Push/Pull/Legs workout splits have been a popular way of building muscle for several decades. The idea is to hammer a muscle with a variety of exercises, cause a massive amount of muscle damage, stimulate an optimal amount of muscle growth, and then give the muscle a full week to recover. 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 your entire body each workout, take a rest day, and then train your entire body again. The idea was to do enough work to stimulate growth, but not to cause excessive muscle damage, allowing you 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. And the findings were surprising.
So, are push/pull/legs workout routines the best way to build muscle?
- What is a Push/Pull/Legs Routine?
- Sample Push/Pull/Legs Workout Routine
- Are Push/Pull/Leg Splits Good for Building Muscle?
What is a Push/Pull/Legs Routine?
The Push/Pull/Legs (PPL) workout split is a 3-day-per-week workout routine that’s divided into a push workout, a pull workout, and a leg workout. 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.
These workouts don’t perfectly isolate the different muscle groups. For example, if we look at a Push Day workout that’s designed to work your back and biceps, it might include deadlifts and chin-ups. Those chin-ups will work your triceps, and those deadlifts will work your quads. There’s some overlap. And that’s not a bad thing. By training our muscles more often, we can stimulate a little bit more muscle growth. In fact, it would be better if there was even more overlap, as we’ll cover below.
Sample Push/Pull/Legs Workout Routine
There are different ways of designing a push/pull/legs routine, but for the best results, we want to make sure that every muscle is the limiting factor on at least one lift. This allows us to work every muscle hard enough to stimulate a maximal amount of growth.
For example, the bench press works your chest much harder than your triceps, so if you rely on the bench press to bulk up your triceps, they’d only grow have as quickly as your pecs (study). That’s why we add in triceps extensions, balancing our the growth between the two muscles:
So on a push day, the bench press works your chest, shoulders, and triceps, but your chest gets hit the hardest. That’s your chest lift. So we also include an overhead press, hits your shoulders hardest. That’s the shoulder lift. And then we include triceps extensions so that your triceps are the limiting factor. That’s the triceps lift. And then we might want to include a lift that works our side delts the hardest, such as the lateral raise.
There’s plenty of overlap. We have three different exercises working our triceps, two different exercises working our front delts. And that’s good. That gives us more overall training volume. The trick is to make sure that we give each muscle a chance to get close to failure.
Here’s how to do that for each day.
The Push Day Workout
The build a great Push Day workout, let’s run through the different muscle groups, starting with the ones that allow us to lift the most weight, and working our way down to the smaller exercises.
- Chest: 3 sets of 8 repetitions (3×8) on the barbell bench press, dumbbell bench press, or push-up. The barbell bench press makes a good default, as it works the greatest overall muscle mass. But if you have a stubborn chest, the dumbbell bench press will do a better job of emphasizing your pecs.
- Shoulders: 3 sets of 8 repetitions (3×8) on the barbell overhead press, dumbbell overhead press, incline bench press, or landmine press. All of these are great options.
- Triceps: 3 sets of 12 repetitions (3×12) of skull crushers, overhead triceps extensions, or triceps pushdowns. All of these are great, but the overhead extension allows you to train your triceps under a deeper stretch, making it slightly better for building muscle.
- Side delts: 3 sets of 12 repetitions (3×12) of lateral raises or upright rows. Lateral raises make a great default exercise. They’re great for our side delts.
That’s a complete push day workout for most people, but if you find that the bench press isn’t properly stimulating your chest, you may want to include some sort of chest fly as well. The pec deck machine is great for this, and so are the dumbbell and cable fly.
There’s quite a bit of overlap between these exercises, and most of our muscles are being worked by at least a couple of them. Perhaps more importantly, each of our muscles gets a chance to be our limiting factor one one lift.
The Pull Day Workout
The build a Pull Day workout, we’re going to take the same approach as with our Push Day, starting with the biggest and heaviest exercises and working our way down to the smaller ones. That way we can bring our best energy to the lifts that will stimulate the most overall muscle growth.
- Spinal Erectors & Traps: 3 sets of 6 repetitions (3×6) on the conventional deadlift. If you have the energy for it, the conventional deadlift will stimulate the most overall muscle growth. Otherwise, the Romanian deadlift is a great choice. It works similar muscles but is a bit easier on your lower back and traps.
- Lats: 3 sets of 8 repetitions (3×8) of chin-ups, pull-ups, lat pulldowns, or barbell rows. Chin-ups work our lats under a deep stretch and with a heavy load, making them a great default.
