If you want to gain muscle, which routine works best? A push/pull/legs or full-body split?
In general, a full-body workout split is better suited to people who prefer lifting 3-4 times a week, or those who are able to make progress with a relatively low volume of training.
A push/pull/legs workout split is a better option if you’re able to lift weights 5-6 days a week, and require a higher volume of training to stimulate growth.
Typically, full-body splits are used by people who are relatively new to lifting weights, while body part splits tend to be more popular with intermediate and advanced lifters.
It is possible to get some of the benefits of a PPL workout split with only three weekly training days, which I’ll talk more about in a moment.
First, let’s take a closer look at the pros and cons of each one, so you can choose a routine that’s right for you.
What is a Full Body Split?
Rather than focus on one or two muscle groups, a full-body workout routine involves training your whole body – chest, back, shoulders, triceps, biceps, glutes, hamstrings, quads and calves – in a single training session.
Most full-body workouts revolve around compound lifts that work multiple muscle groups at the same time.
A full-body workout will typically include 1-2 upper-body pulling and pushing movements (e.g. chin-ups, bench press, barbell rows, shoulder press), 1-2 exercises for the legs (e.g. squat, Romanian deadlift, leg press), along with several isolation movements for the shoulders and arms (e.g. triceps pressdown, hammer curls, barbell curls).
The default version of the full-body split involves training on alternate days, such as Monday, Wednesday and Friday, then taking Saturday and Sunday off.
Here’s what it looks like:
- Monday: Full Body Workout 1
- Tuesday: Off
- Wednesday: Full Body Workout 2
- Thursday: Off
- Friday: Full Body Workout 3
- Saturday: Off
- Sunday: Off
Most full-body splits involve 2-4 training days a week, although there is a case to be made for more frequent full-body workouts performed 5-6 times a week.
However, this approach is better suited to more advanced lifters, and requires a full-body training program that’s specifically designed for a higher frequency of training.
That is, don’t take a training program designed to be performed three times a week, and do it six days a week instead.
It’s a subject I talk more about here.
What is a Push/Pull/Legs Split?
A push/pull/legs split, also known as PPL, is a training program that involves working different body parts on different days.
Muscle groups that work together are trained in the same workout, while the other muscles get a chance to recover and grow.
One day is devoted to upper body pushing movements, a second day to upper body pulling movements, and a third day to lower body exercises.
The push workout targets the chest, shoulders, and triceps, which are worked by compound lifts like the bench press, incline dumbbell press and dumbbell shoulder press, along with some isolation exercises for the side delts and triceps.
The pull workout targets the upper back and biceps, which are worked by compound lifts like the seated row, dumbbell row and lat pulldown, along with some isolation exercises for the biceps, brachialis and rear delts.
Finally, the lower body workout hits the quadriceps, glutes, hamstrings and calves with exercises like the squat, leg press, leg extension, deadlift, leg curl, and calf raise.
Here’s what a 6-day PPL split looks like:
- Monday: Push Day 1
- Tuesday: Pull Day 1
- Wednesday: Legs Day 1
- Thursday: Push Day 2
- Friday: Pull Day 2
- Saturday: Legs Day 2
- Sunday: Off
Push/Pull/Legs vs Full Body: Which is Better?
The effectiveness of any workout routine, be it a full-body training program or push/pull/legs routine, depends on a number of factors, including:
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- How often can you train?
- How much time can you spend in the gym?
- How many sets do your muscles need to grow?
Let’s take a look at each in turn.
How Often Can You Train?
The effectiveness of both routines depends a lot on your training frequency. And by training frequency, I’m talking about the number of times each week a particular muscle group is trained.
One of the main benefits of a full-body training program is that you hit each muscle group 3-4 times a week.
Even if you miss a workout or two and end up training two days that week rather than 3 or 4, you still end up working your whole body twice a week.
Why is that important?
On the whole, studies show that hitting a muscle group at least twice per week works better than once a week .
Hitting a muscle just once a week is still going to make that muscle grow. It’s just that the gains are likely to come more slowly compared to working that same muscle twice a week.
In short, if you’re training 2-4 days a week, a full-body split is the way to go. But if you’ve got 5-6 days a week to train, go with a PPL split.
How Much Time Do You Have to Train?
Something else to consider is the amount of time you have available to train. Some folks have a schedule that means shorter workouts performed more often are the way to go. Others prefer longer workouts performed less often.
For example, let’s say that you have a gym set up home in a garage or spare room. You find it easier to fit a workout into your day if it’s relatively short – somewhere in the region of 30-40 minutes.
Hitting the gym six days per week, for instance, might mean that you’re able to get each training session done in 30 minutes.
Squeezing the same amount of training into three workouts means that each one is going to take longer than an hour, which may not fit your schedule.
On the flip side, perhaps you train at a commercial gym that you drive to before or after work.
Driving there in the middle of rush hour, changing into your gym gear, lifting weights, having a shower, getting changed (again), then driving home isn’t something you fancy doing 5-6 days a week.
In short, you may find it easier to train 5-6 days a week, doing shorter, more frequent workouts. In which case, a PPL split would be the way to go. If you prefer longer training sessions performed 3-4 days per week, go with a full-body training program.
For the same number of weekly sets, most people will build muscle at a similar rate with both approaches, and should go with the training program they’re most likely to stay with for the long haul.
How Many Sets Do Your Muscles Need to Grow?
There’s a link between training volume and muscle growth, in the sense that higher training volumes typically lead to muscle being gained more quickly .
However, there is a limit on the amount of stimulation your muscles can respond to in any one workout, and there comes a point where adding more sets becomes counterproductive.
