For many gym-goers, a standard weekly gym workout routine will focus on a certain muscle group each day. Anyone who’s anyone knows that international chest day falls on a Monday, for example, with subsequent days focusing on areas such as the back, arms, shoulders and, if you can be bothered, legs.
However, it’s been proven that we eventually hit a plateau if we don’t keep ‘shocking’ the muscles. While you may see incredible gains within the first year of joining a gym for the first time, once you’ve hit your groove, it becomes harder for you to continue piling on the muscle. Enter, the push pull workout.
Whereas the standard gym program mentioned earlier will have days focusing on one muscle group at a time, usually once per week, a push pull workout devotes more time to these areas, with a typical split being push pull legs, which is then repeated before taking Sunday as a rest day.
What Is A Push Pull Workout?
If you’ve not heard of it before, or have never found out what it means, a push pull workout is pretty simple to understand. Ultimately, you will utilise the pushing and pulling muscles in your upper body, and you can even perform a push pull legs workout, which includes working out the lower body.
For example, a push day will have you focusing on your upper body pushing muscles, such as your chest, shoulders and triceps.
A pull day focuses on the upper body pulling muscles, such as the back and biceps, and finally, the legs day focuses on the, you guessed it, the legs.
What Are The Benefits Of A Push Pull Workout?
As Aston University states, a push pull workout split is the most effective way to gain muscle because “all related muscle groups are trained together in the same workout.”
And, while you may end up spending the same one hour in the gym as you would with a day dedicated to just one muscle group, because you’ll be working out complementary muscle groups, and even including supersets, you’ll find you can build muscle much faster and get over the dreaded plateau.
Push pull legs workouts can even help to reduce injury because you’re splitting your sessions by movement, as opposed to muscle group. And it’s also claimed a push pull legs split gives you adequate recovery time and ultimately gives you a more balanced physique.
Top Push Pull Workout Tips
Your experience with strength training can determine how often you should perform a push pull legs workout split.
- Beginners with six months training experience or less should only perform one workout each of push pull legs for a maximum of 3 training days per week.
- People with intermediate and advanced strength training experience can train using the push pull legs method up to 6 six times per week, splitting it equally into 2 days for each.
You are also free to change the amount of weight you use or the number of sets or reps you perform, for each individual exercise, depending on your training goals.
Best Push Workouts
Push workouts are great for building up the size and strength of your muscles, and if you complete two push days each week, you could dedicate one to strength by performing lower reps and one to increasing the size of the muscles by performing higher reps for a hypertrophy effect.
You’ll want to keep the weight light to begin with, at least compared to the weights you use for pull workouts, in order to avoid injury.
Barbell Bench Press
There’s a reason it’s such a classic. The barbell bench press is an absolute essential chest exercise, therefore making it a mainstay in any well-rounded push workout routine. You have the option of performing the bench press in one of three ways: flat, incline or decline, or if you really fancy, you can add all three into your push workout routine.
How to perform: Most gyms will have racks and benches set up specifically for the bench press, so take your position on a bench, lying flat with your back parallel to the ground. Grab the bar with an overhand grip and with hands set slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. You want to ensure your wrists don’t bend during the movement, but instead, keep your knuckles facing up to the ceiling.
With your feet close to the bench and planted firmly on the ground, shoulder blades squeezed together and core embraced, lift the barbell off the rack and lower it slowly down towards your chest, inhaling as you do so.
Next, push your body down into the bench and your feet down into the ground in order to push the barbell back up to its starting position. A common mistake people make is they put too much emphasis on their arms to lift it up, but doing so takes all the tension away from the chest, which is our target muscle.
A little bit of arching in the back is ok if it’s required to help you get the bar up, but too much can cause injury. If you find you struggle with the second set of reps, increase the amount of rest you take in-between. If it means you’re able to lift a slightly heavier weight, it’s worth it.
Sets: 4 sets with 8 – 12 reps per set. If performing a higher number of reps, decrease the amount of weight.
Tempo: 1 second bringing down to chest, 2 seconds pushing up
Seated Dumbbell Overhead Shoulder Press
An essential shoulder workout, the seated dumbbell overhead press promises to add serious size to your shoulders, so make sure you include it in your push workout routine. By using dumbbells, you place extra tension on your shoulders, because each side has to support its own weight, as opposed to using a barbell, which spreads the weight out between both arms.
How to perform: Take a seat on an incline bench and adjust the back so that it is at a right angle, giving you back support. Take a dumbbell in each hand and move your arms into a right angle position, where your upper arm is parallel to the ground.
