October 09, 2020 10 min read
If you’re new to the world of training, chances are that you’ve started your fitness career with a generic workout routine or one that was made for you by a personal trainer. We all know that you can’t just throw a bunch of exercises together and expect the gains to quickly follow.
So, what does it take to create a workout program? One that you can call your own.
The bro-split has been rightfully questioned for usually only training one muscle group per week, which isn’t usually enough for most people. One of the most recommended programs has taken its place: the push/pull/leg (PPL) split.
It might sound easy enough. One day is for pushing, the next for pulling, and another for legs—right? But the program goes much deeper than that, and there’s a lot we can learn about our bodies by examining what really goes into a well-planned PPL training routine.
The push/pull/legs split is essentially an upper/lower body split, but with two upper-body days to each leg day. But what makes it so special?
By organizing the upper body with respect to the pushing and the pulling muscles, you’re effectively stacking antagonist and agonist muscles with each other. So, for example, your biceps and triceps.
When the agonist muscle (the muscle that’s working) is engaged, that means the antagonist (its direct opposite) is relaxed and disengaged. This avoids one of the largest pitfalls of training routines: overtraining certain muscle groups. For example, many compound movements that target the chest also engage the shoulders and triceps, along with the chest.
But what if your split has you training your chest, shoulders, and triceps on different days? You’re bound to run into issues when it comes to overtraining; not allowing your body enough time to recover and potentially leading to injuries down the road.
The PPL routine circumvents that because you’re always gassing out alternate agonists/antagonists. But what are these push, pull, and leg muscle groups that we speak of?
The push workout is the chest, shoulders, and triceps.
The pull day workout is the back, biceps, and rear delts. When incorporating compound lifts such as the deadlift, you’re also bound to engage some leg muscles significantly.
And the legs routine consists of training the hamstrings, quads, glutes, and calves.
If you’re wondering about the core, you can usually expect your compound lifts to take good care of it. However, most people will add some core exercises to their leg day, or just add some to the end of your shortest training day.
While simple, a PPL routine really boils down the essentials of a good workout plan to their absolute essence. Organizing your training with respect to how your whole body interacts with itself is a sure-fire way to turbocharge your strength and muscle mass gains.
We’ve already touched on a number of the reasons why the PPL is a fantastic route to go when programming a workout regime. But, as we said, it all boils down to the gains.
For one, you’re always going to be getting enough time to recover. This might be more difficult if you’re a beginner and you opt for the 6-day PPL split, but it still gives you enough time to rest. And, as we all know, rest is insanely important. Letting our muscles recover is the whole reason they grow—not to mention all of the other psychological and physiological reasons you should be sleeping enough each night. This point really can’t be overstated.
And the rest time is compounded by the ability to properly load your muscles with this training split. Building muscle will never seem easier.
This is partly due to the fact that these workouts usually contain a lot of compound lifts. And, for those who are unaware, compound lifts are the exercises that require you to engage at least two different major muscle groups. They tend to require some technique and attention to form as well; the bench press, deadlift, and squat are probably the best known.
Compound exercises are more efficient when it comes to training since you’re hitting several muscle groups at the same time. You can’t get the same bang-for-your-buck payout with an isolation movement that works a single muscle at a time.
Furthermore, there’s research that shows that compound movements are simply just more effective at building strength and instigating muscle growth in lifters. Pairing a ton of compound movements with the other benefits of a PPL split will guarantee you getting swole faster than ever before.
The final major benefit of this type of split is the customizability. And we’re talking, like, really customizable. Knowing the basics of what muscles are considered “push” and which ones are “pull” will put you ahead of most people with a generic workout routine.
You want to hit this specific muscle group a bit harder? You want to increase the size of that other one? You think one side is lagging behind the other? It’s relatively easy to implement variations into whatever standard routine you choose in order to work smarter towards your goals.
Adding in some isolation exercises or unilateral movements can really boost your progress if programmed into your routine correctly. But it doesn’t just stop with the tailoring of the exercises.
We’re focusing here on a basic 3 day split that has you training the pull muscles, push muscles, and legs, once a week. However, you can customize the frequency anywhere from 2 to 6 days a week, depending on your own schedule and goals. The lower side of the spectrum will essentially be an upper/lower body split, while the higher side at 6 days a week will have you doubling up on the conventional 3 day PPL routine.
Now that we’ve laid out all that on you, how do you go about choosing what’s right for you? The first step comes down to how frequently you’ll want to be working out.
There’s a lot of discussion about whether 3 days a week is “enough”. There’s evidence that shows that it’s not, and also evidence that shows that it does indeed work for people. The central question is whether working out a muscle group once a week will provide enough tension to initiate any gains.
While the more overloading the better is generally the way it goes, a beginner will definitely want to dip their toes in before diving into the 6-day deep end. Going too fast can risk injury and that’ll put your training much further back than simply going 3 days a week.
