Upper Lower vs Push Pull Legs (PPL): Differences Explained

published by: Debbie Luna
Last Updated:
September 2, 2022

Among the many training routines developed, the upper/lower and push/pull/legs programs are among one of the most frequently subscribed to - especially by novice or intermediate lifters who have yet to require more specialized training methodologies.

However, prior to picking which program you will use, it is important to understand what exactly makes the two different from one another.

Upper/lower and push/pull/legs share a number of similarities, but ultimately differ in terms of what sort of exercises they use, the length of each workout session, how frequently the exerciser will train in a given week and how such training is programmed.

What is a Training Program?

A training program or training routine is a structured workout plan that denotes what sort of exercises an individual will perform, in what order these exercises are performed, and the sets and repetitions of each exercise within the workout plan.

What is a Training Split?

The term “training split” or simply “split” refers to how a training program divides the various skeletal muscles of the body within the context of multiple workouts, such as in the case of an upper/lower split clearly meaning that the muscles of the upper body are trained on a separate day to the muscles of the lower body.

What is the Upper/Lower Training Program?

The upper/lower training program or U/L is a novice to intermediate level training program that splits the musculature of the upper and lower portions of the body for separate training days, allowing a greater specificity of training and greater focus on the muscle groups of the upper body in particular.

upper lower

This will usually take the form of four workout days within a week, structured with at least a day of rest between training sessions meant to target the same muscle group. 

Pros

The greatest benefit of the upper/lower training program is in its simplicity, with every muscle group in the body being trained at the least twice a week, with a clear division between what sort of exercises are appropriate for a workout session.

Furthermore, for individuals with hectic schedules, the upper/lower training program will usually require less days in the gym than its PPL counterpart.

Cons

Unfortunately, the simplicity of the upper/lower training split also means that it is somewhat less effective for more experienced weightlifters - especially those with a lower body that is lagging behind.

While this may be somewhat fixed through the use of more complex and heavy compound exercises, there is still the fact that accumulated fatigue is a significant factor due to the sheer number of muscle groups and exercises performed within a single workout of upper/lower.

What is the Push/Pull/Legs or PPL Training Program?

The push/pull/legs or simply PPL is a training program of intermediate difficulty that separates the various muscle groups of the body by the direction in which they exert force, thereby dictating what exercises are performed within a workout also by such a direction.

push pull legs or ppl

Generally, this equates to the “push” day of the workout being focused on the pectoral muscles, deltoids and triceps while the “pull” day trains the entirety of the back musculature and the biceps, while the “legs” day trains the various muscles of the legs and lower back.

Pros

In comparison to the upper/lower training program, PPL offers greater specificity and shorter workouts on account of less muscle groups being trained per session. 

Additionally, PPL allows for significantly greater caloric expenditure to be achieved as the exerciser spends more total days in the gym than in most other training programs.

Furthermore, for individuals that quickly grow bored of performing the same exercises repeatedly, PPL is capable of being modified for a wide variety of different exercises so as to keep the lifter engaged and excited.

Cons

The PPL routine is particularly incompatible with individuals of hectic schedules, as it involves being in the gym for up to 6 days a week, with approximately 40 minutes to an hour per training session, depending on what sort of exercises and how much volume is performed.

Due to the more frequent sessions in the gym, the exerciser is also more likely to experience fatigue as they perform more general exercise than what would be performed in the upper/lower training program.

Who Should Perform Upper Lower vs Push Pull Legs

The upper/lower training routine is more suitable for novice exercisers or individuals that wish to spend less days in the gym, while push/pull/legs is more appropriate for lifters of intermediate to advanced experience.

For athletes or exercisers seeking a greater specificity of training, the more focused and targeted workouts of PPL are the more appropriate choice, especially if leg strength is an important factor for them.

In truth however, both upper/lower and PPL are perfectly appropriate for exercisers of all levels, and it is best to choose a training program that allows you to stick with it the most.

Volume and Compound Exercise Usage of Upper Lower vs Push Pull Legs

In terms of raw exercise volume placed on the musculature of the lifter, it is push/pull/legs that clearly wins out as it induces less fatigue per workout session while simultaneously allowing for more accessory movements to be performed alongside the ordinary compound exercises.

However, in terms of the number of compound exercises performed per workout session, it is the upper/lower training program that sees a significantly higher number of such movements.

This is a natural consequence of training the entirety of the upper body within a single training session, requiring that the exerciser perform exercises like the bench press and military press alongside the barbell row, for example.

Though the higher volume of PPL is a clear advantage over upper/lower, whether or not the greater number of compound exercises present within upper/lower is an advantage will depend on the exerciser and their recovery methods.

Workout Length and Frequency of Upper Lower vs Push Pull Legs

Just as what sort of exercises used can differ between the upper/lower and push/pull/legs training programs, so too does the frequency of their workout sessions, as well as the length of time in which the exerciser will spend on these workout sessions.

Generally, the upper/lower training program will require that the exerciser spend 4 days within the gym out of a week, as this is the amount of training sessions needed to train the entirety of the skeletal musculature twice over.

This is not the case for push/pull/legs, as this particular training program instead requires up to 6 days in the gym so as to ensure that every muscle group is sufficiently stimulated within a set training week.

In terms of length of time spent in the gym, however, push/pull/leg workout sessions are considerably shorter due to the lesser need for multiple exercises, and the lower number of compound exercises per workout session - thereby reducing the amount of time spent recovering between sets as the exerciser instead performs isolation movements.

Training Focus and Complexity of Upper Lower vs Push Pull Legs

Both the training focus and complexity of the upper/lower training program are considerably less intense than in comparison to the sort of training methodology involved in a push/pull/legs workout session, as upper/lower will generally involve a more surface-level spread of exercises meant to target more muscle groups at once.

As such, this will not only result in less specific training stimulus being placed on the musculature of the body, but also a lesser variety of exercises other than main compound movements that are a mainstay of such programs.

Whereas in push/pull/legs, the exerciser will almost definitely perform more isolation exercises meant to target individual muscle groups, aiding in specificity and carry-over at the cost of a more complex training program.

Final Thoughts, Which Program to Pick?

Both the upper/lower training program and the push/pull/legs training program have equally effective methods of developing the exerciser’s body - and, at the end of the day, they are similar enough that it is simply a matter of personal preference as to which program is most appropriate.

However, small differences in the programming and complexity of either program dictate that it is the upper/lower training program that is more appropriate for novice exercisers or those with little time on their hands. 

Conversely, it is push/pull/legs that is appropriate for more advanced exercisers or those with a need for greater focus on each individual muscle group.

References

1. 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

2. Candow DG, Burke DG. Effect of short-term equal-volume resistance training with different workout frequency on muscle mass and strength in untrained men and women. J Strength Cond Res. 2007;21(1):204–7.

3. McLester JR, Bishop E, Guilliams ME. Comparison of 1 day and 3 days per week of equal-volume resistance training in experienced subjects. J Strength Cond Res. 2000;14(3):273–81.

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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