Why You Should Add Push-Pull Workouts To Your Fitness Routine

It’s no secret there are tons of killer workouts out thereto help you crush your goals (check out the WH workout database if you don’t believe me!). But if you’re craving a total-body workout that builds strength, promotes recovery, and maximizes your results, we’ve got just the plan: push-pull workouts.

A push-pull workout is a type of split training that focuses on exercising the “pushing” muscles one day and the “pulling” muscles a different day, to target muscle groups that recruit the same movement pattern in one workout, explains Natalya Vasquez, CPT, a certified personal trainer, health coach, and founder of Bridal Bootcamp San Diego. The workouts are also split amongst alternating days to ensure different muscle groups and movement patterns have adequate time to recover, she adds.

Push exercises are any movement where you literally push something away (like the floor or a weight), whereas pulling exercises are any movement where the load gets pulled toward you, says Samantha Rothberg, CSCS, a certified strength and conditioning specialist and founder of Samantha Rothberg Fitness. Push exercises typically involve the chest, shoulders, and triceps, and pull exercises often involve the back and biceps, adds Vasquez.

Meet the experts: Samantha Rothberg, CSCS, is a certified strength and conditioning specialist and founder of Samantha Rothberg Fitness. Natalya Vasquez, CPT, is a certified personal trainer, health coach, and founder of Bridal Bootcamp San Diego.

Here’s everything you need to know about push-pull workouts, including why they’re so great, how to program a push-pull workout split, and more, according to certified trainers.

How A Push-Pull Workout Routine Works

You perform only push or only pull exercises in that day’s program (more on that soon!), alternating with the other category during your next resistance training day, says Rothberg. The goal? Split your training between different days to ensure a variety of movement patterns and muscle groups are not overworked.

The frequency of a push-pull routine depends on your goals, skill level, schedule, and how quickly you recover, but beginners should start with one push workout and one pull workout per week, with a few rest days between workouts, says Vasquez. Intermediate to advanced exercisers can increase the frequency and do push and pull workouts every two to three days, she adds. For example, push on Monday and Thursday and pull on Tuesday and Friday.

Just note that if your push-pull workouts mainly target your upper body, you’ll also want to incorporate a lower-body training day, says Vasquez. “If you’re incorporating legs into the mix, which I highly recommend, then you would be doing a push or pull workout every three or four days to ensure that you’re working each of these major muscle groups at least once per week but also allowing enough time for your body to rest and recover.” A sample schedule may be push day, pull day, leg day, rest day, and then repeat the sequence.

How To Program A Push-Pull Workout

First things first: always warm up. Then, program three to four exercises per muscle group and aim for three sets of eight to 12 reps, says Vasquez.

Start with larger muscle groups first, and move onto smaller muscle groups, she adds. So, on a push day, start with chest exercises, then move onto shoulders, and finish with triceps. On a pull day, start with back exercises and end with biceps.

It’s also best to begin with bilateral movement across larger muscle groups, then move to unilateral exercises, before finishing with single-joint assistance exercises like a bicep or hamstring curl, says Rothberg. Another pro tip? Incorporate horizontal and vertical movement patterns for a balanced program.

You should have minimal overlap of muscle groups worked in a push versus pull workout, but each workout length itself may be longer since the goal is to exercise multiple muscle groups in one session, says Vasquez.

Examples Of Pushing Exercises

Dumbbell Floor Press

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    Why it rocks: The dumbbell floor press is a horizontal pushing exercise that primarily targets the chest, but you’ll also feel a burn in your triceps, says Rothberg.

    How to:

    1. Lie on your back with knees bent and feet placed flat on the ground, about a foot from butt.
    2. Hold a dumbbell in each hand and extend arms up over shoulders, palms facing toward each other.
    3. With control, bend arms and lower them to sides until triceps touch the floor (dumbbells will still be over wrists). Elbows should form a 45-degree angle with the body.
    4. Slowly reverse the movement and return to start. That’s 1 rep.

