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Why You Need Push and Pull Movements In Your Workouts

If you’ve ever struggled with organizing your strength routine, this concept can help.

By Lauren MazzoJuly 9, 2024

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You don’t need to be on the weight room-obsessed corner of the internet to have heard the phrase “push-pull workout.” 

Though it sounds like something reserved for strength athletes, push-pull workout programming is actually functional training at its best: pushing and pulling are two of the six foundational movement patterns, and you likely do them with your body countless times a day without realizing it. Think of pulling a door open, for example, or pushing yourself up off the floor after playing with your dog.

Training these movements in your strength routine can be a great way to work out with longevity in mind and keep your body moving well for life. But how, exactly, do you structure a push-pull workout routine? Here’s what exercise pros have to say.

What Does “Push-Pull” Refer to In Strength Training? 

“In strength training, ‘push’ and ‘pull’ refer to the direction of force used in exercises that target muscle groups on the front and back of the body,” explains John Gallucci Jr.,, a physical therapist and CEO of JAG Physical Therapy. “Push exercises use muscles to push away from the body, while pull exercises use muscles to pull toward the body.”

Push and pull exercises can be done with all types of equipment (including your body weight); however, if you’re having trouble understanding the concept, it can help to visualize them as moves done with free weights. “Push exercises are movements where you push a weight away from your body using mainly the chest, shoulders, and triceps (think: bench press, chest press, shoulder press, and tricep dips),” explains Peloton Instructor Katie Wang. “Pull exercises are movements where you pull a weight towards your body, so think movements that engage the back, biceps, and forearms (like pull-ups, rows, and bicep curls).” 

“Push” and “pull” training most commonly refer to upper body exercises since you typically use your hands to push or pull objects or weights, but the concept can also apply to your lower body. In that case, push movements involve directing force away from your body (often through your feet and into the floor, as with squats). Lower body pull movements will use your posterior chain muscles and typically involve hinging at the hips and pulling a weight toward your torso. 

Why You Need Both Types of Movements

If you want to improve your push-ups, you might be tempted to go all-in on push exercises, and if you want to master a pull-up, you might think you need to do tons of pull moves—but that’s not the idea behind push-pull workouts. It’s important to include both push and pull movements in your routine to help you target multiple muscle groups and build well-rounded strength, Gallucci says. Overworking one side or movement pattern could result in muscle imbalances such as quad dominance or forward-rounded posture

What Is a Push-Pull Workout, Exactly?

Really, push-pull isn’t a type of workout but, rather, a training style. It involves organizing your strength training into a workout split—when you dedicate different days to working different muscle groups or body parts. For example, some people may simply train their upper body on one day and their lower body on another. Bodybuilders might have days dedicated to training their chest and triceps, back and biceps, legs, and shoulders separately. 

Someone following a push-pull routine typically separates their strength training into days of push exercises and days of pull exercises. They may round out the week with leg workouts, cardio, or other activities (but more on that below). 

It is possible to combine push moves and pull moves into one comprehensive workout—this, you might call a “push-pull workout.” Though this won’t have the same benefits as a push-pull split workout routine, it’ll work muscles on both sides of your body in the same workout and may help you better visualize the balancing of your strength work.

Which Muscles Are Push Muscles? 

In general, push muscles are part of the anterior chain, the group of muscles that run up the front of your body. In the upper body, push muscles include the pectoralis (chest), deltoids (shoulders), and triceps. In the lower body, the quadriceps are the primary push muscles, Gallucci says.

Which Muscles Are Pull Muscles?

Pull muscles tend to be part of the posterior chain, the group of muscles along the back of your body. Some of the upper body muscles typically used in pull movements are the biceps and your back, specifically the rhomboid muscles and trapezius, Gallucci says. In the lower body, the hamstrings and gluteal muscles are the primary pull muscles.

The Benefits of Push-Pull Workouts

First and foremost, push-pull workouts help you get stronger. “Push-pull movements are key for building and strengthening muscles and help with reducing imbalances within the body,” Katie says. “All of this is important for proper movement function throughout the body.”

Dedicating an entire workout to push or pull movements can help ensure the targeted muscles get pushed to the max—exactly where strength gains are made. “Structuring a workout into push or pull will allow certain muscle groups to be utilized to fatigue, helping increase muscle mass since only certain groups are being worked on each workout,” Gallucci explains.

On that note, muscle growth is a notable perk of structuring your workouts this way. A 2021 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research directly compared the results of a total-body strength routine to that of a split training program (in which participants did days dedicated to pushing, pulling, legs, and shoulders), and found that a split program was better at stimulating muscle growth, while the total body program was better at increasing maximal strength. (Note that the study was on trained men, so it’s unclear if this training might affect untrained people or other genders differently.)

Splitting up your workout this way also gives muscles the optimal amount of time to recover between workouts—which research shows is between 48 and 72 hours—since you’re not working the same ones every day. “Focusing on different muscle groups during different workouts can help reduce stress and strain on your body, which can help prevent injuries and create a more balanced body,” says Gallucci. This is key because overworking your muscles or denying them recovery time can slow muscle gains, he says.

Woman does push-up in park

Daniel Lozano Gonzalez/Moment via Getty Images

Examples of Push Exercises

Here are some classic examples of push exercises from Katie and Gallucci. This is just scratching the surface—many quad, shoulder, chest, and triceps exercises also fall under the push umbrella.

