One of the workout routines that has stood the test of time is the so-called “Push/Pull/Legs” split routine, and there are numerous reasons for this. This routine is most probably the most effective routine ever designed, as the body can be split in terms of how it moves into three separate categories: pushing, pulling and legwork, which means that the exercised muscle groups get an overall training benefit from the overlap that the various exercises have, while avoiding the injuries from over-use.
This type of training was very popular in the late 80s and early 90s. Lee Haney was apparently one of those pros who used to train following a push/pull workout routine, as well as Lee Labrada. From a functional perspective, it’s one way to split the body’s muscle groups and physiologically it may well be the best routine which allows for ample time for recovery.
The Advantages of Using a Push/Pull/Legs Routine
- It allows for greater training efficiency. Training muscle groups which work together (synergistically) in terms of movement is great for muscle hypertrophy because of the overlap.
- Training muscles that work together on the big compound lifts maximizes your recovery.
- There’s flexibility in which exercises you can choose.
- Makes the training simpler.
- Decreases the probability of over-use injuries because you can stress the same joints at the same time and then allow yourself some rest days.
- It can be beneficial when increasing the training volume, which is the most optimal way to train when greater muscle mass is the goal.
- A push/pull/legs routine is one of the most practical ways to train.
When trying to design any training regimen, one must take into account several things, such as maintaining consistent overall training volume between days, balancing between the amount of time spent training each muscle group and also paying attention to the overlap and synergy that the exercises complement each other while they contribute to the total training volume.
For example, when one performs 5 relatively heavy sets of bench presses for 5 reps, he/she has been stressing the triceps and the anterior (front) deltoids, so when it’s time to perform 5 sets of a certain shoulder exercise or 5 sets of a triceps exercise, the triceps and shoulders have received the stress from the total volume of 15 sets. This is what makes this split the most efficient one, especially for anyone who’s looking to maximize their training volume in an efficient manner.
The reason why a push/pull/legs training split is so efficient is that the body is practically split into 3 parts, in terms of movement:
- Upper-body movements which move the resistance away from the center of the body.
- Upper-body movements which move the resistance towards the center of the body.
- Movements that engage the leg muscles.
The reasoning behind this split is that there’s so much overlap in these groups of muscles that any lifter can do a relatively small number of exercises and cause maximal muscle growth rate. And considering that the legs make up almost half of your body’s musculature, they need to be stressed at least once a week with an intense training session.
The aforementioned overlap causes a so-called “overlap effect” between the muscle groups involved in the heavy compound exercises. After doing chin-ups and rows, your biceps will already be warmed up and get an anabolic boost from the extra stress. It’s been found that this is the routine which tends to cause the least training injuries since you target related joints on the same day and then let them rest for a week.
Training you pecs, shoulders and triceps in the same workout session gives the tendons in your elbows and your front delts more time to recover than splitting them into separate training days, where you could find yourself training shoulders of triceps just 48 hours after doing a heavy chest workout. The same applies to the bicep tendons after all the pull work that you do on a back day. Working out 3 days a week on this type of split will give you superior gains compared to those who split their training into 5 separate parts because of the added recovery time.
Below, the basic routine is outlined. It’s logical to strip all things down to the basics since it forces us to think about what works best for us and how to design our own program.
The Basic Push/Pull/Legs Routine
DAY 1 – Pull:
- Deadlift (conventional, snatch-grip, sumo, trap-bar) – 5 sets x 5 reps
- Rows (dumbbell, barbell, machine or t-bar) – 5 sets x 5 reps
- Weighted chin-ups or pull-ups – 5 x 10 reps
DAY 2 – Push:
- Bench press (flat, incline, dumbbell or machine) – 5 sets x 5 reps
- Shoulder press (military, dumbbell or machine) – 5 sets x 5 reps
- Close grip bench press or dips – 5 sets x 10 reps
DAY 3 – Legs:
- Squats (back or front) or leg press – 5 sets x 8 – 10 reps
- Split squats, lunges or step-ups – 5 sets x 8 – 10 reps
- Calf raises – 4 sets x 8 – 12 reps
Strive to use only the compound, multi-joint exercises listed above. Heavy bench presses and barbell rows are definitely superior to cable crossovers and biceps curls. This routine is as simple as it gets: you do it 3 days per week, 3 exercises per day, and that is without counting a selected few accessory exercises you’ll want to throw in, one or two after each workout, such as some neck or grip work, rotator cuff work etc.
It’s always recommended that you take a rest day between workouts. For the majority of people the push/pull/legs routine should be done thrice a week, and at best every other day, in a continuous on/off cycle, thus training each muscle group once every 5 days.
When it comes to the number of sets and reps you should do, the classic “5×5” training protocol which is 5 “working sets of 5 reps, not counting the reps. The reason why this protocol has gained such a cult following is that it’s been proven to offer the best compromise between strength and hypertrophy training which works best for most people.
The most popular of the 5×5 training variations is the Bill Starr 3-day full-body routine from 1976. In the years to come, Mark Rippetoe’s Starting Strength, Madcow’s 5×5 and Stronglifts have emerged which have re-popularized this routine which packs huge slabs of muscle on lifters in a relatively short amount of time.
