Trying to select a perfect workout routine can feel like eating at an endless buffet—you spend more time making a choice than actually eating.
There are countless different programs out there, but in general, most beginners will start with a program like Starting Strength and eventually graduate to a Push, Pull, Legs program. That said, PPL routines can work extremely well for beginners too.
If you value maximum results in the least amount of time (a cornerstone of Hack Your Fitness), PPL routines are an excellent way to begin your fitness journey.
But even within the category of PPL programs, there is a lot of confusion. Why PPLs? What is a compound lift? Which accessory work should I do? Should I workout 6 days a week or 3?
I’m going to answer all of the above and more, starting with the basics.
The Basics and Benefits of PPL Routines
For a PPL routine, you split your muscles into three groups and train each group on its own day. This allows you to push each muscle group to maximum exertion, and then rest that group for as long as possible before the next workout.
The original split created by old school bodybuilders worked back and biceps on the first workout day of the week, chest and triceps on the second day, and legs and shoulders on the third day.
For a while, that split was a popular jumping-off point for fitness newbies.
When it comes to PPL splits, here are the different muscle groups:
- Push: chest, shoulders, and triceps
- Pull: back, traps, and biceps
- Legs: hamstrings, quads, and calves
PPL routines are so efficient because the movements you’re doing provide maximum overlap within the muscle groups you’re working that day. When you envision the body as a complete system, the PPL exercises tap into the synergies between all of the muscles within each group and bolster the benefits exponentially.
For example, deadlifting is a back exercise that also works your lats, traps, and part of your obliques. Or, the bench press requires you to use your deltoids and your triceps.
While there’s maximum overlap within muscle groups during each workout, there is little overlap between different muscle groups. Your chest, for instance, is worked very little on pull day.
Why PPL Programs Emphasize Compound Lifts
Within your PPL workout plans, you will almost always see a heavy emphasis on compound lifts. The compound lifts we use for Hack Your Fitness are:
- Overhead press: Push
- Deadlift: Pull
- Squat: Legs
Compound lifts are defined as lifts that stress multiple joints, and the muscles surrounding those joints. They offer more bang for your buck in terms of muscle engagement, and because they stimulate growth in so many different muscles, compound lifts also burn more calories.
Compound lifts also build strength in a more well-rounded way. For example, by engaging your entire posterior chain, the squat builds strength throughout your lower body instead of only making one muscle stronger.
If you can’t see the value in building strength across multiple muscle groups, think of how many physical activities you’ve taken part in that only worked a single muscle. The answer is probably zero.
The way compound lifts are scheduled will vary from program to program, but generally speaking, all PPL programs will center around them. The reason for this is simple:
Compound lifts, because they involve multiple muscle groups, will always be your heaviest lifts. And the more your load, the more you grow so it’s obvious why you should seek the heaviest lifts possible for your programming.
Think about it, a bicep curl only engages the bicep. The bench press recruits strength from your chest, triceps, and parts of your shoulders and back. Which lift will you be able to load heavier?
This makes compound lifts a great measure of your overall strength, and also makes linear progression easier.
Why Linear Progression Is Easiest With PPL Routines
Linear progression is a simple, important concept at the core of effective beginner routines. Essentially, it means you get stronger with every workout, and it works by employing progressive overload—a method of lifting wherein you place more stress (heavier weight) on your muscles with each workout.
Programs like Starting Strength emphasize this by having trainees add 10 lbs to their major lifts in each workout over the beginning period of the program. So if you started off only being able to bench the bar, you would add 10 lbs to your lift each with every workout until you couldn’t add 10 lbs anymore. Then, you’d add 5 lbs until you couldn’t add 5 anymore. Then you’d add 2.5 until you couldn’t add 2.5 anymore.
Linear progression allows you to quickly add strength, but it requires two things:
- Proper diet
- Adequate recovery time
Programs like Starting Strength advocate drinking a gallon of milk a day along with your normal diet just to get enough calories in to sustain that growth. Sleep is also critical—if you’re not resting enough for your muscles to grow, you won’t hit your goals.
However, you also need enough time between workouts for your muscles to recover and be at full strength before you retarget them. This is where PPL routines really help.
Remember that compound lifts like the bench press recruit muscles from a number of different groups. If any of those groups are at less than full strength, you won’t be able to hit your maximums and push yourself to grow on your compound lifts.
