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Push Pull Legs Routine

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.

When designing a training routine, too many people overthink it and make it more complicated than it needs to be.

Let's dive into why a push, pull, legs split routine might be the most manageable and effective way to create a split routine that is perfect for you!

What Is A Push Pull Legs Routine?

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, a so-called push pull workout routine 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.

Simply put, the push pull legs routine, with each workout being dedicated to either pushing, pulling or legs in each session; a push day, a pull day and a leg day.

This is perhaps the most efficient routine out there, as the body is split in terms of type of movement., so the working muscle groups get an overall benefit from the overlap of the various movements, while avoiding overuse injuries.

All of the muscles involved in pushing, pulling and lower body work together, synergistically, or example, when performing rows, your lats, traps, biceps - all pulling muscles are working in concert with each other. 

When performing a pushing movement, such as dips, your chest, shoulder and triceps muscles are the prime movers.

This is why this is such a rational split, and one with many benefits!

 Bench Press - Image Credit: iStock

Benefits 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 best ways to simplify your 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.

Barbell Squat - Image Credit: iStock

The efficiency from a push pull legs training split is that your body is essentially split into three parts, in terms of "movement":

  • upper body movements that move resistance away from the center of your body
  • upper body movements that move resistance towards the center of your body
  • 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

* include 2-3 warm-up sets at 40%-50% of training weight

Day Two - Push

Flat or Incline Barbell, Dumbbell, or Machine Bench Press - 5 sets x5 reps

Seated or Standing Barbell, Dumbbell or Machine Shoulder Press - 5 sets x 5 reps

Dips or Close-Grip Bench Press - 5 sets x 5 reps

* include 2-3 warm-up sets at 40%-50% of training weight

Day Three - Legs

Barbell Back Squat or Front Squats or Leg Press - 4 sets x 6 - 10 reps

Barbell or Dumbbell Lunges, Split Squat, or Step-Ups - 4 sets x 6 - 10 reps

Calf Raises or Toe Press on Leg Press Machine - 3 sets x 6 - 10 reps 

* include 2-3 warm-up sets at 40%-50% of training weight

Exercise Selection

Use only compound, multi-joint movements like the ones described above which recruit the largest degree of muscle fibers. Feel free to switch the exercise selection around every 4-8 weeks or so to avoid overuse injuries.

Heavy bench presses and weighted pull-ups are in and cable crossovers and concentration curls are out!

Weight and Rep Ranges

The best repetition selection will of course depend on your goals. Training for strength, it is best to use weights that are 70%-90% of your one-rep max and keep the reps at 4-6 reps for 3 to five sets each. This would look like 3 sets of 6, or 3 sets of 5. The "5x5" set/rep scheme however is a tried and true one with proven results.

If your goals are more towards hypertrophy, then the 8-12 rep range will be best for you. For example, that would look like 3 sets of 10 reps or 4 sets of 8 reps.

Rest Periods 

The optimal rest period range when training for strength is usually between 2-3 minutes between sets. When performing higher reps with lighter loads, the rest in between sets can be lowered to 1-2 minute rest periods.

How Many Days a Week

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 3-5 days a week. For most trainees, a on a one on, one off  cycle is sufficient, thus hitting each muscle group once every five days. 

For example, the Push Pull Legs can be done every 3 days (to train every body part once every 7 days) or increasing volume and alternating light and heavy days by using a two-on, one-off protocol:

Day3 Days A WeekTwo-On, One-Off

The Parameters For Strength Training

As previously mentioned, far as sets and reps, the classic "5x5" protocol (five "working" sets of five reps, not counting warmups) has over the years, proved to be the best middle of the road compromise between hypertrophy and strength might work best for most people.

This sort of training protocol actually goes back over a generation!  The most famous of the 5x5 implementations is the classic Bill Starr 3-day full body routine from 1976, but actually the legendary bodybuilder Bill Pearl used to train like this in the early 1960s and Reg Park (Arnold Schwarzenegger's inspiration for taking up weight training as a boy) trained with a 5x5 protocol in the mid-1950s.

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 body part or muscle group every 5-7 days is the best balance between volume and frequency. (Volume and frequency have an inverse relationship. It is critical to experiment for yourself to find the best balance, depending on your recovery ability, progress, injuries, age etc).

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)

Deadlift with double overgrip - Image Credit: iStock

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 55-65% of your one rep max for 8 sets of 8 reps. So, if you can bench press 225 pounds for one rep, you could use 135-145 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. 

Making Adjustments In Your Training Routine

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 

Using Rest Pause Training With a Push Pull Legs Routine

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 body part. 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.

Push Pull Legs Home Routine

Given the trend towards people increasingly training at home, even before the events of 2020, there is no reason why you cannot apply this approach to a home workout routine.

Using heavy or even moderate dumbbells you can get a very effective workout and also have the benefits of unilateral movements in your routine.

Dumbbell Lunges - Image Credit: iStock

Day One - Pull

Dumbbell Single Stiff Leg Deadlift - 5 sets x 10 reps

One-Arm Dumbbell Rows - 5 sets x 10 reps

Chins - 5 sets x 10 reps

Day Two - Push

Dumbbell Floor Press - 5 sets x 10 reps

Standing One-Arm Dumbbell Press - 5 sets x 10 reps

Weighted Dips - 5 sets x 10 reps (with weight belt or dumbbell held between feet)

Day Three - Legs

Racked Dumbbell Front Squat - 5 sets x 10 reps

Rear Foot Elevated Dumbbell Split Squat or Dumbbell Lunge - 5 sets x 10 reps

Dumbbell Glute Bridges - 5 sets x 10 reps