Illustration showing a push, pull, legs workout split routine.

Push/Pull/Legs workout splits (aka PPL splits, bro-splits, and triple splits) have been a popular way of building muscle for several decades, especially among recreational bodybuilders and skinny guys who are eager to bulk up. The idea is to ravage a muscle with a variety of exercises, stimulating a robust amount of growth, and then giving it a full week to recover before training it again. High training volume, low training frequency. Is that the best way to stimulate muscle growth?

Before push/pull/legs splits rose to prominence, the traditional way of building muscle was to train each muscle group three times per week with a lower training volume. For example, a bodybuilder or strength athlete might do three full-body workouts per week, making sure to include a few sets for each muscle group each workout. The idea was to do enough work to stimulate growth, but not to cause excessive muscle damage, allowing us to stimulate another wave of muscle growth a couple of days later. Is that a better way to build muscle?

What’s interesting is that in the past few years, a substantial amount of research has come out comparing push/pull/legs routines against full-body routines. We also have a number of studies looking into how many sets we should do per muscle group per workout, and how may times we should train each muscle group per week.

The findings were surprising, with many hypertrophy researchers being forced to switch their training recommendations in light of this new evidence.

Illustration of a bodybuilder building muscle with hypertrophy training.

What is a Push/Pull/Legs Routine?

The classic Push/Pull/Legs (PPL) workout split, also called a “bro split” or “triple split,” is a 3-day-per-week workout routine that’s divided into a push workout, a pull workout, and a leg workout. There’s a 6-day variant as well, where each workout is done twice per week, but we’ll save that for another article. In this article, we’re talking about the classic 3-day PPL routine.

Illustration of a man doing the barbell bench press.

The push workout is designed to stimulate growth in the chest, shoulders, and triceps. These are the muscles worked by the big pushing exercises, such as the bench press and overhead press, but there are usually some isolation lifts for the chest, side delts and triceps as well.

Illustration of a man doing a conventional deadlift.

The pull workout is designed to stimulate growth in the hips, spinal erectors, upper back, and biceps. These are the muscles worked by the big pulling exercises, such as the deadlift and chin-up, but there’s usually some extra work for our biceps, brachialis, forearms, and rear delts, too.

Illustration of a man doing a front squat

The leg workout is for training our legs, and it’s built around the squat, oftentimes with the leg press (for men) or hip thrust (for women) being emphasized as well. Once the big compound lifts are done, there’s usually some isolation work for the quads, hamstrings, calves, and sometimes abs. Women may do extra glute work instead.

Here’s a sample PPL routine:

  • Monday (Push Day): 3 sets of 8 repetitions (3×8) on the barbell bench press and dumbbell overhead press, and then 3×12 dumbbell fly, triceps extensions, and lateral raises.
  • Tuesday: Rest.
  • Wednesday (Pull Day): 3×6 on the conventional deadlift, 3×8 on the chin-up (or underhand lat pulldown), and then 3×12 biceps curl, hammer curl, and reverse fly.
  • Thursday: Rest.
  • Friday (Leg Day): 3×6 on the front squat, 3×8 on the leg press or hip thrust, and then 3×12 leg curl, leg extension, and calf raise. Maybe toss in some hanging leg raises for your abs and some neck curls to build a thicker neck.
  • Saturday: Rest.
  • Sunday: Rest.

With push/pull/legs split routines, some of our muscles are worked quite hard every workout. The training frequency per muscle group is low, yes, but each workout is quite thorough, and certainly enough to stimulate a robust amount of muscle growth. But how do they compare against training splits that train our muscles with a higher frequency?

Are Push/Pull/Leg Splits Good for Building Muscle?

Push/Pull/Legs workout splits (aka “bro-splits”) have been popular in recreational bodybuilding communities for several decades now. In fact, a survey found that 67% of bodybuilders only train each muscle group once per week. But it wasn’t just the bros and amateur bodybuilders using them. They were also recommended by leading hypertrophy researchers, such as Brad Schoenfeld, PhD.

To quote Schoenfeld, “The theory behind such routines is that growth is maximized by blasting a muscle with multiple exercises from multiple angles and then allowing long periods of recovery.” However, Scheonfeld notes that this wasn’t always the case. “Old-school bodybuilders such as Steve Reeves and Reg Park swore by total-body routines, working all the major muscles each and every session over three non-consecutive days-per-week. Proponents thought that the greater training frequency was beneficial to packing on lean mass.”

Illustration of a man doing dumbbell biceps curls.

