Push Pull Legs Routine: Best Workouts For Muscle Gains

By Nader Qudimat
Last Updated May 27, 2020
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You guessed it… 

It’s another split that is recommended by almost everyone who lifts. 

One of the best routines to use is the push pull legs split.

It splits major muscle groups by 3 categories which is organized by types of exercises.

No matter what level you are, beginner or advanced, this type of routine is one of the best to follow.

How it works is that you’ll have 3 workouts categorized by 3 categories of exercises, push pull and legs. 

Push involves any exercise that directly targets chest, shoulders and triceps. 

The pull workout involves bicep, back and trap exercises and leg days are going to be focused on exercises that work the leg muscles. 

Bros swear it’s the best type of split to have. 

I myself love this split as it splits up the body parts perfectly, allowing for maximum efficiency between workouts. 

Let's start with…

Push Day

It’s best to start with exercises that most people are weak with and that’s the incline bench press. 

Then we move onto the big flat bench press. 

Here’s the workout…

Incline Barbell

© Can Stock Photo Inc. / Jalephoto

This exercise is focused on the upper portion of the chest. 

We’re going to switch to the dumbbell variation after 2-3 weeks of this workout.  

Using dumbbells will help prevent muscle imbalances. 

One of the main reasons why this exercise is first in the workout is because the upper chest is a weak point for most people.

Focusing on this early when you have the most strength will help develop it into a strong point. 

The upper chest is best activated with incline bench presses. 

There’s no doubt that barbell presses are best for pec size and strength. 

And research has shown that using an incline angle while bench pressing is key for upper chest growth. 

Choosing the right angle can be a bit tricky. 

Going from 0, flat, to 30 degrees shows an increase in upper chest activation when bench pressing. 

At 45 degrees, there’s even more activation in the upper chest fibers, however, it comes with more anterior deltoid activation. 

To ensure you’re getting maximum activation in the chest without overusing the deltoids, we recommend sticking with 30 degrees, which is typically going to be 2 notches for most gym benches. 

Since benches can vary with angle adjustments and individuals may find different angles to “feel” and hit better than 30 degrees, we recommend experimenting to find the angle that you feel better with. 

The Grip

The wider your grip is, the more your shoulders are at risk for injury. 

Which is all the more reason to not use a wide grip. 

Using a narrow grip will not only be optimal for strength but it will help prevent injuries as this is the safest position to be in for your shoulders. 

This also decreases activation of the shoulders, making it focused on your chest muscles. 

Ensure you’re using a full range of motion and try to drop the bar as close as possible to your chest in a controlled manner. 

The rep range for this exercise will be from 6-8 reps.

Flat Barbell

After performing the incline variation of the bench press, we’ll be going with the flat bench press. 

You won’t need to perform as many sets here as you’ll be warmed up from performing incline bench presses. 

Also you won’t be using your max weight since you’ve fatigued yourself after the incline bench presses. 

Using the same guidelines as the incline bench press, use a narrow grip and allow the bar to drop down as far as possible to chest while pausing at the bottom before exploding back to the top position. 

This pause will help increase strength as most people have this position to be the weakest point of the lift. 

You shouldn’t try to go for any records here because you’ve already fatigued yourself from the first exercise. 

We’re only focused on form.

When this exercise comes first in your future workouts, you’ll be able to lift more weight. 

Aim for 8-10 reps for 3 sets.

Seated Dumbbell Press

Now we’re going to focus completely on the deltoids. 

The seated variation of this exercise will allow you to maximize activation on the deltoids. 

The reason why we’re not going with standing is that you’ll be able to press more weight when seated as standing will make you use 10% less weight. 

However, it has been shown that the standing variation signticatially increased shoulder activation, particularly the front, side, and rear delts in comparison to the other 3 pressing variations. 

It is harder to progress as how much weight you can press will be limited to how much you can pick up for positioning it. 

For this exercise you should aim for the upper end of reps, from 8-12 since you’ve already hit your front delts hard with bench pressing. 

You can switch to the standing version of this exercise, either by after each push workout or by weekly / monthly cycles. 

