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Fact checked by Kirsten Yovino, CPT Brookbush InstituteFACT CHECKED
March 14, 2022
Choosing the right split to run for your training can be one of the more daunting tasks when going to the gym. Everyone has the perfect split that they think you should run and deliver it with hints that anything less is will get you nowhere. The truth is that just about all splits work when applied correctly and done in a progressive manner. Still, some splits are tried and true, backed up by decades of results. This article will dive into one of the most effective workout splits, known as Push, Pull, Legs (or simply referred to as PPL).
First, let’s define what a “split” is and why we use them. Workout splits are nothing more than a method of organizing muscle groups or body parts into specific training days. This is primarily done for two reasons.
Helps with management and organization: Having muscles split into their days makes it easier to plan workouts rather than just going to the gym and doing random exercises. A Push-Pull-Legs split will give you the guidance you need.
Helps mitigate fatigue and advance recovery: Managing recovery and fatigue of muscles are one of the keys to optimal growth. By altering the days you workout muscle groups, you ensure you give muscles adequate time to recover while still training your other muscle groups.
As mentioned above, a PPL split works by dividing the muscle groups into upper-body pushing exercises, upper-body pulling exercises, and legs. These training days will look like this:
1. Pushing Days - Pushing days will work upper body pushing muscles, primarily training:
You will still train the core, some upper back, and even some legs on these movements as well.
2. Pulling Days - Pull day workouts will work the deadlift and upper body pulling muscles. This is going to primarily work your back and biceps, including:
Again, you’ll still get a fair amount of training for your core and posterior chain (spinal erectors, glutes, hamstrings).
3. Legs - Leg days will work the muscles of your entire lower body, including:
Keep in mind that this is not always exact and some exercises will have some overlap. For example, an upright row is going to train your delts and traps. Since there are fewer pushing muscles, it might be a good idea to train this on your pushing day.
Using a PPL scheme for your training program offers a ton of great benefits. Here are just a few of them.
1) Easy To Plan
Using a PPL scheme makes it very easy to plan out your program. This is extremely useful if you are new to training because your schedule is defined; you know exactly what movements you need to train that day.
2) It’s Effective
You know this plan works. PPL has been used by thousands of trainees of all levels with great success over the years. As long as you use the principle of progressive overload, PPL will get you the results you are looking for.
3) Train Every Body Part
Using a PPL split will guarantee you train every muscle group efficiently. It leaves nothing behind.
4) Can Add Variety
If you train four or five times a week, your weekly plan will never look the same. Some may see this as a negative if they want consistency, but it can actually keep things interesting. Something as minor as starting the week off with a different plan can go a very long way in keeping things exciting.
5) Easy To Alter And Personalize
Using a PPL routine is very easy to alter for your needs. One way is to add days of training during the week to add to your load. The training rotation remains the same except that you add more days. Or, some use PPL as their base and then make some adjustments or add special training days to suit their needs (We’ll get to that later).
The majority of your exercises should consist of compound movements. Contrary to popular belief, compound movements are just as effective in stimulating hypertrophy as isolation movements and are exponentially more effective in building strength. Plus, you can train more muscles at once, which will limit your time in the gym. This makes them the far superior choice. You can still work in some isolation to bring up some lagging parts, though.
Still, every compound movement doesn’t need to be a “big” compound movement. For example, upright rows and face pulls (you will do both) are compound movements but don’t use as much weight or muscle mass as a deadlift or bench press.
There are six main movement patterns that you need to include in your PPL workout:
1) Vertical Pushing
This includes overhead pressing such as a shoulder press or dumbbell press.
2) Horizontal Pushing
This includes pressing in front of your body. Example of exercise include bench press or push-ups.
3) Vertical Pulling
The best exercises are the chin-up or pull-up. Others include any type of pull-down (lat pull-down, close-grip pull-down, etc).
4) Horizontal Pulling
These include exercises that pull the weight towards your torso. Popular exercises include the bent-over row or dumbbell rows.