It wasn’t until recently that we had high-quality research comparing the two approaches. When Brad Schoenfeld conducted a study comparing a push/pull/legs split against a full-body split, he found that the full-body workouts produced more muscle growth (study). In every metric that reached statistical significance (such as biceps growth), the full-body workouts did better. In fact, even in the metrics that didn’t reach statistical significance, such as strength gains and overall muscle growth, the full-body group still did better.

All of the muscles we investigated showed greater growth from a higher training frequency.

Brad Schoenfeld, PhD

This provoked a wave of new research into training frequency, with all of the studies coming to the same conclusion: if we train each muscle group with fewer sets per workout, but we do more workouts for each muscle group each week, then we can build muscle quite a bit faster (meta-analysis).

Graph showing that training a muscle 2–3 times per week stimulates more muscle growth than training a muscle once per week.

What we’re seeing is that training a muscle once per week caused a 3.7% increase in muscle size, whereas training our muscles 2–4 times per week caused a 6.8% increase in muscle size. What’s remarkable, though, is that every single study found more muscle growth with a higher training frequency.

However, there’s a fairly large caveat with these studies. Training with a higher frequency generally allows for a higher training volume. First, more overall sets can be done without running into the law of diminishing returns (which we’ll cover in a second). Second, when training a muscle with several exercises in a single workout, that muscle gets fatigued from set to set, reducing how much weight we can lift and how many reps we can do, and thus reducing the training volume.

When push/pull/legs workout splits were studied, they fared poorly compared to the more traditional full-body splits. Further research showed that training our muscles 2–4 times per week yields 48% more muscle growth than training a muscle group just once per week. Mind you, one of the reasons for that faster muscle growth is because higher training frequencies allowed for higher training volumes.

Why Does Training a Muscle More Often Yield More Growth?

A higher training frequency tends to stimulate more muscle growth because each workout only stimulates 2–3 days of muscle growth. That means that if we train our muscles just once per week, our muscles only grow for 2–3 days of the week, whereas if we train our muscles 2–4 times per week, each muscle spends the entire week growing bigger.

Illustration of a man with burning biceps flexing.

Furthermore, there’s only so much muscle growth we can stimulate in a single workout, with the law of diminishing returns rearing its ugly head quite soon. By the time you’ve done five sets for a muscle group, you’ve stimulated almost all of the muscle growth you can stimulate. You can eke out a bit more growth by going up to eight sets, but those extra sets won’t yield much extra growth. Plus, doing too many sets for a muscle group in a single workout can cause an excessive amount of muscle damage, increasing our recovery demands and reducing muscle growth (study).

As a result, if we train our muscles just once per week, we can only benefit from doing around eight sets per muscle per week. That’s a fairly low training volume. It’s not enough to maximize muscle growth. However, if we train our muscles three times per week, we can do eight sets each workout, accumulating a total of 24 sets per week, which is more than enough to maximize muscle growth. In fact, most of us can maximize muscle growth with 12–18 sets per muscle per week, meaning we can stimulate maximal growth by training our muscles with 4–6 sets per workout and training them three times per week.

(Note that being able to stimulate maximal muscle growth with just 4–6 sets per workout and 12–18 sets per week hinges on choosing good lifts, lifting within a good rep range for muscle growth, taking your sets within 1–3 rep of failure, and getting proper rest between sets.)

Instead of blasting a muscle with high training volumes once per week, as is done in push/pull/legs workouts, it’s better to stimulate our muscles with a lower volume more frequently, as is done in full-body workout routines (although there are certainly other splits that work equally well).

What’s the Best Way to Train for Muscle Growth?

For instance, instead of doing fifteen sets for your chest on Monday, it’s better to do five sets on Monday, five on Wednesday, and five on Friday. That way, each workout stimulates a maximal amount of muscle growth, and we can keep our chests growing steadily all week long. When doing this, we can still use a wide variety of chest exercises. For instance, bench press on Monday, push-ups on Wednesday, and weighted dips on Friday. This creates a “full-body split” where there are three distinct full-body workouts each week. This way we get the benefits of a wider exercise variety and the benefits of a higher training frequency.

Summary

Push/pull/legs routine can be good for building muscle. They were popular because they worked. And there was even a time when they were an evidence-based recommendation. But they aren’t ideal for building muscle, with virtually all research favouring a higher training frequency. According to a recent meta-analysis of all the research, a full-body routine can build 48% more muscle than a traditional push/pull/legs split routine.

