The push-pull legs/PPL and upper-lower splits are among two of the most popular training routines for beginners (upper-lower more than PPL), intermediate and advanced lifters tend to subscribe to.
I’ve personally had great success using both routines to build muscle and when on a fat loss phase.
Fitness training involves many arguments and debates about the best workout splits and programs which I don’t care to get involved in.
That’s especially true of PPL vs Upper Lower workouts. They both work…period! And are scientifically sound training methods for natural lifters.
If you’re new to lifting (or even if you’re not), chances are, you’ve found both are hotly debated. That’s why you’re here.
For me, the debate is pointless since they both work, but the right choice for you comes down to a few things, namely how often you want to train weekly.
Let’s dive deeper into the difference between the push-pull legs/PPL and the upper-lower body training routines to get you pointed in the right direction..
- Both are effective for building and retaining muscle…period
- If you only have 3-4 days a week to train, go with an Upper Body/Lower Body Split
- If you have 5-6 days a week to train, go with a PPL workout split
- PPL is preferable for intermediate to advanced trainers, where Upper/Lower works well for beginners through to advanced.
- PPL sessions are preferable for people who prefer more muscle group focussed sessions
- PPL workouts can often be shorter due to splitting up body parts, but not always
- PPL makes it easier to achieve more volume per body part in a shorter time per session
- Upper/Lower allows you to train more body parts, more frequently in fewer sessions
- Upper/Lower can be simpler to track and follow
- If training volume is equal, you’ll find a negligible difference in results between the two
The Push Pull Legs, or PPL, is a weight training program focused on targeting several muscle groups by the direction in which force is exerted.
Therefore, it dictates what muscle group is activated during your training days.
For example, you target your pectoral (chest), shoulder and tricep muscles when pushing.
- Pulling: You activate various muscle groups in your back and traps when pulling. Simply put, on your “Pull Day,” your session is focused on an upper-body workout that involves muscles with a pulling motion. Since biceps are also activated during pulling movements, your training sessions should consist of exercises targeting your back and biceps. Some popular exercises you’ll find to gain muscle on pull days include pullups/lat pulldowns, barbell rows, shrugs and bicep curls.
- Push Day: On the other hand, your “Push Workout Day” is centered around upper body lifts involving muscles using a pushing motion. Your training sessions should be focused on targeting and activating your upper body muscles, such as the chest, shoulders and triceps. Sample exercises during your push day may include bench presses, skull crushers and overhead presses.
- Leg Day: Finally, “Leg Day” is what it says on the tin. Focused more on lower body exercises and leg workouts like squats, leg presses and lunges. Your workout routine should consist of 4 to 5 lower-body lifts and exercises during your training session. Muscles targeted during leg day are quads, hamstrings and calves. During this day, you can also include exercises that target your glutes and abs with exercises like deadlifts (some like to do this on pull day if they’re squatting on leg day) and hanging leg raises, for example.
- Shorter workouts and routines
- Greater calorie expenditure as it involves more time in the gym
- Balanced full-body workout
- Better for advanced lifters who want to train more frequently
- It targets individual muscle groups like the chest, shoulders, and back
- May help mind-muscle connection focusing on fewer body parts per session
- The training volume may lead to fatigue in some people (though if you’re sleeping and eating optimally, it’s VERY difficult to overtrain)
- Beginners may experience fatigue in major muscle groups during push and pull days
- The PPL split is generally not a set schedule from week to week. If you miss a day, it could throw out your whole schedule or cram lots of workouts on back to back days to get back on track.
Upper Lower Split Overview
The Upper-Lower split is another type of weight training program designed to build muscle and strength.
It divides the routine above and below the waist area.
It means any group of muscles above the waist level is targeted during the “upper” day, whereas anything below the waist is for the “lower” day.
The upper and lower split offers flexibility in workout selections and training schedules.
For example, on Monday, during your “upper body” day, you focus on upper-body exercises like a flat bench press, shoulder press and tricep pushdowns.
The next day, you focus on leg exercises like lunges and squats. What makes this flexible for weightlifters is you can do vary your days easily based on your recovery, lifestyle and schedule.
This is made easier by three rest days per week.
You can do the upper-lower split four times a week, and it’s commonly structured with at least one rest day between training sessions.
A typical upper-lower split schedule means you can do upper-body exercises and workouts on Monday and Thursday and lower-body exercises on Tuesday and Friday.
Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday are for recovery and rest.
- Flexibility in training schedules
- Upper-Lower split requires fewer training days
- Good for weightlifters with hectic schedules
- Plenty of time for rest and recovery if you fatigue easily
- Upper-lower split may make it harder to achieve enough volume for experienced lifters. Though this can be mitigated by using a tweaked version of the program, like the PHUL workout.
