Push Pull Legs with Dumbbells: Exercises and More

published by: Debbie Luna
Last Updated:
November 13, 2022

Push pull legs or PPL is a resistance training program targeted towards intermediate level weightlifters who desire to follow a specific training split that characterizes each workout by the direction of force produced by a certain muscle group.

One variation of this workout routine is that of dumbbell-only PPL, wherein the exerciser will solely rely on a set of dumbbells as the source of resistance throughout their training.

Dumbbell PPL is perfectly sound as a training modality, and may even present several benefits over other variations of the push/pull/legs training routine, such as improved proportionality and greater isometric contraction.

To form your own dumbbell PPL routine, simply take your original PPL workout program and substitute all barbell or machine based exercises with a suitable dumbbell-based counterpart.

Are Just Dumbbells Enough to Perform the Push/Pull/Legs Routine?

Yes - performing PPL with dumbbells alone is perfectly effective, and can in fact be preferable in the case of certain training goals.

push pull legs or ppl

However, doing so may not always be practical, as different exercises will often require different amounts of weight so as to maintain the correct level of intensity. This makes using fixed-weight dumbbells for a PPL program rather cumbersome and expensive, as the lifter will require many different increments of weighted dumbbells in order to progress properly within their training routine.

As such, it is far better for home-gym owners to purchase a pair of adjustable dumbbells if they wish to follow a dumbbell-only routine.

Benefits of Dumbbell-Only Push Pull Legs Workouts

Greater Muscular Proportionality

Other forms of resistance equipment such as barbells or resistance machines will train the body bilaterally - meaning that both sides of the body will work in tandem, thereby causing any muscular imbalances or simple one-sided dominance to affect the end result of the exerciser’s training.

Dumbbells can counter this effect by simply forcing each side of the body to work independently of the other, promoting greater proportional muscular development and ensuring that muscular imbalances do not occur due to unilateral stimulus.

Greater Isometric or Stabilizing Contraction

Dumbbells lack the usual self-stabilizing nature of resistance machines, as well as a similar advantage that equipment like barbells can present.

This results in dumbbell-only workouts producing greater isometric contraction in whatever muscle group is utilized as a stabilizer muscle, be it the shoulders during a chest press or the forearms during bicep curls.

An improvement in muscular stability translates to incrementally greater strength during isometric movements, as well as a general improvement in muscular endurance as they learn to utilize energy more efficiently.

Full Range of Motion (In Certain Exercises)

During certain exercises like the bench press or the barbell row, the body itself will act as a limit on the total range of motion achievable during such exercises - wherein the body will get in the way of the barbell’s path, thereby shrinking the total range of motion.

Dumbbells do not have this particular drawback, and allow exercisers to achieve a full range of motion without being physically impeded.

Push Day Dumbbell Exercise Equivalents

Barbell Chest Press to Dumbbell Chest Press

The barbell bench press may be directly substituted to the dumbbell chest press, with the sole difference being a greater range of motion and somewhat lowered amount of total weight per set due to the unilateral recruitment of the muscles.

dumbbell chest press

The dumbbell chest press is arguably superior to its barbell counterpart due to its capacity to achieve a full pectoral muscle range of motion, as well as its greater isometric contraction of the deltoid muscles.

Barbell Military Press to Dumbbell Military Press

Switching from the barbell military press to the dumbbell military press is simply a matter of equipment, as the form cues and effects of each exercise are essentially the same and require no further changes other than a minor reduction in total weight.

dumbbell military press

Other Common Dumbbell Push Day Exercises to Include

Apart from converting the usual push day exercises to their dumbbell form, exercisers may wish to include other dumbbell-based movements like lateral raises, chest flyers and overhead tricep extensions so as to better round out their push day workout.