5) Hip Hinge
What differentiates a hip hinge movement from a squat is more hip flexion and less knee flexion. Hip hinges are more posterior based, working the posterior chain, with the most common exercise (and best!) is the conventional deadlift. Other options are hip thrusts and Romanian deadlifts.
We all know the back squat but other examples of squat movement patterns are the front squat and lunge.
Ok, now that we have a better understanding of what a PPL split is, let's look at the best exercises for each day. While many of these exercises are done with a barbell or dumbbells, if you area beginner or want to train at home, you can easily perform these movements with a set of quality resistance bands.
The push press is the only power exercise on this entire list. That’s because a large percentage of trains have zero power exercise in their regime and the push press is the easiest to perform. Plus, addressing the issue of Push Pull Legs being bias towards the upper body, you will have to generate explosiveness with hip extension that will rely on the glutes. Being a power exercise, you will work just about every muscle in the body while concentrating on hip extension, the shoulders, and triceps.
The bench press is the most popular pressing exercise there is. And for a good reason. Trainees can use a significant amount of weight to overload the pec, shoulders, and triceps.
While the bench press is the modern-day king of pressing, the overhead shoulder press used to reign supreme…and for many, it still does. Today, many trainees overhead pressing strength sucks merely because they don’t train it and it requires a bit more mobility; snd it’s just harder to progress on, but this doesn’t mean you don’t do it. Definitely do.
Overhead is going to strengthen your shoulders and upper back while also activating your entire core for support. Plus, it will require you to fix the mobility and stability of your shoulders.
Pro-tip: On light days, perform a shrug at the top of the movement for some serious upper-back track training.
The incline dumbbell press is an extremely challenging exercise that is going to target your upper chest. Also, because the dumbbells allow horizontal shoulder abduction (moving your arm towards the center of your body), you will get more activation in the pectoral muscles as a whole. Set the bench somewhere between a 30-40 degree incline
A misconception exists that the bench press is the best movement for the chest. It’s not. The dip is. The bench is still a great movement for strength and power development, but it doesn’t it the chest as much as people think. There’s an adage that goes around the old-school gym guys.
“Bench builds the tri’s. Dips build the chest”
If you want a huge chest, you need to do dips. They are the best pushing bodyweight exercise there is, and their movement pattern can’t be replicated.
As mentioned above, the upright row is a movement that falls somewhere between pushing and pulling due to the muscles it works. However, it’s good to work this in on your pushing day. The upright row will primarily work your delta and upper back while also hitting the biceps some.
The chest fly is a great movement for the chest, shoulders and arms. It is particularly effective for the chest as you can really squeeze and create tension. Over time, you can build a really defined chest with the chest fly. It can be done with a cable machine, dumbbells or a pec deck. Do all three to switch things up. Moreover, try to hit the fly from different angles by adjusting the cable pulley level or doing incline, flat and decline db chest fly.
An old-school classic and perhaps the best tricep isolation exercises there is. Use an EZ-curl bar as it will be much more comfortable.
Tricep pressdowns are a great exercise to target the triceps. Plus, there are a ton of varieties that you can do with this one move. Rope, reverse-grip straight bar, prone grip straight bar, Y-handle...the best option is to just do all of them.
Learn more about Pushing Exercises
Being the king of barbell movements, the deadlift reigns over them all. While used for lower-body exercises, the deadlift is genuinely a full body workout. Using the deadlift on your pulling day is a great way to run this program as it allows you to essentially hit your legs on two days of a PPL. It also allows you to concentrate on it separately from the squat.
The deadlift is going to primarily train the hamstrings, glutes, and spinal erectors. However, the quads are also used extensively in this movement to push into the ground (which is also a great cue!) along with the traps and lats to keep the upper back from solid.
If you don't want to do conventional deadlifts, there are several deadlift alternatives that are almost as good in terms of building size and strength.
The king of bodyweight pulling exercises. Actually, these don’t need “bodyweight” to modify that statement. They are the king of pulling exercises.
Chin-ups are going to work literally every back in your muscle PLUS your biceps as you use an underhand grip. Studies show they will even activate more muscles than the lat-pulldown, making them the superior back exercise. On top of that, you will also get a killer core workout.