    Incline Pushup

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    Why it rocks: Not only does this move work the chest, triceps, and back, but the incline position allows you to bring your chest as low as you can while still maintaining core stability, says Rothberg.

    How to:

    1. Place your hands on the seat of the chair, bench, or box with arms extended and shoulder-width apart, facing the back of the chair.
    2. Walk your feet back until you are in a plank position. Your abs engaged, and head in alignment with spine and hips.
    3. Bend the elbows and lower your body until the elbows are at 90-degrees.
    4. Push up to the starting position. That’s 1 rep.

    Arnold Press

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    Why it rocks: Unlike a standard shoulder press, the rotating motion of the Arnold press targets your entire shoulder, so your anterior, medial, and posterior delt shoulder muscles will put in the work as you go into the full extension, says Rothberg.

    How to:

    1. Stand with feet hip-width apart, arms hanging at sides, and a dumbbell in each hand, palms facing away from you.
    2. Engage core, draw shoulders down and back, and gaze forward. Bend elbows to curl the dumbbells up to shoulders, keeping elbows tucked into sides. Palms should be facing the body. This is the starting position.
    3. On an exhale, press both dumbbells up to the ceiling, straightening arms while rotating wrists so palms face away from body. When fully pressed, hands should be aligned with shoulders.
    4. On an inhale, slowly reverse the movement, rotating wrists so palms face body and bending elbows to return to the starting position at shoulder height. That’s 1 rep.

    Dumbbell Back Squat

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    Why it rocks: This classic style of squat loads the joints and is a full compound movement that targets the glutes, quads, core, and is excellent for building overall strength, says Rothberg. The setup also allows you to grab your heaviest dumbbells or load up the barbell to see what your bod is capable of.

    How to:

    1. Start standing with feet parallel and shoulder-width apart, holding a dumbbell in both hands and resting behind the neck.
    2. Engage core, push hips back, and lower down slowly until thighs are parallel with the floor.
    3. Press through your feet to reverse the movement and return to start. That’s 1 rep.

    Overhead Triceps Extension

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    Why it rocks: If you’re looking to build arm definition, this move is definitely worth your time, says Rothberg. It also strengthens the elbow and shoulder and can help build muscle for more compound push exercises such as the bench press, she adds.

    How to:

    1. Start standing, gripping one dumbbell with both hands, and lift the weight overhead, arms straight, feet hip-width apart.
    2. Keeping upper arms by ears, bend elbows to lower the weight slowly behind your head and pause.
    3. Straighten arms, returning to start. That’s 1 rep.

    Examples Of Pulling Exercises


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      Why it rocks: The Romanian deadlift is a technique-sensitive move, but when performed correctly, it fires up the glutes, hamstrings, lower back, core, and forearms. It’s also great for building overall strength and stability in the posterior chain.

      How to:

      1. Stand with feet hip-width apart, a dumbbell in each hand facing thighs.
      2. Hinge at the hips, keeping back straight and spine long, and lower until dumbbells reach shins.
      3. Maintain a neutral position with back and neck, engage core, drive heels into the ground, and return to standing starting position, keeping dumbbells close to body as you move in both directions. That’s 1 rep.

      Alternating Bent-Over Row

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      Why it rocks: This move develops upper back strength and hits the rhomboids, rear delts, and lats, all of which are important for tall posture and shoulder health, says Rothberg.

      How to:

      1. Start with feet hip-distance apart, holding one dumbbell in each hand with palms facing each other.
      2. Hinge at hips, keeping head in line with tailbone.
      3. Bracing core, pull right elbow back until right wrist is near ribs.
      4. Lower with control to return to start position.
      5. Bracing core, pull left elbow back until left wrist is near ribs.
      6. Lower with control to return to start. That’s 1 rep.

      Gorilla Row

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      Why it rocks: The gorilla row offers major bang for your buck since it hits your upper back, lats, rhomboids, core, and hamstrings, says Rothberg. The alternating motion also trains your neuromuscular development more than doing just one side at a time, she adds.