Pull Day Dumbbell Exercise Equivalents

Barbell Row to Dumbbell Rows

Converting barbell rows to dumbbell rows will usually force the exerciser to perform the exercise with one side at a time, causing a slower set but also improving mind-muscle connection.

dumbbell row

Apart from this, performing dumbbell rows instead of barbell rows involves a greater tilt of the torso forward than in the traditional barbell row, improving rhomboid and trapezius muscular activation.

Barbell Deadlift to Dumbbell Deadlift

Switching from the barbell deadlift to the dumbbell deadlift is generally inadvisable due to several factors, but nonetheless will involve significant alterations in form and a major reduction in weight due to unilateral muscular activation.

dumbbell deadlift movement

While the majority of coaches would advise that lifters switching to a dumbbell-based PPL simply retain the barbell deadlift, switching to the dumbbell deadlift instead is perfectly fine if no other alternative is possible.

Other Common Dumbbell Pull Exercises

Dumbbell shrugs, dumbbell-weighted pull ups and the various variations of the dumbbell curl are all common pull day exercises that are already considered to be standard among PPL workouts, and are not usually meant to be performed with the use of a barbell or other types of equipment.

Leg Day Dumbbell Exercise Equivalents

Barbell Squat to Dumbbell Squat

The dumbbell equivalent of the barbell squat is limited by the grip strength of the exerciser, and will rely more on volume rather than total weight in order to induce physical developments. 

dumbbell squat

This is because of the fact that the barbell squat places the loaded barbell atop the exerciser rather than having them grip the weight with their hands.

Apart from this change in resistance and volume, the dumbbell and barbell squat are generally the same in terms of mechanics and may be executed in much the same manner.

Other Common Dumbbell Leg Exercises

Other common dumbbell-based leg exercises to include in a dumbbell PPL routine are the dumbbell lunge, the dumbbell calf raise and the dumbbell romanian deadlift.

Structuring a Dumbbell Push Pull Legs Routine

Structuring a dumbbell PPL routine is much like structuring a traditional PPL routine, wherein the exerciser will train up to 6 days within a given training week with approximately 48 hours between each training session of a specific muscle group.

The majority of lifters will perform this with monday being a push day, tuesday being a pull day and so on until taking a final rest day on sunday.

The sole difference between dumbbell PPL routines and the traditional PPL routine is in the somewhat longer length of time needed to recover the muscles of the deltoids properly - of which are activated isometrically to a greater degree due to the difference in equipment.

Progressive Overload and Deloading for Dumbbell PPL Routines

Unless making use of highly adjustable dumbbell equipment, deloading and achieving linear progression with dumbbells may be somewhat difficult due to the large increments in weight between dumbbells.

This can be subverted by instead progressing with volume alongside resistance, creating a two-fold training stimulus that is more easily increased or decreased as needed.

Furthermore, deloading with dumbbells may be quite difficult for less advanced weightlifters, requiring that alternative exercises instead be used or the inclusion of additional equipment instead.

Final Thoughts

A push pull legs routine performed solely with dumbbells is entirely possible, and even an excellent choice for certain types of weightlifters.

However, like all things in physical training, there are still a few drawbacks to this particular approach to resistance training, and it is nonetheless still best to avoid solely performing dumbbell-only workouts for long periods of time.

The quality of your training can be improved by including other forms of resistance training, such as with explosive barbell-based movements, or the constant time under tension presented by resistance machines - both of which are arguably difficult to achieve with dumbbells alone.

References

1. Farias, Déborah & Willardson, Jeffrey & Paz, Gabriel & Bezerra, Ewertton & Miranda, Humberto. (2016). Maximal Strength Performance and Muscle Activation for the Bench Press and Triceps Extension Exercises Adopting Dumbbell, Barbell, and Machine Modalities Over Multiple Sets. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 31. 10.1519/JSC.0000000000001651.

2. Pedersen, H., Fimland, M.S., Schoenfeld, B.J. et al. A randomized trial on the efficacy of split-body versus full-body resistance training in non-resistance trained women. BMC Sports Sci Med Rehabil 14, 87 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1186/s13102-022-00481-7

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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