If you're struggling to build muscle, the push pull legs split is one of the most effective workout routines you can follow.
However, most people who fail to follow it properly find that they can't handle the high training volume or choose poor exercises and burnout too quickly.
Today's blog is your science-backed guide to programming the PPL split the right way, and finally seeing progress in the gym again.
WHAT IS THE PUSH PULL LEGS SPLIT ROUTINE?
The push pull legs training split divides your training days into three distinct groups:
1. 2 training days focused on your "push muscles" (chest, front delts, side delts, and triceps)
2. 2 training days focused on your "pull muscles" (your back, biceps, and rear delts)
3. 2 training days focused on your legs (quads, hamstrings, glutes, calves)
So a week of training in a push pull legs fashion would usually look like:
DAY 1: Push 1
DAY 2: Pull 1
DAY 3: Legs 1
DAY 4: Rest
DAY 5: Push 2
DAY 6: Pull 2
DAY 7: Legs 2
The push pull legs split is widely considered one of the most effective training routines for building muscle, and one we use often with our intermediate and advanced online clients.
WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS OF PUSH PULL LEGS?
There is no "magic training split", so understand that If you're struggling to build muscle, just hopping on a push pull legs training routine isn't necessarily "the solution".
That said, we know that if you're training with proper form and taking most sets of your training ~2 reps shy of failure, volume (number of hard sets done for a muscle group on a weekly basis) is the main "dial" we can turn up and down in your training to stimulate more muscle growth.
But, more volume isn't always better - there is very clearly a point of diminishing returns when it comes to volume.
To quote James Krieger’s amazing article Set Volume for Muscle Size: The Ultimate Evidence Based Bible:
“On average, muscle growth tends to be best around 6-8 hard sets per muscle group per training session when taking long rests. That can be 12 - 24 weekly sets for a frequency of 2-3 days per week.”
Now, realize that these numbers are averages (so some individuals will need more volume, some less) - but the averages give us a great starting place.
Once we pass the 6-8 sets threshold, we’re a lot more likely to enter the realm of “junk volume”.
Junk volume: Hard training sets that drain your body and create more fatigue that your body must recover from in order to grow, but don't provide any additional stimulus for muscle growth.
Since building lean muscle is essentially a game of getting the right amount of muscle building stimulus, without creating too much fatigue to recover from...
...we of course want to avoid as much junk volume as possible.
So the main benefit of the push pull legs workout routine is the fact that it allows you to fit more effective volume (non-junk volume) into your training week than most other splits, and potentially build more muscle.
WHO SHOULD USE A PUSH PULL LEGS SPLIT ROUTINE?
Not everyone should follow a push pull legs workout split.
As mentioned before, only some of our intermediate and advanced online clients follow this routine.
A few smart guidelines for who should and shouldn't follow a push pull legs split:
1. If you've been following a science-based training program for <2 years, you probably don't need to follow a push pull legs workout routine yet.
In fact, you'll likely get better results following a lower volume upper lower split four days per week.
Your body's volume needs in order to build muscle will increase across your training career (you have to do a bit more overall work to keep seeing results), but more isn't always better.
Remember the SRA curve we discussed earlier?
If you've been following a science-based training program for less than two years, it's likely that you simply don't need all of the volume that comes with a push pull legs split to optimally stimulate muscle growth.
So, a lot of the volume that comes with a push pull legs routine will turn into junk volume... meaning that you'll build muscle slower than if you were following a lower volume training split.
2. You need to have the appropriate recovery ability to follow a push pull legs split.
Your muscles don't grow in the gym.
The gym is where you hit your muscles with the stimulus for growth.
If your body has adequate recovery resources (food, sleep, stress management), it will be able to recover from the "damage" you did in the gym, and return to it's previous "normal".
Actual growth hasn't happened yet. The above is what we call recovery - it's simply your body returning to homeostasis.
From there, if the training stimulus you created in the gym was adequate, and enough recovery resources are still available, adaptation occurs.
This is when your body grows new muscle tissue.
So the push pull legs split is a great way to create a strong training stimulus... but you also need to be sure you have plenty of recovery resources available before in order to actually make progress while following it.
→ If you're following an aggressive diet (and were training with less volume before), or pay very little attention to your nutrition as a whole, don't start a push pull legs split. Your body will need lots of fuel to be able to train hard and grow here.