Related: Pull Ups vs Chin Ups
The bent-over barbell row is going to destroy your back in the lateral plane (horizontal pulling). Like the chin-up, it will train your entire back but with different biomechanics, like giving your back a whole new stimulus.
Since you are doing this movement bent-over, it is also a great movement to train your posterior chain (hamstrings, glutes, spinal erectors) with an insane isometric hold. These muscles will fire like mad to give you a solid base to pull from. Bent-over barbell rows work well, heavy or light. Traditionally done with an overhand grip, you can also easily switch to an underhand grip creating a new stimulus with essentially the same exercise.
If you are a beginner, stick to the traditional dumbbell row to focus on the dumbbell row’s biomechanics. However, once you have been training for a while, you might want to try these.
Kroc rows are similar to the dumbbell row, but they use a lot more weight and a lot more body momentum. Essentially, a Kroc row consists of using a very heavy dumbbell but doing a lot of reps. Think of a weight that you can do, maybe four or five good reps with a clean dumbbell row but knocking out 15+. To do this, you use a very explosive motion at the bottom of the rep and a little body momentum. Don’t worry about “concentrating on the contraction”. The weight used will be more than enough to overload the muscles as you will be knocking out a ton of reps.
Although this is done with high reps, treat it like a heavy exercise
Time to take a seat and really focus on hitting the back. The close-grip seated row is a great exercise to use with lighter weight and high reps (Now you can focus on your mind-muscle contraction!). While the above exercises are focused on strength development, use this exercise to concentrate on hypertrophy.
” Close-grip” is listed as its biomechanics are substantially different from the bent-over barbell row. However, it’s a good idea to use various grips with this movement: Wide-grip, neutral grip, even a rope attachment. Everything is virtually the same for the set-up. Still, the difference in grip will hit the back slightly different while also adding enough variety to keep this exercise exciting.
Related: Seated Cable Row Alternatives
When you think of traps, Olympic lifters are king and what do all their movements start with? A frontal shrug.
Nothing will make you look more swole than a nice set of upper traps. To really make them grow, you need some direct work. While there are many great variations to the shrug if you want to build the upper traps, stick with the frontal shrug. Studies have shown that this variation is the most effective in activating the most amount of muscle fibers. A frontal shrug is simply done by holding your hands in front of your body with a prone grip. While this could be done with dumbbells, the best bet is to just use a barbell.
Because the range of motion is naturally small, be sure to get a nice long pause at the top. A good practice is to use heavy-weight with low reps but a long pause at the top (3+ seconds). This allows sufficient time under tension while using heavy-weight.
Face pulls are the ultimate accessory pulling movement. This exercise is going to significantly increase the strength of your traps, rhomboids, and anterior delta. Collectively, this will increase your scapula control, improve your shoulder health, and fix your posture.
Related: Face Pull Alternatives
Not that many people need an excuse to train biceps, it’s always a good idea to have a puling exercise to specifically train elbow flexion. Besides building a bulging bicep, bicep curls will strengthen the elbow joint’s tendons and ligaments, helping to mitigate future injury as the elbow is a common location for an overuse injury.
The cable machine is a great option to use for bicep curls as they are easier to swap out attachments or weights if you want to throw in some compound sets. Like the tricep extension, we’re not going to suggest one type; just consistently swap variations around.
Learn more about Pulling Exercises
The back squat is a must have in your training routine. They are the greatest exercise to create pure size and strength in the entire lower body. Plus, you will get an insane core workout. Squats will make your quads, glutes, and hamstrings blow up.
The unpopular, but possibly more effective brother of the back squat. Front squats are largely overshadowed by the back squat but they shouldn’t be. In actuality, front squats are the preferred movement by many professional athletes’ coaches as it has better transfer to athletic movements. It’s also going to drastically increase your mobility and core.