- Accumulated fatigue during a session (e.g. your triceps may experience second-hand fatigue after chest and shoulder exercises leading to a performance decrease at the end of a session.)
What Is the PPL Routine?
While some lifters think of this as a disadvantage, the push-pull legs split routine typically involves spending more days at the gym.
On the other hand, most lifters who prefer push-pull legs split want it because they want to be in the gym more.
There’s no right or wrong answer here. LiftNLive, remember? Whatever fits your lifestyle and makes you happy.
A Sample PPL Routine
Here’s a hypothetical workout routine for a six-day PPL routine.
- Monday: Push
- Tuesday: Pull
- Wednesday: Legs
- Thursday: Rest
- Friday: Push
- Saturday: Pull
- Sunday: Legs
For a 5 day Push-Pull Legs Split Training Program.
- Monday: Push
- Tuesday: Pull
- Wednesday: Legs
- Thursday: Rest
- Friday: Push
- Saturday: Pull
- Sunday: Rest
- Monday: Legs
- Tuesday: Push
- Wednesday: Rest
- Thursday: Pull
- Friday: Legs
- Saturday: Rest
- Sunday: Push
As you can see from the 5 day push-pull legs split, it’s a rotating schedule. It tends not to be the same workout on any set day. This works for some but doesn’t for others.
I like this training program for the exercise variety it provides and for natural lifters as it targets and trains each body part twice every seven days.
This is an optimal frequency for muscle growth according to a meta-analysis(1) by Brad Schoenfeld and James Kreiger.
NOTE: If you wanted to give the PPL routine a go with a 4x a week frequency, you’d still hit each muscle group twice every ten days.
I haven’t seen any studies on how hitting muscle groups twice every seven days vs every 10 days compares, but I wouldn’t have thought it’d be too dissimilar.
If you are a beginner to weightlifting and want to try PPL, this frequency may help ease your way into a higher frequency.
During my early experiences with the PPL routine, I felt pretty overworked due to the number of days I was at the gym (and I SUCK at leaving reps in the tank in my sets. I seem to only have a 5th gear).
Thankfully, as I progressed through the program, the PPL split was more than manageable after a period of time.
What Is the Upper Lower Routine?
What I liked the most about the upper-lower body split routines is that if something comes up during a busy lifestyle, you can easily move days along, depending on your availability.
The Upper Body Day and Lower Body Day example I will give is the most popular upper and lower body split weekly schedule.
A Sample Upper Lower Routine
- Monday: Upper Body Workouts
- Tuesday: Lower Body Workout
- Wednesday: Rest
- Thursday: Upper Body Workout
- Friday: Lower Body Workout
- Saturday: Rest
- Sunday: Rest
As you can see from the upper-lower body training split, it allows each muscle group to be trained and targeted twice a week, depending on what type of upper and lower training split you will be using.
Upper Lower vs. Push Pull Legs: Which Is Suitable for you?
From what you’ve learned so far, if you’re still hard-pressed on which training program to use, here are some of the debates and arguments that might help make your decision.
Upper Lower vs. Push Pull Legs: Workout Duration and Frequency
As I’ve mentioned, the number of exercises between upper-lower splits and push/pull/legs splits vary greatly, meaning the frequency and the length of your workout sessions also vary.
As you can see from my sample upper-lower routine, you are more likely to be in the gym for only four days (though, there’s nothing stopping you from making this a five day routine either)
However, this is not the case when you opt for push/pull/legs splits, as this type of training program requires you to go to the gym for five to six days in the gym to ensure the entire body is effectively stimulated.
But in terms of the time you spend in the gym, push/pull/legs splits often won’t require you to stay in the gym for as long as Upper/Lower, as you usually utilize fewer compound exercises for this training program.
On the other hand, the upper-lower split training program usually involves spending a longer time in the gym as you’ll use several compound exercises to stimulate either upper or lower body muscles on a given day, as well as your isolation lifts afterwards.
Summary: While you take a few more trips to the gym for upper-lower splits, you are more likely to stay for longer than the PPL routine, while the PPL routine requires more trips to the gym but for a shorter time (this isn’t always the case. Depending on the person, their phase of periodization, volume etc each workout can be made longer or shorter)
Upper Lower vs. Push Pull Legs: Volume, Compound Exercises and Fatigue
If we are talking about the raw volume, the PPL training routine may make it easier to achieve more effective volume for your individual bodyparts before accumulating fatigue within a workout.
In addition, this training routine may allow for better performance of your isolation or accessory movements and certain compound exercises.
This isn’t too much of a dealbreaker for upper body lower body splits as your body gets used to the fatigue intra-workout as time goes on.
