Theresa Latona, an NASM-certified personal trainer and marathon runner from Boston, says push-pull workouts differs from others because it covers multiple muscle groups in one session. And these workouts focus on movement patterns rather a specific muscle group.
We spoke to Latona and Anthony J. Wall, MS, Director of International Business Development for the American Council on Exercise (ACE) and certified personal trainer, to get the full scoop on push-pull workouts so you can incorporate them into your weekly routine.
What are push-pull workouts?
Push-pull workouts split your exercises into two categories: pushing and pulling. For example, a reverse fly is a pulling exercise, while a bench press is a pushing exercise.
In fact, push and pull are just two of the five movement patterns ACE recognizes. The others are squat, lunge, and rotate. These movement patterns form the foundation of a well-balanced strength training plan and one that will help you get stronger on the run, too.
“We typically look at pushing and pulling as the upper body, not the lower body,” says Wall. “But the legs do have a push-pull analogy.” If you’re a beginner, keep it simple for now—just think of squat movements as pushing and lunge movements as pulling. Or to make it even simpler: push moves tend to work the front of the body, while pull exercises often work the back of the body.
When doing a push-pull workout, you can structure it in a few ways. Most commonly, you’ll do a superset that alternates a push move with a pull move. For example, doing a push-up paired with a pull-up, and alternating between the two. Or perform a chest press for the first move of a superset and a lunge for the second. In the next superset, go for a bent-over row first and a squat second. This helps you hit all those major muscle groups in a functional way.
What are the benefits of push-pull workouts?
In addition to covering more muscle groups, Wall says you’re able to target more muscles of the body in a single workout with a push-pull routine. That leaves more time in between sessions to fully recover, as you don’t have to do arms one day and legs the next.
It’s also an efficient way to hit the gym. When it comes to runners, Wall says: “The lifting component is not the focus [of your weekly workouts], right? So being able to come into the gym and do all of your lifts in one session will help condense the time that you need [in a week] to get it done.”
Another benefit of push-pull is finding muscular balance. You work all important muscle groups, including opposing muscles, in the same session. For example, push-ups are a push exercise and pull-ups are a pull move. In a typical workout routine, you might separate them into different days. However, you’re working similar muscles, so let’s say you go really hard on pull-ups on Monday. On Tuesday, you might be too sore to properly finish your push-ups. This creates an imbalance that would not happen when following the push-pull strategy.
According to Wall, adding pulling exercises to your routine is a benefit in itself. “We live in a more pushing environment as opposed to pulling,” he says. “We face forward, our arms move forward easily, and our heads come forward all the time.”
But for running, those pulling muscles are just as important. Think about it: when your foot lands in the middle of your stride, not only are you pushing off with your quads. You’re also pulling yourself forward with your hamstrings.
What’s a good push-pull workout for beginners?
Here are examples of push-pull movements from Latona and how to structure them for a solid total-body strength routine that maximizes your time in the gym. Start with low weight or bodyweight and do 2 to 3 sets of 12 to 15 reps. As you get stronger, Wall recommends increasing weight and decreasing the number of reps.
Push: Bench Press
Lie faceup on a bench with a dumbbell in each hand and feet flat on the floor. Hold dumbbells at chest, palms facing away from you, and elbows bent 90 degrees and held about 45 degrees from your torso. While maintaining strong wrists and bracing your core, push the dumbbells upwards until elbows extend. Lower back down with control. Repeat.
Stand with feet hip-width apart, holding a dumbbell in each hand, palms facing each other. Hinge at the hips, sending butt straight back and extend arms in front of you. Keep back straight and shoulders packed down away from ears. Pull dumbbells back and up toward ribcage, elbows staying close to sides. Slowly lower back down. Repeat.
Stand with your feet slightly wider than hip-width apart, holding a dumbbell in each hand down by sides. Engage core and send butt down and back as if sitting on a chair. Keep back straight. Press feet into ground to stand back up. Repeat.
Grab a pull-up bar with palms facing away from you. Pack shoulders down, engage core and legs, and pull yourself up using arms, back, and shoulders, until chin is level with the bar. Slowly lower back down. Repeat.
Push: Overhead Press
Stand with feet hip-width apart, holding a dumbbell or barbell in each hand. Hold weight at shoulders, arms out to the sides to form a W. With core engaged and back straight, press the weight straight up overhead, biceps by ears. Slowly lower back down. Repeat.
Pull: Reverse lunges
Stand with feet hip-width apart, holding a dumbbell in each hand down by sides. Step back with one leg and bend both knees 90 degrees, back knee lowering toward the floor. Keep chest tall and core tight. Drive through feet, especially front foot, to stand back up, back foot stepping forward. Repeat on the other side. Continue alternating.