Upper-Lower vs Push-Pull/Legs (PPL) Splits: Which Split Reigns Supreme?

You’re at the gym, bag in hand. You’re fueled up and ready to go. Now what?

Upper-Lower vs Push-Pull/Legs (PPL) split routines are two of the most popular workout structures around. Both the Upper-Lower and PPL simplify lifting program design simpler, making the program easy to follow and analyze.

Whether you’re a beginner, or a seasoned veteran of the iron game, deciding on your training routine is crucial to making strength and size gains. Knowing where to start, what exercises to do, the equipment to do them with, and how often, are four of the foundational questions to getting bigger and stronger.

We’re limiting the scope of this article to comparisons and contrasts between the Upper-Lower vs Push-Pull/Legs splits, using exercise science and sample routines we crafted just for this post. The sample workouts are intended to demonstrate the concept and aren’t necessarily a recommended routine.

We’re intentionally not including sets and reps, nor how to periodize the splits to serve a specific training objective. Those are broader discussions that deserve their own posts.

The Upper-Lower vs Push-Pull Splits

First things first, what exactly is a split?

A split is a workout program structure where the body is divided simply into anatomical or functional segments, with workouts that address them sequentially. It’s a convenient way to sub-divide the body logically so that the trainee can follow a repeatable program with some goal in mind, in this case, muscular strength or development.

Most resistance workout routines are splits of one sort or another. A whole-body routine would be an exception. It’s the anti-split. There are some really effective whole-body routines out there, but that’s the subject of another article.

Splits emerged from bodybuilding culture and employ traditional weightlifting equipment. Splits differ from functional training, which divides the body according to planes of motion: sagittal, frontal, and transverse. Nor do splits typically use functional training implements.

Knowing what they are, how Upper-Lower vs Push-Pull differ, their pros and cons, and how they align with your training goals will guide your decision for which one to select, or if you’d prefer something other than a split altogether.

Exercise is physical activity. Training is an exercise with a goal.

The Upper-Lower Split

The Upper-Lower split divides the workout routine at the waist. It is the simplest of the splits for that reason. Because of its simplicity, the Upper-Lower Split offers tons of flexibility in schedule and exercise selection.

Upper body exercises like flat bench press and triceps pushdowns would be done on one day, with lower-body movements like squats or lunges done on another day.

How many days per week you can lift based on your schedule and recovery time, are the questions you’ve got to answer to make the Upper-Lower work for you.

The freedom offered by the Upper-Lower Split requires that the trainee know a little bit about anatomy, physiology, body fatigue, and recovery. You can easily overtrain, or undertrain, using an upper-lower split.

The Upper-Lower split also offers flexibility in the number of training days per week. In its very simplest form, you’d do two workouts a week: one upper, and one lower.

Most lifters won’t be satisfied with that and a couple of times a week isn’t going to deliver lots of results. Better than nothing for sure, but you won’t win many competitions two days a week. So, four days makes a little more sense when talking results from a resistance training routine.

Upper-Lower Split Routine Sample

A four-day Upper-Lower split might look something like this:

Weekday

Split

Exercises
Day 1UpperChest, shoulders, back, arms, core
Day 2LowerLegs, calves
Day 3Rest 
Day 4UpperChest, shoulders, back, arms, core
Day 5LowerLegs, calves
Day 6Rest 
Day 7Rest 

This variation isn’t very prescriptive, which is both a strength and a weakness. Lots of flexibility; not much direction. Easy for a beginner to goof up. For the novice, the uber-simple Upper-Lower split doesn’t provide enough detail for each individual workout.

An Upper-Lower can work well for an advanced lifter who knows how to pick and choose between exercises for the upper and lower body. The advanced trainee can slot exercises according to specific exercise attributes, available equipment, or some other variable.

Let’s play around with our sample routine and add specific exercise selection.

