The most time-efficient way to work out, without overusing any muscle group in the process, is to follow a push-pull workout routine. This two-day push-pull exercise routine incorporates a 'push' day, when you'll focus on pushing exercises such as bench press, squats and overhead press, and a 'pull' day, when you'll perform pull exercises including deadlifts, upright rows and bent over rows.
A push-pull workout is is much more efficient than the 'classic' approach, whereby you work different muscle groups every day. So you have a back/biceps day, a leg day (don't skip leg day, kids), a pecs/triceps day, a shoulder day and possible an abs day. Using a push-pull workout gives comparable results but requires less time in the gym.
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This two-day plan work all the muscles in your body. On push day, you'll work your quads, glutes, pecs, triceps and abs and on pull day, you'll exercise your traps, lats, erectors, lower back, biceps, deltoids and abs. Don't worry about working your abs on both days, they are pretty high load-bearing muscles and can be worked almost every day.
This routine can be performed in the gym and in your own home gym too. If the exercise is not suitable for a home gym setting, we'll offer an alternative that is. We assume that you have at least the following equipment in your home gym: a pair of dumbbells and a weights bench. Ideally you'd also want to have a barbell, an ab roller, a pull up bar and a resistance band as well.
What are the benefits of doing a push-pull training?
The main benefit of push-pull training is adaptability and time-effectiveness. This two-day push-pull routine can be broken down into four days by dividing the exercises between four days as opposed to two.
Following a push-pull split also simplifies training. You can swap exercises out for others as long as you keep the push-pull balance. This also means you won't tire your muscles out too quickly either, because on the push day, the 'pull' muscles are resting and vica versa the other day.
Push-pull workout plans are especially beneficial for beginners. It's easier to remember the division between pushing and pulling movements than knowing the difference between obliques, delts, quads and so forth. If ever in doubt in which category certain exercises belong to, just think through whether you are pulling or pushing the weight as you perform the exercise. Also, the name of the exercises often help too: pullup and lat pulldown are obviously pull exercises and bench press and press up are push.
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Push-pull day alternatives
If you have all the time in the world you can always hit the gym more than twice a week and workout each muscle group individually. On those days, you can perform chest routines, work on your biceps and triceps (and on your shoulders too), give some much deserved love to your glutes and quads with a leg day workout or perform a killer six pack routine. Oh, not to forget exercising your back either!
If you only planning on working out once a week, you still have multiple options to do so. If you access to weights (either at a gym or home), you can do the BIG 5, five exercises that give you a comprehensive full body workout. Doing these will make you bigger AND stronger in no time.
If you haven't got access to gym equipment (or can't justify the membership fee for a gym), try calisthenics. Calisthenics exercises use bodyweight as resistance and therefore are very cost efficient, although it takes a while to build the strength required to perform these exercises correctly. Try a beginner calisthenics workout first, then move on to the best calisthenics workout and finally, the hardest calisthenics workout.
One area of your body that definitely needs a lot of strength, even outside the gym, is your core. Introducing a few of the best core exercises to your routine can help you build muscle around your torso which in turn will help better your posture, sleep and more. Want to lift heavy? Train your core.
T3's how-to exercise guides
- How to do thrusters: this squat variant is a leg day staple AND a one-move full body exercise
- How to do push ups plus all the best variations on this classic exercise for bigger arms
- How to do bicep push ups: the bicep push up could be THE killer move
- How to use an ab roller: get a six pack FAST with this cheap home gym staple
- Chin up vs pull up: what's the difference, muscles worked and WHAT IS THE BEST ONE?
- How to do ab crunches for beginners: the best stomach exercises to tone up
- How to do burpees: master this much loved/hated full-body cardio exercise easily
- How to do Navy SEAL burpees: the HARDEST burpee variation will build muscle and burn fat at the same time
- 3 common exercises you're doing wrong and how to fix them
Let's talk about protein and rest
You can work out day and night and not see any changes if you don't give your body enough rest and nutrients. Nothing can replace a good night sleep and some good quality protein when it comes to gains.
Although you work your muscles in the gym, they don't grow in the gym, they grow when you sleep after you had your workout. When you work your muscles, you tear the muscle tissue which then needs to be repaired, and your body uses protein to repair them.