Hitting a muscle group or a body part every 5-7 days has been proven to be the best balance between training frequency and volume. These two have an inverse relationship. This basically means that the as the total volume in a given workout session increases, the frequency of those sessions would have to be lowered in order to accommodate for the added inroad into your recovery ability which the increased training volume has made. The opposite is also true when increasing the frequency. When this happens, the volume has to be reduced.
For example, the push/pull/legs routine can be done only every 3 days (which means training each body part once every 7 days) or by shuffling them around by doubling them up on a 4-day a week rotation (training each body part every 5 days):
3 DAYS A WEEK
- MONDAY: Legs
- TUESDAY: Rest Day
- WEDNESDAY: Pull
- THURSDAY: Rest Day
- FRIDAY: Push
- SATURDAY: Rest Day
- SUNDAY: Rest Day
4 DAYS A WEEK
- MONDAY: Legs
- TUESDAY: Push
- WEDNESDAY: Rest Day
- THURSDAY: Pull
- FRIDAY: Rest Day
- SATURDAY: Legs
- SUNDAY: Rest Day
- MONDAY: Push
- TUESDAY: Pull
- WEDNESDAY: Rest Day
- THURSDAY: Legs
- FRIDAY: Rest Day
- SATURDAY: Push
- SUNDAY: Rest Day
Additional Thoughts on Training Parameters
If you’re an older lifter or have a pretty good recovery ability, then you can start with the volume being down 3×5 and work your way up from there. This may also be something you’ll have to do every now and then considering the number of external stress factors in your life at any given time, such as job stress, illness, periods of insomnia and many others.
Your training needs certain constraints as your ability to perform will always be changing at different levels. The main takeaway point we’re trying to make here is there aren’t any parameters that are set in stone when it comes to determining training volume or frequency, as they aren’t only specific to each individual, but also vary greatly in each individual over time.
There can be only generalizations and certain guidelines about setting optimum volume and frequency. It’s also a good idea to use the 8×8 parameters of GVT (German Volume Training) with the push/pull/legs split as well, by using weights that are around 60-70% of your 1-rep-max for 8 sets of 8 reps.
This means, if you can lift 300 pounds on the bench press for one rep, you’d use 200 pounds for the same exercise for a full 8×8. This is undoubtedly a great method to pack on muscle size and give the nervous system time to get some rest after a brutal training session. Alternating between a 5×5 routine using 80-85% of your 1-rep-max and GVT 8×8 with 60-65% of 1-rep-max for a training stretch of 6 weeks at a time is a great way to organize your training throughout the entire year to keep the gains coming.
Customizing the Program
The same as with frequency, there aren’t any strict rules about which exercises you should select other than giving priority to heavy compound ones. If you can’t squat, there’s no rule which says you can’t use the leg press, the hack squat machine or any Hammer Strength leg machines.
At some unfortunate time, as it so often happens in bodybuilding, you might injure yourself doing some compound movement like the bench press and you won’t be able to press with the bar, you will be forced to look for alternatives such as using dumbbells or the Hammer Strength chest machines.
The main thing here is that you do not add any extra movements to the basic template – keep just one compound exercise for each body part and exhaust your muscle with that one compound exercise. If you are experiencing some issue in several body parts, you could either use only machines or dumbbells if you think that best suits you. You can think of the push/pull/legs split more as a training template, not as a “routine”. The thing that makes it a routine is actually the exercise selection and weight.
There’s a way to make this split even more brutal! In order to make this split more effective, we’re going to add in another old-school training technique, made popular by the late bodybuilding legend Mike Mentzer: “Rest-pause training”. This will be done on the last set of each movement.
In a nutshell, rest-pause training is going to complete or near failure on the last rep, then locking out the load or racking it, taking 5-10 deep breaths and then cranking out as much reps as possible, either locking out or racking again for another rest of 5-10 breaths and then again doing as much reps as possible. This is done 2-3 times after the end of the last standard set on each movement. Rest-pause training is the main reason that makes another great workout routine “DC Training” so effective as well.
Some Caveats With Rest-Pause Training
This split has plenty of work for each muscle group, which means that most people won’t need to add anything extra. Sure, you might want to add some triceps pushdowns or incline dumbbell presses, but the truth is that what’s already written in the template is more than enough as it is, not to mention the rest-pause set at the end of east set per body part. If you do it right, it will be efficient and brutal. You’ll also need to add some light accessory exercises to the workouts to cover the small parts, especially grip work, rotator cuff work, neck work and core work.
Doing 10-15 minutes of this at the end of each of the three training session will be enough. After doing this for 5-6 weeks you will reach a plateau if you don’t have a “deload” week scheduled beforehand. Deloading consists of decreasing the training intensity by decreasing the load by 40-50% and not doing the rest-pause set.
The reasoning behind this is not so much about resting your muscles, as it is about giving your nervous system a time to take a break. Change your exercises regularly. After doing the deload week, it would be a good idea to change the exercises, such as changing from flat to incline bench press, from dumbbell to barbell overhead presses, from conventional deadlift to sumo deadlift and so forth.