The front squat differs from the back squat as the bar is set in the front of the body. Now the name makes sense! This little change actually causes a massive difference in the biomechanics of the movement. As the lifter descends, he must keep an excessively upright torso to keep the bar from falling. This means little hip flexion and more knee flexion. Together, this results in a much larger load placed on the quadriceps. If I could only do two lower body exercises, it would be the front squat for the anterior muscles and the deadlift for the posterior muscles.
(But you should still do back squats!)
Related: Front Squat vs Back Squat
The barbell hip thrust is the best exercise to train the glutes. Not only will it create a powerful butt and hamstrings, it’s also going to have an incredible transfer of performance to the deadlift and back squat. When done, just be warned; start light! Trainees unaccustomed to this exercise are not used to the amount of activation they get in their glutes and hamstrings. This can leave you incredibly sore if you do too much too soon.
The leg press is the only machine on this list. It is an extremely effective way to train your entire lower body while taking strain off of your lower back. This allows you to get more volume in with out getting injured. Also, you can alter the muscle activation by changing the seat angle and leg placement. Neither is better or worse than the other so play around with different variations.
Related: Leg Press Alternatives
Lunges are tough. Real tough. Many trainees find this exercise to be harder than squats or deadlifts. That also means they are very effective. Lunges are a unilateral exercise (kind of). They are not a true unilateral exercise as you use both legs to perform the movement (known as bilateral); however, the emphasis is placed on the forward leg. But don’t get caught up in semantics; lunges will kill your quads, glutes, hamstrings, and calf muscles. Further, lunges will significantly increase your balance and coordination (they’re not as easy to perform as they look!).
One of the great things with lunges is that they are incredibly effective with just bodyweight or hold dumbbells to increase the load. Lunges are generally done with at least 10 (5 per leg) in reps as they are not very suitable for heavy loads. Many great lifter’s common practice is to only use bodyweight with lunges and perform very high volumes with them. As in 100+ steps.
Related: Lunge Alternatives
Dumbbell sumo deadlifts are an amazingly effective yet underutilized exercise. Due to the higher amount of knee flexion and wider stance in a sumo deadlift, you will get more activation in the quadriceps and that pesky area for many, the inner thigh; otherwise known as the hip adductors. Because the mobility required for the sumo deadlift is much more difficult for people, using a single dumbbell is a much better option for universal use. Still, as dumbbells only go so heavy, it almost forces you to use high reps, giving you that variety of stimuli.
Here are the top alternative or additional exercises you can include in your program.
Alternative Pushing Day Exercises:
Alternative Pulling Day Exercises:
Alternative Leg Day Exercises:
Even when lifting weights, altering the weights and other variables can create significantly different changes on the body. Unless you are specifically training as a powerlifter or a bodybuilder, you should work out across the whole spectrum of reps. Still, professional lifters use the entire range as there is a distinct relationship between hypertrophy (muscle growth) and strength or power development. A bigger muscle can become a stronger muscle, and a stronger muscle can make a bigger muscle. Below are some guidelines for the repetition spectrum
As mentioned, ideally, you should use every rep range on each day. However, while you can use light-weight for every movement, not every movement is suitable for heavy-weight. The exercises are listed in order which you can think of as “Heavy—>Light”. This means that the exercises at the top of each day are more suitable for heavy-weight while those at the bottom are more suitable for lighter weight.
The vast majority of people will suffice, mainly working in the strength and hypertrophy range. The only real power exercise on this list is the push press. Other than that, a good rule of thumb is to have:
You can alter these a bit as you want, just be sure to have at least 1 exercise in each rep range.
Sets will range from 3-5 sets with 0:30-2:00 of rest in between.
Here is a push pull leg routine for you to start with. Over time, you can work in alternative exercises and play around with rep schemes.
See further below for how this PPL program will work with 3, 4, 5, or 6 training days per week.
Feel free to adjust as needed - You can alter the rep schemes slightly to suit your needs as well as the exercises.
DO NOT immediately start with heavy weights if you are new to lifting. Start light.