That is, if your training volume is too low, your muscles won’t get the message that they need to start growing.
But if your training volume is too high, not only will you be wasting time, but muscle growth will happen more slowly.
A good example of this ceiling effect comes from a trial published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, where researchers took three groups of trained men, and got them to do 6, 9 or 12 sets of squats twice a week .
After two months of lifting, ultrasound and DEXA scans showed no significant difference in the rate of lower body hypertrophy between the three groups.
The 12-set group almost doubled their weekly set count relative to what they’d been doing prior to enrolling in the study. But this big difference in volume didn’t translate into a faster rate of muscle growth.
They did twice the work, but they didn’t see twice the gains.
Doing 6 sets for your chest in a single workout might be twice as effective as doing 3 sets. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that 12 sets is going to outperform 6 sets to the same extent.
Here’s something else that’s very important.
There’s a large degree of individual variability in terms of the amount of volume needed to stimulate hypertrophy.
There was an interesting study published a few years back, where researchers compared a low and moderate training volume, to see which had the biggest impact on muscle growth .
In total, the low-volume program involved 4-6 sets per week, while the moderate-volume program involved 12-18 sets per week.
After 12 weeks, the higher volume of training did lead to more muscle being built.
Muscles trained with a moderate volume grew by a little over five percent, compared to around four percent in muscles trained with fewer sets.
However, while there was a benefit to a higher volume of training, the extra growth didn’t match up with the extra work. That is, while the moderate-volume program involved three times the volume, it didn’t lead to muscle being gained three times as fast.
More interesting still, of the 34 subjects taking part in the study, 13 displayed clear benefits of the higher training volume on muscle growth.
But the rest made similar progress irrespective of how many sets they did. In fact, a few individuals saw faster growth in the muscles trained with fewer sets.
Meaning, some folks can gain muscle at a decent rate on a relatively small amount of volume. Others will need more training to stimulate a similar amount of hypertrophy.
That’s why it’s important to experiment. And the logical way to do so is to start out with a lower training volume and gradually work your way up.
If you’re not sure where to start, go with a full-body workout performed 3 days a week on alternate days, such as Monday, Wednesday and Friday, or Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.
Do a total of 4 sets for the major muscle groups in each workout, for a total of 12 weekly sets. Keep track of your progress. If you’re seeing results, then keep on doing what you’re doing.
Over time, it’s normal for your progress to slow down. But if the results start to dry up completely, it’s worth experimenting with a higher volume of training to see how your body responds.
Getting the message to your muscles that they need to keep on growing may require more work in the gym.
Problem is, a 3-day full body split doesn’t always lend itself to higher training volumes. As your set count goes up, so does the amount of time you spend in the gym. And most people don’t have an unlimited amount of time to devote to training.
What’s more, the longer your workouts last, the more likely it is you’ll run out of steam towards the end of a training session. The muscles being worked later in that training session aren’t going to receive the same level of effort as the ones trained at the start.
For a beginner, muscles do tend to respond well to resistance training, and impressive results can often be had with a relatively small volume of training.
But over time, your body adapts, making the acquisition of additional muscle mass progressively slower and more difficult.
How to Combine Push/Pull/Legs with Full Body
One of the reasons that some people like focusing on 2-3 muscle groups in a single workout is because of how it makes them feel.
During the workout itself, the extra volume means that you get a much better pump. Your muscles blow up and feel full. Your skin feels tight.
You look more muscular than you really are, especially if you’re looking at yourself in your favorite mirror where the lighting is just right.
The next day, your muscles feel sore. And while there’s no proven link between muscle soreness and muscle growth, it still feels good.
You don’t tend to get either of those things to the same extent with a full-body workout.
However, it is possible to combine a full-body and PPL split in such a way that you get the benefits of both. That is, you get the pump and post-training muscle soreness associated with a PPL split while still working your whole body three days a week.
You focus on different muscle groups in each full-body workout, while cutting back on what you do for others. You’re still training the whole body three days a week, but each workout emphasizes certain muscle groups while deemphasizing others.
That is, your first full-body workout of the week will involve more sets for the chest, shoulders and triceps. You still hit the legs, back and biceps, but with fewer sets and exercises.
Workout two is focused on the back and biceps, with less work for the legs, chest, shoulders and triceps.
Then in your third training session, volume is ramped up for the quads and hamstrings, with correspondingly less work for the upper body.
Push Pull Legs Specialization Cycles
You could also apply the same principle to your workouts over a longer period of time with the use of short specialization cycles.
The idea behind a specialization cycle is that you focus on improving 2-3 areas of the body at a time, hitting those muscles with more total sets.
Training volume for the rest of the body is reduced, with the aim of simply maintaining size and strength in those areas (it takes fewer sets to maintain muscle mass than it does to build it in the first place).
The muscles you’re focused on during a particular specialization cycle are trained first in the workout when you’re fresh. They also get the most volume relative to everything else.
As an example, you might spend 3-4 weeks specializing on your chest, shoulders and triceps, while the legs, back and biceps get less work.
Depending on how your overall training program is set up, that might mean a total of 12-15 sets for your chest, shoulders and triceps (6 sets for your chest, 4 sets for your shoulders and 3 sets for your triceps) in a particular workout, repeated three times a week.
The back, biceps, quads and hamstrings, on the other hand, might just get a couple of sets each. Remember, you’re not necessarily trying to build muscle here. The goal is just to maintain what you already have.
For the next 3-4 weeks, the back and biceps get the extra volume, while everything else is put on maintenance mode.
Then in the next phase, your lower body (quadriceps, glutes, hamstrings and calves) gets the extra attention, with the upper body muscles switched to maintenance.
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