Man with dumbbells on bench doing upper-lower vs push-pull workout

A more detailed version of our hypothetical four-day Upper-Lower split might look something like this, with just one exercise is selected for each individual muscle group:

WeekdaySplitExercises
Day 1UpperDumbbell bench, Cable lat pulldowns, Dumbbell side laterals, EZ Curl bar skull crushers (for tris), Dumbbell curls, Crunches.
Day 2LowerLunges, Leg extensions, Romanian deadlifts (RDLs), Hamstring curls, seated calf raises.
Day 3Rest 
Day 4UpperCable flyes, Dumbbell rows, Dumbbell anterior raises, cable tricep extensions, Barbell curls, Cable rope tucks.
Day 5LowerGoblet squats, Leg press, Deadlifts, Standing calf raises.
Day 6Rest 
Day 7Rest 

The Upper-Lower Split Flexibility

OK, let’s say you discover that isn’t enough work for each individual body part and you have more in the tank at the end of each workout. Here’s where the Upper-Lower split shows off its flexibility.

You can add exercises. Add exercises that complement the others in your routine without adding unnecessary volume for volume’s sake alone. There is that point where you risk overtraining.

A great example would be adding deltoid exercises to an upper-body day. You can easily work anterior, medial, and posterior delts on the same day if done wisely. Here’s what our four-day Upper-Lower split routine would look like with exercises added to each workout.

Note that the second leg day features isolation, single-joint exercises. That supplements the “big” compound exercises in the first lower body day.

Adding Exercises

WeekdaySplitExercises
Day 1Upper: Chest and BackDumbbell bench, Underhand dumbbell bench, Cable flyes, Cable lat pull-ins, Cable lat pull-downs, High-to-low cable rows.
Day 2Lower: Heavy Leg DaySquats, Leg press, Deadlifts, Dumbbell RDLs, Seated calf raise.
Day 3Rest 
Day 4Upper: Shoulders, Arms, and CoreSeated dumbbell shoulder press, Cable side laterals, Cable front raises, Cable posterior delt pulls, Cable tricep kickbacks, Supine dumbbell triceps extensions, EZ Curl bar curls, Crunches on incline board.
Day 5Lower: Isolation Leg DayLeg extensions, Sissy squats, Hamstring curls, Calf raises on Leg press machine.
Day 6Rest 
Day 7Rest 

…or, add workouts per week.

Sissy Squats can be part of upper-lower vs push-pull reoutines

Let’s say you’d like to split your upper body day to get more work and account for recovery too. Splitting that upper body day in two is a pretty good strategy if you’re concerned about overtraining and have a schedule that allows you to get to the gym another day each week.

Here’s basically the same workout, with the upper body split over two days instead of compacted into one, with another exercise or two thrown in for good measure.

Adding Workout Days

WeekdaySplitExercises
Day 1Upper: ChestDumbbell bench, Incline bench, Underhand dumbbell bench, Cable flyes,
Day 2Lower: Heavy Leg DaySquats, Leg press, Deadlifts, Dumbbell RDLs, Seated calf raise.
Day 3Upper: Back and Arms

 

 

Cable lat pull-ins, Cable lat pull-downs, High-to-low cable rows, Dumbbell rows, Cable tricep kickbacks, Supine dumbbell triceps extensions
Day 4Rest 
Day 5Upper: Shoulders and CoreSeated dumbbell shoulder press, Cable side laterals, Cable front raises, Cable rear delt pull-downs, EZ Curl bar curls, Crunches on incline board, Cable rope tucks.
Day 6Lower: Isolation Leg DayLeg extensions, Sissy squats, Hamstring curls, Calf raises on Leg press machine.
Day 7Rest 

We can’t talk Upper-Lower splits and the ability to add work and days without emphasizing caution for overtraining. It’s a thing.

Because there are so few stated boundaries for Upper-Lower, a novice can go to the gym and train to failure every day and try for personal records every workout. Injuries will show up quickly. So will stubborn plateaus that only long lay-offs can bust.

So be smart.

If you’re a novice to the iron game, find someone who’s been around for a while (not one of your skinny-fat novice buddies or a random IG influencer) and get a little guidance to design a program. Don’t be afraid to approach one of the older guys who looks like they might have been around the gym for a couple of decades. Trainers with reputable certifications like ACE are also a good choice for guidance.

Upper-Lower Split Misconception

A traditional Upper-Lower Split says that the exercises are compound, multiple joint movements, and heavy.