You can also start with your weaker muscle group if you notice one is lagging (starting with shoulder compound exercises before chest, for example)
Summary: While achieving volume with a PPL routine can be easier for a more advanced trainer, as you have more trips to the gym, the upper-lower split can also achieve this volume with careful planning and tweaking. It can be more fatiguing during a workout (intra-workout) but it will depend on how fast you can recover on a daily basis. You should eventually get used to it.
Upper Lower Body Workouts vs. Push Pull Legs: Complexity and Body Part Focus
The complexity of the upper-lower training split is considerably less than the push-pull legs program, which some may see as an advantage, while others, a disadvantage.
One reason for this is that the upper-lower split involves a more basic spread of compound exercises targeting several muscle groups at once, with less time (and energy) for isolation exercises at the end.
This is not always the case and is individual dependent.
This lack of focus may result in less specific training stimuli for an advanced lifters weaker body parts and a more minimal variety of exercises beside the compound exercises commonly found in upper-lower split programs.
On the other hand, the push-pull legs training program will most likely allow for lifters to perform more isolation exercises in the same workout as they are targeting the same muscle group per session, which could lead to more satisfactory results and increased hypertrophy in weaker body parts.
Summary: PPL routine may allow for more isolation exercises, whereas the upper-lower splits involve more compound exercises with usually less time for isolation exercises.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
If you have additional questions regarding PPL and Upper-Lower split training programs, you might find them below.
Is PPL Better for Hypertrophy?
No, not necessarily. There are far too many variables to be able to claim that.
Yes, PPL is great for muscle hypertrophy and even for strength, but so too is Upper Lower.
Each PPL session involves and stimulates fewer muscle groups at a time, which means you can focus on them thoroughly throughout the workout.
And because you can target each muscle group, the increase in volume and frequency may increase muscle growth in some advanced lifters.
But an advanced lifter can build muscle mass just as well on an upper body routine if the volume is optimized for his or her experience level.
Is PPL Ok for Beginners?
For beginners who want to build muscle and increase their muscle mass using the PPL training program, there are a lot of debates regarding whether this type of program is best for beginners.
I’m not saying it’s bad, but it’s probably not optimal, either and you’re kind of throwing yourself in at the deep end.
As you can see from my sample routines of the two, PPL can require you to be at the gym for six days, which I feel may too much for any beginner to experience.
Not even necessarily due to the frequency and volume, but simply because you have so many exercises to learn and master.
You’d do well to keep it as simple as possible at the start of your journey and perform a handful of exercises effectively to stimulate muscle growth.
However, as I’ve said, it boils down to personal preference. Some beginners might easily tire after the first week and not proceed the following week…or ever again.
There goes your entire lifting career! Half-joking…
For continuity, I recommend the upper-lower split program for beginners to build muscle, as it requires fewer trips to the gym and fewer exercises to learn.
Few beginners can recover quickly when working out for six consecutive days, whereas the upper-lower split only requires three or four days in the gym, leaving you with plenty of rest for the week.
What Is a Full-Body Split?
As the name suggests, this training program requires lifters to perform full-body workouts on each workout day.
While there are a lot of variations to this type of total body training program, below is a commonly used 3-day version of a full-body split.
- Monday: Full Body Training and Workout
- Tuesday: Rest
- Wednesday: Full Body Training and Workout
- Thursday: Rest
- Friday: Full-Body Training and Workout
- Saturday: Rest
- Sunday: Rest
This is different to the workout splits we’re discussing in this post.
What Are the Examples of Pushing and Pulling Movements?
Here are some examples of pulling and pushing movements:
- Incline/Decline bench press
- Tricep extensions
- Flat bench press
- Overhead press
- Dumbbell press
- Push ups
- Deadlifts (some do this on Leg day)
- Lat Pulldowns
- Rows (barbell/dumbell/cable)
These exercises will make up the majority of your upper body work.
What Are Examples of Leg Exercises?
Here are some examples of leg and lower body exercises:
- Leg Press
- Lunges/Split Squats
- Standing Calf Raises
- Seated Calf Raises
PPL vs. Upper Lower: Which One Should You Use?
The Upper/Lower training program is suitable for novice lifters who don’t want to spend more days in the gym, whereas PPL is more appropriate for intermediate to experienced users.
But if you are still having a hard time picking the right training program, below are some scenarios that can help you pick and choose the one that suits you.
Who Should Use the PPL Training Program?
- For intermediate to advanced lifters
- For lifters who recover quickly and have their lifestyle optimized to recover effectively
- Has a good understanding of performaing a variety of compound and isolation movements
- A lifter who is knowledgeable about exercise selection
Who Should Use the Upper Lower Training Program?
