The PPL split has increased in popularity over the years

A Detailed Guide to Push-Pull Legs 

In the last couple of years, with the popularity of fitness influencers on Reels and Tiktok, Push-Pull Legs has become a popular split to follow among fitness enthusiasts. However, most of the routines available on social media make the same mistakes and fail to address the primary issues that an average lifter may face with this split.

What is a Push-Pull Legs split? Our upper body muscles can be broadly divided into two groups depending on the movement patterns they are involved in. The chest, triceps, and anterior deltoids are involved primarily in pressing or pushing movements and work together. Similarly, the back, biceps, and rear deltoids are involved primarily in pulling movements. So, we have a Pull day, a Push day and train our lower body mainly on a Leg day. These, however, are broad definitions that help us divide the main compound movements among different days; we shouldn't get too dogmatic with the division.

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One thing that needs to be clarified before we delve deeper into the split is that beginners and novices rarely need to be in the gym 5-6 days a week and a 3-day or 4-day split is good enough for them to see progress. Absolute beginners may see progress even while training 2 days a week. Influenced by their favourite fitness YouTubers, novices will often be in the gym 6 days a week, 90 minutes a day doing a bunch of isolation movements and junk volume while not prioritizing nutrition or rest. Having said that, if you still want to run a PPL split, this article will explain how you may program on a PPL split and give a couple of sample routines.

However, keep in mind that none of these routines is set in stone and you need to experiment and play around with exercise to find out what works for you. This article will give you the tools and the system with which you may program your PPL split.

Ironically, the worst iteration of the Push-Pull-Legs is the Push-Pull-Legs! Why? Both the Pull day and Leg day should ideally have movements that involve the lower back and posterior chain. Having the Pull day and Leg day one after the other twice a week is just asking for trouble. This is not a problem in most popular PPL splits because Pull Day is just a series of cable and machine movements with negligible intensity levels. But that is not how most lifters should be going about things. Unless you have a serious injury, the bulk of your training should be free-weight compound movements with a few isolation and machine movements to make your training well rounded. So, a good PPL program will have Push Day in between Leg and Pull days, that is, either Pull-Push-Legs or Legs-Push-Pull, whichever you prefer.

Another logistical issue that needs to be taken care of before we dive into the crux of the routine is whether you workout six consecutive days and have one rest day per week, that is, Legs, Push, Pull, Legs, Push, Pull, and Rest or you take a rest day after each PPL cycle, that is, Legs, Push, Pull, Rest, and repeat. I will take a leaf out of Athlean-X's book and call them synchronous and asynchronous respectively. Your workouts will change depending on which one you choose. Personally, the asynchronous split feels better because it helps in recovery and helps us to program better. The catch, on the other hand, is that you have different rest days each week and you also need to have access to a gym for all seven days of the week. If that is something that you can afford, it is advisable to follow the asynchronous split. Otherwise, the routine will require some changes. Irrespective of which of these two you follow, each day should have two versions that you should cycle. For example, you should have Push 1 and Push 2 where the muscles worked remain the same but the exercises change. For most people, it will be more convenient to follow the synchronous split and so we will try to program that and then look at the changes we need to make for the asynchronous split.

Synchronous Split

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Legs

For each leg day, we will have two main compound movements at the beginning of the workout—a heavy knee flexion targeting primarily the quads and a hip hinge for the posterior chain. We will start with a knee flexion on one leg day and with a hip hinge on the other. For example, on Leg 1, you can start with barbell back squats and follow it up with a moderate-intensity hip hinge like a Romanian Deadlift or Stiff-Legged Deadlift. Then on Leg 2, you can start with a heavy pull off the floor like the conventional or sumo deadlift and follow it up with a moderate intensity knee flexion like the box squat, hack squat, or even a unilateral variation like the Bulgarian split squats or heavy lunges. These two movements at the beginning of your workout should form the core of each session. If you are pressed for time on a given day, you can leave after these two exercises and even then you would have had a decent workout. Coming back to the workouts, you will follow up with two accessories for the quads and the hamstrings/glutes, such as the leg press, leg extension for the quads, and hamstring curls, or some sort of bodyweight/lightweight hip hinge, like a back extension for the posterior chain. After this, you end the workout with calf raises and abs. For abs, very few movements beat the hanging leg raises. So, a superset of calf raises and hanging leg raises is like the icing on the cake for the workout.

Barbell back squats during the gym session

Push

The easiest day to program in a PPL split is the Push Day. You have two main movements right at the beginning of the workout—a heavy press followed by a moderate-intensity press. On one push day, you start with a heavy vertical press; on the other push day, you start with a heavy horizontal press. For example, if you are starting with a Barbell OHP on Push 1, start with a Barbell Bench on Push 2. Your second exercise, on Push 1 will then be a lighter chest movement like an incline dumbbell press and the second movement on Push 2 will be a lighter vertical press like a seated dumbbell press, Arnold press or even a machine military press. After this, we will hit the lateral delts with any of the numerous variations using dumbbells, cables, or even a machine. After this, we will have an optional chest accessory which may be a chest adduction movement like a cable or machine fly or even a third pushing movement, such as pushups, bodyweight dips, or a machine press. The medial and short head of the triceps have worked quite a lot by this point and we will end the workout with some work for the long head of the triceps with dumbbell/cable overhead extensions. It is advisable to end a push workout with some face pulls to reinforce posture.