Lateral Raises

For optimal shoulder development, isolation exercises are essential. 

Here we have side lateral raises to focus on the side deltoids. 

To make this exercise more effective, we can extend the range of motion by leaning away from the starting point. 

Grab onto a pole, and execute the side raise and focus on the contractions. 

Swinging the dumbbell with momentum won’t be optimal for muscle contractions.

Cable Flies

Cable flies will help contract the chest muscles in a full range of motion, better than the dumbbell version. 

You can use an incline bench to hit the lower pecs. 

Using the cables will maximize the contraction throughout the entire motion.

Overhead Extensions

Overhead extensions focus on the triceps, with the incline version putting emphasis on the long head of the triceps. 

Since we’ve already performed 3 pressing movements, triceps are fairly worked already.

By using this exercise, we’ll maximize tricep development. 

Lie on an incline bench to target the long head and perform 8-12 reps for 3 sets.

Paused Dumbbell Press

© Can Stock Photo Inc. / Ozimician

By this point, you’ve pretty much destroyed your chest, shoulders and triceps. 

They should feel fatigued to say the least and maybe pumped. 

Paused dumbbell pauses are an excellent way to increase pushing strength by working on your weakest point of your bench press.

This exercise is best at activating the mid chest as found by a EMG study performed by Bret Contreras. 

He used 15 different chest exercises to analyze chest activity and he found this exercise to activate the mid chest the most. 

By using dumbbells, we’re also able to maximize the range of motion further than the barbell.

This pause at the bottom will prevent the reflex that occurs with regular bench pressing, which in turn will help perfect the form for bench pressing. 

Pull Day

Now we have the pull workout.

This workout focuses on exercises that directly involve the back, biceps and traps. 

Like the push workout we’ll be focusing on a weak point early in the workout, then work our way down to the other exercises. 

Pull workouts are usually divided by 3 categories:

  • Vertical pull
  • Horizontal pull
  • Accessory exercises

The workout will start with a vertical pull, then horizontal, then back to vertical and horizontal again. 

It’ll be followed by accessory exercises for the smaller muscles like biceps and rear delts.

Pull Ins (or Pull Over)

In order to warm up and activate the lats we’ll start with pull ins.

This exercise will help engage and feel the lats activate before the big exercises.

The most common complaint with back exercises is not feeling it and most people end up going through the motions without proper form. 

Pull ins, or pullovers, are a great exercise to start with to get the blood pumping and flowing to the lat muscles. 

By doing this, we establish a stronger mind to muscle connection, allowing us to maximize activation when performing compound lifts. 

Barbell Rows

Now the fun starts.  

Barbell rows are categorized as a horizontal pull, and it’s been shown to be one of the most effective back builders. 

It simply can’t be replaced by machines nor should you try to replace it with a machine exercise. 

This free weight exercise won’t only work on traps and lats, but it’ll also increase spinal erector strength.

Pull Ups

An old but gold exercise is pull ups. 

They’ll always be an essential part of a back workout. 

Pull ups are great for increasing the width of your back and it’s been proven to be the best in doing so. 

Out of 7 exercises, pull ups had the most lat activation and on top of that, it’ll work the smaller muscles, including the arms and forearms. 

Chin ups work as well but they are better for bicep activation. 

Pull ups though are better for lower trap activation. 

The lower traps are usually a weak part in most people, and it’s important to maintain lower trap development for posture and shoulder health. 

If you haven’t developed enough strength to do pull ups, or can’t do them,  you can do lat pull downs instead.

Barbell Curls

We’ve exhausted the biceps through pull ups and bent over rows, but now we’re directly targeting them with barbell curls. 

Barbell curls are an effective and big exercise for the biceps. 

Grip width should be narrow since you’ve already worked through them with the previous pulling exercises. 

However you can experiment and change to a normal grip periodically or you can use the narrow grip. 

The narrow grip works on the long head of the biceps, leaving you with bigger looking biceps. 

Concentrate on the contractions on the biceps, and lower the barbell slower than you’ve lifted it.

Reverse Pec Flies

Rear delts are usually a weak point in bodybuilders. 

Working on them with the reverse pec flies will help with their development.

