David is an army-trained biomedical scientific officer, writer, and lifelong health and fitness enthusiast.
The Push/Pull/Legs Split
If you are past the beginner stage and want to gain muscle mass at the optimum rate, one of the best approaches you could take to do that is to use the push/pull/legs workout routine.
The push/pull/legs split is one of the most popular and enduring workout programs there is. And with good reason- it works really well.
However, you do need to know how to set it up in the most effective way if you want to get the best results from your efforts. So in this article, I'll explain what a push/pull/legs split involves and why it's such an effective way to train. And I'll also give you a great example workout routine that you can use to get started with straight away.
What Is a Push/Pull/Legs Workout Routine?
A push/pull/legs workout routine is one in which you divide your body up into three parts as follows:
1. Upper body pushing muscles (chest, shoulders and triceps)
2. Upper body pulling muscles (back and biceps)
3. Lower body muscles (quads, hams and calves)
Optionally the abdominals and lower back can be added to the lower body workout.
You then alternate these workouts over however many weekly training sessions you choose to do. So if you can only make it to the gym three times per week, you do each workout once per week (say Monday, Wednesday and Friday). However, this is not optimal for muscle growth as you will only be training each body part once per week.
So alternatively you could train every other day. Or you could train four days per week. Or you could use the rotating five-day cycle, where you train two on, one off, one on, one off.
Advantages of a Push/Pull/Legs Training Split
With a push/pull/legs training split you train all related muscle groups in the same workout, which means you get the maximum possible overlap of the movements being trained. And the muscle groups derive the maximum benefit from that overlap. So this makes it a very efficient method of training.
For example, when you train chest, the front deltoids and the triceps are also heavily involved. And when you train shoulders, the triceps are again worked very hard. So it makes sense to train all of these body parts in the same workout.
And when you train back, the biceps are also hit very hard. So again it makes sense to train these in the same workout so that they can derive extra benefit from the additional stimulation.
You also get the minimum overlap of movements between workouts, which facilitates better recovery than other methods of training. And the joints are involved differently in each workout too, so there's less joint strain and a reduced chance of injury.
An Example Workout Routine
Here's a great example of a push/pull/legs split that is properly structured, well balanced, and certain to give you excellent results:
Workout 1 (Push)
- Bench Press 3 x 6 - 8
- Incline Dumbbell Press 3 x 8 - 10
- Overhead Press 3 x 6 - 8
- Lateral Raise 3 x 10 - 12
- Lying Triceps Extension 3 x 10 - 12
Workout 2 (Pull)
- Bent-Over Row 3 x 6 - 8
- Pull-Ups 3 x 10 - 12
- Face Pulls 2 x 15
- Barbell Curl 3 x 10 - 12
- Dumbbell Hammer Curl 3 x 10 - 12
Workout 3 (Legs)
- Squat 3 x 6 - 8
- Romanian Deadlift 2 x 10 - 12
- Leg Press 3 x 10 - 12
- Leg Curl 3 x 8 - 10
- Calf Raise 3 x 8 - 10
The sets listed are your work sets. Always ensure you warm up properly first to properly prepare your body for the heavier work, and to help prevent injury.
Then, as with any training program, you progress by increasing the weight a little when you reach the top end of the suggested rep range on all of your sets of a particular exercise.
Is This Split Right For You?
The push/pull/legs training split is a very productive training method that is suitable for trainees of all levels. However, it is particularly suitable for intermediate and advanced lifters.
The reason for this is that beginners tend to recover and grow much quicker than people who have been training for a while, so it makes sense to take full advantage of this by training each muscle group more frequently using a full-body workout routine. Then, once you have a bit of experience you will probably find you'll make better progress by switching to an upper/lower split routine.
But later on, you may find a push/pull/legs split will suit you better. Or you could alternate the push/pull/legs split with an upper/lower split to get the best that both of these training methods have to offer.
To gain muscle mass you need a good training program, with a focus on compound exercises and progressive overload (increasing the weights you are using gradually over time). But you also need to eat right too; a good muscle building diet will consist of a calorie surplus with plenty of protein (about 0.8 - 1.0g per pound of body weight per day), complex carbohydrates, healthy fats, fruit and vegetables.
