There are tons of ways to program a workout, but there’s one tried-and-true method that has withstood the test of time: the push-pull workout. If you’re looking to build full-body strength, this way of structuring your workout is super efficient and effective.
One reason it’s remained so popular—in circles ranging from bodybuilders to people just looking to improve their overall strength—is because it really mimics our everyday movement patterns: the push and the pull.
“Pushing and pulling are fundamental movements, which is why they’re so important,” certified personal trainer Francine Delgado-Lugo, C.P.T., a weightlifting coach and co-founder of Form Fitness in Brooklyn, tells SELF. “When you’re pulling a door open or pushing it shut, reaching to place something on a shelf or grabbing something down from a shelf, standing up from the floor or bending down—all of these movements require pushing and pulling.”
So a push-pull workout incorporates exercises that train those simple movement patterns, which helps build functional strength, as well as the strength you need to hit PRs in your workout routine—say, going for your heaviest lift or doing a solid set of 10 push-ups or pull-ups.
A push-pull workout emphasizes working both your anterior chain (the front of your body, as in pushing or pressing) and your posterior chain (the back of your body, with pulling)—and can include both upper-body exercises and lower-body exercises, says Delgado-Lugo. For your upper body, these include both horizontal pushes (think: chest press, which work your pectoral muscles) and vertical pushes (like an overhead press, which targets your shoulders), as well as horizontal pulls (a row, for instance, which works your rhomboid) and vertical pulls (a pull-up or lat pull-down, which targets your latissimus dorsi)
While there’s some debate over what “counts” in the lower-body realm, fitness experts generally consider a squat a push (which works your quads) and a deadlift (which hits your hamstrings) a pull, Melissa Garcia, P.T., D.P.T., C.S.C.S, a strength coach and physical therapist at Bespoke Treatments in Seattle, tells SELF.
In fact, when creating a solid push-pull workout that hits your entire body—like the one she created for SELF below—Garcia likes to keep it simple with trisets (three exercises done in a row without rest). Each triset should contain a push, a pull, and a leg exercise.
By breaking up your workout into pushing and pulling moves, you help make sure that you’re working all of your muscles and creating balance in the body, so one muscle group doesn’t take over and become overworked or dominant, which can lead to pain and injury, Garcia says. (That said, most people tend to neglect muscles in the back of their body more than the ones in the front, which makes pulling exercises especially important to include in your programming, Delgado-Lugo says.)
Another reason to try a push-pull workout? Incorporating each movement pattern also helps you get better and stronger at the other.
“Our anterior chain and posterior chain work as agonists or in support of each other through movements,” Delgado-Lugo says. “For example, your back muscles contract on the downward motion of a push-up, while your chest and ab and thigh muscles work on the upward motion of the push-up. In all exercises, our push and pull muscles share this type of reciprocal relationship.” So while getting stronger in push exercises will help you execute a push-up, doing pull moves will support that motion, too.
Ready to get started with a push-pull workout that hits your entire body? Here’s what you need.
What you’ll need: A few sets of dumbbells. (You may want to go light on the isolation moves, moderate on the upper-body moves, and heaviest on the lower-body moves.) You may also want to use an exercise mat for comfort.
- Shoulder press
- Bent-over row
- Alternating reverse lunge
- Chest press
- Reverse fly
- Front squat
- Alternating bicep curl
Complete 10 reps of each exercise, going from one exercise to the next in each triset without resting. (For the single-arm or single-leg moves, complete 10 reps per side.) Complete 3-4 rounds total per triset. Rest for 1-2 minutes before moving on to the next triset.
Demoing the moves below are Rachel Denis (GIFs 1-2, 6), a powerlifter who competes with USA Powerlifting and holds multiple New York State powerlifting records; Kira Stokes (GIF 3), a celebrity trainer; Nathalie Huerta (GIF 4), coach at The Queer Gym in Oakland; Cookie Janee, (GIFs 5, 8-9), a background investigator and security forces specialist in the Air Force Reserve; and Erica Gibbons (GIF 7), a California-based personal trainer and graduate student becoming licensed as a marriage and family therapist.