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A Standard Bench Press

Pull

In the synchronous version of the PPL, one Pull day will have to be light to aid recovery. Let us first look at what the lighter pull day should look like. We will start with a vertical pull for the lats and there is no better exercise for the lats than the pull-up. If bodyweight pull-ups are too easy for you, you can always do them weighted. Follow this up with a horizontal pull, preferably with free weight, such as a one-arm dumbbell row, seal row, etc., followed by a machine movement, such as a machine row, cable row, cable pullover, etc. You can then super set an upper trap movement like the farmer's carry with some rear delt work (reverse flies, reverse pec deck, and so on). End the workout with some bicep and forearm work. The heavier pull day will start with a Barbell rowing variation like the standard barbell row, Pendley row, Yates row, etc. This will be followed by a vertical pull, such as a chin-up or a lat pulldown variation and upper back isolation like a machine row. The same trap and rear delt super set can be done before the workout ends with biceps and forearms.

An overhand grip pull-up
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A sample routine for this version will look something like below:

LEGS 1

High bar squat—4 × 4–8

Romanian deadlift—3 × 6–10

Leg extensions—4 × 10–15

s/w

Leg curls—4 × 10–15

Standing calf raises—3 × 12–15

s/w

Hanging leg raises—3 × failure

PUSH 1

Barbell bench press—4 × 6–10

Arnold press—3 × 8–12

Lateral raises—3 × 12–15

s/w

High-to-low cable flyes—3 × 12–15

Overhead rope extensions—3 × 12–15

Face pulls—2–3 × 15

PULL 1

Pull-ups (overhand/neutral grip)—4–5 × 6–10

Seal rows—4 × 8–12

Single arm cable rows—3 × 8–12

Farmer's carry—3 sets or Shrugs—3 × 10–12

Reverse flyes—3 × 12–15

EZ bar curls—3 × 8–12

LEGS 2

Deadlift—3 × 3

Bulgarian split squats/Lunges—3 × 6–10 each leg

Back extensions—3 × 8–12

Hack squats—3 × 8–12

Wall sits—3 × 30 seconds

Standing calf raises—3 × 12–15

PUSH 2

Barbell OHP—3 × 5

Incline dumbbell press—3 × 6–10

Dips—3 × 8–12

Lateral raises—3 × 12–15

Overhead rope extensions—3 × 12–15

Face pulls—2–3 × 15

PULL 2

Barbell rows—3 × 8

Lat pulldowns—4 × 8–12

Machine rows—4 × 12–15

Farmer's carry—3 sets or Shrugs - 3 × 10–12

Reverse flyes—3 × 12–15

Cable curls—3 × 12–15

You can run these workouts on 6 consecutive days with a rest day on the seventh day. If you want to follow the Pull-Push-Legs sequence, then Pull 2 will become Pull 1 and vice versa. You may keep the Leg days the same or interchange Leg1 and Leg 2 depending on your preference.

The Conventional Deadlift

Adjustments for the Asynchronous Split

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You can run this same routine on an asynchronous split, but the extra rest day in between presents the opportunity to have a heavier pull day. In such a scenario, it may be wise to tweak the leg days as well and move the deadlift to one of the Pull days. Leg 1 remains the same. We can move the barbell row to Pull 1 and the deadlift to Pull 2. Leg 2 can now start with some high-volume squat variations like box squats and front squats followed by some unilateral work. While it is possible to keep an RDL or Stiff-Legged Deadlift as the main hip hinge, hamstring soreness may affect the performance on the deadlift a couple of days later. My advice here would be to try and see for yourself. Otherwise, you may include back extensions and Nordic curls in your workout. There are no changes in the Push days.

This is pretty much all you need to keep in mind while programming a PPL split. However, do not be dogmatic with exercise selection, especially if you are chasing esthetics. The side delts, calves, and upper back muscles can be trained more than twice a week, and you can place them in any workout for a couple of sets if you find the time. For example, some chin-ups or pull-ups on a leg day are not a bad idea. Similarly, you can super set seated calf raises with one of the isolation movements on Push Days or Pull days. You need to have the courage to make mistakes and see what works for you while keeping the basic template correct.

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Some Popular Push-Pull-Legs Routines

Just because something is popular, does not mean that it is good. Many well-known fitness YouTubers have come up with their PPL routines including the novice's favorite, Athlean-X aka Jeff Cavaliere. While Jeff does talk about the two different versions, he does not mention any modifications or the need for them while doing the synchronous split. The workouts are not bad, but there are much better workouts out there. Here is the "perfect" pull workout.

....and the 'perfect' leg workout

Try and find out what you would change in these workouts.

Now we come to another Jeff—Jeff Nippard, a popular YouTuber albeit much more respected than Cavaliere in the niche lifting community. Nippard has come out with a couple of PPL routines, the latest being his Smartest Push-Pull-Legs Routine, which makes the same mistakes. However, I will let you be the judge here. Nippard has the entire plan in one video, which makes it extremely convenient.

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For your reference, here is muscled up French commentator Natural Hypertrophy critiquing Nippard's plan:


Get, Set, Go

Now that you know enough on the background to the PPL routine, go ahead and make your own plan and watch the gains.

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Edited by
Ramaa Kishore
 
 
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