The Science of Push Workouts

Picking the best training split for you can be really difficult. In a world that is so oversaturated with plans and pseudoscience it is often really hard to tell what will be effective and what won’t be. One of the most common splits at the moment is the Push, Pull, Legs split. 

The split is normally spread as following: 

  • Day One: Push 1
  • Day Two: Pull 1
  • Day Three: Legs 1 
  • Day Four: Rest
  • Day Five: Push 2
  • Day Six: Pull 2
  • Day Seven: Legs 2

With Day Eight becoming a rest day, and the cycle starting again on day nine. 

But what actually is a push workout? What muscles do you train?

Simply put, a push workout trains the muscles in the upper body that are used when pushing things. This includes the chest muscles, the shoulders and the triceps. Think of what areas you feel working when you push a heavy door, for example, those are the areas a push workout will target. 

(Graphic of push muscles) 

Benefits of Push Workouts

Training push as opposed to overall upper body limits the overlap between exercises. It gives your body a good chance at recovery and when you train pull the following day you give the pushing muscles a chance to be taken through some active and loaded stretching during the pull day. 

Also, research shows that because of the way compound movements like chest press work the anterior delts, shoulder-based exercises can be skipped in exchange for exercises that work the lateral and posterior delts. 

You are also able to prioritise one area you want to bring up. For example, if you really want to work on your chest you could add mainly chest-based exercises with a dash of shoulders through single joint exercises. 

The split also lets you target the muscles more frequently. You’ll be hitting your chest twice a week, whereas in a typical ‘bro split’ it would only be hit once. This can have muscle hypertrophy benefits as Schoenfield has suggested it is most optimal to hit a muscle 10+ sets a week, so if you do 3 sets of both wide grip bench press and chest flys one push day, and 3 sets of narrow grip bench press and 3 sets of machine press the next push day you’ve already hit 12 sets. 

Ultimately, training push exercise helps you focus your workouts to achieve growth on specific muscle groups. 

Types of Push Exercises

The most important part of a workout is the exercises you’re doing. Understanding the science behind them can not only help with your execution, it can help with programming as well. 


Chest/ Bench Press

The chest/ bench press one of the main exercises a push workout should include. But why?

The barbell bench press has been found to be very conducive of progressive overload, this is because you can use smaller plates, such as 1.25kg, to slowly build the weight up, whereas dumbbells often have bigger jumps in weight. 

It has also been found that there is a strong correlation between bench press strength and pec size, suggesting a heavy bench press stimulates pectoral growth. Furthermore, it activates a large muscle mass in the chest, shoulders and triceps, aka all the muscles trained on push day. 

As for form, you can use a high or low arch, as long as your upper back and butt are on the bench and feet are planted on the floor. A higher arch will help with powerlifting goals, whereas a lower arch is fine for more bodybuilding goals. The narrower your grip the more upper pec (clavicular) activation there is, but it will also mean you can’t go as heavy as you can with a slightly wider grip. 

Overhead press

There are multiple variations of the overhead press that can be done, for example, standing, seated, dumbbell or barbell. However, a study found that the standing dumbbell press is the best for side delt activation and saw the most electromyogram (EMG) activation for anterior (side) delt and posterior (back) delt. 

The only downside of the standing press is that you can’t go as heavy. 

Form wise, make sure your glutes are tucked under to ensure your core stays engaged and back braced. 


Lateral Raise 

There are multiple variations of the lateral raise and they all serve a different purpose. For example, there is evidence that in the Egyptian cable lateral raise, where you lean into the direction of the raise, the side delt becomes more involved as you enter the top ROM whereas the rotator cuff does more work at the bottom. This takes the emphasis away from the rotator cuff, where it would be in a normal lateral raise, and onto the side delt. If you do these with a cable machine, or resistance band, put the cable in between your legs. This allows you to perform the entire motion in the scapular plane. 

You could also add in lateral raises on the other push day you do. As the side delts are a small muscle they can handle a higher volume. Moreover, high volume is best at activating the side delts. 

On the second day you could use a resistance band or dumbbells. However, using a resistance band gives a higher resistance at the very top of the movement. This variety can help growth. 

Tricep exercises

It is not necessary to do separate tricep exercises for progress or growth, as they are already targeted in the compound exercises, like bench press, but it does optimise growth.

In terms of what exercises you should do, it has been suggested that one day you should do one that is below your head, and one that is overhead, but if your triceps are lacking it is best to do one of each. 

A below head tricep exercise would be a tricep cable pushdown. An overhead exercise would be the overhead tricep extension, which can be performed with a dumbbell, resistance band or cable machine. 

Using this information, you can successfully put together a great push workout that will target the chest, shoulders and triceps in the most effective way.