If you are actively working out, you'll need around 1.5-2 grams of protein per kilogram of body mass per day. Not only that, but because your body doesn't have protein reserves (unlike carb and fat reserves), you'll have to supply it with protein regularly. It's no good to take half the amount of protein in the morning and the other half before bed, you want to space out your intake throughout the day.
Two day push-pull routine
There are eight exercises for each day and you would like to do 3-4 sets of 8-12 reps each, meaning you will spend roughly an hour exercising. Rest around 60-90 seconds between each set and perform each rep concentrating on the muscles you would like to work out.
Always warm up before you start working with heavy weights. Fast track to injury is to just jump in and do sets with the highest amounts of weights you can lift. Do at least five minutes of cardio before the workout to get your heart rate up a bit too.
A good way to keep track of your heart rate is to get a decent fitness smartwatch or a heart rate monitor. These wearables can help you better understand your body's fitness needs and they can also aid you by keeping track of your progress. The accompanying apps are also super handy, like the Fitbit App or the Garmin Connect, where you can further analyse your performance and receive tips as well.
Also, when doing the large compound movements (e.g. deadlifts, squats), you would like to do a set or two with less weights before. If you can, get a training buddy to help you out during your sessions. Not only it's safer to have someone around, it is also more motivating to work out with someone. Make sure you drink plenty of water during your workouts as well.
Day 1 – Push
Squats (home gym alternative – thrusters or goblet squats): this exercise will work your glutes, quads, erectors, core, traps and deltoids. At home, you can do thrusters (which will also work your shoulders) or goblet squats, using a dumbbell or a kettlebell.
Bench press (flat bench): do it with either a barbell or a pair of dumbbells. Engage your core before you lift the weight off the rack.
Triceps dips: do bodyweight dips if it's too hard and you can or if you are in the gym, you can also use the assisted dip machine. At home, if you find bodyweight dips too hard, you can do dips on the floor using press up bars.
Incline bench press: can also be performed with a barbell or a pair of dumbbells. Don't sit the bench up too much because then you'll work your shoulders more than your pecs.
Narrow grip E-Z bar skullcrushers (overhand grip): you can do this with a pair of dumbbells too (use hammer grip). Elbows are pointing up and not outwards as you extend your arms.
Chest flyers (home gym alternative – dumbbell flyers): You can do this on the pec fly machine (sat down) or even on a cable machine (stood up). If you are using dumbbells, lay down on the bench like how you would if you did a bench press and lower your extended arms to the sides. Don't drop them too low and sprain your shoulder.
Overhead press: this is the best exercise to work your delts on push day. Use barbells or dumbbells.
Ab rollouts: if there isn't at ab roller anywhere in the gym, you can use a barbell to perform ab rollouts. At home, definitely use a more compact ab roller.
Day 2 – Pull
Pullup (home gym alternative – one-arm dumbbell row): If you find bodyweight pullups too challenging, you can use the assisted pullup machine in the gym. At home, try doing one arm dumbbell rows, those will work your lats and biceps too.
Deadlift: the boss of all exercises, the deadlift works most of the muscles in your body. Be very careful with it, though, and always warm up with smaller weights.
Lat pulldown (home gym alternative – lat band pull down): perform lat pulldowns slowly, concentrating on activating your lats both during the positive and the negative movement.
Bent over row: use an underhand grip on either a barbell or a pair of dumbbells and pull towards your abs, not your chest. Bend your legs slightly and have them shoulder width apart.
Underhand grip E-Z bar curl: you can do this either stood up or on a curl bench in the gym. If you do the former, try not to swing too much by activating your core.
Alternating dumbbell hammer curl (neutral grip): this is done stood up, legs a little bit apart. As above, engage your core as you curl so you don't swing too much.
Bent-over dumbbell rear delt raise (overhand grip): perform rear delt raises with your palms facing down as you lift your arms sideways. You can also do chest supported rear delt raises or reverse flyers on the pec fly machine.
Arm supported roman chair leg raises/hanging leg raises (home gym alternative criss-cross flutter kicks): if your hamstrings are tight or you find it difficult to do all the reps/sets with your legs straight, you can always bend your legs. At home, do flutter kicks or V sit ups instead.