You can approach strength training in a variety of ways. One of the most popular is a split routine where you work your upper body during one session and lower body in a separate one, alternating back and forth. Some people take another approach. They focus on working a single muscle group during a training session, for example, “shoulders” day or “biceps” day. These approaches work but they have drawbacks as well.
Keep in mind, when you target your biceps, you’re also working your shoulders and your shoulders may still be recovering from “shoulder day.” Plus, this approach doesn’t take into account how muscles function, as a unit to accomplish a certain task – pushing or pulling. That’s why another approach is gaining in popularity – push-pull training.
What is a Push-Pull Training Approach?
A push-pull approach to strength training is to structure your sessions around the way your muscles actually function. We know that muscles are capable of pushing and pulling and each movement uses different muscle groups.
When you do a pulling exercise, the muscles you recruit contract as you pull the weight toward your body. This is the concentric portion of the movement. As you release the weight and it moves away from your body, the muscle relaxes. This is the eccentric portion of the movement.
How about a pushing exercise? When you do a push exercise, like a barbell overhead press, the muscles contract as you press the bar over your head (concentric) and relax as you bring the bar back down to the starting position. (eccentric)
Pushing movements primarily work your triceps, chest, quadriceps, and shoulders whereas pulling movements mainly work the opposing muscles, the muscles of the back, biceps, and hamstrings. So, you’re working different muscle groups when you push as opposed to pulling. By working all of your “push” muscles on one day and the “pull” muscles on another, you take advantage of how the muscles function as a unit rather than targeting a single muscle group.
Advantages of the Push-Pull Approach
One benefit of using a push-pull split is you lower your risk of overexerting a particular muscle. If you’re training by body part, you might work your chest, shoulders, and triceps on separate days but you also activate your triceps when you work your shoulders. Therefore, these muscles may not get enough time to recover between each session. As you know, rest and recovery are critical for muscles to grow, as growth occurs during the rest period between sessions. Not giving individual muscle groups enough time to recuperate can limit their growth. Too often, people think working harder and resting less will bring about change when muscles actually need rest to build new muscle fibers.
Another advantage of a push-pull approach is it challenges your muscles in a different manner. If you’re accustomed to training in a traditional manner, adopting this approach can awaken your muscles and, hopefully, spur new growth and strength gains. Too often, we get comfortable with the routine we’re doing and repeat it over and over until the muscles adapt and no longer respond. A push-pull approach can shock your muscles into growth and give your motivation a jumpstart as well. No doubt, you need variety in your training to keep things interesting.
Finally, a push-pull approach is more consistent with the way your body naturally moves. That’s what muscles do, they push and pull. Plus, working muscles by function rather than focusing on individual muscles ensures you’re not over or under-training a particular muscle and creating muscle imbalances. Strength imbalances can lead to injuries and posture problems. When you concentrate on pushing and pulling exercises as distinct entities and devote equal time to them, you’re working the agonist and antagonist muscles in a balanced manner. When you push a weight away from you, the muscle doing the pushing is called the agonist muscle. As the agonist muscle contracts, the antagonist muscle lengthens. To create muscle balance, both sets of muscles need to be strong.
As an example, when you do a pushing exercise, like a chest press, you use the muscles in your chest as well as your triceps, along with the anterior portion of your deltoids and they become stronger. Yet, the antagonist muscles, the muscles in your upper back and the back of your shoulder also need to be strengthened for balance. A “pull” exercise like rows and its variations target these muscles to create symmetry and balance. For the shoulders, overhead presses are a classic push exercise while exercises that pull down from overhead, as well as exercises like pull-ups and chin-ups, work the opposing muscles.
Ready to Try a Push-Pull Split?
To do a push-pull split, you can devote one day to doing all of your pulling exercises. During the next session, switch to push exercises only, switching back and forth with a day or two of rest thrown in. Some people split up the days into a heavy push or heavy pull day and then a light one. One the heavy day “push” day, include more demanding exercises like front squats, overhead presses, while on light “press” days, stick to easier exercises like dumbbell flies, triceps extensions, Bulgarian squats, and leg presses. On heavy “pull” days, include deadlifts, pull-ups, and heavy dumbbell curls. For light “pull” days, dumbbell rows, leg curls, rear delt flies, and dumbbell shrugs.
The Bottom Line
Doing a push-pull split routine where you focus on pulling exercises and push movements in separate sessions has advantages, as mentioned, over the traditional approach. By using this approach, you avoid overworking muscles and train muscles as functional groups rather than as isolated muscles. Also, if your muscle growth has stagnated, it’s a way to change your routine and potentially jumpstart your muscle growth again. You don’t want your muscles to get too complacent. Complacency breeds stagnation and boredom. Give your muscles new challenges – but make sure they rest as well.
On Fitness. May/June 2017. “Pull-Press”
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