      How to:

      1. Stand with feet wider than hip-width apart, toes pointed out, and back flat.
      2. Hinge forward at hips to grip dumbbells on the floor.
      3. Bend and pull the right elbow back and up until just above your back, while the other dumbbell rests on the floor.
      4. Low right arm back down with control to reverse the movement until the weight is back on the floor. Repeat on the other side. That’s 1 rep.

      Alternating Lat Pull-Down

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      Why it rocks: As the name suggests, the lat pull down strengthens your lats, which are the second largest muscle in the body, while simultaneously engaging your upper back and triceps, says Rothberg.

      How to:

      1. With a band around thumbs, stand with feet hip-width apart, arms overhead, hands shoulder-width apart.
      2. Pull the right elbow down as the left arm stays extended overhead, then extend arm back overhead.
      3. Repeat with the left arm. That’s 1 rep.

      Biceps Curl

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      Why it rocks: The biceps curl is a classic for a reason. Not only does it build muscle definition, but it seriously strengthens the bicep which is often the secondary mover for many pulling exercises, says Rothberg. And if the secondary mover is strong, you can lift heavier weights.

      How to:

      1. Start standing with feet hip-width apart holding a pair of dumbbells at sides. Palms should be facing forward with back straight and chest upright.
      2. Without moving upper arms, bend elbows and bring weights up toward shoulders.
      3. Slowly lower the dumbbells back to starting position with control. That’s 1 rep.

      What Is A Push-Pull-Legs Workout?

      A push-pull-legs workout is a full-body program that splits your training over three days: an upper-body push day, an upper-body pull day, and a lower-body day, says Rothberg.

      Adding legs into the push-pull split ensures you have the most balanced exercise programming possible, says Vasquez. “If you’re thinking of doing push-pull workouts, then I highly recommend also including a leg day into your weekly workout split that include exercises to target your quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, and calves, which are equally important to physique balance and daily movement.”

      Benefits Of Push-Pull Workouts

      For starters, anyone interested in building lean muscle can do it, says Vasquez. In fact, a push-pull workout may be especially beneficial if you have a difficult time stepping out of your comfort zone or get stuck doing the same routine since most people have specific body parts they love to train and neglect other muscles, she explains.

      With a push-pull split, though, you’re committing to working muscles you may not otherwise train, all while optimizing time and avoiding injury, she adds. Here are additional perks of push-pull workout splits:

      1. Promotes balance. Push-pull workouts target opposing movement patterns which ensures a balanced training program, says Vasquez. “Most people like to train specific muscle groups and avoid exercises they don’t like or aren’t confident in, but when your training scheduling is set up for push-pull days, you’re guaranteed to train a more rounded group of muscles.”
      2. Prevents fatigue. Alternating between push and pull days allows you to maintain intensity without overtraining and gives your body time to recover, says Vasquez. “If you’re working the push muscles one day, take a rest day, and then do a pull workout on the following day, there won’t be a strong overlap of muscles used,” she explains.
      3. Allows infinite progression. Thanks to the nature of push-pull workouts, you can continuously adjust variables such as volume, intensity, and exercise selection to challenge yourself and prevent plateaus, says Rothberg.
      4. Supports variety. Not only does training variety prevent boredom, but working out with machines, free weights, bodyweight exercises, cables, and resistance bands allows you to program based on your goals, preferences, and skill level, says Rothberg.
      5. Easily customizable. You don’t need to perform the most complicated lifts to execute a push-pull workout and people of varying fitness levels, regardless of what equipment they have access to, can train push-pull workouts, says Rothberg. This training style is also easily customizable depending on your needs and ability, adds Vasquez. Just change the number of exercises and sets you’re completing for a longer or shorter workout.

      Headshot of Andi Breitowich

      Andi Breitowich is a Chicago-based writer and graduate student at Northwestern Medill. She’s a mass consumer of social media and cares about women’s rights, holistic wellness, and non-stigmatizing reproductive care. As a former collegiate pole vaulter, she has a love for all things fitness and is currently obsessed with Peloton Tread workouts and hot yoga.  

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