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How to Maximize Your Workout with Push-Pull Strength Training

Do you want a flexible, balanced, easy-to-remember workout that doesn't require spending all day at the gym? Push-pull strength training is for you!

By
Brock Armstrong
Episode #462
Photo of two people lifting weights

As much as I enjoy my exercise time, I don't want to burn all of my daylight hours at the gym. I'll bet you're the same. So, when I am interested in building some muscle, I prefer to perform a push-pull strength training workout. This strategy gives me, and many of my clients, muscular and strength results in a lot less time.

What is a push-pull workout?

In a nutshell, a push-pull workout is one where you choose a single muscle or muscle group and perform a set of exercises that use those muscles in a pushing direction. Then—either immediately or during your next workout session—you focus on that same muscle or muscle group, but you move in a pulling direction.

Sound complicated? It’s not. Keep reading and you’ll understand.

Reasons to love push-pull training

In the classic muscle-building technique, you typically exercise a single muscle group each day. For example, you'll dedicate one day to your back, followed by leg, chest, arm, shoulder, and core days. It's effective, but it can be tedious, and it requires a lot more time at the gym.

As much as I enjoy my exercise time, I don't want to burn all of my daylight hours at the gym. I'll bet you're the same.

Another reason why I like the push-pull workout over the classic technique is that when I categorize my chosen exercises between whether they engage pushing or pulling muscles, it really does make building a full workout easy.

I also don't have to just sit there on the weight bench staring at the clock on the wall while I give the different muscle groups their prescribed amount of rest between sets. Instead, I'll tire out the push muscles but then let them rest while I am engaging the pull muscles.

Sure, there's some cross-over between muscle groups, but when I find that I'm not quite ready for the pull set after finishing a particularly punishing push set, I take a quick 30-second rest to get myself ready again.

Another big advantage is that if you happen to do this workout in a busy gym, you can easily choose, on-the-fly, which set of exercises to do next based on the machine or device currently available. That is, as long as you're able to keep the push-pull balance intact.

If you happen to do this workout in a busy gym, you can easily choose, on-the-fly, which set of exercises to do next based on the machine or device currently available.

The push-pull plan also allows you to use something called microcycles. With microcycles, during one session, you can use heavier weights for more strength-style training. Then, for the next session, you choose lighter weights but complete a higher amount of reps for a more hypertrophy (muscle building) workout. By using the microcycles, you can get the best of both worlds—strength, and size.

If you're new to strength training, you'll likely find that adding a push-pull workout into your exercise regimen makes it easier to plan a routine. Instead of having to remember which muscles are your quads or your delts, or figure out how to target your triceps, you simply need to make a quick assessment. Decide whether a part of your body—arm, leg, back, chest, and so on—is pushing or pulling a weight, and you're good to go.

As I already hinted, this type of workout is very time-efficient. So, if you find it difficult to build the time into your day to get a good workout done, this exercise pattern will allow you to maximize every minute. The time-saving aspect of this workout is achieved by doing something referred to as a superset. Let's take a look.

What are supersets?

A superset is when you perform a set of one exercise followed immediately by a set of a different exercise. The catch? There is no rest period or break between the sets.

In general, there are three different types of supersets.

  1. Perform a set for one muscle group, such as leg extensions for your quadriceps. Then, with no rest, do a set for the opposing muscle group, such as leg curls for your hamstrings.
  2. Perform both sets for the same muscle group, such as chest flies followed by chest presses. This is a more traditional style of bodybuilding workout where you focus on one body part per day.
  3. Perform three or four, back-to-back exercises for the same muscle group, such as triceps pushdowns to narrow grip push-ups to dips-to-triceps overhead extensions. This is called a giant superset.

Sample workout

This is exactly the upper-body workout I did two days ago—and I'm still sore!

After a good warm-up (I rode my bike to the gym and then spent 10 minutes on the elliptical machine) you can try going through this push-pull routine.

Chest and back

  • Push: Barbell chest press
  • Pull: Inverted row

Go back and forth four or five times through before moving on to the next set of exercises.

Back and shoulders

  • Push: Overhead press (or military press)
  • Pull: Pull-ups (or lat pull-downs)

Go back and forth four or five times through before moving on to the next exercise.

Arms

  • Push: Triceps dips (or skull crushers)
  • Pull: Dumbbell or barbell bicep curl

Go back and forth four or five times through before moving on to the next exercise.

Pecs and shoulders

  • Push: Cable flies
  • Pull: Cable external rotations

Again, do this four or five times through.

Delts and shoulders

  • Push: Lateral dumbbell raises
  • Pull: Straight arm pull-down

Since this general area had already been exercised, you can do this three or four times before the final exercise.

Core

  • Push: Good mornings (or supermans)
  • Pull: Hanging leg raise (or full sit-up)

To finish off, do this four or five times through

You've probably gotten the gist of this workout by now. Basically, choose an exercise and think about what muscles it uses. Then choose an exercise that either counterbalances that exercise or uses the muscles on the other side of the same body part. Easy, right?

Alternate day push-pull

So far, I've only addressed what would be considered a one-day push-pull routine. But you can do the same pattern on alternating days—one day is all push-movements and the next day is all pull-exercises. Then, you can take a rest day (or two) and do it all again.

  • Push day: work your quads, glutes, pecs, triceps, and abs
  • Pull day: focus on your traps, lats, biceps, deltoids erectors, and lower back

Again, the main benefits of doing either of these push-pull training methods are how adaptable they are and how time-effective they can be. The one-day version can be done two or three times per week and the alternate-day routine can be broken into four short days by simply dividing the exercises between four days.

Push-pull strength training prevents muscle imbalances

This type of training is simple, adaptable, and will go a long way towad keeping your body nicely balanced.

The most important thing you should be focussed on while choosing what workout you want to do today is how much you'll enjoy it.

As we know, spending too much time developing your chest muscles and not enough time with back strengthening can cause poor posture. Focussing too much on your abs and not enough on the rest of your core can lead to lower back pain and hip imbalances. By pushing and pulling for each body part or muscle group, you can ensure that you're maintaining balance as you strengthen and build muscle mass.

Remember, there are benefits to all lifting routines. Don't get hung up on doing only one or the other. Push-pull is just one arrow in your quiver of strength training workouts along with super slow sets, drop sets, occlusion training, and pretty much anything else you can dream up.

The most important thing you should be focussed on while choosing what workout you want to do today is how much you'll enjoy it. Let's face it, life's too short to hate your workout routine.

About the Author

Brock Armstrong

Brock Armstrong is a certified AFLCA Group Fitness Leader with a designation in Portable Equipment, NCCP and CAC Triathlon Coach, and a TnT certified run coach. He is also on the board of advisors for the Primal Health Coach Institute and a guest faculty member of the Human Potential Institute. Do you have a fitness question? Leave a message on the Get-Fit Guy listener line. Your question could be featured on the show. 

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