The push & pull of it

Achieve a beautiful upper body with this different approach to organizing your training.

July 24, 2007
The push & pull of it
Give your top half a good eyeballing: Are your arms and shoulders shapely, toned and fit? Have you achieved physical symmetry? Is your posture impeccable? If not, you've got some work to do. "Women tend to forget about properly training their upper bodies because they're so focused on their legs and butts," says Karen Brandon, MPT, CSCS, physical therapist at Total Day Health in Riverside, California.

You should train everything equally and often to keep your body in balance and stay injury-free. "If you over- or underwork certain muscle [groups], you create an imbalance around your joints," explains Brandon. "The underworked muscles become lax and will lengthen, and the overworked ones shorten and will become tight." These imbalances pull your body out of whack and can lead to such maladies as tendinitis, rotator cuff injuries, stooped shoulders and lower back problems, to name but a few.

Although it sounds simple enough, achieving body balance can prove to be rather tricky. Fortunately, you can strive toward total muscular equanimity by implementing a push/pull routine like the one shown here.

It's a Win-Win-Win
"A push/pull split trains your body functionally, in a way that's consistent with how you move and live," says Brandon. Think about the simple action of pulling open your car door: You don't just use your fingers and biceps to perform that little task; you use your back, traps, rhomboids, rear delts, obliques and a whole slew of other muscles all at once. This routine will help you develop overall upper-body strength.

"With a push/pull routine, you fatigue the muscles that work to perform the same action so the workouts are more efficient and the recovery is actually faster than with traditional bodypart split routines," says Brandon. "It's a very balanced program. By training this way, you'll quickly find out where your strengths and weaknesses lie and will better be able to correct and compensate for them."

In addition, this type of split can condense your upper-body training into two days instead of the typical three or four. "Do a program like this for 4-6 weeks, and you'll begin to see results such as increased strength and improved posture," says Brandon. So what are you waiting for? It's time to begin the upper body tug-of-war!

The Push/Pull Plan
Do each routine once per week. It doesn't matter if you do the push or the pull day first, but make sure to leave at least a day or two between sessions for adequate muscle recovery. "You can put a leg workout or some cardio in between if you don't want to take a day off completely," says Brandon.

Follow the workout routine as printed - there really is a method to the madness. "You want to begin with the larger muscle groups, such as chest and back, and perform a multijoint exercise like a chest press or pulldown to warm yourself up," says Brandon. "Then you can move to the smaller muscle groups like biceps and triceps and do single-joint exercises like curls and pressdowns."

Push routine
For each exercise, do three sets of 12-15 reps. For the dumbbell chest press, do two additional warm-up sets of 10 reps each.

Exercise Alternative(s)
Dumbbell Chest Press Barbell Press, Machine Press
Cable CrossoverIncline-Bench Dumbbell Flye
Pec-Deck FlyeFlat-Bench Dumbbell Flye
Overhead Dumbbell Press Machine Press
Dumbbell Front Raise Cable Front Raise
Triceps Rope Pressdown Cable Front Raise
Lying French Press Straight-Bar Pressdown
Wrist Extension Barbell Wrist Extension


Pull routine
For each exercise, do three sets of 12-15 reps. For the wide-grip pulldown, do two additional warm-up sets of 10 reps each.

ExerciseAlternative(s)
Wide-Grip Pulldown Pull-Up, Bent-Over Row
Close-Grip Seated Row One-Arm Dumbbell Row
Dumbbell Lateral Raise One-Arm Cable Raise
Bent-Over Lateral Raise ReversePec-Deck Flye
Barbell Curl Alternating Dumbbell Curl
Straight-Bar Cable CurlSingle-Arm Cable Curl
Dumbbell Concentration CurlPreacher Curl
Shrug Upright Row
Dumbbell Wrist CurlBarbell Wrist Curl
What if ...
I only have 30 minutes to work out? Cut your rest time to 30-45 seconds, and drop some of the duplicate exercises. But make sure you hit every muscle group at least once in your workout.

I want to gain muscle? Keep this same routine, but increase your weights and lower your reps accordingly. Go heavy enough so that you can only get in 6-8 good, complete reps.


















I want to lose weight? You can modify this routine into a circuit to elevate your heart rate and burn more calories. Pick five exercises from each list and do two sets of 12 repetitions of the first exercise with 10-15 seconds of rest between sets. Then do 3-5 minutes of cardio at 80% effort. Go on to do two sets of the next exercise and another 3-5 minutes of cardio, and so forth. Try to use lower-body cardio machines, such as a stationary bike, so as not to overly fatigue your upper body.

I want to train abs every day? Because abs are used in both pushing and pulling actions, they can be trained several times per week - just choose different exercises for each session. You could also try splitting your midsection routine into abdominal and core workouts, training abs on pull day and doing core strengthening on push day. Core muscles stabilize the body during just about every movement and include muscles of the back and abdominals. To train your core, do exercises on a stability ball, stability discs and balance boards.

If it's that six-pack you're after, train your rectus abdominis with more traditional ab exercises, such as the crunch, reverse crunch and hanging leg raise. It doesn't matter if you add ab and core training at the beginning or the end of your workout, as long as you do it.

I want to do push-ups, pull-ups and dips? If you're strong enough, go for it. But make sure you take something else out of the workout that's comparable, such as the lat pulldown, dumbbell press or rope pressdown.

I get bored with this workout? You can change cable handles or bench angles, exchange barbells for dumbbells and vice versa or use machines instead of free weights. You can even swap out two-handed exercises for singles if the exercise allows. Just make sure you always do the workout in order of biggest parts to smallest, multijoint exercises to single.