With your core braced and your lower body kept stable, push the dumbbells up and move them slightly inwards towards each other, without letting them touch. Slowly return the dumbbells to the starting position to complete one rep.
Sets: 3 to 5 sets with 8 to 10 reps per set
Tempo: 3 seconds up, 3 seconds return
Dumbbell Lateral Raise
Another push pull exercise that provides a surefire way to boulder shoulders is the lateral raise. A great movement to add size to the sides of your shoulders, this is a must-include in any push pull workout routine.
How to perform: Stand with feet shoulder-width apart and a dumbbell in each hand, with your palms facing in. Keep the weight light to begin, as you’ll soon find your arms will fatigue as you move through the reps, and ultimately, you’re looking to complete every single rep with the correct form.
With your arms by your side, brace your core, lock down your shoulders and raise the dumbbells up and out to your sides. Only lift as far as shoulder height, if not slightly below, to put the greatest amount of tension on the shoulder muscles. Going above shoulder height will have a negative effect.
Return your arms to the starting position to complete one rep.
Sets: 4 sets with 10-12 reps per set
Tempo: 3 second up, 2 seconds down
Best Pull Workouts
Pull workouts are where the fun begins. Think deadlifts (which could also be considered a leg day movement), rowing movements and bicep curls, all of which are fantastic exercises that allow you to pack on some serious muscle.
We’re going to include the deadlift in the pull day workout routine, because the barbell back squat features in the leg day program, and it would be unwise to perform both in the same session. While your legs are most certainly required for the deadlift, your lats, traps and rhomboid muscles are all activated too, along with your core, to pull the barbell up off the ground. A perfect entry for a pull workout routine, then.
How to perform: Getting the technique right with the deadlift is absolutely crucial, and far more important than the amount of weight you lift, as it has a good chance of causing serious injury.
Get yourself into a sort of squat position by bending your knees, squatting down and grabbing the barbell with hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Ensure your feet are under the bar, with the bar itself staying close to your body.
Push your bum out so that your back is straight and parallel to the ground. Lock down your shoulder blades, brace your core and inhale to get ready to lift.
Push through your feet and raise your upper body, using your hips as a hinge. The momentum from pushing up through your legs will help with this. Ensure you keep the bar close to your body through the entire lift, and even have it touch the skin if need be.
Squeeze your glutes at then top of the movement, before slowly returning to the starting position, reversing the movement you just performed i.e. hinging at the hip, back parallel to the floor and knees slightly bent.
Sets: 4 sets with maximum of 8 reps per set
Tempo: 3 to 4 seconds up, 3 seconds down
Another pull workout staple has the be the lat pulldown. An exercise that targets your lats, as the name suggests, as well as other upper back muscles and even your biceps, it’s a workout that will see you packing on size in no time at all.
How to perform: You’ll need access to a dedicated machine to perform them effectively, although they can also be performed using a set of resistance bands. The most common attachment for the lat pulldown machine is the full-length bar, which allows you to perform both wide grip and narrow-grip pulldown moves, each of which targets a slightly different area of the back.
Sitting down on the seat, with your thighs underneath the upper pads. Reach up and grab the bar at the ends using an overhand grip, so that your arms are wider than shoulder-width apart. Sit back down and lock your shoulder blades down to prepare for the pull.
Pull the bar down towards your chest, ensuring your upper body stays upright. Avoid leaning back as you pull down, as this will move the tension away from the lat muscles, thus making the move ineffective.
Pull down until the bar is just above your chest, making sure to not pull down any further. Hold at the bottom of the pull for a second or two to really work the back muscles, before returning the bar to the starting position to complete one rep.
Sets: 4 sets with 12 to 15 reps per set
Tempo: 3 seconds down, quick return to starting position
Dumbbell Bicep Curls
Want big guns? Who doesn’t. You won’t get them without performing some bicep curls.
How to perform: Grab yourself a set of dumbbells and take one in each hand. Have your arms straight down by your sides with your palms facing forward. You can choose to curl both arms at the same time, or alternate. Alternating is usually the way to go.
Curl at the elbow, making sure you keep your upper arm straight. A common mistake people people is to sort of ‘swing’ their arms up when curling, which takes tension away from the muscle. By curling at the elbow, bring your palm from its starting position and all the way up to the shoulder, you’ll soon find the peaks of your biceps will begin to grow.
Sets: 4 sets with 10 to 12 reps per arm per set
Tempo: 3 seconds for each curl
The word is quite literally in the name of this exercise. The pull-up is a fantastic – albeit tricky – exercise that will gift you huge traps and upper back muscles, but the journey won’t be easy.