- If you are new to lifting weights and want to keep things simple
- If you don’t have the flexibility or luxury of time to go to the gym as often
- Can maintain intensity across a session with several compound and isolation movements in your workouts
Tips and Tricks When Doing These Workout Routines
Recovery and rest are important, whether you’re going for a PPL split or an upper lower split.
Upper Lower Vs Push Pull Legs doesn’t matter at all if you’re not recovering.
Here are some other helpful tips and tricks when doing workouts.
- Mindset: I find mindset advice can often delve into “hocus pocus” and at worst, be cringeworthy, but having the right mindset before and after your workouts can boost your performance. I find emptying my mind helps. Not having to think about work, doing the dishes, how much weight you will need to lose, or paying bills is a great way to have a proper mindset when working out. Nobody likes to lift when all they can think of is what household chores they’ll be doing after their workout, right? Focus on the moment and shifting these weights to the best of your ability.
- Discipline and Focus: Before you start your session, have a plan. Bring everything you need including notepads, water and any lifting accessories. Bring your headphones if you find it helps. I prefer my own music. I tend to hate most gym playlists. Then again, I’m weird. I’ll listen to stuff from anime openers to video game soundtracks, all the way to Hip Hop and Linking Park. One reason I like to listen to music is it helps me focus on my sets. Still, this boils down to personal preference, as many lifters don’t like to listen to music. On discipline; it beats motivation. Motivation is always fleeting so ground yourself often when you’re having a wobble and remind yourself why you want what you want from the gym.
- Fuel Up: Like water, arriving at the gym without having eaten may result in a drop in performance, (although some perform fine while training fasted), so I’d recommend most people eat a balanced and easily digestible protein and carbohydrate meal (or fats, if you’re following some kind of Keto plan) an hour or two before your session starts. I try not to consume no more than a 400 calorie meal before my session or half that if I only have 30-60 mins before my workout. This way, you’ll have the energy you need to lift weights and exercise without feeling sluggish.
- Drink Plenty of Water: You already know, but ensure you drink lots of water before and after your workouts, especially important in hot locations. Working out while thirsty can decrease performance, which is why it’s imperative to drink plenty of water before you start, during and after your routine. Often, (speaking from experience here) gym-goers experience dehydration between sets because they don’t want to pause for a moment to drink water or forget to. Aim for a cup of water every 15-20 minutes during your routine.
- Mobility: Before you lift those heavy weights, one of the best pre-workout activities you can do is taking 10 minutes for mobility. My workouts and joints felt infinitely more comfortable after doing a workout specific mobility routine before slinging that iron. The biggest benefit I personally found with this preparation was less joint pain, increased flexibility and range of motion in and around the joints of the muscles you will be working out that day. As a result, I found performance during my workouts greatly improved.
- Keep Things Simple: You don’t need hundreds of exercises and workouts to effectively target a muscle. Sometimes, keeping things simple is more effective for progression. In fact, I’d argue it is. It’s much harder to measure progress when you’re switching up exercises every 2 weeks. Impossible, actually. Avoid doing this and please, let’s not fall into the “muscle confusion” or “you have to shock your muscles every week” nonsense..it’s not 2001. Are reps/weights/sets on your exercises performed increasing? Congrats, you’re progressing. Sometimes I don’t change my exercises for 6 months or longer.
- Work Out With a Friend (or Don’t): Working out with friends or family can make the experience fun, motivating and having a buddy to work out with can help you stay accountable and disciplined in your fitness journey. It can be great to share and experience a healthier lifestyle with someone you enjoy being with. On the flip-side, if you’re like me, training with a buddy just makes the session longer. We talk sh*t and I end up resting too much between sets. I workout better as a lone wolf with my earbuds in. Again, whatever suits you.
Both the PPL training program and the Upper-Lower Split training program are effective methods of effectively gaining muscle in your body.
At the end of the day, it boils down to preference and your individual lifestyle, as to what type of training program you will choose for maximum effectiveness.
The nuances and complexities of both training programs can dictate which training program you choose and most importantly, so will your lifestyle.
The lower complexity and increased rest days of the upper/lower training program are likely better for beginners and for lifters who don’t have the luxury of working out on a daily basis.
Contrarily, the push/pull/legs training program is better designed for intermediate to advanced lifters who have more time to work out and also aims its focus on fewer muscle groups per session.
Remember, we’re trying to Lift N Live out here. Pick the one that allows you to live, not just lift.
(1) 2016 Nov;46(11):1689-1697. doi: 10.1007/s40279-016-0543-8. Effects of Resistance Training Frequency on Measures of Muscle Hypertrophy: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27102172/