My old powerlifting routine was essentially an Upper-Lower split. Here’s that 1982 routine, expressed as an Upper-Lower split:

WeekdaySplitExercises
MondayLowerDeadlifts, Partial deadlifts (floor to just beyond sticking point), High pulls, Cable lat pulldowns, or Dumbbell rows.
TuesdayUpperBench (competition grip), Wide grip bench, Narrow grip bench, Cable triceps pushdowns, Hammer curls.
WednesdayRest 
ThursdayLowerSquats (competition form), High bar-Heel elevated squats (in offseason), Rack deadlifts for weight, Vertical (overhead) leg press.
FridayUpper-LowerSuper-light squats (bar only or light Good Mornings, Super-light bench or Dumbbell press, Dumbbell side laterals or front raises, hammer curls.
SaturdayRest 
SundayRest 

But who says that an Upper-Lower has to be big, compound moves? You can apply the same Upper-Lower methodology using isolation body part exercises.

As an experiment, I got creative and deconstructed my old 1982 powerlifting competition routine above, replacing the “big” lifts with isolation body part exercises.

Isolation Body Part Exercises Sample Routine

Take a look:

WeekdaySplitExercises
MondayLowerDumbbell RDLs, Reverse Lunges, Cable clamshells, Multi-Hip pull-down, Hamstring curls.
TuesdayUpperSingle-arm cable presses, Underhanded dumbbell bench, Cable lat pull-ins, Low-to-high T3-T4 scapula shrugs, Crunches on an incline board.
WednesdayRest 
ThursdayLowerSissy squats, Leg extensions, Dumbbell RDLs, Hamstring curls, Cable glute kickbacks.
FridayUpper-LowerCable side laterals, Cable rear delt pulldowns, Dumbbell or Cable Shrugs, Dumbbell triceps skull crushers, Dumbbell hammer curls, Calf raises on leg press machine.
SaturdayRest 
SundayRest 

Don’t be limited by bro-science that dictates upper-lower splits be composed of only big, heavy compound movements. You may find that single-joint, isolation exercises enhance your recovery speed, individual muscle growth, and allow you to train more often.

Cable Glute Kickbacks can be included upper-lower vs push-pull split routines

Who Should Do an Upper-Lower Split?

Is the Upper-Lower split for you? Maybe.

If one or more of the following applies to you, try the Upper-Lower split.

  • Only able to get to the gym two to four times a week.
  • Deep knowledge of exercise selection.
  • Understand the importance of recovery and recovery tactics.
  • Love the flexibility of picking and choosing exercises depending on how I feel that day, using only minimal guidelines.
  • A beginner just trying to get the hang of the iron game (but have a knowledgeable person giving you some guidance).
  • You’re not a beginner but an experienced gym rat, but mid-life or older. You want to keep lifting but the body just ain’t havin’ it the way it used to. Upper-Lower lets you pick the exercise that feels right that day without the guilt of missing something.

The Push-Pull/Leg Split (PPL)

The Push-Pull/Leg split divides the workout routine at the waist and separates the upper body according to the job being performed: pushing or pulling. Legs are in a day all by themselves.

Pushing exercises like bench press are done on one day, followed by pulling exercises like seated rows. Then, of course, leg day.

Push-Pull/Leg by design adds workout days. It’s traditionally adopted by lifters who still want a very basic sub-division to their weekly gym work, but still loosely defined to allow for variability in exercise selection for each workout.

PPL for More Days in the Gym

The Push-Pull/Leg split. The PPL split promises more workout days per week, at least in concept. Since “Upper” divides in two: Push and Pull. (Why can’t leg exercises be included in either Push or Pull days depending on if they are pushing or pulling leg motions? More on that in a bit.)

With pushing and pulling separated, you can get the fifth day, no sweat. A simple five-day Push-Pull split might look something like this:

WeekdaySplitExercises
Day 1PushChest, Shoulders, Triceps
Day 2PullBack, Biceps, Core
Day 3Rest 
Day 4LegTraditional leg day (heavy squats, etc.)
Day 5PushChest, Shoulders, Triceps
Day 6PullBack, Biceps, Core
Day 7Rest 

Not a lot of direction in this example about which exercises to do, or how many sets and reps…but you get the picture. An experienced lifter can actually use a loose framework like this as-is, and plug in the exercise-set-rep structure that best suits their goals.

