Push Day Exercises: Chest, Triceps, and Upper Body

published by: Debbie Luna
Last Updated:
September 8, 2022

Popularized by the intermediate level push/pull/legs training program, push day exercises are a vital component of many training splits, targeting approximately half of the upper body’s musculature.

However, there is some confusion as to what sort of exercises constitute push day exercises, especially when training many pull day muscle groups can feel quite a bit like the act of pushing.

In short, push day exercises are those that target the chest and triceps muscles of the upper body, and are most often seen featuring abduction of the arms away from the torso so as to induce muscular hypertrophy.

What is a Push Day?

A push day is part of a training split called "Push, Pull, Legs" meant to target certain portions of the upper body’s skeletal musculature so as to allow other muscle groups to recover or remain unfatigued as the chest, deltoids and triceps are developed separately.

push pull legs or ppl

While certain programs involving a push day may include leg muscle exercises, this is no longer the case in most modern push day workouts, and as such is not usually referred to by the term “push day exercise.”

What Makes an Exercise a Push Day Exercise?

Push day exercises are those that involve the recruitment of the pectorals, triceps, and anterior deltoids - or some combination therein, usually paired with biomechanics like elbow extensions, shoulder rotation, scapular contraction and shoulder extensions.

These two factors when combined produce such kinetic movements as limb extension and abduction; or what is otherwise known as pushing.

While muscular recruitment and biomechanics are the main characteristics of push day exercises, there are several other minute factors that an exerciser may wish to look out for so as to maximize the effectiveness of their chosen push day movements.

The most significant of these factors is the recruitment of smaller muscle groups like the serratus anterior or medial deltoid head, both of which usually accompany the more effective push day exercises.

Additionally, exercisers following a training program that features a pull workout the following day after a push day workout should avoid exercises that recruit the biceps, lats, trapezius or erector spinae - all of which must be left fully rested prior to a pull workout.

How to Structure Push Day Workouts

Structuring push day workouts is much like structuring any other sort of training program; exercises that target larger muscle groups and those of the compound muscular activation variety are performed first, and usually with heavier levels of resistance, prior to the performance of lighter exercises.

In the average push day workout, this can appear as the bench press being performed with low volume sets prior to pec flys and dumbbell lateral raises at higher volumes of repetitions per set.

A good rule of thumb is to always perform exercises of greater intensity before the performance of lower intensity exercises, as this allows the muscles to act at their greatest capacity without being prematurely weakened by isolation exercises or other low-impact movements.

Notable Push Day Compound Exercises

To give you an idea of what sort of exercises are well suited to a push day workout, we’ve decided to list the most notable and effective push day compound movements - though there are likely quite a number of other exercises that are just as suitable.

1. Bench Press

The most popular member of the “big three” compound lifts, the bench press is the quintessential push day exercise - recruiting both pectoral muscle heads, the triceps brachii, the anterior deltoid head and the serratus muscles to great effect.

barbell bench press

The bench press is a free weight compound exercise primarily performed to improve chest muscle size, though it also has a notable effect on the size of the triceps - of which make up two-thirds of the upper arm, making the bench press also quite effective for building arm width and thickness.

During most push day workouts, the bench press is one of the first exercises to be performed, as it is quite taxing to the entirety of the upper body, and also quite dangerous to perform with improper form or prematurely fatigued muscles.

2. Military Press/Overhead Press

Much like the bench press, the military press sees frequent usage in practically any serious push day workout, where it is best known for inducing significant strength and mass developments in the deltoids muscle group.

military press

The military press is a free weight compound exercise performed with the use of a barbell and a pair of weight plates, recruiting all three heads of the deltoids alongside the triceps brachii in a manner that places little strain on the elbows or wrists, unlike many other shoulder exercises.

This particular push day exercise is also performed among one of the first within a workout, as the deltoid muscles can easily be fatigued prematurely - making a fresh pair of shoulder muscles essential for proper performance of the military press.

3. Dips

Performed either entirely as a bodyweight exercise or with additional resistance added in the form of weight plates, dips are yet another staple of many push day workouts due to their recruitment of the pectoral and triceps muscle groups.

chest dip movement

Dips are most often structured in such a manner that they allow an exerciser to “finish off” such muscle groups after free weight compound movements have already fatigued the upper body, such as in the case of the military press or bench press.

As such, while dips are also usually one of the first exercises to be performed within a push day workout, they are often considered secondary to weighted exercises unless the dips are performed with additional weight themselves.

4. Push Ups

Perhaps the most classic example of a push day exercise, push ups are a highly variable compound bodyweight exercise most often performed for its capacity to condition an athlete and the musculature of their upper body.

assisted weighted push up

Due to how difficult it is to load the push up with additional weight, it is frequently performed around the end of a push day workout session as a method of expending further calories or improving general athletic abilities within the exerciser.