*The 1RM% are an estimate and don’t need to be exact. Work with a number which you could knock out another 2-3 reps
The key to spreading out training days is to separate them as evenly as possible. You do not want to train Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday and then rest Thursday to Sunday. Remember, regardless of how many days you train a week, all of these plans work by cycling through PPL. This looks like:
Below are the best ways to arrange training days.
For three days a week, you separate two sessions with one day of rest and one session with two days of rest. This can look like:
Don’t put too much thought into it. The only thing to remember: DO NOT train two days in a row unless you absolutely have to.
Related: 3 Day Workout Split Guide
Many people don’t talk about this style of frequency. Its name says it all. You train one day, rest one day, train one day, rest one day. Easy. This will alter between working out 3 days a week and 4 days a week; but that’s just semantics as the training load remains the same. Many trainees have found this effective as it keeps rest days to only one day and allows them to mentally push hard on the training day. Further, some find the changing of the days an interesting enough stimulus to keep things stimulating.
Training 4-days a week gives you a few different options. The first is to work out two days in a row twice with a day or two of rest in between. This can look like:
The main benefit of this schedule is the two-day rest period. Some trainees like this as it gives them time to travel or the weekend off to spend time with family.
The other option is to train two days in a row, then two single days, all with one day of rest. This can look like
This option has the benefit of being more consistent with only having one day of rest...Even though it’s the same load, some trainees find taking two days of rest to be a little too much and get them out of their groove. Further, this schedule allows you to go really hard on the two single sessions as you know you get to rest the next day.
Related: 4 Day Workout Split Guide
You really have one option for this routine: to train three days in a row and then two days in a row, both with a single day of rest. This is the superior method as it allows for better recovery and more efficient workouts. For example:
Some may say you could work out five days in a row and then two days of rest. Remember that the most effective way is to spread the workouts out as evenly as possible. Working out five days in a row can be tough. Breaking it up into three days of training and two days of training is the better split. Still, if you want the entire weekend free, go for five days in a row.
The vast majority of people don’t need to train six days a week. It’s arguably no more effective than four or five days a week and can even be detrimental to your gains. Only advanced trainees should do this. That being said…There’s only one way to train six days a week; six days of training with one day of rest. Choose wisely.
Related: 6 Day Workout Split Guide
Sure. Here are some common alterations to make your Push, Pull, Legs routine fit your needs.
1. If you don’t feel comfortable using very heavy weights then you don’t need to work in the 4-5 rep range. However, you should still train a couple movements with 6 reps.
2. Some people opt to throw in a 4th day. As mentioned above, a common addition is another leg day. If you want to do this, train the deadlift on one leg day and the squat on the other leg day.
Another option by some is to add a full-body accessory day. On this day, they will train the full-body using smaller exercises, isolation exercises, circuit training while also including core.
Any of these variations will work as long as you use PROGRESSiVE OVERLOAD! To continue to grow, you need to add to your total load every week. There are still four great options:
1. Swap out exercises: If you find that your growth has become stagnant after a few months, all you need to do is swap out similar movements. The only key is that they should have similar biomechanics. Examples are:
Bench Press—> Incline Bench Press or Dumbbell Bench Press
Deadlifts—> Trap Bar Deadlifts or Deficit Deadlifts
Chin-ups—> Pull-ups or Lat Pull-Down
2. Change the order of exercises: Instead of swapping out exercises, just swap the order. For example, instead of doing a push press first on the pushing day, train bench press first.
3. Alter the rep scheme you are using: This is called periodization and consists of blocks where you change from training a movement in the power, strength, and hypertrophy range.
4. REST! Take a de-load week every once in a while or take off completely and just train core or HIIT.
This is all you need to know about this amazingly effective split. Use this as your base while critiquing the plan to fit your needs and level. As long as you maintain the fundamentaI ideas, PPL is going to work for you.
PUSH PULL LEGS ROUTINE FROM HOME?
If you want to do a push pull legs routine from home, you'll either need a set of dumbbells (and if you want to really spend, a barbell with plates) OR you can get a set of resistance bands. With resistance bands, you can replicate all of the above exercises...literally, every single one can be done with bands.
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June 01, 2023
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