  • Push-up: “Never underestimate the power of a bodyweight exercise,” Katie says. Push-ups are a great, effective push exercise. 

  • Bench Press: This is one of Gallucci’s favorite push exercises. If you can’t yet press an unloaded barbell, try this with a mini barbell or, instead, do chest presses with dumbbells.

  • Chest Press: “I love any variation of a chest press for a push exercise,” Katie says. 

  • Overhead Shoulder Press: This shoulder exercise also works your triceps, pecs, and core as you push the weights away from your body.  

  • Tricep Dips: Tricep dips are another effective bodyweight push exercise that Katie recommends. 

  • Squats: Squats (including the many variations) are one of Gallucci’s top lower-body push exercises. 

  • Lunges: Yep, lunges are also a push exercise, since you’re pressing your body weight away from the floor, similar to squats. 

Woman does a deadlift, a beginner leg exercise

Examples of Pull Exercises

Katie and Gallucci recommend the pull exercises below. Many exercises that target the back, biceps, hamstrings, and glutes also drill the pull movement.

  • Biceps Curl: This is a classic pull exercise recommended by Gallucci. Do it with dumbbells, kettlebells, barbells, resistance bands, or a cable machine. 

  • Bent-Over Barbell Row: Variations of rows are some of my go to pull exercises,” Katie says, including this row with a barbell and the below single-arm variation.

  • Single-Arm Row: This is another pull-day favorite of Katie’s. You can perform this single-arm row with a medium- to heavy-weight dumbbell or kettlebell.

  • Cable Column Rows: If you have a cable machine in your gym or home workout space, try a horizontal row, which is a favorite pull exercise of Gallucci’s.

  • Pull-Up: “If you don't have dumbbells or a cable machine available once again bodyweight exercises like a chin-up or pull-up are still a great challenge,” Katie says.

  • Lat Pull-down: With a cable machine or resistance band, you can do this powerful pull exercise that targets your latissimus dorsi, a back muscle that’s actually the largest in your upper body.

  • Deadlifts: This is another favorite of Gallucci. Whether Romanian deadlifts, staggered-stance deadlifts, or single-leg deadlifts, they’re all pull moves.

Sample Push-Pull Workout Routine

The National Strength and Conditioning Association recommends that beginners to resistance training start with two or three strength training sessions per week. Intermediate exercises should do three strength sessions a week if using a total-body program or four days a week if using a split program. For advanced exercisers, the NSCA recommends four to six strength workouts per week. This is because “individuals who are already accustomed to resistance training can only maintain their strength gains and cannot increase strength levels with one or two days per week,” per the NSCA. 

Peloton offers several total body strength and split programs in the Peloton App.

Here’s what a sample push-pull workout routine might look like for a beginner. An intermediate exerciser might split their routine into an upper body push day, lower body push day, upper body pull day, and lower body pull day, with two days of rest, to hit four strength workouts per week. An advanced exerciser might do two push days, two pull days, and two leg days, with one day of rest.

  • Day 1: Upper-Body Push

  • Day 2: Rest or cardio

  • Day 3: Upper-Body Pull

  • Day 4: Rest or cardio

  • Day 5: Legs

  • Day 6: Rest or cardio

  • Day 7: Active recovery 

How To Use Progressive Overload In a Push-Pull Routine

Progressive overload training helps you to properly learn how to complete workouts and decreases risk of injury,” Gallucci says. It also ensures you keep challenging yourself at the proper level and stay consistent, increasing the chances you’ll see progress. When incorporating progressive overload training into a push-pull routine, Gallucci recommends following these steps:

  1. Master proper form.

  2. Select an appropriate weight that allows you to properly complete the recommended number of reps. Once you feel comfortable and confident, increase the weight.

  3. Increase the number of reps.

  4. Decrease the rest periods.

  5. Increase your tempo.

Is a Push/Pull/Legs Split an Effective Workout Routine?

The push/pull/legs split is when you take one day to train push muscles, one day to train pull muscles, and one day to train legs, Katie explains. “It’s a common workout routine, and that's for a reason,” she says. “It's incredibly efficient and effective at targeting each specific muscle group.” Gallucci agrees, saying that this workout split allows you adequate time to focus and train different muscle groups. 

It also makes it easy to reach the American Heart Association’s recommendation of three resistance workouts per week while making sure you target your whole body and also give your muscles plenty of time to recover between each session. 

How to Determine If Push-Pull Workouts Are Right For You

The whole push-pull training concept may feel a bit intimidating, but Katie says this split is great for anyone, regardless of where they are in their fitness journey. “It's a relatively simple way to approach your workout routine so you don't struggle with exercise indecision,” she says. “You’re focused on one muscle group or movement pattern each day and can keep the workouts and exercises simple as you work your way up to more advanced movements or heavier weights.” 

As long as you adapt your training plan to ensure you’re challenged—whether you add reps and sets, up the weight, or increase your training frequency—you’re sure to build lifelong functional strength using push-pull workouts.

Ready to try total body strength or split strength workout programs? Download the Peloton App and get started today.


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Katie Wang

Katie grew up in Silicon Valley and worked in tech. She was chasing her passion and found it in fitness.

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