If you're not paying attention to your nutrition, start tracking your macros like our online clients do (check out our blog The Ultimate Guide To Setting Your Macros to determine the optimal macros for your goals) to ensure you're fueling your training and recovery properly.
→ If you've been following a science-based training program for 2+ years, are consistent with your nutrition, sleep, and stress management, and are recovering and progressing well on a lower volume split, you could benefit from transitioning to a push pull lower training split.
Now that we're clear on who should and shouldn't follow this split, let's talk through an example push pull legs split for muscle growth.
THE PUSH PULL LEGS ROUTINE: EXAMPLE PUSH DAY WORKOUT
MOVEMENT 1: FLAT OR INCLINE PRESS
EXAMPLE MOVEMENT: Dumbbell Bench Press 3-4 x 7-10
To start the push day off, we're going to use a compound press to target the chest.
Your chest is made up of three primary "divisions":
As you'll be training push twice in a microcycle (the 7-8 day period wherein you're complete all 6 training days), it's smart to alternate this first movement between one option that hits the sternal and costal divisions of the pec more, and one that hits the clavicular division more.
Basically, alternate between a flat press and an incline press on Push Day 1 and Push Day 2 - this will ensure you've trained the entire pec optimally.
Here, we're choosing a dumbbell bench press over a barbell variation, because dumbbells will typically be better for stimulating muscle growth.
The range of motion with dumbbells in this particular press pattern is greater than barbells. You'll be able to get closer to the fully lengthened position of the pec, which does seem to be where the most muscle growth is stimulated.
So typically for clients in this situation, we'll opt for a barbell flat press over a dumbbell flat press.
MOVEMENT 2: ACCESSORY FLY (Emphasis On Training Opposing Division Of Chest From Movement 1)
EXAMPLE MOVEMENT: Clavicular Chest Fly 2-4 x 10-15
As your first pressing movement of the day really targeted the sternal and costal divisions of the pec, our second chest-focused movement of the push workout puts more emphasis on the costal division (the upper chest).
Similarly, whereas the first movement was most challenging to the pec in the midrange and lengthened positions, with this movement we'll be overloading the pec most in the shortened position.
MOVEMENT 3: HORIZONTAL OR INCLINE PRESS (Opposite Of Movement 1)
EXAMPLE MOVEMENT: Dumbbell Seated Overhead Press 2-4 x 8-12
Now that you've sufficiently stimulated your chest, it's time to put more focus on your front and medial delts.
We're going to slightly tweak the way most perform a Dumbbell Seated Shoulder Press.
By pressing from a slight incline and bringing your elbows in front of you more (as opposed to flared out to the sides), you're in a better position to load the target muscle (the front delt), and are able to use an increased range of motion.
MOVEMENT 4: SIDE DELT ACCESSORY
EXAMPLE MOVEMENT: Cable Full Lateral Raise 2-4 x 15-20
Your side delts are a hard muscle to effectively overload, as their position on the body makes it much harder to place them under a significant degree of tension during any compound presses.
So while most presses will involve your front delts to a degree, we need to be sure to include a movement that targets your side delts specifically in order to build great shoulders.
We're implementing the Cable Full Lateral Raise here because it puts your delts under a significant degree of tension in both the lengthened and shortened positions (at the bottom and top or the rep), which is something most lateral raise variations fail to do.
MOVEMENT 5: TRICEPS ACCESSORY (Long Head Emphasis)
EXAMPLE MOVEMENT: Samurai Tricep Extension 2-4 x 10-15
Just like your anterior delts, your triceps will do some of the work in most pressing movements. But for optimal development, they need targeted training.
The long head of your tricep makes up the majority of the muscle mass of the tricep, and thus should usually be preferentially trained.
All three heads of your tricep work to extend your elbow (think: straighten your arm at the elbow joint), but is the long head is the only one that actually crosses the shoulder and attaches to the shoulder blade.
Because of the unique anatomy of the long head of the tricep and the fact that it makes up most of the mass of the three, it makes sense to focus mostly on tricep movements that either:
a.) Put your elbows overhead - Here, the long head of the tricep will experience the greatest stretch (I.e. the movement shown above).
b.) Pulls your shoulders back into extension (elbows behind torso) - Here, the long head of the tricep will have to work harder to help keep the upper part of your arm in the extended position.