You'll also need to ensure you get enough sleep - at least 8 hours per night, but 9 may be better. And if you can have an afternoon nap that might help too.
Some cardio is good and will help to minimize fat gain as you build muscle, but don't overdo it. And don't do too much in the way of other physical activities either.
So that's it. Follow the advice given here and you will soon be able to transform your body to look the way you want it to. Best of luck; and if you have any questions do ask them in the comments section below.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Questions & Answers
Question: Is this a 3 day or 4 day workout routine?
Answer: You can do it 3 days, 4 days, alternate days, or use the rotating 5 day cycle, as I said in the article.
David (author) from Birmingham, UK on September 23, 2020:
No, you can do that, but personally I like to keep my reps lower on my main big compound exercise - the flat bench.
Thomas on September 23, 2020:
Hi David. Thank you for all these great workouts and advice. In the push workout, are there any issues with doing incline bench first and then flat bench second, but keeping the sets and reps the same? For example, incline bench first 3 x 6-8, then flat bench second 3 x 8-10? Thanks!
David (author) from Birmingham, UK on January 21, 2020:
You could do that, and it should work quite well, but my personal preference would be to use free weights for 6 - 8 weeks and then change to machines/cables for another 6 - 8 weeks, and so on.
mick on January 19, 2020:
would it be a good idea to use free weights first 3 woorkouts then machines and cables second three days, to switch it up?
David (author) from Birmingham, UK on January 10, 2019:
I would count them towards both.
Sid on January 09, 2019:
First, thank you for answering questions.
If both of the pull workouts have weighted pull ups and weighted close grip chin ups in each session, would the chin ups be counted towards total weekly volume for biceps or back?
David (author) from Birmingham, UK on January 06, 2019:
The main problem with that is that you will be training legs in your full body workout, and that is just two days after your leg day.
Nabeel on January 06, 2019:
What's your view on
David (author) from Birmingham, UK on November 21, 2018:
It's not optimal, no. Train four days per week or do this on a rotating five day cycle for best results.
Paul on November 21, 2018:
Is it enough to train each muscle group only once a week?
David (author) from Birmingham, UK on November 06, 2018:
Yes; the T-bar row is a great exercise and will work fine.
SRA76 on November 06, 2018:
Hi, Is it ok to substitute Bent-Over row with Tbar row? My lower back feels much better doing the Tbar row? Thanks
David (author) from Birmingham, UK on October 21, 2018:
Upper/lower - just alternate these over your three weekly workouts.
Peter on October 21, 2018:
If you had 3 days only a week to train
How would you optimally train so you are at least hitting muscles at least 1.5
Times a week?
David (author) from Birmingham, UK on October 15, 2018:
Yes, that would work fine. But you can rest a bit longer between sets of the bigger exercises if you want.
SRA76 on October 13, 2018:
I will stick to your original schedule. I think conventional DL may create too much workload; since I workout 04 days a week. BTW you have not specified rest times between sets and exercises.
Would maximum 02 minutes between sets and around 03 minutes between exercises be ok?
David (author) from Birmingham, UK on October 12, 2018:
I would change the workout order and do legs/push/pull. Deadlifts would then be done as the first exercise on your pull day. That way, having done deadlifts you should always have at least one day off before doing squats.
SRA76 on October 11, 2018:
Thanks; yes my mistake I didn’t notice it was RDL.
Sorry for digressing, just for my information How would you incorporate conventional DL in the same program?
David (author) from Birmingham, UK on October 10, 2018:
Yes; you can do some abdominal work at the end of any of the workouts, but the leg workout would be the most optimal.
And that's Romanian deadlifts, not conventional deadlifts. It's a completely different exercise, and I would not program 12 reps for conventional deadlifts.
SRA76 on October 10, 2018:
Hi, I am thinking of starting your push/pull/legs plan. I have 02 questions:
1) You have not specified any ab exercises, can I do it with legs?
2) You recommend deadlifts up to 12 reps while lot of literature says to do 5-8 range. Just wanted to know the reason.
David (author) from Birmingham, UK on April 10, 2018:
Yes, bent-over lateral raises or machine rear delts.
