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January 12, 2021 10 min read
Workout programs come a dime a dozen.
There’s a routine for every goal, every body type, and every level of experience. And if you’re not satisfied with what’s out there, you can always create your own (if you know what you’re doing).
This is what a user by the name of “Coolcicada” did on the bodybuilding.com forums several years ago. Now the name Coolcicada is near-ubiquitous when talking about push/pull/leg workout programs—and for good reason.
As the name suggests, a push/pull/legs (PPL) routine has the trainer focus on one movement pattern (or muscle group, when it comes to legs) during each session. The one created by Coolcicada is meant for more intermediate lifters, but there are several benefits for adopting a PPL routine for all lifters.
A conventional PPL routine is essentially a mold that a lot of different programs fit into, to some extent. Moreover, it’s got a long track record of success for lifters of all levels. But what does it actually involve?
Workouts are split into three different groups.
This is a rough outline of muscles worked compared to movement patterns; some lifts (such as deadlifts) will also work hamstrings and glutes on pull days. Other muscles, such as the lats, are important for both push and pull workouts. Exercises that target the core can be added, but that’s usually engaged with the number of compound movements that you’ll be performing.
This routine is cycled through anywhere from three to six days a week. It’s the latter that we’ll be looking at with the Coolcicada program.
Using a PPL program to get you to your goals has several benefits—primarily when it comes to maximizing your gains.
A push/pull/legs routine has the advantage of training antagonist muscles or muscles that don’t interfere with one another at all.
For example, when you use your biceps, your triceps are completely disengaged. Similarly, you’re not emphasizing the legs at all when doing bicep curls.
This means that you can seriously gas out certain muscle groups during workouts and expect to come into the gym fresh the next training day. A more embellished example is doing antagonist supersets, where one goes from one exercise to another without resting since the muscles worked in each respective exercise don’t interfere with one another.
If you’re looking to add a lot of volume to your workouts, this is a terrific way to organize them.
Furthermore, the push/pull aspect works muscle groups that synergize with one another. For example, pulling a barbell up will engage your back and biceps together while disengaging the triceps and chest. On the other hand, the chest and triceps are going to be the primary movers for pushing movements (such as the bench press).
This switching between antagonist muscle groups and working synergizing ones is what allows someone doing the PPL split to gas out their muscles one day and still be relatively fresh the next.
Some exceptions, such as the aforementioned deadlifts, do exist. Another one would be lats which share some overlap between bench pressing and most pulling movements.
One of the benefits of PPL routines is that they involve a lot of compound exercises.
And the benefits of compound exercises are numerous and well-known, so it’s best to include them in most programs. Perhaps most importantly, they’re extremely efficient.
A compound movement is one where several joints and muscles have to work together to perform a lift—like the deadlift, squat, or bench. Isolation exercises (like bicep curls), only work one muscle group/joint. That means you’re getting a much larger bang-for-your-buck with a compound lift that’s engaging several pull, push, or leg muscles at the same time.
Most PPL programs (Coolcicada included) involve some sort of accessory lifts that isolate a certain muscle group. For example, the biceps usually get some extra TLC with bicep curls in order to properly gas them out.
Let’s take a look at some of the exercises that usually make up a PPL program.
Push days primarily target the chest, shoulders, and triceps—but that doesn’t mean all push day exercises are made equal.
One of the ways to differentiate between them is the plane on which they work. For example, horizontal-plane push movements are:
And for the vertical plane:
Some isolation lifts such as skullcrushers, side lateral raises, or overhead tricep extensions will also do you well—especially if bodybuilding is in your sights.
The pull exercises will generally engage the biceps and back muscles (including the lats, traps, and erector spinae). Deadlifts will engage your leg muscles as well, although they’re considered a pulling exercise.
Horizontal pulling lifts include:
And vertical pulls include:
Pulling isolation exercises tend to focus on the biceps in most PPL programs. So, you can probably guess that curls are a given:
Your leg movements will include the calves, glutes, quads, and hamstrings. They’re usually split up between lifts that use your knee as a hinge, and movements that use your hips as a hinge.
Hip dominant exercises include:
And knee dominant exercises include:
So, now that we’ve got a good grasp of what makes a PPL program special—how come the Coolcicada routine has risen above the rest and stood the test of time?
It’s often lauded as a very well-rounded routine. Here is the program itself:
As you can see, the compound lifts are placed at the beginning of workouts. This is important because it allows your body to be fresh for the biggest lifts of the workout session—and the more work you put into your biggest lifts, the more gains they’ll impart.
This is followed by several accessory lifts that aim to hit body parts that might need a bit more work.
The higher rep counts also come into play when it comes to bodybuilding and hypertrophy training. A higher volume (rep/set count) and a slightly lower weight will place an emphasis on sculpting your muscles, rather than building strength. Nevertheless, the heavier compound lifts at the beginning of the routine will make sure that your strength doesn’t lag behind either.
Also, the heavy compound lifts have a lot of carryover effects to other, smaller movements. The stronger you get with them, the more you’ll be able to fine-tune your training and your muscles.
However, if there’s an accessory movement you’d prefer to do over one listed, feel free to swap it out. But do make sure that you’re hitting the same muscle groups, and you definitely don’t want to be swapping lifts without some experience under your belt.