More remarkably, despite their popularity, there appears to be no advantage to training a muscle just once per week or with such a high volume per workout. It isn’t as good for stimulating muscle growth, for gaining strength, or for improving our recovery. As a result, most modern hypertrophy routines have reverted back to the more traditional approach of using full-body training splits.

Before and after transformation of a skinny man becoming muscular.

However, that doesn’t mean that full-body splits are the only good way to build muscle. Someone might want to do an upper/lower split, training their upper bodies and lower bodies twice per week, which is a perfectly reasonable training frequency. Or they might want to run a push/pull/legs split twice per week, training six days per week. Again, that would mean training each muscle group twice per week, which should produce a comparable rate of muscle growth to a full-body workout routine.

It’s also possible to train our muscles up to six times per week without them falling off. That’s how Jared, over at Outlive, prefers to train. Would that stimulate even more growth? Probably not. But it’s another viable approach. There are many good ways to build muscle, it’s just that a push/pull/legs split is not one of those ways.

Cover illustration of the Outlift intermediate bulking program for naturally skinny guys.

If you want a customizable workout program (and full guide) that builds these principles in, check out our Outlift Intermediate Bulking Program. Or, if you’re still skinny, try our Bony to Beastly (men’s) program or Bony to Bombshell (women’s) program. All of our workout routines train each muscle group three times per week using full-body training splits, and our Outlift program also has an option to train four days per week with a modified upper/lower workout split.

Shane Duquette is the co-founder and creative lead of Outlift, Bony to Beastly, and Bony to Bombshell, and has a degree in design from York University in Toronto, Canada. He's personally gained sixty pounds at 11% body fat and has nine years of experience helping nearly ten thousand skinny people bulk up.

Marco Walker-Ng is the co-founder and strength coach of Outlift, Bony to Beastly, and Bony to Bombshell, and is a certified trainer (PTS) with a Bachelor's degree in Health Sciences (BHSc) from the University of Ottawa. His specialty is helping people build muscle to improve their strength and general health, with clients including college, professional, and Olympic athletes.

How to build 20 to 30 pounds of muscle in 30 days. Even if you have failed before

26 Comments

  1. chase on June 11, 2020 at 1:21 pm

    Will you ever write an article specifically on ectomorphs and Crossfit? I don’t think there has been one yet.

    • Shane Duquette on June 11, 2020 at 2:35 pm

      Hey Chase, we’ve generally avoided writing about specific brands and products, focusing instead on methods and principles. But we get a TON of questions about CrossFit, StrongLifts, Max/Size, and so on. I think a lot of us skinny guys are interested in that information. Maybe writing about those programs from the perspective of a skinny guy interested in gaining muscle size could be helpful. I would have appreciated those articles back when I was first trying to build muscle.

      CrossFit incorporates a bunch of weightlifting/power training, and we do have a brand new article on that. In fact, I published the Olympic weightlifting article this morning. There’s a little section on CrossFit in there, but I can write a more in-depth article about it, too.

      • sacha on June 11, 2020 at 11:25 pm

        Hi
        Nice article. Is there much research on 2 vs 3 vs more times per week. Many people who do ppl will be doing this rotation twice per week eg pplppl – rest, repeat or even on an 8 day split ppl rest ppl rest repeat. I’d be interested to hear thoughts/research outcomes on this vs 3x per week for example.
        Thanks

        • Shane Duquette on June 12, 2020 at 8:07 am

          Hey Sacha, the main downside of the classic 3-day PPL routine is that each muscle is only being trained once per week, yeah. So running a PPL routine twice per week is totally fine for people who can recover well from it. No issue there at all.

          Is there an advantage to training our muscles 3x per week instead of 2x? Or 4x instead of 3x? That research is more nuanced. According to a meta-analysis done by James Krieger, MS, it appears that training each muscle group twice per week maximizes muscle growth. Beyond that, it’s all about dividing up training volume in a way that allows us to do enough sets per week while recovering properly, and there are a number of effective ways of doing that, including a 6-day PPL routine. Other experts disagree, favouring higher training frequencies of 3–5x per week, but I think Krieger’s research is quite compelling.

