Make Smarter, Balanced Gains With a Push-Pull-Legs Workout Split

YOU CAN'T JUST show up to the weight room and expect to have a good workout. Whether you have clearly defined goals or you just want to be fit, you'll have more success with a plan in place for what you're going to do.

Especially if you're someone of the former camp looking to achieve long-term muscle and strength, you'll do best with some form of training split. One of the best, most balanced forms of these is a push-pull-legs structure. By following this format you'll be able to streamline your workouts, address all of your major muscle groups in one program, and set yourself up to accomplish a wide range of fitness goals.

What Is a Push-Pull-Legs Workout?

This type of setup is designed for balance, while still allowing you to have some variety in your sessions. Rather than focusing on a single muscle group or body part per workout, as is typical for bodybuilders and other trainees with more focused aesthetic goals, the push-pull-legs structure is based on movement patterns. It's right there in the name: one day you'll perform exercises that push, then another day will be exercises that pull. You'll round it out with a leg-focused training day.

There is one subtle change to this structure you should consider making when implementing this type of program: Change the order of the first day and plan your routine as a pull-push-legs split, rather than the more commonly used push-pull-legs order. There's a good reason for this, according to Men's Health fitness director Ebenezer Samuel, C.S.C.S. "By swapping the placement of pull and push, you set yourself up for better symmetry and shoulder health, because you’re leaving your back musculature in a stronger overall position to take on load and your chest is consistently just a tad weaker," he says. "Your CNS is always fresher on day one of your split is the reason for this. But keeping your back stronger will help you maintain shoulder balance, which is great for aesthetics, and also can help alleviate shoulder issues."

This is an especially helpful consideration for people who sit all day, whether you're at a desk or behind the wheel of a truck. Using this structure, you'll put yourself in a better position for your everyday life.

The Benefits of a Push-Pull-Legs Workout Split

Allows for Recovery

No matter the way your order your PPL split structure, one of the major benefits of that you'll be able to slot in rest days to recover between your training sessions. But you can also double up the schedule for six days per week without too much strain (as long as you take the final day of the week as a rest day) since you're not training every muscle group every day.

Helps to Keep Muscle Groups and Joints Fresh

There are some muscle groups that you don't need to focus on as much as others, since they wind up getting plenty of work when you train other body parts. One of these is the shoulders. The PPL structure is a "good way to avoid overtraining shoulders," according to Samuel. They’re mixed in with chest and triceps, so you can’t spend all your sets training them," he says.

Similarly, if you have any issues with your elbows, the pull and push can get you prepped for the flexion and extension work that might be too much on one dedicated arm day. "The PPL is great for guys with cranky elbows," Samual says. "Your back exercises will help warm up your biceps on pulling days, and your presses and pushups will ready your triceps for isolation moves on push day."

You Won't Skip a Muscle Group or Big Lift

The PPL structure makes it much less likely that you'll skip out on aspects of your workout that might fall by the wayside if you dedicate your workouts to a single muscle group. If you wind up with a busy week and miss a workout, that might mean that you neglect that muscle group for the week until the calendar resets.

Likewise, your big lifts, that should be the bedrock of your program, are built into the structure. "The split insures that you train multi-joint patterns (deadlifts, rows, pullups, presses and pushups, etc.) every single day," says Samuel. "These moves are critical to building muscle and strength and also ready the body for real-life situations."

Pull-Push Structure Is Better for Your Back and Shoulders

As outlined above, swapping the lead day in your split has some tangible benefits for your posture and shoulder health.

Who Should Use a Push-Pull-Legs Workout Split

The PPL split is especially useful for experienced lifters who understand their goals and what they're looking for in a workout. "It’s a well-balanced training split that works well for aesthetics, and it can be adjusted to suit performance athletes as well," Samuel says. "It’s also ideal for anyone who’s willing to commit to five to six days in the gym [per week]."

Samuel also notes great for anyone who wants to train their muscle groups hard, because it provides two days of rest and recovery before you’re hitting a muscle group again. Even if you double up and train six days a week, you still have a rest day.

Who Shouldn't Use the Push-Pull-Legs Workout Split

While the PPL split hits everything you need for a balanced workout plan, there are some people who shouldn't put it into practice. "If you’re struggling to find time to train and can’t devote at least three days weekly to the gym, you’re better off training with a full-body split, or an upper-lower split," says Samuel.

Complete beginners in the gym should also wait before putting the PPL split into practice. You need to master your fundamental exercises first, and it’s easier to master these exercises if you do them more frequently. "In a traditional push-pull-legs or pull-push-legs split, you may only do each exercise twice a week, which can make it harder to learn the basics of each exercise," Samuel continues. "Complete beginners may be better off with an upper-lower split for that reason."

