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The Classic Push Pull Legs Routine

One of the most enduring types of split routines is the so-called "Push Pull Legs" splits - and for many good reasons.

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, so the working muscle groups get an overall benefit from the overlap of the various movements, while avoiding overuse injuries.

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 as was Lee Haney). 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.

Advantages of Using a Push Pull Legs Routine

  • Allows for efficiency. Training muscle groups that work together in terms of movement is great for hypertrophy because of the overlap
  • Training muscles that work together on big lifts maximizes recovery
  • Flexibility in exercise selection
  • Simplifies your training
  • Lessens the likelihood of overuse injuries because of stressing the same joints all at once and then allowing rest days to follow
  • Can be beneficial when increasing volume, which is the way to go when looking to pack on muscle mass
  • A push pull legs routing is one of the most practical solutions to training

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 body part and also the synergy and overlap that the exercises compliment each other as they contribute to overall training volume.

For example, when I am pounding out 5 heavy sets of bench presses for five sets, I have been stressing the anterior deltoids and triceps, so that when it is time to do 5 sets of a shoulder and the 5 sets of a triceps exercise, the shoulders and triceps have received the stress of the overall volume of 15 sets.

This makes it the most efficient split, in my opinion - particularly for one looking to maximize volume efficiently.

The efficiency from a push pull legs training split is that 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 "5x5" 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 5x5 implementations is the classic Bill Starr 3-day full body routine from 1976. Since then programs like Mark Rippetoe's Starting Strength, Madcow's 5x5 and "Stronglifts" have also popularized 5x5 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) :

Day3 Days A Week4 Days A Week


More Thoughts On Parameters

If you are an older trainer or have a fair recovery ability, then you could adjust the volume down to 3x5 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 8x8 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 8x8.

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 5x5 using 85% 1RM and GVT 8x8 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 body part, and scorch that body part with that one compound movement! For a trainer with some issues in multiple body parts, you could either use all dumbbells or machines if you feel that best suits your situation.

Think of the Push Pull Legs split more as a template, and not as a "routine". (what makes it, or anything, a "routine" are the exercise selection and loading parameters)

Here is an example on a Reddit thread of Push, Pull, Legs 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.