How to perform: Grab a pull-up bar with an overhand grip and allow yourself to hang. Lock down your shoulder blades and bend your elbows slightly to prepare yourself for the pull.
To perform an effective pull-up, you want to imagine bringing your elbows down into the ground, as opposed to using your upper back to lift yourself up. Keep pulling the elbows down until your chin reaches the bar, before lowering yourself back down to the starting position.
Pull-ups are a genuinely difficult exercise so don’t worry if you can only perform 1 or 2 on your first go. If you attempt them each time you enter the gym (this is one exercise you can attempt whenever you want) then you’ll soon see progress.
Sets: 3 sets with maximum reps per set
Tempo: 3 seconds up, 2 seconds down
Best Leg Workouts
With the push pull workout out the way, you can move onto the leg day workout to round off an intense three day workout routine.
Barbell Back Squat
One of the core compound movements, the barbell back squat doesn’t just provide a solid leg workout, but a comprehensive full body workout too. It’s one that can eventually see you squatting some serious weight, too, but only once you have the correct technique nailed down.
How to perform: Approach the squat rack and set the bar just below shoulder height. Step under and have the bar rest on your shoulders, making sure the middle of the bar falls on the back of your neck.
Grab the bar with an overhand grip slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, brace your core and push up to bring the bar off the rack. Take a couple of steps back – you don’t want to be shuffling your feet, instead, make a couple of defined steps backwards – and prepare to squat.
Tuck your pelvis in and brace your core to create a solid base that will follow you through the movement. To squat down, imagine you’re effectively sitting down on a chair. You want your bum – or glutes – to push out backwards before your knees bend, and once it has, squat down, ensuring your knees push outwards. When you do squat down, inhale before you do so, and hold the breath until you’re back in your starting position.
Go as deep as you can – ideally you want your knees to go beyond a 90 degree angle – and with your breath still held and solid positioning still holding strong, push back up by forcing your feet into the ground and using your leg muscles to bring yourself back to the starting position.
If you’re new to back squats, start with the weight relatively light. You can always add more with each set.
Sets: 4 sets with 5 to 8 reps per set
Tempo: The slower and more controlled, the better
No, they’re not just for women to develop their booty, hip thrusts are a fantastic movement to develop your glutes and hamstrings, and provide a perfect complement to the barbell back squats you just performed. They pose far less of an injury risk too, meaning you can go heavier with the weight or higher with the number of reps, to elicit some incredible muscle growth.
How to perform: Arm yourself with a barbell and add some plate weights to either end. You’ll also need an incline bench or a soft box to rest your elbows and upper body on, in order to facilitate the hip thrust movement.
Position yourself on the ground so that your back is against the bench or box and the barbell is over your hips. You can wrap the barbell in a soft mat if you wish, to help prevent it from digging into your body.
Lightly place your hands on the bar using an overhand grip. You don’t need to grab hold of the bar, as you’re not lifting it, but simply making sure it stays in place. Place your elbows on the bench or the box behind behind you, brace your core and thrust the bar up using your hips.
You want to thrust up until your knees are at a right angle and your upper body is parallel to the ground. Pause at the top of the movement and squeeze your glutes, before slowly returning to the starting position.
Sets: 3 sets with 12 to 15 reps per set
Tempo: Quick thrust up, slow 2 second return
Bulgarian Split Squat
Another fantastic lower body exercise is the Bulgarian split squat. It’s an exercise that is relatively easy to learn and has minimal chance of causing injury, so be sure to add it to your lower body workout routine. The Bulgarian split squat is essentially a single leg squat, with the rear leg being elevated off the ground, placing all the tension and pressure on the leading leg.
This allows for incredible muscle development and it also helps you to improve your balance and stability.
How to perform: Find yourself a weights or incline bench and place one foot flat on it, i.e. the top of your foot flat so your toes are pointing behind you. With your leading leg, step forward a few steps so that when you do squat, you really do feel the tension on your hamstrings.
Keeping your torso upright, tuck your pelvis in and slowly lower your body until your leading knee is at a right angle. Push back up through the leading heel to the starting position to complete one rep.
Don’t worry too much if your leading knee goes over the toes. If you find this is happening, lean your torso forward slightly to help compensate, and place the emphasis on the quads. If you do stay upright and keep the knee behind the toes, you’ll feel more tension on the hamstrings and glutes.
Start by performing these with just your bodyweight, before adding in a pair of dumbbells.
Sets: 4 sets with 8 to 10 reps per set
Tempo: 3 seconds down, 2 seconds up.