David (author) from Birmingham, UK on April 02, 2018:
HIIT - warm up with a moderate jog for 2 - 5 mins. Then sprint 30 seconds, slow jog one minute. Repeat 4 - 8 times. Warm down with a jog for 5 mins. That's just one example. See my article on the best cardio for weight loss for more info.
Body part split - Yes that's great. Personally I would increase reps a bit on cable flies and face pulls. And maybe pull-ups and RDL's. But if these rep ranges are ok for you, it's fine.
David (author) from Birmingham, UK on March 30, 2018:
Generally speaking I'd suggest 3 sets of 5 - 8 reps most of the time. But some exercises are better performed at a slightly higher rep range, e.g. pull-ups/chin-ups, dips, RDL's.
Keith on March 30, 2018:
Thank you very much for the advice on the cardio. What kind of a HIIT workout would you suggest? I've never tried it before. Thanks for the advice on the 5 day split. If I were to follow a routine as such , would the below be alright?
Barbell Bench Press 3x6-8
Incline Dumbbell Press 3x6-8
Cable flies 3x8-10
Barbell Rows 3x6-8
Face Pulls 3x8-10 (shoulder or back day?)
Leg Press 3x8-10
Romanian Deadlift 3x8-10
Leg Curls 3x8-10
Calf Raises 3x8-10
Shoulders & Abs
Over Head Press 3x6-8
Side Lateral Cable Raises 3x8-10
Rope Crunches 3x10-12
Leg Raises 3x10-12
Barbell Curls 3x8-10
Rope Push Downs 3x8-10
Dumbbell Curls 3x8-10
Over head triceps extension 3x8-10
Is this enough volume? Anything to add or subtract/replace?
John Gunderson on March 29, 2018:
I would like to do the 3 day version but drop the isolation type exercises. What set/rep combo would you recommend if just doing 3 compound type exercises per workout i.e. bench, Op, close grip bench press?
David (author) from Birmingham, UK on March 27, 2018:
Cardio - depends on your goals. If muscle gain do 2 or 3 per week. If fat loss do 3 to 5 per week. One or two HIIT and the rest a comfortable pace steady state. You can do extra walking every day if you wish.
Overhead press - use a barbell for your first couple of years. When you have built up a decent level of strength you can do either. Or alternate, about 3 months on one, then switch to the other.
Lateral raises - yes cables are good.
5 day body part split - chest; back; legs; shoulders; arms. 3 - 6 exercises per workout. But really, don't do this until you've been training regularly at least two years.
Keith. on March 26, 2018:
Thank you very much , you're very helpful , I appreciate it. Just a few more questions , sorry to be a pain. How many cardio sessions would you suggest? Is the over Head Press to be performed with a Barbell or Dumbbells? Would it be OK to perform the Lateral Raises with a cable?
I know that you probably wouldn't recommend a 5 day body part split , but I fancy giving one a try , for a bit of fun really and to just experiment. Once I've given this 3 day split a good try. I was wondering whether you could give me a workout example for a 5 day split , if possible? I know that it probably won't be optimal , as I'm natural , but I'm curious to try one.
David (author) from Birmingham, UK on March 16, 2018:
It's always worthwhile to do some cardio, either after workouts, on off days or at a completely different time of day to your workouts. But don't overdo it; you really don't need much.
I always suggest warming up with some brisk walking or jumping rope for a few minutes, followed by some dynamic stretching/mobility work. Then do appropriate warm-up sets before your work sets on all exercises.
Keith. on March 16, 2018:
Thank you very much. Actually , I will follow the routine as set out. Would you recommend any cardio with this workout? How would you suggest warming up , prior to the workouts?
Dinesh on March 10, 2018:
If any alternative exercise are there for face pulls?
David (author) from Birmingham, UK on March 05, 2018:
Thanks Keith. Yes, the hammer curls are more for the brachialis and forearms, although they do of course work the biceps as well. But you can do reverse curls instead if you wish. Or add in some pressdowns to the push workout if you want to give your triceps more work.
Keith on March 04, 2018:
This workout looks fantastic. It looks well balanced. But I was just wondering why there's two biceps exercises but only one triceps exercise?