Man on Leg Press Machine

PPL with Extra Auxiliary Leg Work

You can tweak the five-day PPL to include auxiliary leg work in a “pull” day. Here’s an example with back exercises that use legs added to the second pull workout:

WeekdaySplitExercises
Day 1PushChest, Shoulders, Triceps
Day 2PullBack, Biceps, Core
Day 3Rest 
Day 4LegTraditional leg day (heavy squats, etc.)
Day 5PushChest, Shoulders, Triceps
Day 6PullBack (include moderate weight deadlifts or RDLs), Biceps, Core
Day 7Rest 

Dropping a few back moves that require legs is an elegant way to get some lower body and posterior chain work more on more than a single day per week. Don’t get greedy and turn Pull Day #2 into personal record deadlift day though. It’s there to give your legs a little extra juice.

PPL for Fewer Days in the Gym

You can also adopt a Push-Pull/Leg for fewer workouts per week.

PPL also works well for a three-day routine. Assume here that each day is strenuous since you have those alternating rest days. Here’s what a three-day PPL might look like:

WeekdaySplitExercises
Day 1PushChest, Shoulders, Triceps
Day 2Rest 
Day 3PullBack, Biceps, Core
Day 4Rest 
Day 5LegsTraditional leg day (heavy squats, etc.)
Day 6Rest 
Day 7Rest 

Some of the most iconic iron gamers in history used a three-day-per-week program. Fewer days per week assume harder workouts and therefore keen attention to recovery.

PPL Makes Workouts Easy to Program

We acknowledge that most lifters who pick Push-Pull/Legs want more days in the gym. PPL makes more frequent workouts easy to program. Here’s a hypothetical six-day PPL routine:

WeekdaySplitExercises
MondayPushDumbbell bench, Incline bench, Underhand dumbbell bench, Cable triceps extensions.
TuesdayPullCable lat pull-ins, Cable lat pull-downs, High-to-low cable rows, Dumbbell curls, Dumbbell curls, Hammer curls, Crunches.
WednesdayLegsSquats, Lunges, Leg Extensions, Leg curls.
ThursdayPushSeated dumbbell shoulder press, Single-side cable presses, EZ Curl (narrow grip) flat presses.
FridayPullHigh pulls, Shrugs, Seated rows, EZ Curl bar curls, Crunches on incline board, Cable rope tucks.
SaturdayLegsLeg press, Goblet squats, Hamstring curls, Calf raises on Leg press machine.
SundayRest 

Six-day routines like this example can easily lead to overtraining. You need to know what you’re doing when it comes to exercise selection and the number of sets and reps.

Some Helpful Recovery Tips

With a big routine like this, account for recovery, using these helpful tips:

If you opt for big, compound moves, remember you’re getting minimal recovery between push, pull, and leg days.

Heavy squats will tax your back and shoulders right along with your legs, and the heavy back day will fatigue your biceps and forearms. Stay vigilant to avoid overuse injuries, like elbow tendinosis. No one likes a forced lay-off, especially the ones you can avoid by just being smart.

Some Helpful Science

Push-Pull describes the direction you move against resistance. All muscles pull. They can only contract, pulling from the insertion toward their origin. Never has a muscle expanded to create movement, getting longer than it is in its resting state.

For pushing to occur, muscles act cooperatively on joints that generate a pushing motion. A good example would be the triceps in the triceps pushdown exercise. When the triceps contracts—it pulls the forearm backward. The result is that an object such as a dumbbell or bar is pushed away from the body. During a dumbbell bench press, or a push-up, the pec and anterior delts contract—the ends of each muscle pulling toward the center—with the physiologic result of the hand and the torso moving away from each another.

Where this really comes into play is when figuring out where to put side laterals. The side lateral works the medial delts, and is for sure a “pulling” motion. But it’s a shoulder exercise, and shoulders fall into “push” workouts.

Knowing that all muscles “pull” helps the mind-muscle connection. Apply this concept by concentrating on squeezing the target muscles, even during pushing exercises.

Push-Pull Within a Push-Pull? Why Not?

Here’s an interesting thought. What if you were to combine pushing and pulling exercises into the same workout?

Playing around with exercise selection within a split adds a cool tweak that exploits the neuromuscular phenomenon of reciprocal inhibition, by working antagonistic muscles back-to-back.

When muscles on one side of a joint work, the muscles on the other side relax, allowing the joint to do its thing.

