Push-Pull for Progress

Training wise, I've tried it all: powerlifting style, Olympic style, and of course, bodybuilding style.

All of them worked, for awhile, but the one that I keep coming back to, the one that never fails me, is one of the most basic – in bodybuilding terms – routines of all. It's the push-pull system.

In short, it's training those muscles involved in pushing in one session and training the ones involved in pulling in another. There are a couple of distinct advantages to this type of program:

Most people would have said you avoid overtraining, but I don't think overtraining is all that common and that, if it occurs, it takes months of going to physical extremes.

That doesn't happen too often.

However, it's easy to overstress body parts in a very short time and thus hamper recovery. Training push-pull lets muscle groups rest completely.

In traditional workout schemes, you might work chest on one day, shoulders the next, and then triceps the next. That would constitute training the triceps and, to a lesser extent, the anterior delts, three training sessions in a row!

Push-pull avoids that by grouping all the muscles involved in pulling (back, biceps, rear delts, traps, forearms, hamstrings) and all the muscles involved in pushing (chest, triceps, quads, lateral and medial delts) together.

By separating your body parts by function, you're able to hit the gym more often because, presumably, the muscles you're working that day aren't screaming for momma. Also, by splitting a total body workout into two, you're simply forced to go to the gym more often.

Doing so logically increases your physical fitness and burns some extra calories along the way.

Unfortunately, along with the advantages come a few potential disadvantages:

In many push-pull routines, you end up training triceps, biceps, posterior delts, and forearms in a fatigued state compared to the chest, back, and quads because the big daddy exercises (squats, deads, rows, benching) are typically done first in the routines.

Solution: Vary the order in which the movements are performed and prioritize the big lifts.

Squats, pull-ups, deadlifts, and presses, by nature, tax the body. Typically, you need at least 48 hours of recovery between sessions where those movements are used.

Solution: Use an intra-workout drink like Plazma™ and a post-workout drink like Mag-10®. You can also do an unloading week every 4th week where you reduce volume by 50%.

The following is a sample push-pull program. Many components or strategies are based on techniques used or advocated by Charles Poliquin, Christian Thibaudeau, and Chad Waterbury.

  • Monday: Heavy Pull
  • Tuesday: Heavy Push
  • Wednesday: Off
  • Thursday: Light/Moderate Pull
  • Friday: Light/Moderate Push *
  • Saturday: Off
  • Sunday: Heavy Pull
  • Monday: Heavy Push
  • ...and so on.

* Some lifters might use this day as an extra day off and do only 5 workouts in an 8-day period instead of the 6 workouts in an 8-day period shown above.

Monday – Heavy Pull

  • A1. Deadlift: 8 sets of 3
  • A2. Supported Dumbbell Curl: (lean against one of the posts on the power rack so that the post sits flat against your entire spine and back of your head – it prevents cheating) 8 x 3
  • B1. Weighted Pull-Up: (full extension) 8 x 3
  • B2. Straight-Leg Deadlift: 8 x 3
  • C. Serratus Crunch: 3-4 x 8-10
Serratus Crunch
Serratus Crunch

Tuesday – Heavy Push

  • A1. Front Squat: (start with the bar at the bottom of your range of motion, i.e., you duck-walk under the bar, get in position, and lift up) 8 x 3
  • A2. Smith Machine Bench Press: (wide grip, bringing the bar to the neck, just below the chin, Vince Gironda style) 8 x 3. I know, I know, it's the freakin' Smith machine, but it allows you to bring the bar to your neck with some degree of safety, which makes benching a good chest/mediocre triceps movement instead of just a good triceps/mediocre chest movement.
  • B1. Standing Overhead Press: 8 x 3
  • B2. Dip: (forearm touches biceps in the down position) 8 x 3
  • C. Leg Press Calf Extension: 3-4 x 8-10

Wednesday – Off

Thursday – Light/Moderate Pull

  • A1. Romanian Deadlift: 4 x 6 or 2 x 12
  • A2. Reverse-Grip EZ Curl: 4 x 6 or 2 x 12
  • B1. Barbell or Dumbbell Row: 4 x 6 or 2 x 12
  • B2. Leg Curl: 4 x 6 or 2 x 12
  • C. Unilateral Dumbbell Shrug: (one side at a time) 4 x 6 or 2 x 12
  • D. Rear Delt Flye: 4 x 6 or 2 x 12
  • E. Cable Crunch: 3-4 x 8-10

Friday – Light/Moderate Push

  • A. Leg Press: 4 x 6 or 2 x 12
  • B1. Bulgarian Squat: 4 x 6 or 2 x 12 per leg
  • B2. Dumbbell Floor Press: (keep elbows tucked to emphasize triceps) 4 x 6 or 2 x 12
  • Dumbbell Floor Press
    Dumbbell Floor Press
  • C1. Dumbbell Flye: 4 x 6 or 2 x 12
  • C2. Tricep Concentration Extension: (lie on a bench with a dumbbell held overhead with one arm and lower the forearm across your chest until the dumbbell touches. Use the other arm to support and/or assist the working arm) 4 x 6 or 2 x 12
  • Tricep Concentration Extension
    Tricep Concentration Extension
  • D1. Dumbbell lateral raise: 4 x 6 or 2 x 12
  • D2. Overhead barbell shrug: 4 x 6 or 2 x 12
  • E. Seated calf extension: 3-4 x 15-20
  1. Don't underestimate the 8 x 3 workout. If you use an "honest" weight – approximately 85% of your 1RM – it'll kick your ass; maybe not during the actual workout, but later on in the day.
  2. In almost all cases, you'll see that regardless of which rep/set scheme I've indicated, the total number of reps equals 24. This is an old Waterbury chestnut that I've found to be extremely useful and effective.
  3. Rest intervals are 60 seconds between sets on heavy days, and 45 seconds on light to moderate days.
  4. While you may question grouping the two heavy workouts together back-to-back, it's best to do them early in the week, when you're presumably freshest and strongest. Besides, since you're training different muscle group on different days and there's hardly any overlap, you shouldn't have a problem.
  5. Regarding calf work and the rep recommendations, bent-knee exercises such as seated calf extensions call primarily on the soleus muscles, which require higher reps (longer time under tension) to grow, whereas straight-leg exercises such as leg press calf extensions require fewer reps (less time under tension).

It doesn't much matter whether you like these exercise choices or set and rep schemes. Tailor it to your physiology. Throw in a third cycle so that you rotate between 8 x 3, 4 x 6, and 2 x 12. Only you know what will work for you.

Just remember the key advantage to the system: you can train body parts multiple times a week without overstressing the body, and that equals growth.