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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.