For example, a 3-day PPL workout split will look something like this:
It gives your muscles plenty of recovery time while also giving you the weekend off (bonus!). This is a good routine if you’re very new to working out or are just training to maintain the strength and muscle you’ve already got. However, if you’re looking to get a bit more serious about working out, you should probably consider a more frequent training routine.
If you’re looking for that extra lil’ something, consider doing a 4-5 day PPL split, such as this:
This is considered a rotating schedule since your workouts fall on different days in every 4 week period. While a standard PPL cycle will be 7 days (1 week), this one cycles through every fifth week.
While the schedule might seem chaotic at first, it really only follows a push/pull/off/legs/off routine; with legs being sandwiched in between two rest days.
But while doing PPL this way might be more confounding when it comes to your schedule, it does allow you to progress into more frequent training sessions with most weeks only requiring 4 gym trips (with just one week requiring 5 trips to the gym).
The last major type of PPL split is the standard 6-day routine:
This regimen follows a very standard push/pull/legs/rest, repeat, type of split—one week having you workout only 5 times.
This is the best way to go if you’re looking for some serious gains, fast. It effectively hits all of your muscle groups twice a week on a consistent basis. However, beginners would do well to avoid this split for now. The tight rotation of the schedule doesn’t offer much in the way of rest days and a beginner might have issues properly recovering.
However, there’s always a way to ramp things up if you’re an intermediate to advanced weightlifter who’s got a specific goal in mind.
If you’re up for the challenge and you think it’s for you, a solid push/pull/legs/push/pull/legs split might be the way for you. This way, your schedule is maintained from week to week with a single rest day. But like we’ve been saying, a beginner should be wary when it comes to adding this much volume to their muscles at such an early stage in their training.
Whatever frequency of workouts you fancy, you’re going to have to pick some exercises to fill them with. And just like the routine itself, there are recommended movements that will end up giving you a bigger bang for your buck.
As we mentioned before, most of these exercises will be compound movements that’ll engage several muscle groups and joints. However, we can break this down further than just isolation versus compound, at least when it comes to the pushing muscles and the pulling muscles.
These movements will effectively hit your chest, shoulders, and triceps. But it’s also good to train in several different planes in order to hit your muscle groups from different angles and maximize muscle growth. So for pushing exercises, we have:
These all share the similarity of having your body be horizontal. When it comes to vertical pushing movements, they include:
And if you’re looking to hammer in those delts, it’s worth it to include some isolation exercises to really gas out some muscle groups.
All pulling motions will engage your back and biceps. The “back” is an umbrella term composed mostly of the erector spinae, the lats, and the traps.
Due to the movements involved in these exercises, many of them will also train some of your leg muscles (such as the glutes and hamstrings) while also hitting your rear delts. Vertical pulling movements can be things like:
While horizontal pulling exercises include:
And if you’re looking to isolate some pulling muscles (namely, the biceps), consider adding these isolation movements into your routine:
Your leg days will be concentrated on your hamstrings, quads, glutes, and calves. And unlike the prior two days of the split, they can’t be broken down as evenly as horizontal and vertical movements.
However, we can split them between knee dominant and hip dominant movements.
The former includes:
And on the other hand, hip dominant exercises include:
Leg curls and calf raises are examples of good isolation movements to include.
Getting a good variety of all of the above exercises will put you on the path to swoleness and incredible strength. Not to mention the fact that you’ll be better able to program exercises depending on your own personal needs. Knowing your body to that extent will come in time, but it’s probably best to stick to a sample workout program to start, and then personalize as you gain muscle and experience.
While you can always raise the complexity by adding in different movements on different days of the same focus, below is a good start for how a real push/pull/leg routine will look like.
The Push Workout:
The Pull Workout:
The Legs Workout:
The above is a great jumping-off point if you’re looking to create your own training routine. Like we mentioned before, one of the benefits of the PPL split is that it’s so easy to tailor to one’s particular needs and goals. Just keep the basic tenets in mind, and you’ll charge your way to jacked-up status.
But while many of us are lucky to have the doors of our iron temples open, we should remember those brothers who aren’t able to work the iron in a gym.
While at first glance it might seem difficult to incorporate such a wide variety of workouts into a routine that doesn’t have any equipment at its disposal, it doesn’t have to be that way. For push muscles you can include things like:
And the pull muscles can be worked with:
And for your legs:
The beauty of body weight is that it’s extremely customizable.
Picking a routine and then sticking to it is one of the most important ingredients when it comes to working out—that goes without saying. Thankfully, we have the PPL split to help us along the way.
Incorporating and tailoring this routine into your overall fitness regime will turbocharge your strength and muscle gains like nothing else. Getting to a point where you can listen to your body and customize a routine that works for your unique needs is a major step in elevating your physique and keeping it for the long term.