WHAT ARE THE BEST PUSH WORKOUT EXERCISES?
So now that you have good idea of how to put together an effective push day workout for building muscle, let's run through some great options for movements.
Dumbbell Bench Press
Dumbbell Low Incline Bench Press
Smith Machine Bench Press
Flat Bench Press
Costal Pec Dip
Dumbbell Incline Bench Press
Smith Machine Incline Press
Barbell Incline Press
Dumbbell Seated Overhead Press
Hammer Strength Incline Press
Clavicular Division Chest Fly
Clavicular Chest Fly
Low To High Chest Fly
Dumbbell + Band Low To High Chest Fly
Sternal Division Chest Fly
Cable Chest Fly
Dumbbell + Band Chest Fly
Costal Division Chest Fly
Costal Cable Chest Fly
Side Delt Accessory
Dumbbell Prone Incline Lateral Raise
Dumbbell Leaning Lateral Raise
Cable Lateral Raise
Egyptian Cable Lateral Raise
Cable Y Raise
Cable Full Lateral Raise
Cable Overhead Extension
Dual Dumbbell Overhead Extension
EZ Bar Overhead Extension
Samurai Tricep Extension
Cross Cable Overhead Extension
Crossbody Cable Pushdown
Long Head Tricep Pushdown
THE PUSH PULL LEGS ROUTINE: EXAMPLE PULL DAY WORKOUT
MOVEMENT 1: HORIZONTAL OR VERTICAL PULL (Lat Emphasis)
EXAMPLE MOVEMENT: Helms Row 2-4 x 7-10
It used to be thought...
"Horizontal pulling trains back thickness, vertical pulling trains back width - do pulldowns/pull-ups for lats, do rows for rhomboids & upper back."
...which really isn't true at all. What area of your back you want to target with any pulling variation is dictated by the way that your elbow travels in relation to your torso.
To help you brush up on your back anatomy quick:
→ When your elbow is flared out to the side, you'll be biasing much more upper back.
→ When your elbow comes directly by the side as doesn't pass the midline at the back of the rep, the movement will be much more lat focused.
→ When your elbow is flared at about 45 degrees, we can get a bit more of a combo of the two.
You'll notice shortly that this push pull legs routine puts a larger emphasis on lat focused movements than it does rhomboid focused movements. This is because:
a.) Your lats are the largest muscle group on your back
b.) Most lat focused movements (movements with the elbows driven down by the side or at ~45 degrees) will also recruit the rhomboids and rear delts... but most movements designed to targets rhomboids or rear delts (with elbows flared wide) will not recruit much lat.
MOVEMENT 2: HORIZONTAL OR VERTICAL PULL (Rhomboid Emphasis)
EXAMPLE MOVEMENT: Pronated Grip Lat Pull Down 2-4 x 10-15
Ironically, the traditionally way most have learned to do a "Lat Pull Down" actually makes it more of a rhomboid and upper back focused movement than a lat focused movement.
The elbows are flared wide throughout the movement.
That said, the Pronated Grip Lat Pull Down is still an excellent movement... once you understand the proper application.
MOVEMENT 3: HORIZONTAL OR VERTICAL PULL (Lat Emphasis)
EXAMPLE MOVEMENT: 1/2 Kneeling 1-Arm Pulldown 2-4 x 10-15/side
Here we have a much more lat focused variation of the pull down.
Notice how much different the path of the elbow is here vs. in the Pronated Grip Pull Down.
MOVEMENT 4: REAR DELT ACCESSORY
EXAMPLE MOVEMENT: Cable Face Pull 2-4 x 15-20
To effectively target the rear delts, we want you elbows flared out wide.
It's also important to note that your elbows shouldn't pass the midline of your body (elbows shouldn't go behind your spine at the back of the movement).
On any rear delt variation, once your elbows are behind your torso, your rhomboids, traps, etc., will kick in much more, meaning that the rear delts have to do less work.
So for people that struggle to develop rear delts, their elbows are often simply coming too far back on their rear delt movements (making it a more rhomboid or trap focused movement).
MOVEMENT 5: BICEP ACCESSORY
EXAMPLE MOVEMENT: Dumbbell Incline Curl 2-4 x 10-15
Your biceps are involved in your compound pulling movements. That said, to truly build great biceps, they'll need to be trained in isolation as well with bicep curl variations.