Most Common Push Day Isolation Exercises

Though most push day workouts are characterized by their usage of certain compound exercises like dips or the bench press, the addition of isolation exercises that maximize the effects of said compound exercises can take your training to the next level.

Keep in mind that - being isolation exercises - the following movements are only a small example of the numerous other possible push day isolation exercises that can be performed, and it is likely that many other exercises fit the same criteria as the following.

1. Triceps Extensions and Variations

The most common form of triceps isolation exercise seen in push day workouts is the triceps overhead extension, wherein the exerciser raises a dumbbell or barbell overhead so as to recruit all three heads of the triceps brachii.

tricep overhead extensions

However, there are other variations of the triceps extension, such as the cable triceps extension or lying triceps extension that do see some use in more advanced push day workouts.

Much like other isolation exercises within a workout session, the triceps extension and its variations are often performed with low to moderate levels of intensity, and usually near the end of the workout session as to avoid premature fatigue during heavy compound sets.

2. Chest Flys and Variations

The standard chest fly is among one of the most frequently performed chest isolation exercises within a push day workout - though certain variations like the dumbbell chest fly can unfortunately recruit the biceps brachii as well, requiring that the exerciser reduce the subsequent intensity of the lift.

dumbbell chest fly muscles

As such, exercises like the cable chest fly, the pec dec machine or the cable crossover are what are preferred instead of the dumbbell chest fly.

pec deck

In truth, apart from dumbbell pullovers, chest flys are one of the only ways to isolate the pectoral muscles, leaving many exercisers wanting for choice when it comes to this particular aspect of push day exercises.

3. Lateral Raises, Rear Deltoid Raises and Front Raises

The various dumbbell raises are performed within a push day workout so as to target certain portions of the deltoid muscle group, with lateral raises targeting the medial head, rear deltoid raises clearly targeting the posterior head and front raises targeting the anterior head.

dumbbell lateral raise variations

Due to the stress these exercises place on the shoulder and elbow joint, they are most often performed with low weights and high amounts of volume per set - making them the perfect isolation exercises for maximizing deltoid muscle development or remedying weak points in the upper body.

Deltoid raises are often placed last in a push day workout because of the fact that the deltoids are involved in practically every other upper body exercise, affecting all subsequent movements performed if isolated prematurely.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Is the Upright Row a Push Day Exercise?

Though the upright row features the recruitment of many muscles normally activated by push day exercises, it is unfortunately unsuitable for training programs that make use of the push/pull day concept. 

upright row

This is because of the fact that the upright row recruits other muscle groups that are worked during a pull day, such as the trapezius and biceps brachii - both of which will be sufficiently trained enough that recruiting them again the following day will reduce their performance.

What Programs Feature a Push Day?

For the most part, when one mentions a “push day” they are referring to the push/pull/legs split - a training program otherwise known as PPL. 

However, certain other athletic training programs or specialized training block programs will also feature push days, even multiple ones within a given week in some cases.

Should You Rest Between Push Day and Pull Day Workouts?

Considering the fact that push days and pull days train entirely different muscle groups, there is no need to take an additional rest day between the two workout sessions, as doing so will only succeed in recovering the previous day’s musculature.

This, of course, is not the case if certain muscle groups from the other day are recruited in the former one, such as the biceps during a push day or the triceps during a pull day.

Parting Words

Though we’ve touched upon what makes an exercise a push day exercise and which exercises are push day exercises, there are still a number of other factors to consider such as proper exercise form as well as rest and recovery.

However, when speaking strictly in terms of push day exercises; if the exercise trains the triceps, deltoids or pectoral muscles - it is likely a suitable fit for the push day workout. 

If you’re still unsure of whether an exercise should be used in your push day, a simple online search should illuminate the answer.

References

1. Negrete RJ, Hanney WJ, Pabian P, Kolber MJ. Upper body push and pull strength ratio in recreationally active adults. Int J Sports Phys Ther. 2013 Apr;8(2):138-44. PMID: 23593552; PMCID: PMC3625793.

2. Gabriel, David A. C.S.C.S.; Pyka, Ian B. C.S.C.S.. PROGRAM DESIGN: The scientific basis of push-pull weight training programs. National Strength and Conditioning Association Journal: August 1989 - Volume 11 - Issue 4 - p 30-32

3. Bartolomei S, Nigro F, Malagoli Lanzoni I, Masina F, Di Michele R, Hoffman JR. A Comparison Between Total Body and Split Routine Resistance Training Programs in Trained Men. J Strength Cond Res. 2021 Jun 1;35(6):1520-1526. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000003573. PMID: 32168178.

Debbie (Deb) started powerlifting and Olympic lifting in High School as part of her track team's programming; She continues to train in order to remain athletic. Inspire US allows Deb to share information related to training, lifting, biomechanics, and more.
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