          Because frequency and volume are tied together, we’ve written about training frequency in our training volume article, but I’ll write up a detailed article on it soon 🙂

  2. Mickey on June 11, 2020 at 1:56 pm

    Hey Shane great write up. I particularly enjoyed training with a 3-4 day full body split but as I grew more advanced swapped to a 5-6 day PPL. A lot of the IFBB body builders train in this kind of style and have seen a lot of success. I believe as long as you can stimulate the muscle 2-3 times with enough frequency, volume, and intensity, it should yield great results. I noticed that I am definitely more fatigued when I focus on specific muscle groups on each training day vs a full body split but you can always add more rest time. Keeping a muscle fatigued and warmer usually means the muscle is also contracting more often which is also essential when it comes to growing. At the end of the day it boils down to the type of training/programming you enjoy so that you can stay consistent.

    • Shane Duquette on June 11, 2020 at 2:43 pm

      Hey Mickey, yeah, I hear ya.

      In this article, we’re talking specifically about the classic 3-day push/pull/legs splits “bro split” where each muscle is trained just once per week. Monday is chest day, Wednesday is back day, Friday is leg day. That kind of thing. They were incredibly popular in the past, but you’ll still see them in some modern bodybuilding programs. One of the most popular muscle-building programs has a 3-day PPL split in it.

      Once extra days start being added in, such as an arm day, then most muscles start being worked with a higher frequency. If there’s a back day and an arm day, then biceps are being trained twice per week. That’s a reasonable training frequency for those muscles that are being hit twice per week. And a 6-day split routine where each muscle group is trained twice per week is fine, too, of course.

      As for keeping muscles warmed/fatigued helping with muscle growth, I’m not sure that’s right. I asked James Krieger, MS, Menno Henselmans, and Mike Israetel, PhD, about extended rest times, and they all agreed that even resting several hours between sets wouldn’t have a negative impact on muscle growth. As a general rule, the fresher we feel, the more weight we can lift and the more reps we can get, increasing our training volume and thus increasing the growth stimulus.

      And just to reiterate, even a 3-day PPL routine is okay for building muscle. It’s not ideal, no, but it will still work. A lot of people have good success training that way.

  3. Sam Hunt on June 11, 2020 at 3:10 pm

    Cool article!

    To be honest though, who really does PPL? That amazes me… Surely do it twice each week! I’ve done PPLPPL every week and seen huge gains! That way everything is trained x2 per week and you get 3 or 4 days rest for each muscle group every week. There’s also the 5-day full-body workouts per week option.

    Would love for you to do an article comparing these 2 as they are both great options to build muscle for somebody that has past their newbie gains.

    • Shane Duquette on June 11, 2020 at 3:40 pm

      Hey Sam, yeah, I think you’re right. It seems that 3-day PPL splits have been fading in popularity ever since Schoenfeld’s study compared them against 3-day full-body routines. But there are a few popular bulking programs that still use PPL splits.

      Your approach of doing a 6-day PPL split makes total sense. There are lots of good ways of dividing up training volume in a way that hits each muscle at least twice per week. That’s one of them. We’re planning to write more about training frequency, training splits, and high-frequency training (e.g. 5 full-body workouts). I figured we should start with one of the simpler but more popular splits (PPL) and compare it against another popular training style (3 full-body workouts per week), especially since there’s a high-quality study directly comparing the two.

      • Carlos Rodriguez on June 25, 2020 at 4:22 pm

        I loved the article but was just curious on your opinion whether you believe a 6-day PPL or a Upper/Lower split is more effective and ideal

        • Shane Duquette on June 26, 2020 at 11:33 am

          Hey Carlos, thank you!

          Yeah, muscles grow best when we train them 2+ times per week, so the main downside to a 3-day PPL routine is that we’re training each muscle group just once per week. If we’re training 6 days per week, that allows us to train each muscle group at least twice without issue. At that point, it comes down to the quality of the workout program, not the split itself. It’s totally possible to have an ideal 6-day PPL routine 🙂

          • Fleischman on July 6, 2020 at 9:38 pm

            Shane, in your last sentence, I thought you were going to say:
            “At that point it comes down to the quality of life”. As in, “Training 6 days out of 7 might hinder your quality of life because training becomes your life”. But you did not say that, so I assume you are referring to 6 short training sessions… 😉



          • Shane Duquette on July 7, 2020 at 9:59 am

            Hah! I hear you. I prefer training just 2–4 times per week, depending on how eager I am to accomplish a certain goal. But some people really enjoy lifting every day. If that’s the case, 6-day splits can improve their quality of life, even if those workouts are long, even if they aren’t as efficient. Some people want to spend more time lifting.



  4. Cristian Donati on June 14, 2020 at 12:55 pm

    Rest between sets?

  5. Adam on July 9, 2020 at 5:21 pm

    What are your thoughts on a 4 day split. I did ppl for a year, but switched to a 4 day.