When training biceps, one of the most important considerations is varying shoulder joint angle (think: where your elbow is at in relations to your torso) across the week.
Shown are 3 different bicep curl variations, with 3 different shoulder joint angles:
1. Incline Curls - Shoulders are in extended position
2. Dumbbell Curls - Shoulders are in neutral position
3. Spider Curls - Shoulders are in flexion
Varying shoulder joint angles like this changes where maximum tension is placed on the muscle through the lift. ⠀
So across your training week, it makes sense to program movements with different shoulder joint angles to get the most out of your bicep training.
For example, if you're doing an Incline Curl today, you'd want to do a Standing Curl or Spider Curl on Push Day 2.
OPTIONAL MOVEMENT 6: UPPER TRAP, SIDE DELT, OR BICEP ACCESSORY
EXAMPLE MOVEMENT: Cable Upright Row 2-4 x 10-15
Depending on which muscle groups you're prioritizing, we'll often add either a trap, side delt, or bicep focused movement here.
Personally, I really like to program an Upright Row variation here for online clients because most clients want to make delts a priority, and your delts are capable of recovering from a lot of volume applied vide lateral raise and upright row variations (most clients following this split are hitting different variations of these two movements 4x/week).
WHAT ARE THE BEST PULL WORKOUT EXERCISES?
So now that you have good idea of how to put together an effective pull day workout for building muscle, let's run through some great options for movements.
LAT FOCUSED PULL
Chest Supported Lat Pull Down
1/2 Kneeling 1-Arm Pull Down
Seated 1-Arm Pull Down
Lat Focused Cable Row
Helms Row (lats & rhomboids)
Bent Rows (lats & rhomboids)
Neutral Grip Pull-Ups
Mid-Neutral Grip Pull Downs
RHOMBOID FOCUSED PULL
Rhomboid Pull Down
Pronated Grip Pull Down
Chest Support Row (lat & rhomboids)
Dumbbell Row (lats & rhomboids)
Pronated Grip T-Bar Row
REAR DELT ACCESSORY
Rear Delt Row
Dumbbell Back Flys
Cable Rear Delt Fly
Seated Dumbbell Curl
Incline Dumbbell Curl
UPPER TRAP ACCESSORY
Overhead Plate Raises
THE PUSH PULL LEGS ROUTINE: EXAMPLE LEG DAY WORKOUT
MOVEMENT 1: QUAD FOCUSED COMPOUND
EXAMPLE MOVEMENT: Hack Squat 2-4 x 7-10
We've chosen the Hack Squat here specifically because it makes the quads the rate limiter.
When the goal is building muscle (which is what most of our online clients are chasing), you want the "rate limiter" (the thing that forces you to eventually stop a movement) to be the specific muscle group(s) you're targeting.
So, let's say you're doing heavy Front Squats to train your quads.
Per usual with the Front Squat, your core and upper back fail before your quads.
Thus, this has become a pretty shit exercise for actually building your quads. This is why machines or movements that allow you to use your hands for stability are helpful for quad training - they remove balance, core strength, your upper back, etc., as potential rate limiters, and allow you to simply focus on maximizing tension in your quads.
MOVEMENT 2: KNEE EXTENSION ACCESSORY
EXAMPLE MOVEMENT: Leg Extension 2-4 x 15-20
The primary function of your quads is knee extension (a.k.a. straightening the leg from a bent position), and many squat and lunge variations are great for training this function.
We're including another movement for the quads here because Leg Extension and Sissy Squat variations (a.k.a. knee extension accessories) are the only movements that put the Rectus Femoris muscle of the quads in a fully lengthened position:
As we discussed earlier, the lengthened position seems to be where most muscle growth is stimulated.
That said, realize that the other muscles of the quad will be stretched at the bottom of a deep squat or lunge - so including a squat or lunge and a Leg Extension or Sissy Squat Variation in each lower body training day is the recipe for quad growth.
MOVEMENT 3: HINGE PATTERN COMPOUND
EXAMPLE MOVEMENT: 45 Degree Back Extension 2-4 x 10-15
Now that you've fully hammered your quads, it's time to move on to more hamstring and glute focused training.