This is why PPLs are so much better than a standard “bro split.” A bro split is a workout routine that targets specific muscle groups every day of the week, like:
- Monday – Chest
- Tuesday – Back
- Wednesday – Shoulders
- Thursday – Legs
- Friday – Arms
- Saturday – Rest
- Sunday – Rest
Now imagine you sat down to bench Monday, having just hit arms Friday. Your triceps, which are critical to a good bench, are on two days rest, while your shoulders on 4 days rest, your back is on 5 days rest, and your chest has had a full week off.
All of your muscles needed for your big lift are at different stages of recovery. Some are fully rested and ready to crank, and some aren’t ready to handle the load. You simply cannot push yourself to the highest degree with such uneven rest.
PPL programs fix that by grouping your muscles accordingly. Your push day exercises do not target the same muscles as your pull day exercises or your leg day exercises. This gives your muscles adequate time to recover and push their limits with every workout.
Which PPL Program Is Right For You?
There are a variety of PPL programs out there, and almost all of the popular ones are effective (that’s why they’re popular, people used them and saw results).
The reason one program is right for you over another is usually going to boil down to how you answer the following questions:
1. Am I A Beginner Or Not?
The majority of PPL programs are targeted towards intermediate lifters. This is for a number of reasons, one of which is that PPL programs tend to involve a wide variety of lifts. For example, look at the famous “Coolcicada” PPL program:
- Flat Barbell Bench Press: 3×5
- Seated (or Standing) Barbell Shoulder/Overhead Press: 3×5
- Incline Barbell Bench Press: 3×5
- Dumbbell Side Lateral Raise: 3×10-12
- Rope Pushdowns: 3×10-12
- Overhead Dumbbell Extension: 3×10-12
- Shrugs: 3×10-12
- Barbell Rows: 3×5
- Lat Pulldowns: 3×8-10
- Seated Rows: 3×8-10
- Face-pulls: 3x-10-12
- Barbell Bicep Curls : 4x-10-12
- Hammer Curls: 3×10-12
- Barbell Squats: 4×5-6
- Leg Press: 3×8-10
- Leg Extensions: 3×10-12
- Hamstring Curls: 3×10-12
- Standing Calf Raises: 5×10-12
That’s a lot of exercises to learn, especially for a beginner. This is a big part of the reason why many beginners run programs like Starting Strength (note: Starting Strength is not a PPL), which boils down to 4 main exercises.
Programs like Starting Strength also have you do certain exercises multiple times a week, like the barbell squat, while adding weight to the lift each workout. That works for beginners who can progress that quickly, but at an intermediate level, you will not be able to add weight to your squat three times a week.
If you’re a beginner looking to use a PPL program, I’d recommend my Hack Your Fitness program. Because it emphasizes keeping things simple, it focuses on a few key exercises and works well for beginners.
2. Does This Program Fit My Schedule?
A lot of beginners overestimate the amount of time they have to commit to fitness. You might be willing to wake up at 4 AM every morning to make time for that 6-day a week workout program now, when you’re all fired up to get started, but how long can you keep that up?
When you work late, have a date, or get kept up by your kids, are you going to be able to stick to this schedule and get enough sleep/eat well enough to sustain your program?
That’s why I built Hack Your Fitness. The goal is to condense your workout into the most streamlined routine ever. It’s three days a week, for an hour or less each time.
However, if you have more time to commit, or if you really enjoy putting time in the gym (I don’t mean that sarcastically. Fitness for me is all about results with minimal time in the gym, but a lot of people really enjoy working out.) you should look at Reddit’s famous “Metallicapda” PPL. It’s a 6-day per week PPL that will get you great results.
3. Is This Program Optimized For My Goals?
This is something beginners rarely think about. They want to get 6 pack abs and shredded arms, but they run to Starting Strength because they hear it’s the best way to get strong fast.
Then they eat 5,000 calories a day, put 100 lbs on their squat, and are upset by how much fat they’ve gained. Even though they’ve gotten stronger, they’re extremely far from their goals.
Hack Your Fitness is a program built around cutting down to a lean body, and gaining muscle while gaining as little fat as possible. If your goal is to get ripped as quickly as possible, it’s an ideal program.
However, if care more about how much weight you can lift than how you look with your shirt off, it is definitely not the right program for you. Something like Starting Strength, Strong Lifts, or Greyskull LP is better suited to you.