The list of push/pull/leg exercises that we outlined above can provide a good starting point for substitutions.
Lifting weights is all about growing. Whether that’s physically, strength-wise, or mentally—developing is always the focus of training. This is why you’ve always got to keep challenging yourself.
When it comes to this routine and PPL workouts in general, the way you progress will depend on how advanced of a lifter you are.
Beginners can usually get away with linear progression—that is, adding weight to each exercise after every workout, or every week/training cycle.
The way that a PPL routine is structured also helps in this regard, since you’re able to get enough rest between workouts hitting the same muscle groups to really give it your all each time. This extended recovery time gives you enough volume to develop your strength and muscle mass, while also giving you enough time to properly recover.
For more intermediate to advanced lifters, it takes much more stimulus and time to adapt to higher weights, which is why a linear progression is off the table.
Since the Coolcicada program is geared towards intermediate lifters rather than beginners, the progressive overload will most likely not be linear. The original creator of the program never offered a progression system for this routine, however, there are some ideas you can pull from other workouts.
For example, basing your progression on a single AMRAP (as many reps as possible) set at the end of each week’s push, pull, and leg session. If you’re able to push past the required rep count by a significant margin, increase your training weight by a percentage or by a few pounds.
Although a bit more complex than beginner workout programs (such as Starting Strength), that’s only due to the fact that you’re meant to do 18 unique exercises each 3-day cycle. And speaking of cycles, the Coolcicada program is meant to be a 6-day routine. This can either be split up as “P/P/L, rest day, P/P/L”, or, “P/P/L/P/P/L, rest day”.
PPL routines usually range anywhere from 3 to 6 days per week. Six tends to be the max because it allows for consistent gains due to having a rest day while also offering a lot of training volume through the week.
How the program is split up within those 7 days doesn’t matter all that much, but the Coolcicada PPL is most often worked with a rest day in between each PPL cycle, or a rest day after two PPL cycles.
A six-day routine is usually meant for those that are more advanced in their lifting and/or are completing a bulk. Doing this on a calorie deficit isn’t really recommended since your body might not have enough energy to complete lifts up to par.
Its greatest benefit is that you’ll be training each muscle group twice a week, which is fantastic for both strength and muscle gains—if you can fit 6 training days into your week. The downside is that it does require a decent amount of time spent in the gym.
Furthermore, it doesn’t allow for much time in terms of recovery. Things like a proper sleeping schedule and a well-rounded diet will be particularly important if you’re training so often.
One of the biggest critiques of the Coolcicada program was the decision not to add deadlifts on the pull sessions.
If you know something about lifting already, you know that deadlifts are a massive lift that has a huge carryover effect to other lifts while also developing explosive strength. It’s a fantastic lift that’s recommended in most programs. But as we saw with Coolcicada’s program, deadlifts don’t seem to be included.
The initial post does mention that deadlifts can be incorporated into pull days along with the barbell rows, but that’s up to the lifter to decide.
It really comes down to how much volume you’re wanting to train with, and whether adding deadlifts will gas you out too much for you to recover for the next training session. There is the option of alternating deadlift days, so you don’t have to do them each pull day. The other option is alternating deadlifts with some other pulling movement (such as power cleans) or adding in more accessory work on those days that deadlifts are missed.
The original post brings up a different routine originally posted by spiderman997. It varies a bit from Coolcicadas, but the biggest difference by far is the inclusion of deadlifts on pull day.
This is how it looks like:
Whether you include deadlifts or not is up to you and how much work you think you need on your back. It’s always possible to try it out and if it doesn’t meld well with your recovery times and everything else, deadlifts aren’t necessary with the original program that Coolcicada laid out.
What the above programs don’t show, however, is warm-up movements.
This is also something that usually comes down to the individual lifter, but it’s generally a good idea to warm up before you start lifting—especially if you’re lifting heavy. For one, warming up helps your muscles get in sync with the movement that’s expected of them. Secondly, it boosts your performance by getting blood pumping into the necessary muscles.
The best way to warm up when doing the PPL routine is to do several warm-up sets with the first exercise of that session.
Doing a single warm-up exercise like this is beneficial because not only is it efficient, but it’s also going to be warming up all of the muscle groups that you’ll be using that day. It utilizes the benefit of a PPL routine working similar muscle groups each gym session.
Otherwise, a training session involving disparate exercises such as squats and pulldowns would require warming up for each.
How exactly you warm-up is up to you, but it is important to slowly engage the muscles you’ll be using the most. A good weight to start with is 50% of the weight you’ll be using for your sets, and then going with that at least a couple of sets.
The routine outlined above is more than enough to put you on a path towards a chiseled and head-turning physique. However, it’s just as important to support that physique outside of the gym.
We all know by now that you can’t out-train a bad diet, so getting your macros right is absolutely essential.
But if you’re looking to turbocharge your bodybuilding gains consider taking a supplement such as creatine. It’ll help you build muscle, improve your anaerobic endurance, and reduce muscle soreness.
Put all of the puzzle pieces together and before you know you’ll have people coming up to you, asking for guidance in the iron temple.