The Pull-Push-Legs Workout

Directions: You can run this as a three-day split, hammering each day once a week. Or you work through the split two times per week, working out six days per week and training each function twice a week. Just make sure to take a day to rest if you choose this option.

DAY 1: Pull Day

First Exercise: Heavy Row

Why: Samuel recommends kicking off your workout with a horizontal pulling exercise that allows you to pull "relatively heavy" weight. This won't be a PR, but you should be challenging yourself since you're coming into this fresh. "By leading with a row, you also cue your shoulder blades into scapular retraction, which will help on your next exercise," he adds.

Sets and Reps: 3 sets of 8 to 10 reps, 2 minute rest between each set

Best Option: Dumbbell Row

How to Do It:

  • Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart in front of the bench. Push your butt back and lower your torso down, extending your off arm to rest your palm on the bench. Make sure your shoulders stay above your hips.

  • Grab the dumbbell with your working hand. Squeeze your glutes and abs to create full-body tension. Your back should be flat, with your head in a neutral position.

  • Squeeze your mid-back muscles to drive your elbow up, rowing the weight. Keep your shoulders level and avoid rotating your lower back.

  • Pause for a beat, then lower the weight back down.

Other Options: Barbell Row, Pendlay Row, Incline Bench Row

Second Exercise: Pullup Variation

Why: Now that your scapular retractors are firing, follow with an exercise that’ll train your vertical pulling muscles. This will insure you train your lats.

Sets and Reps: Bodyweight Chinups or Pullups: 3 sets of max reps. Pulldown variation: 3 sets of 8 to 10 reps. 2 minute rest between each set.

Best Option: Chinup

How to Do It:

  • Grab the bar with an supinated (underhand) grip. Hold tightly, with your palms on top of the bar.

  • Squeeze your shoulder blades, abs, and glutes to create full-body tension. Your legs should be slightly in front of your torso.

  • Pull your head over the bar.

  • Lower back down, fully extending your arms.

Other Options: Pullups, Pulldowns

Third Exercise: Unilateral Row

Why: You can never do too many rows; they’re an excellent move for overall shoulder health. This second rowing exercise is a good chance to also train your core, adding in some rotation or anti-rotation to the movement.

Sets and Reps: 3 sets of 10 to 12 reps per arm, 90 seconds of rest between each set

Best Option: Elevated Plank Row

How to Do It:

  • Get into a high plank position on a weight bench. Squeeze your shoulder blades, abs, and glutes to create full-body tension and fight anti-rotation.

  • Rest one forearm on the bench, then grab a dumbbell in your other hand, hanging off the bench. Maintain tension to stay in position.

  • Row the weight up to your chest, until your upper arm is parallel with your torso. Pause for a beat at the top.

  • Lower the weight back down under control.

Other Options: Half-Iso Incline Bench Dumbbell Row, TRX Reach Row, Gorilla Row

Fourth Exercise: Standing Biceps Movement

Why: Your biceps were working all along during your back exercises, so they’re warmed up and primed for isolation work. You’ve also already subjected your biceps to moving a heavy load with your back moves so you can focus more on technique and work with lighter weights here.

Sets and Reps: 2 to 3 sets of 10 to 12 reps, 60 seconds rest between each set

Best Option: Dumbbell Curl

How to Do It:

  • Stand holding a pair of dumbbells in each hand in a neutral grip.

  • Squeeze your shoulder blades, abs, and glutes to create full-body tension.

  • Moving only at the elbows, raise the weight up. Turn your wrist so that the dumbbell faces the ceiling (supination), emphasizing the biceps squeeze as you raise the weight to the top position.

  • Lower the weight back down to the starting position with control.

Options: Barbell Curl, Hammer Curl

Optional: Secondary Biceps Exercise

If you're looking for an extra biceps boost, do a fifth exercise. This time, aim to shift your upper arm angle relative to torso, moving it either behind your torso (incline curls) or in front of your torso for a slightly different stimulus on the biceps.

Sets and Reps: 2 to 3 sets of 10 to 12 reps, 60 seconds rest between each set.

Best Option: Spider Curl

How to Do It:

  • Set up in a front-facing position on an incline bench holding one dumbbell, with your chest on the pad. Squeeze your shoulder blades, abs, and glutes for a strong posture. Allow the arm holding the weight to hang straight down in front of you.