- Biceps: 3 sets of 12 repetitions (3×12) of barbell curls, dumbbell curls, preacher curls, or incline curls. All of these are great. The barbell curl will stimulate the most overall growth (working your upper back and forearms), but the incline curl will do the best job of emphasizing your biceps.
- Rear delts: 3 sets of 12 repetitions (3×12) of the reverse fly or face-pull. Either choice is great, so go with your preference.
That’s a complete pull day workout for most people, but if you have some extra energy left over, you could also include neck extensions or wrist curls here. Neck extensions will bulk up the back of your neck, which is often forgotten. Barbell curls work your wrist flexors already, but if you want bigger forearms, adding in wrist curls can help.
The Leg Day Workout
The build a Leg Day workout, again, we want to start with the big compound lifts and then work our way down, making sure that we’re giving each muscle a chance to be the limiting factor.
Leg Days can be pretty brutal if you’re trying to do both squats and deadlifts, which is one advantage of using the deadlift as a back lift. So in this workout, we’re using the squat as our main lift instead.
- Quads, glutes, and spinal erectors: 3 sets of 6 repetitions (3×6) on the front squat or high-bar squat. The front squat makes the best default if you want to emphasize upper back growth, but both are similarly good for your quads.
- Quads: 3 sets of 12 repetitions (3×12) on the leg extension, leg press, or Bulgarian split squat to emphasize your quads. The leg extension tends to work best because it doesn’t involve movement at the hips, which can slightly interfere with quad activation. But any quad exercise will do the trick.
- Hamstrings: 3 sets of 12 repetitions (3×12) of Romanian deadlifts, good mornings, hamstring curls, nordic hamstring curls, or glute/ham raises. The Romanian deadlift is great here, but if you’ve already done it on your pull day, some sort of hamstring curl is a good idea.
- Calves: 3 sets of 12 repetitions (3×12) of standing calf raises.
Those four lifts make for a challenging Leg Day workout for most people, but if you yearn for more, you can add in some neck curls or ab exercises. Hanging leg raises, reverse crunches, crunches, and planks are all great options for your abs.
Another thing to consider is your glutes. For most people, deadlifts, front squats, and Romanian deadlifts are more than enough for their glutes. But that’s not always the case, and so if your glutes are lagging behind, you might want to include some sort of hip thrust.
The Full Workout Routine
Now that we’re talked about how to build a push day, pull day, and leg day, we can combine them together into a full push/pull/legs routine:
- Monday (Push Day): 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 (or Romanian deadlift), 3×8 on the chin-up (or barbell row), and then 3×12 biceps curl, hammer curl, and reverse fly.
- Thursday: Rest.
- Friday (Leg Day): 3×6 on the front squat, 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.
You’ll notice that there’s overlap here, and that’s a good thing. Training our muscles twice per week tends to be slightly better than training them just once per week, so any overlap should, if anything, help you build more muscle.
Are Push/Pull/Leg Splits Good for Building Muscle?
A Summary of the Research
Push/Pull/Legs workout splits have been popular in recreational bodybuilding communities for several decades now. In fact, a survey found that a whopping 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 even 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, Schoenfeld 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 Workout Schedule for Muscle Growth?
There’s no single best workout routine for building muscle, and there are many different ways to schedule our workouts. Still, some schedules are better than others, and push/pull/legs routines don’t tend to be ideal. It’s usually better to train our muscles more frequently, but with lower training volumes each workout.
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.
Here are three good ways of scheduling your workout routine:
- 3-day full-body workout routine, which is ideal for most beginners.
- 4-day workout split routine, which is ideal for many intermediates.
- 5-day workout split routine, which allows for shorter workouts.
All of them are comparably effective, but a good default is for beginners to start with 3 full-body workouts per week. As you get bigger and stronger, you’ll be lifting more weight each rep, resting longer between sets, and the workouts will start to become long and tiring. At that point, you could start doing specialization phases where you keep training 3 days per week, but focus on just a few muscle groups with each training phase. Or you could add a fourth workout day, allowing you to spread your training volume over more workouts.
If you want to train 5 or 6 days per week, that’s perfectly fine, but that’s more about personal preference than getting extra muscle growth. It becomes harder to manage fatigue, and the workouts can become less efficient, but some people prefer training more often, especially if it means shorter and more focused workouts.
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.