Basics of Program Design: Balancing Pushes and Pulls

“I read part of it all the way through” – Samuel Goldwyn

Here’s hoping that you read all of this all the way through (if nothing else than for the picture of the cute puppy balancing). Program design encompasses far too much to
attempt to cover in a single blog post. I do, however, want to talk about the importance of balancing some of the variables that go into it. Anyone can just throw a single workout together
without too much trouble, but that doesn’t mean that day will be good, nor does it mean it will fit into the rest of the week well either.

No, not that type of balance, although it is cool too.

An easy concept to think about is balancing upper body pushes and pulls (think bench press and rows respectively). A good starting point for a lot of people is to have a pull:push ratio
of 2:1, or even 3:1 in some cases. Eventually the goal would be to get this ratio closer to 1:1 over time though for most. What this means is for every horizontal or vertical push you do, you
should do twice or three times as many horizontal or vertical pushes (mouthful of jargon I know, so let me simplify). A vertical push/pull is done with your arms overhead, such as when doing overhead presses or pulldowns respectively. A horizontal push/pull is done with your arms goingforward or backward, such as during DB bench presses or rows respectively. So, for every “chest” or push exercise you do try to do two “back” or pulling exercises as a rule of thumb.

Most people benefit from prioritizing pulls in training because of the nature of society currently. Lots of people sit all day at work with potentially poor posture, go to the gym only to
train the mirror muscles (the chest, biceps, abs, etc.), etc. Below is an example of two upper body days to make this easier to see visually.

Day 1
Bench Press 3 x 6
1 Arm DB Row 3 x 10ea
Seated DB OH Press 3 x 10
Lat Pulldown 4 x 10 ea
Chest Supported Row 3 x 15
Rear Delt Fly 3 x 15

Day 2
Bent Over Row 4 x 8
DB Bench Press 4 x 8
½ kneel 1 arm cable row 3 x 10ea
Cable fly 3 x 12
Sled row 3 x 10 yards
TRX body row 3 x 12

There are times and reasons for deviating from a balanced program but that doesn’t mean it should only be that way. A few exceptions (but not all) are:

  • If you are a powerlifter or olympic lifter
  • You have a lagging body part/area you want to add mass or strength too
  • Have an injury and can’t train a certain part of your body

Powerlifters and Olympic lifters must train in specific ways that will allow them to excel at their sport. Powerlifters for example, must prioritize the big 3 (bench, squat, and deadlift)
which can mean other things don’t get given the same attention. There might be less single leg work done, less upper body pulling (think rows, pull-ups, etc.), among other things.

If someone’s chest is lacking in size and strength, then it could be a good idea to add more volume (sets x reps x weight) to that area for a time. Regardless of the reasons for focusing
on this area it will undoubtedly throw off the balance of the program to an extent. This is why it’s might be beneficial to do from time to time but not for the majority of your training

With few exceptions, you can almost always train with an injury (unless you’re in a full body cast or something severe). If you hurt your right leg then that means there is still plenty of
upper body work that can be done. In addition, there is plenty of single leg work that can be done on the left leg as well.


See, I wasn’t kidding about the cute puppy balancing

When looking at a program to examine whether it is balanced well or not, you can’t just look at one day, but instead you must look at the entire week (AKA microcycle). Better yet,
ideally you would look at the whole month and even the year (depending on how far ahead you plan). When looking at an entire year of training most of the time spent training should be done with balanced programming (barring the exceptions above).

Are you a competitive power lifter who does a ton of pressing and not quite as much pulling? Cool, no worries. Spend a month or so after a meet working on increasing your pulling volume before going into another couple months of powerlifting specific training. Got a body part that is lagging behind in terms of muscular development? Just allocate more volume towards that muscle group for a month or so before going back to a more well rounded program. Programs don’t have to be 100% perfectly balanced all the time, nor should they be. But it’s an important thing to keep in mind when writing programs for yourself or someone else.

Rise Up!

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