Find out the benefits of adopting a push-pull workout plan and how to get started.

By Renee Cherry
October 24, 2019
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If you hear someone reference their recent "push day" at the gym, they don't mean they spent the session working harder than usual. Push and pull workouts incorporate exercises that utilize a pushing motion and or when pulling, respectively. For instance, a push day might include squats (yes, the same movement patterns are done with your lower body, as well) and push-ups, while a pull day might incorporate biceps curls and bent-over rows. Pushing and pulling are two of the basic movement patterns that make up functional training, along with motions like hinging and rotation.

What's the draw? Adopting a push-pull workout routine is one way to avoid working the same muscles back to back or overtraining the front of your body while ignoring your posterior chain. "Alternating days of push and pull workouts gives your muscles a chance to rest and recover because you're working the opposite muscles," explains Bryant Johnson, creator of the RBG workout and expert for The Vitamin Shoppe. "Timewise, these workouts allow you to get a lot of work in while attacking muscle groups in a different way." (Related: 7 Exercise Machines That Are Actually Worth Your Time)

You can choose from a variety of ways to approach a push/pull workout routine:

  • Upper/lower: Do a push/pull upper body day followed by a push/pull lower body day.
  • Total-body push/total-body pull: Spend a day on pull moves (both upper and lower body). The next day, do all push moves (both upper and lower body).
  • Push/pull/legs: Another popular option is to adopt a "push/pull/legs" workout split, which entails doing an upper-body push day, then an upper-body pull day, then a general leg day.
  • Push/pull together: You can also bring both movement patterns together and do one workout that incorporates both pushing and pulling exercises for a balanced workout. This can focus on your upper or lower body, or both.

No matter how you choose to divvy it up, the goal is to avoid working the same muscles on consecutive workouts or days. "Be sure to leave a day of rest in between exercising a given muscle group, either way you split it up," advises Johnson. "This is essential for your body to recover so that you can get back to your full strength and repeat the workout again."

Below, you'll find two workouts from Johnson, one push and one pull workout. He opted for simple moves—you've seen these all before—combined into two total-body sequences. Use them to create your own push-pull exercise plan using equipment at the gym. Want to do it at home? Adjust the moves to use resistance bands the next time you need a travel-friendly workout. (Related: How to Create Your Own Muscle-Building Workout Plan)

Push Workout

How it works: Perform 3-4 sets of 10-12 reps of each exercise.

Total Time: up to 45 minutes

You will need: dumbbells

1. Chest Fly

A. Start lying on a bench or the floor, holding a dumbbell in each hand, arms extended (but not locked) so that dumbbells are hovering directly over chest.

B. Keeping elbows slightly bent, lower both arms out to sides. Pause when they reach shoulder height.

C. Squeeze chest to raise dumbbells and bring them together to return to start.

2. Chest Press

A. Start lying on a bench or the floor, holding a dumbbell in each hand with elbows open to sides so that triceps are perpendicular to torso, palms facing feet.

B. Press dumbbells away from chest, straightening arms so that dumbbells are directly over shoulders.

C. Lower dumbbells and bend elbows to return to start.

3. Overhead Triceps Press

A. Start holding one end of a dumbbell with both hands, arms extended overhead.

B. Keeping elbows in, slowly lower dumbbell behind head until it's in line with shoulders. Straighten arms to return to start.

4. Shoulder Press

A. Start with a dumbbell in each hand, arms raised at shoulder height with a 90-degree bend in elbows, palms facing forward.

B. Straighten arms to raise dumbbells overhead until arms are fully extended. Pause, then slowly bend arms to lower dumbbells and return to start.

5. Dumbbell Squat

A. Start standing with feet shoulder-width apart, holding a dumbbell to chest.

B. Hinge at hips and bend knees to a 90-degree angle, then squeeze glutes and straighten legs to return to start.

Pull Workout

How it works: Perform 3-4 sets of 10-12 reps of each exercise.

Total Time: up to 45 minutes

You will need: dumbbells, a lat pull-down machine, and a seated row machine

1. Biceps Curl

A. Hold a dumbbell in each hand at sides with palms facing in.

B. Raise dumbbells to shoulder heigh while rotating wrists in so that palms face chest.

C. Lower dumbbells and rotate wrists out to return to start.

2. Knee Lift

A. Start standing with feet together. Raise one knee so that it's bent at a 90-degree angle directly in front of body.

B. Keeping thigh parallel to the floor, swing leg outward and inward from the hip for one rep. Continue to swing leg out and in, then switch sides and repeat.

3. Seated Row

A. Attach a narrow grip bar to the bottom cable of a seated row machine. Sit with back straight and legs extended with a slight bend in the knees.

B. Keeping abs engaged, draw elbows back next to ribs and squeeze shoulder blades together to pull the bar toward belly button.

C. Slowly straighten arms to return to start.

4. Reverse Fly

A. Hold a dumbbell in each hand at sides. Keeping back straight and knees slightly bent, hinge at hips and bend forward until torso is at a 45-degree angle. Let hands hang directly below shoulders, palms facing each other.

B. Keeping core engaged and leading with the elbows, lift dumbbells up to the sides until they reach shoulder height.

C. Pause at top, then slowly lower dumbbells until they're directly below shoulders to return to start.

5. Deadlift

A. Stand with a dumbbell in each hand, dumbbells resting in front of hips, palms facing thighs

B. Keeping core engaged and back flat, send hips backward and bend knees slightly until dumbbells reach shins.

C. Send hips forward, straighten knees, and squeeze glutes to return to start.

6. Lat Pull-down

A. Attach a wide-grip bar to a lat pull-down machine. Sit down facing the machine and adjust pads so that they rest securely but comfortably on thighs. Stand up and grab bar with palms facing away, then sit down, slide legs under pads, and lean back slightly with arms extended overhead to start.

B. Keeping back straight and core engaged, pull bar down toward chest.

C. Pause, then allow elbows to straighten to extend bar overhead with control to return to start.

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