Hi Would you recommend the 3 day split to be used along side 2 days a WK of bjj training?? I’m 38 With quite a busy life and have burnt out in the past so its fair to say I don’t have the best recovery ability, although I do follow a decent diet I dont get too much sleep in the wk due work/family/pets. The bjj is something new and quite tough but seems excellent for stress relief and its definitely something I want to keep up long term.I’m not looking for a world beating physique but I do want a good balance between aesthetics and function. Thanks Craig

  11. admin January 12, 2015 at 1:14 pm #

    Craig, I have the same issue myself doing Muay Thai.

    I would try this – do 2 days a week, one day upper and one lower. Say, bench, military, rows and curls on one day, and squat, deadlift and lunge on another (alternate heavy squats with lighter deadlifts and vice versa). This as you adjust to the extra training outside of the weight room.

    So, if you do BJJ Tuesdays/Thursdays, do strength training Friday/Sunday maybe, or Saturday/Monday.

    Oh yeah, anyone who has ever grappled will value the benefits of curls – which is why I would suggest you add some to your upper day. Lunges are also good for adductors, so your omoplata and gogplata benefit from them.

  12. admin January 12, 2015 at 1:15 pm #

    Thanks foxinsocks! Its a pretty flexible approach. Can be tailored to strength or hypertrophy.

  13. John January 19, 2015 at 11:20 pm #

    Hey there!! xD .. hope im not too late to join in this thread.

    Based on your article, I’m thinking switching to a PPL routine. I was wondering what your opinion on the following routine is? What do you think? Any recommendations? Tweaking? Too much … too little?
    Any help, would be great help.

    Bit more information about me – Currently on strong lifts but although I’ve packed on a lot of size over the last year, all my lifts have stagnated even after de-loading. I must admit that I have refused to switch to 3×3 or 1×5. (Maybe that’s my problem – I just feel that it’s too little volume so see results since my lifts aren’t that heavy to begin with)

    Current lifts – it’s somewhat depressing …. lols
    Squats – 100kg 5×5
    Deadlift – 120kg 1×5
    Bench – 60kg 3×5
    OHP- 50kg 3×5
    Pendlay Rows – 75kg 5×5
    (I also include body weight chin-up, pull-ups and dips)

    Training goal: Strength & Aesthetics
    Training frequency: 3-4 times a week- alternating days
    Age: 39
    Height: 5’ 7’
    Previous weight: 58-60kg (Before strong lifts)
    Current: 75kg
    Sleep: 6-8 hours’ sleep average
    Job: Not physical but mentally draining
    Nutrition: I’m eating enough although not clean but plenty of protein.

    Example week 1
    Monday – PULL: Deadlifts, Rows, Weighted Pull-Ups or Chins (5×5)
    Tuesday – PUSH: Bench, OHP, Dips /Close grip (5×5)
    Thursday – LEGS: Squats, Lunges, RDL/ SLDL
    Saturday – PULL: Deadlifts, Rows, Weighted Pull-Ups or Chins (5×5)
    Sunday – PUSH: Bench, OHP, Dips /Close grip (5×5)

    Example week 2
    Tuesday – LEGS: Squats, Lunges, RDL/ SLDL
    Thursday – PULL: Deadlifts, Rows, Weighted Pull-Ups or Chins (5×5)
    Friday – PUSH: Bench, OHP, Dips /Close grip (5×5)
    Sunday- LEGS: Squats, Lunges, RDL/ SLDL

    Too much?
    How about different exercise for alternate p/p/l days? (E.g. Week 1 – bench. Week 2 – incline. Week 3 – Bench (and repreat)
    Higher rep range for alternate p/p/l days?

    Thanks in for the help man

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