Here, we're focusing on hip flexion and extension (pushing the hips backwards/forwards), which will recruit much more of your hamstrings and glutes than a squat pattern (which is usually focused much more on knee flexion/extension).
One of the main issues most run into with hinge patterns?
Many create a relatively large amount of stress on the lower back (a.k.a. axial loading).
Anecdotally, most online clients have a pretty limited tolerance for movements that put a lot of strain on the lower back, before running into issues with low back pain.
Also, realize that the more stress a movement puts on your spine, the more fatigue it generates.
So typically, when putting together an online clients training program, if the primary quad focused movement loads the spine heavily, we'll try to avoid doing so with the primary hinge movement, and vice versa.
This why we've plugged a 45 Degree Back Extension in here - it allows us to effectively train the hinge pattern without heavy loading of the spine.
OPTIONAL MOVEMENT 4: GLUTE EMPHASIS LUNGE, HINGE, OR LEG PRESS
EXAMPLE MOVEMENT: Kas Glute Bridge 2-4 x 10-15
Many of the women we coach want to put an emphasis on building their glutes.
Your glutes are a very large muscle group relatively to the rest of your body, and can generally handle a good amount of volume.
So if you're chasing glute gains, it's smart to plug in another glute focused compound lift here.
MOVEMENT 5: KNEE FLEXION ACCESSORY
EXAMPLE MOVEMENT: Seated Leg Curl 2-4 x 15-20
Your hamstrings don't just help with pushing your hips back and forth (hip flexion and extension), they also serve a major role in knee flexion (think: pulling your heels towards your butt).
So if you're not training knee flexion (think: leg curl variations) along with a hip hinge, you're not fully training your hamstrings.
MOVEMENT 6: CALF ACCESSORY X SPINAL FLEXION SUPERSET
EXAMPLE MOVEMENTS: Dumbbell Single Leg Calf Raise 2-4 x 10-15 / Hanging Knee Raise 2-4 x 8-12
Many can consider the calves portion of this superset optional. If you don't care about building your calves, you're ok to skip this.
If you are chasing calf gains, we want a movement that allows for a full range of motion, with a big stretch of the calf muscles at the bottom of each rep, and control at the top of the movement.
When building the "six pack muscle" of your abs, the rectus abdominis, you need to consider the function of said muscle:
The Rectus abdominis is responsible for spinal flexion (flexing at the spine) - which means that properly training it should involve a lot of flexing/bending of the spine.
Spinal flexion is based trained through crunch, sit-up, reverse crunch, and knee/leg raise variations.
WHAT ARE THE BEST LEG WORKOUT EXERCISES?
Quad Focused Compound
Smith Machine Squat
Heels Elevated Barbell/SSB Squat
Front & Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat W/ Hand Support
Hinge Pattern Compound
Stiff Legged Deadlift
45 Degree Back Extensions
Trap Bar Romanian Deadlift
Glute Emphasis Compound
Glute Focus Leg Press
Kas Glute Bridge
Deficit Reverse Lunge
Knee Extension Accessory
Sissy Squat Variations
Knee Flexion Accessory
Seated Leg Curl Machine
Lying Leg Curl Machine
Standing Leg Curl Machine
Glide Leg Curls
Towel Leg Curls
Standing Calf Raises
Single Leg Calf Raises
Leg Press Calf Raises
Spinal Flexion (Abs)
Swiss Ball Crunch
Hanging Knee Raise
Decline Reverse Crunch
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER TO BUILD YOUR OWN PUSH PULL LEGS ROUTINE
Remember, following this split you're typically training 6 out of every 7-8 days.
So while we laid out three example training days above (the first push, pull, and lower sessions of your training week), you'll need to create the other three training days on your own to create a full training week.
Basically, we've covered examples for....
DAY 1: Push 1
DAY 2: Pull 1
DAY 3: Legs 1
DAY 4: Rest
Now take what you've learned and create...
DAY 5: Push 2
DAY 6: Pull 2
DAY 7: Legs 2
I would not recommend repeating the exact same movements twice per week, as you'll likely be able to see quicker gains using different variations of the patterns listed above.
If you're ready to take the guesswork out of achieving your best body composition ever, click here now to apply for Online Coaching with our team. You'll get fully customized training + nutrition protocols fit to your specific goals & lifestyle, and expert guidance through every step of the process.