Focus on holding the contracted position for at least 1-2 seconds. 

This will be part of a 3 exercise circuit for the rear delts as there’s dumbbell reverse flies and face pulls.

Dumbbell Reverse Flies

Now we have reverse flyes with dumbbells.

This exercise is great for developing the rear delts, giving the shoulders the full round look. 

Since we’ve already done reverse pec flies, we’ll only need 2 sets of 10-15 here.

It should be performed with complete control and focus on the contractions of the rear delts. 

The reverse pec flies should have helped establish the mind to muscle connection fairly well. 

If you can’t really feel the rear delts working, then you may need to give it time or you can do this out for one more set of reverse pec flyes.

Face Pulls

Face pulls are not only great for rear delt development but they’ll also help with posture and overall shoulder health. 

It’ll also help with trap development and rotator cuff muscles. 

Focus on rotating your thumbs outwards as they reach your ears. 

You’ll perform these standing up, but for the 3rd set, you can perform these lying down.

The lying down version will put greater emphasis on the rear delts.

Leg Workout

Leg days are going to be the most demanding day in any PPL program. 

The reason is because squats demand a lot of energy, from both physically and mentally. 

A leg day should ideally have a rest day before and after so your legs are fully ready for the demolition that's to come. 

Absolutely no cardio should be done the day before, however it can be done the day after if you can endure it. 

Leg width for squats can be varied periodically but the majority of squats should be done with normal width. 

The narrower the stance is, the more it works the outer quads. 

The wider your feet are apart, the more it works the inner thighs.

Leg Extensions

© Can Stock Photo / Jalephoto

Normally, squats should be done early in the workout but since you want to build a solid muscle to mind connection, we have leg extensions first in the workout. 

Squats will follow after. 

You don’t need to push hard for this exercise, you just want to get a little pump going so that when you perform squats, you’ll find it easy to contract your quads. 

If you wanted some workouts to have this exercise as a pre exhaust, meaning going to failure or near it, then you should limit it and only do it periodically since it can easily lead to overtraining.

Squats

The king of all leg exercises are always going to be squats. 

This exercise is essential for quad development. 

Two main forms of squats include front and back squats. 

Front squats will work the quads as equally as back squats but with less emphasis on the glutes. 

You can switch periodically, between front and back squats throughout the months.

Split Squats

© Can Stock Photo / artinspiring

Instead of lunges, we’ll be going with split squats.

Lunges have a bit of a learning curve due to it requiring balance and split squats will help engage the quads and glute while putting them through a full range of motion. 

You can increase your range of motion by placing your rear foot on a bench or on any elevated position. 

This is called the bulgarian squats. 

To progress further use only one dumbbell, further challenging your glute medius.

This is the contralateral bulgarian split squat. 

This muscle will help increase stabilization and balance while reducing knee pain as it’s neglected in most compound leg exercises. 

Strengthens outer quads, leaving you with less imbalances. 

This is an important exercise for overall leg development. 

Go with heavy weight for 8-12 reps.

Hip Thrusts

For maximum glute and hamstring development, we’ll use hip thrusts. 

Although some studies indicate that squats are better for glute development, this is still a safe to use exercise that we recommend doing as a isolation exercise for your glutes and hamstrings. 

There’s ongoing research on this exercise. 

Lying Hamstring curls 

To further isolate the hamstrings, we’ll be using hamstring curls. 

You can switch to different versions and use whatever you have. 

Focus on the contractions.

Calf Raises Seated / Standing

Calves respond best to isolation exercises or you’ll struggle to have developed calves.

Perform one set sitting, and another standing for 10-15 reps. 

Mix it up with low and high rep ranges and change it up periodically.

Putting It All Together

This type of program can be done by a few different ways. 

You can do PPL by starting on the first day of the week, typically Monday, then take Tuesday off, and so on. 

One day off and one day on with two days rest after leg day is going to work great for all levels of trainee's. 

If it works well for you, you can try 6 days on, 1 day off. 

So it would look like P/P/L/P/P/L/OFF but this can easily lead to overtraining since you'll workout more frequently. 

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