You've probably heard of the term “push-pull” at some point in your fitness life. Perhaps it was at the gym by that guy with the huge chest and back. Or maybe you're wondering more what it is, and not how to use it.
Although there are different ways to use this workout technique, I recommend these two: 1) You can do the push-pull during one workout with opposing muscle groups or 2) You create a weekly workout routine with “push days” and “pull days”. Either way is highly effective for growing muscle tissue and helps you recover properly.
What does this look like? Let me explain and give you some examples.
1. Push-pull workouts with opposing muscle groups
The push-pull workout technique is certainly not new. Be that as it may, its age by no means hinders its effectiveness. Even though this type of workout may sound like super-setting, it's quite different. At least when you look at the main purpose of execution for each training technique. With super-sets, you're training opposing muscle groups with almost no rest in between sets. With push-pull workouts, your rest periods are the same as a normal workout (e.g. 30-90 seconds).
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Don't think this type of training is counterproductive because it has longer rest periods. Having this pause allows for – you guessed it – better intensity. Muscles that are more rested allow you to train that specific muscle with a greater degree of intensity, with respect to form. As well, versatility (i.e using opposing muscles) is always encouraged in exercise. This type of workout increases the effect of “muscle confusion”. Your muscles will be stimulated to a greater degree to promote more growth. This “confusion” is extremely important because your body will try to meet homeostasis (or training plateau) in almost any way that it can, even with exercise.
So, let me give you an example of just what I'm talking about. Look at this push-pull workout for the upper arms:
- Skull crushers – 4 sets 12 reps
- Barbell curls – 4 sets 12 reps
- Cable tricep extensions – 4 sets 12 reps
- Dumbbell hammer curls – 4 sets 12 reps
Now to turn this workout into a “push-pull” one, you would do your first set of skull crushers for the triceps, rest about 45 seconds then do a set of barbell curls, and rest for about 45 seconds. Repeat the cycle until you've reached your desired limit of sets, which in this case is 4. Working out in this way will create less build up of lactic acid in the muscles. This, in turn, will allow you to lift larger loads and squeeze out more repetitions as you begin each new set.
A classic example of a Push-Pull workout
The Chest/Back routine is the most popular type of push-pull workout out there and for good reason. There's just something about it that makes it so simple to do. Whether it's because we naturally label these two opposing muscles as the “dominating” push-pull group – due either to their anatomical positions or convenience of thought – we seem to automatically put the two together. For example, when we think of the word “push”, we often think of pushing a door closed or doing a push-up. Less commonly thought of is the push-pull of a cable rope (tricep extensions which work the opposing muscles of the bicep and the tricep) or some other uncommon pushing movement.
Check out this Chest/Back push-pull workout:
- Lat pull down machine – 4 sets 12 reps
- Incline dumbbell press – 4 sets 12 reps
- Smith machine row – 4 sets 12 reps
- Dumbbell flys – 4 sets 12 reps
- Dumbbell pullovers – 4 sets 12 reps
- Push ups – 2-4 sets all to failure (burnout)
Like with the bicep/tricep workout above, you would start with the first exercise (lat pull down machine), rest about 60-90 seconds, do your second exercise (incline dumbbell press), and then repeat until you've reached your desired set limit.
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Also, the dumbbell pullover exercise is incredible for both the chest and the back. If you've never done this exercise before, you can count on being extremely sore for the following few days. And more than likely you'll be sore in an area where you've probably never been sore before. This area, or muscle, is called the serratus anterior and it lies just beneath the axilla (or armpit).
2: Push-pull workout routine for the week
Now, with this variation of the push-pull workout, it's designed for having “push days” and “pull days”. This is an awesome way to mix things up and allow your muscles to rest more efficiently. For example, as you can probably imagine, to get the most out of this type of training, the biceps would compliment the back for one “pull day” workout and the triceps would compliment the chest for one “push day” workout.
You may be wondering where the legs fit into this equation. Don't worry. I'll cover that shortly.
Here is an example push-pull workout routine for a given week:
- Sunday – Rest
- Monday – Chest, triceps, calves
- Tuesday – Shoulders, traps
- Wednesday – Thighs, abs
- Thursday – Rest
- Friday – Back, biceps, calves
- Saturday – Rest
For more frequency, try this routine:
- Sunday – Rest
- Monday – Chest, triceps, shoulders
- Tuesday – Back, biceps, abs
- Wednesday – Thighs, calves
- Thursday – Chest, triceps, shoulders
- Friday – Back, biceps, abs
- Saturday – Thighs, calves
This type of training routine is highly effective because it allows you to combine “like” muscle groups which move similarly. As well, it will better allow your muscles to rest by using other muscle groups not fatigued by your previous day's workout.
But what about legs?…
Don't worry. I didn't forget about leg training, even though most people probably wouldn't mind that. The most effective push-pull leg workout is one that truly encompasses all major muscle groups in the legs. This will include doing leg extensions grouped with hamstring curls. Likewise, you also take advantage of the abductor/adductor machine to hit the outer thigh/glutes and inner thigh muscles. And finally, you perform calf raises grouped with reverse calf raises to hit the tibialis anterior muscle. The workout would look like this:
- Leg extensions – 4 sets 12 reps
- Hamstring curls – 4 sets 12 reps
- Abductor machine – 4 sets 12 reps
- Adductor machine – 4 sets 12 reps
- Calf raises – 4 sets 12 reps
- Reverse calf raises – 4 sets 12 reps
As with the previous push-pull workouts, you would combine two training movements, one after the other. So, as before mentioned you would go down the list of exercises, grouping by twos until you reached the desired number of sets per exercise.
Final thoughts on push-pull workouts…
As you can see, push-pull workouts are extremely effective and versatile. It allows you to group “like” muscles, which makes it easier for you to plan your weekly routine. And if you've done the same workout for several months, I urge you to try some push-pull workouts to prevent the dreaded training plateau. I'm sure that you'll be surprised at the progress you'll make!
Author Bio: Thomas Hlubin
When I was little I was as skinny as a rake, but at the ripe old age of 18, I started lifting weights seriously. I trained and competed as a natural bodybuilder in the SNBF and NANBF organizations, placing 4th in the novice men middleweight division at the 2012 Atlanta SNBF Championships. A year later, I competed and placed 2nd in the collegiate men division at the 2013 NANBF Natural Southern States Classic in St. Louis, Missouri. That solidified my wish to help others achieve greater levels of fitness. Today, I'm an ACE certified personal trainer and creator of the fitness blog FartlekTrainingZone.com, because I not only want to help people, but I also have a love for writing as well!