If muscles on both sides of a joint contract, voluntary movement become impossible. Try flexing your triceps and curling your arm at the same time. Impossible, right?

That brief period of involuntary relaxation that antagonist muscles experience due to reciprocal inhibition temporarily rests them. Check out how relaxed your biceps are after a hard set of skull crushers. Do a set of dumbbell curls immediately following the skull crushers to see how fresh your biceps feel as you start the set.

This phenomenon of reciprocal inhibition is what allows everyday activities like the back-and-forth action from using a hand saw to cut a piece of firewood. Anterior delts activate to push the saw, and the posterior delts do the same when pulling it. That’s reciprocal inhibition demonstrated within a single movement.

OK, Enough with the Science Stuff

Woman doing Seated dumbbell shoulder press

Let’s talk about how to apply this principle using back-to-back exercises inside a Push-Pull/Legs split.

Here’s our sample routine, with pulling integrated into push days, and vice versa. Check this out:

WeekdaySplitExercises
MondayPush-PullDumbbell bench, Cable lat pull-ins.
Underhand dumbbell bench, Rear delt cable pulls.
Cable triceps extensions, Hammer curls.
TuesdayPull-PushCable lat pull-ins, Cable lat pull-downs, High-to-low cable rows, Dumbbell curls, Dumbbell curls, Hammer curls, Crunches.
WednesdayLegs*Squats, Lunges, Leg Extensions, Leg curls.
ThursdayPush-PullSeated dumbbell shoulder press, Cable lat pull-downs.
Single-side cable presses, Dumbbell rows.
EZ Curl (narrow grip) flat presses, T-Bar rows.
FridayPull-PushShrugs, Decline presses.
Seated rows, Flat dumbbell presses (or underhand press).
EZ Curl bar curls, Crunches on incline board, Cable rope tucks.
SaturdayLegsLeg press, Dumbbell RDLs.
Leg extensions, Hamstring curls.
Calf raises on Leg press machine, Toe raises (for anterior tibialis)
SundayRest 

*Leg days often have push-pull built-in when they include leg extensions and leg curls.

Who Should Do a Push-Pull/Legs Split?

Is a Push-Pull/Legs split for you? Just like the Upper-Lower, maybe.

If one or more of the following applies to you, the PPL might be your routine.

  • Able to get to the gym at least three times a week.
  • Respectable knowledge of exercise selection.
  • Prefer a routine with a little more structure.
  • Want to concentrate on individual body parts a little more than in an Upper-Lower split or functional training routine.

Upper-Lower vs Push-Pull, Which Split Reigns Supreme?

Summary: It’s a tie.

Here’s our analysis:

  • Both the Upper-Lower vs Push-Pull/Legs Splits can be adjusted to achieve the right balance of work and rest.
  • If you don’t have hours and hours to spend in the gym, some type of split makes sense.
  • Deciding which split to choose depends on a few simple factors, including how many days per week you can get to the gym and how much work you can do while you’re there.
  • Both Upper-Lower vs Push-Pull/Legs Splits can be tweaked using proper exercise selection and set-rep combos to meet your strength or bodybuilding objectives.
  • There’s no law that says either the Upper-Lower vs Push-Pull/Legs Splits require compound, multi-joint exercises, or that those splits require heavy, beast-mode training. You can do isolation, single-joint exercises within either split.
  • Once you understand the functions of sympathetic and antagonistic muscles, Upper-Lower vs Push-Pull routines begin to look pretty similar in actual application.

If you understand exercise program design, either of the Upper-Lower or Push-Pull split methodologies can work for you. Which split will work best for you just simply depends on:

  • your available time
  • if you prefer to segment your workouts and not do whole body sessions, and
  • your training objectives.

There you have it, our fresh look at Upper-Lower vs Push-Pull/Legs resistance training split. So, don’t be afraid to experiment or to get creative with either of these time-honored split routines.

Keep reading and exploring credible information sources to continue growing your workout knowledge, and your muscles!

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Perry Mykleby
Perry started lifting weights in 1974. He is an ACE-certified personal trainer and fitness writer. He holds a journalism degree from the University of North Texas, where he competed in powerlifting. His final competition was the Texas State Open in December of 1982, but has continued to study and practice muscle strength and hypertrophy. He is a four-decade veteran of the medical device industry.

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