  • Curl the weight up moving only at the elbow, squeezing your biceps at the top. Work to keep your upper arm angle perpendicular to the ground throughout the movement.

  • Lower back down to the starting position.

Other Options: Concentration Curl, Incline Curl, Preacher Curl, Crucifix Curl

Day 2: Push Day

The subtle shift in our version of PPL, leading with pull day instead of push, will stealthily hold down your bench press numbers while still letting you build a proportional, strong, and functional physique. This will also help you guard against shoulder injuries, too—but you’ll still be able to go super-hard on chest as well.

First Exercise: Heavy Press

Why: Start with a horizontal pushing exercise that will let you go relatively heavy. This will blast your chest and also serve to challenge your triceps with load, too.

Sets and Reps: 3 sets of 8 to 10 reps. Rest 2 minutes between each set.

Best Option: Dumbbell Bench Press

How to Do It:

  • Sit on the bench holding a pair of dumbbells, with your feet flat on the floor.

  • Lie back on the bench, shifting the dumbbells to your chest with your elbows at a 45 degree angle relative to your torso. Drive your shoulders into the bench then squeeze your shoulder blades, abs, and glutes to create full-body tension.

  • Press the weight straight up, squeezing your pecs at the top.

  • Lower the weight back down to about an inch above your chest.

Other Options: Dumbbell Incline Press, Barbell Bench Press, Machine Press, Pushup, Weighted Pushup

Second Exercise: Angle-Change Press

Why: Do one more pressing exercise, this time from a different upper arm angle relative to torso. You’ll challenge your chest and shoulders in a slightly different way here, while still moving significant weight to build muscle and strength. If you started with an incline press as the lead-off movement, switch to a flat bench press here.

Sets and Reps: 3 sets of 8 to 10 reps. Rest 2 minutes between each set.

Best Option: Incline Dumbbell Press

How to Do It:

  • Sit on the incline bench, holding a set of dumbbells. Your feet should be flat on the floor, and your back flat on the pad. Squeeze your shoulder blades to drive them back into the bench, and squeeze your abs and glutes.

  • Kick the weights up to your chest. Your elbows should be at a 45 degree angle relative to your torso.

  • Press the weights straight up overhead to the ceiling. There's no need to knock them together at the top. Squeeze your chest at the top position.

  • Lower the weights back down to your chest, but there's no need to go low enough to tap your chest on each rep. Descend down as low as your shoulder mobility allows before the next rep.

Other Options: Machine Press

Third Exercise: Shoulder Exercise

Why: Your first two presses handled horizontal pushing and blasted chest, with your shoulders providing assistance. That means your shoulders are already fatigued by the time you’re on this exercise, so focus on working with a higher-rep scheme and owning a full range of motion. Also note: This does not always need to be an overhead press. That’s a key movement pattern, but don’t be afraid to do lateral raises here instead.

Sets and Reps: 3 sets of 10 to 12 reps. Rest 90 seconds between each set.

Best Option: Kettlebell Half-Kneeling Single-Arm Press

How to Do It:

  • Start in a half-kneeling position, holding one kettlebell in a racked position. Squeeze the shoulder blades, abs, and glutes to create tension. For balance, you can extend the off arm out to the side.

  • Press the kettlebell straight up overhead. Keep your core tight to prevent your rib cage from flaring.

  • Lower back down to the starting position.

Other Options: Dumbbell Overhead Press, Lateral Raise

Fourth Exercise: Triceps Exercise

Why: Finish by zoning in on one critical joint and working your triceps via elbow extension. Your triceps were involved in this workout already, so they’re warmed up and ready for this action.

Sets and Reps: 3 sets of 10 to 12 reps. Rest 60 to 90 seconds between each set.

Best Option: Dumbbell Skull Crusher

How to Do It:

  • Lie back on the bench, holding a pair of dumbbells in a neutral grip or a barbell or EZ bar in an overhand grip. Drive your shoulders into the bench, then squeeze your shoulders, abs, and glutes.

  • Press the weight straight up, then shift your upper arms so that you're at a 92 degree angle relative to your torso.

  • Moving only at the elbows, lower the weights down toward your head.

  • Extend your arms back to the starting position, squeezing your triceps.

Other Options: Cable Pressdown, Close-Grip Pushup, Bodyweight Skull Crusher, Dumbbell JM Press

Optional: Second Triceps Exercise

Why: Attack your triceps from one more angle, still continuing to focus on elbow extension. If you didn't do a skull crusher for the previous exercise, do that now.

Sets and Reps: 2 to 3 sets of 12 to 15 reps. Rest 60 seconds between each set.

