Let’s go back to the ’80s—back to the era of Miami Vice, Mötley Crüe, parachute pants, and Lee Haney’s dominance of bodybuilding. Just as you don’t hear “totally awesome” much anymore, another term from back then has slipped out of popular usage in gyms. It’s “push-pull,” and it’s a way of dividing your upper body workouts into pushing muscles on one day and pulling muscles on another day. This was especially popular in the ’80s when most bodybuilders trained individual muscles less frequently than they did in the ’70s but not as infrequently as they do today. We’ll explore this evolution and explain why a push-pull system is still a totally awesome way of working muscles more often.

push-pull Lee Haney
8-time Mr. Olympia Lee Haney was a push-pull proponent.

SPLIT DECISIONS  

It seemed like Arnold Schwarzenegger lived in Gold’s Gym. In the early ’70s when he was Mr. Olympia, he worked out twice daily and trained body parts three times per week (not counting calves and abs, which he trained daily). Not everyone had the luxury of hitting the iron twice daily, but almost every bodybuilder was working body parts every other day. By the late ’70s, this started to change. Splits that stressed muscles twice per week were the norm. And in the ’80s, this was often stretched to twice every eight days via a popular three-on, one-off split (three training days, followed by one rest day).

In any split in which your workouts are spread over three consecutive days, typically one is leg day. Then the question is, how do you organize your upper body work over the remaining two days to maximize rest for each muscle? If you hit chest and back one day and shoulders and arms the next, you’re going to stress delts, biceps, and triceps on both days. This is because front delts and triceps assist on chest presses and dips, and rear delts and biceps assist on almost every back exercise. Any split that results in this double-stress for shoulders and arms is going to reduce your growth-inducing recuperation for those areas.

The best solution is the push-pull system. Exercises in which your elbow joints are straight at contractions (bench presses, shoulder presses, pushdowns, etc.) are pushers. Exercises in which your elbow joints are bent at contractions (rows, pulldowns, barbell curls, etc.) or in which you lift vertically (deadlifts, shrugs, etc.) are pullers. Pushers and pullers are divided into separate workouts. So, you work chest, front and side delts, and triceps in a push workout, and back, rear delts, traps, and biceps in a pull workout. This allows you to train body parts twice weekly or twice every eight days with sufficient time to recuperate between workouts.

Push-pull one-arm dumbbell row
Pulling one-arm dumbbell rows.

PUSH-PULL BASICS

• This system is ideal for splits in which your body is divided into three workouts over three days.

• Schedule pushing muscles (chest, front and side delts, triceps) for one workout.

• Schedule pulling muscles (back, rear delts, traps, biceps) for a different workout.

• Each workout should progress like this: chest or back first, shoulder muscle(s) next, arm muscles last.

• Despite the name, you can do a pull day before a push day.

PUSH-PULL TIP SHEET                                   

• Many people like to train legs after an off-day. However, to maximize recuperation for your upper body muscles, schedule leg day between the push and pull days.

• If you train your body over four consecutive days instead of three, you can still do a push-pull split. Do push (without triceps) and pull (without biceps and forearms) on the first two days, legs on day three, and arms on day four. Take at least one off-day, then repeat.

• Legs can also be divided into push (quads) and pull (hamstrings) workouts. 

• Calves and abs can be trained on any of the three days.

• Push-pull can be done on any schedule. For example, you can train three days per week: Monday (pull), Wednesday (push), Friday (legs).

Push-pull incline press
Pushing incline presses.

PUSH-PULL 3-ON, 1-OFF TRAINING SPLIT

Day 1   PUSH: Chest, front and side delts, triceps

Day 2   LEGS: Quads, hamstrings, calves, abs

Day 3   PULL: Back, rear delts, traps, biceps, forearms

Day 4   OFF

SAMPLE PUSH WORKOUT

Chest

Barbell Bench Press     4 x 12-8

Dumbbell Incline Press      4 x 12-8                           

Cable Crossover     4 x 10-12

Dip     3 x 10-12

Front and Side Delts

Barbell Shoulder Press     4 x 12-8

Dumbbell Front Raise     3 x 10-12

Side Lateral     5 x 10-15

Triceps

Lying Triceps Extension     4 x 10-12

Dumbbell Triceps Extension    3 x 10-12       

Pushdown  4 x 10-12

SAMPLE PULL WORKOUT

Back

Front Pulldown 4 x 10-12

Barbell Row     4 x 12-8

One-arm Dumbbell Row     4 x 10-12

Low-cable Row 3 x 10-15

Rear Delts

Machine Rear Lateral     4 x 10-15

Trapezius

Dumbbell Shrug 4 x 10-12

Biceps

EZ-bar Curl 4 x 10-12

Machine Curl 4 x 10-12       

Incline Dumbbell Curl     3 x 10-12

Forearms

Wrist Curl     4 x 12-15