    • Shane Duquette on July 10, 2020 at 10:28 am

      Hey Adam, 4-day splits can be good, yeah. The trick is to design them in a way where you’re stimulating every muscle group (that you’re trying to grow at full speed) at least twice per week.

  6. Jasmin on July 16, 2020 at 3:01 am

    Is it okay to train:

    Monday: chest, shoulders, triceps
    Wednesday: legs, back, biceps
    Friday: chest, shoulders, triceps
    Monday: legs, back, biceps

    • Shane Duquette on July 16, 2020 at 9:25 am

      Hey Jasmin, yeah, that’s okay.

      You’re hitting every muscle group every few days. It might not be quite ideal, since the frequency is still a bit low, but it’s better than a 3-day push/pull/split.

      You might be able to gain muscle slightly faster by adding a fourth day, like so:

      Monday: push (squats, overhead press, chest, triceps)
      Tuesday: pull (chin-ups, back, hamstrings, biceps)
      Thursday: push (bench press, shoulders, quads, triceps)
      Friday: pull (deadlifts, back, biceps)

      But your idea is good, too 🙂

  7. Maite on August 2, 2020 at 8:50 pm

    Hey Shane, I’m not sure how to do my workout split.

    I work 3 days in a row at a very active job, so normally I only have 4 days to train. I’m interested in getting stronger on my upper body and some hypertrophy on my lower body. What do you think about this routine?

    Friday – PUSH
    Saturday – LEGS (quad & calves)
    Sunday – PULL
    Monday – LEGS (hams and buttocks)
    Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday – REST

    • maite on August 2, 2020 at 8:51 pm

      *glutes! sorry

    • Shane Duquette on August 3, 2020 at 9:35 am

      Hey Maite, that split would work.

      Ideally, though, you’d train each muscle at least twice per week, so you’d probably get slightly better results with an upper/lower split. Like this:

      Friday – Lower (main squat, hip hinge assistance, accessories)
      Saturday – Upper (main push, pull assistance, accessories)
      Sunday – Lower (main hip hinge, squat assistance, accessories)
      Monday – Upper (main push, pull assistance, accessories)
      Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday – Rest

      So for example, Friday might have you doing high-bar barbell squats as your main lift, then doing with your favourite hip hinge next, such as good mornings, Romanian deadlifts, glute bridges, or hip thrusts. And then pick one or two accessories for your target areas, such as leg extensions, hamstring curls, standing calf raises, and so on. You’re stimulating muscle growth in your entire lower body, but the emphasis is on your squats.

      Then on Sunday, you flip the emphasis. Choose your main hip hinge first, such as a deadlift or Romanian deadlift. Then do a squat accessory, such as goblet or split squats. Then a couple of accessories for your target areas.

      Same idea with the upper-body days. One day could start with rows or chin-ups, the other day could start with push-ups or the bench press.

      The thing to watch out for is overworking your spinal erectors and postural muscles, since they’ll be involved in every workout. That might mean it’s better to choose accessory lifts that don’t load your spine as heavy. For instance, choosing hip thrusts instead of good mornings. Choosing one-arm dumbbells rows instead of barbell rows. That kind of thing.

      We plan to publish an article on upper/lower splits soon where we can go into more detail 🙂

      I hope that helps!

    • Shane Duquette on August 3, 2020 at 9:39 am

      Oh, and to gain size in your lower body while developing strength in your upper body, you can just put more volume on the lower-body lifts.

      For example, do 4 sets of 10 repetitions on your squats and deadlifts and 3–4 sets of 12–20 reps on your assistance and accessory lifts. Then for your upper-body lifts, do 3 sets of 5–10 repetitions on your main lifts, 2–3 sets of 8–15 reps on your assistance and accessory lifts. That way you’re investing a bit more of your time and energy into the lower-body training, but you’re still doing some solid strength training for your upper body 🙂

  8. Rob on August 7, 2020 at 8:46 pm

    Hi! Thank you for all of your info. You rock!

    Now what if we organize a PPL split into a twice per week frequency like so:

    Day 1: Push
    Day 2: Legs
    Day 3: Rest
    Day 4: Pull
    Day 5: Rest
    Day 6: Repeat back to Day 1

    Wouldn’t that technically make the frequency about teice a week?

    • Shane Duquette on August 8, 2020 at 9:21 am

      Hey Rob, if you’re training 5+ times per week, a PPL split can start to make more sense, yeah. That’s correct 🙂

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