Best Option: Cable Pressdown

How to Do It:

  • Stand holding the cable rope at chest height with a neutral grip, with your shoulders, abs, and glutes engaged to create tension. Your elbows should be tight to either side of your torso.

  • Press down, moving only at the elbows. Squeeze your triceps at the bottom of the cable's range.

  • To avoid cheating, support your back on an incline bench and perform the movement.

Day 3: Leg Day

First Exercise: Hip-Dominant Strength Move

Why: Start by firing up your glutes and honing your hinge, which is actually a key mechanic for an effective squat, too.

Sets and Reps: 3 to 4 sets of 6 to 8 reps. Rest 2 minutes between each set.

Best Option: Trap Bar Deadlift

How to Do It:

  • Position yourself inside the trap bar, with your shins aligned with (or just in front of) the center of the bar.

  • Push your butt back as far as possible, bend your knees, and reach down to grip the handles. Grip as tightly as possible.

  • Keep your head in a neutral position, keeping your gazed fixed at something in front of you. Squeeze your shoulder blades to create tension, and turn the pits of your elbows forward, facing out.

  • Make sure your hips are lower than your shoulders, then prepare to initiate the lift.

  • Push your feet through the floor to stand straight up, squeezing your glutes at the top.

  • To finish the rep, push your butt back as far as you can, then bend your knees to set the weight down.

Other Options: Barbell Deadlift, Sumo Deadlift, Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift

Second Exercise: Bilateral Knee-Dominant Strength Move

Why: Now aim to incorporate movement at the knee. Note that your hips and glutes will still be involved, although this second leg exercise starts to recruit your quads more, too.

Sets and Reps: 3 sets of 8 to 10 reps. Rest 2 minutes between each set.

Best Option: Goblet Squat

How to Do It:

  • Take a comfortable stance and grab your weight, holding it in front of your chest with both hands. Squeeze your shoulder blades to create mid-back tension to help support the load.

  • Before you descend into the squat, take a deep breath and brace your core. This will help you to avoid tipping too far forward.

  • Push your butt back, then bend your knees to squat down as low as you comfortably can while maintaining the proper upright posture. Push your knees out and keep your core engaged; don't rest your elbows on your knees.

  • Press off the floor with both feet to stand back up, squeezing your glutes and exhaling at the top.

Other Options: Barbell Squat, Front Squat, Zercher Squat, Heels-Elevated Goblet Squat

Third Exercise: Unilateral Leg Move

Why: You’ve challenge your legs to initiate movement at the hips and the knees, but life rarely lets you do that in a balanced stance. Train your lower body from a split stance for your third move, correcting imbalances and challenging your core too.

Sets and Reps: 2 to 3 sets. Reverse Lunge/Split Squat: 8 to 10 reps per leg. Walking Lunges: 10 to 15 yards.

Best Option: Dumbbell Reverse Lunge

How to Do It:

  • Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Squeeze your glutes and shoulder blades, keeping your gaze neutral at a point straight ahead of you.

  • You can perform lunges with only your bodyweight, or use a wide range of implements like dumbbells, kettlebells, or barbells held in a number of positions. For simplicity's sake, start by holding a pair of dumbbells, one in each hand at hip-level.

  • Step one leg back and slightly out, landing with your toe first. Work to avoid slamming your knee into the ground. Keep your chest in an upright position, bending your knees to form right angles with both of your legs.

  • Drive off the ground with your front foot and step your rear leg forward into the starting position. Keep your torso in a solid upright position by squeezing your core to stay balanced.

Other Options: Walking Lunge, Bulgarian Split Squat, Deficit Reverse Lunge, Split Squat

Fourth Exercise: Non-Sagittal Plane

Why: Do one more leg move, aiming to train your legs outside the sagittal plane (the direction in which we typically walk). Building this lateral or rotational strength will make you a better athlete, develop glute and core strength, and also bulletproof your hips and knees against injury.

Sets and Reps: 2 to 3 sets of 8 to 10 reps per leg

Best Option: Lateral Lunge

How to Do It:

  • Start standing, holding a kettlebell or dumbbell at your chest, core tight.

  • Step to the right a few feet with your right leg, taking a relatively large step.

  • Land. Keeping your left leg straight, bend your right knee and push your butt back, lowering slowly. "Your torso may lean forward slightly," says Samuel. "That's OK and natural."

  • Lower as far as you can comfortably, aiming to get thigh parallel to the ground. Then explosively drive up and to the left, driving back to a standing position.

Other Options: Cossack Squat, Curtsy Lunge

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