Topic of the Week #4 – Pushing and Pulling Ratios

I was working on a different topic of the week but it was taking me a long time so I’m going to go the easy route and switch to an easier (but very important) topic for this week. This week’s topic is on pushing and pulling ratios.

Most people love to push. Squats, bench press, push ups, leg press, etc. And they do a lot of it. However, these same folks don’t always like to pull. Deadlifts, chins, rows, etc. seem to be less popular in the gym.

In time this can create muscular imbalances and lead to postural disortions which can predispose the lifter to injury.

Some experts recommend a simple 1:1 pushing to pulling ratio in program design, some recommend a 1:2 ratio, and I’ve even seen a 1:3 ratio recommended for longevity purposes.

Here’s what I do.

Based on the Prioritization Principle, you’ll see the best results from the exercise you do first in the week and first in the workout session. I always perform pushing movements first. On lower body days, squat variations come first, and on upper body days, bench pressing variations come first. On full body days it’s a squat followed by a press.

Some coaches like to alternate between lower body pushes and upper body pulls, then lower body pulls and upper body pushes so there is no interference, but I don’t abide by this rule. That’s a whole different topic, however.

Back to the topic at hand. I prioritize pushing by putting it first in the workouts, but then I make up for this prioritization imbalance by programming more pulling than pushing. For upper body, I’ll usually do 2 pulls for every push, and for lower body, I’ll usually do 2 or even 3 posterior chain dominant lifts for every quad dominant lift. This really seems to work well as people rarely have posterior chains that are “too strong.”

I have some meathead friends who like to do bodypart split routines and I always make sure that they’re doing more pulling than pushing too. For example, split up leg day into quad day and ham/glute day, and split up back day into a back width and a back thickness day.

How about you? What ratio do you adhere to, and what’s your reasoning behind it?

17 thoughts on “Topic of the Week #4 – Pushing and Pulling Ratios

  1. jake t

    2:1 pull to push. Most of the athletes and client@ we see at pur facility have the curved shoulders with a weak posterior chain.

    Reply
  2. Josh Wolfram

    I agree with your writing! I have my athletes do a 2:1 Pull:Push because I find so many of them come to me with a muscular imbalance. My Jr. Class is a great example of a class that bought in to the system and has benefited greatly. I don’t let kids bench till they can do 15-20 perfect pushups depending on their size. I like to entise the kids so we start with a pull on upper body days then let them push then we pull again.

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  3. Fabian G.

    Hello Bret,

    Isn´t a deadlift a push and not a pull according to your model of vector training?

    I would describe it as a movement that combines two vectors:

    1. posterior-anterior until the bar is at the knees (like kicking someone in the stomach)
    2. posterior-anterior + inferior-superior after the bar passes the knee

    Without the addition of the second vector the lifter would end up in the final position of a ´backlift´:

    http://www.oldtimestrongman.com/strongmen/paulanderson_backlift.html

    Your LVT-Model made me think about something: Why don´t we offset the effects of the three different lower body pushes (deadlift, squat, glute-thrust) by utilizing the respective pull variations as in the upperbody lifts? In the case of upperbody pushing equal development of the scapular muscles is achieved by utilizing pushes (dip, pushup, overhead-press) and pulls (curls, rows, pull-ups).

    Using deadlifts to develop the hamstrings to me seems like using planche pushups – or overhead presses with a deliberately long lever arm – in order to develop the biceps.

    (Although there is of course no direct relation between the pushes and pulls of the upper and lower body)

    What do you think of using an inverted squat (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xj2Dft1bV-w&feature=related) in the inverted positions of deadlifts and squats for the purpose of equalizing the effects of the lower body pushes and training the hamstrings?

    For the glute thrust one could use a glute-ham-situp (I think you talked about this in a prior post).

    Would love to have your input on this!

    Greetings,

    Fabian

    Reply
  4. Brian

    Great points, Bret. Most people like the “push” movements better because they usually coincide with the “show” muscles on the front side of the body. The “go” muscles on the backside of the body are underrated and not as fun to train, although they are arguably more important. Speaking generically (because all clients are different and require different details in their exercise prescription), I’ll employ a 6-movement scheme: 2 compound leg movements (1 quad dominant/1 hip dominant), 1 horizontal push, 1 horizontal pull, 1 vertical push, 1 vertical pull. That’s it in a nutshell.

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  5. Clement

    I actually think you selected a fantastic topic this week. I’ll be basing my answer on my experiences, opinions and education.

    As I’m an army clerk for the next 2 years, I’m going to be desk-bound. Obviously, this calls for more pulling movements, for posture more than anything.

    As for the matter of vanity, I feel that a strong back, well-developed shoulders and good posture are the essential parts of looking good and confident. All too often, guys who only do benching and curling have humungous chests. This is a massive turn-off for the girls. Ironic, isn’t it? Most guys are under the impression that a huge chest and biceps make one attractive, when in reality girls find it gross.

    I’m a huge fan of John Romaniello’s 2:1 pull-to-push ratio. Personally, pulling exercises look so much more bad-ass and I’d take weighted pull-ups over a huge bench on any day, which is also ironic as I’m naturally good at pressing movements and love them as well.

    What I do for myself currently is train full-body 3 times per week. I do a lower-body exercise, followed by an upper body push and upper body pull horizontal pull in a superset. I then end the session with 10min of core work or metabolic resistance training. Later in the day, I’ll perform a few sets of vertical pulling specifically to improve my pull-ups.

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  6. Marianne

    What I see (when people-watching in the gym) is “push” dominance in both males and females.

    In men, I think this is down to the point that Brian makes, but also possibly a lack of knowledge and understanding of the movements they are doing. People seem to turn into “Gym Zombies”, on auto-pilot and they don’t put enough thought into their programmes. Maybe they only care about how they will look, over how they will function, I don’t know. It’s probably not as conscious as that anyway, because even the majority of trainers here need a kick up the arse too!

    For females, speaking from experience, the general population (here) just haven’t a clue about why they are doing the exercises beyond “toning up”. I rarely see one girl come in to the strength and conditioning room to do a pulling exercise, or even an upper body pushing exercise! I am generally alone-female in there :( Deadlifts, pull ups, cable rows (or any row for that matter), even dips and push ups are completely exempt from their programmes. Women are still intimidated, and half the time see the above exercises as too “manly”!! (pulling my hair out). The only good workouts I see are in a few Kettlebell classes which appeal to females. Then the posterior chain is being trained – but they are totally unaware of why!

    Maybe I should design a few posters or hold a little seminar on the training the posterior chain and promoting muscular
    balance. Though I doubt any female would come to it :'(

    For me, given my past problems with chronic pain and muscle imbalances, I have now become totally aware (or obsessed) with pulling and pushing movements, in all directions. Pulling exercises are my favorite. I probably adopt 1:2, or at least 1:1 ratio push/pull.

    Another thing I have noticed is that pushing exercises are easier to do with body weight only and no equipment from home, which appeals to females. I hear a lot of females talk about workout videos etc and they talk about how great they ae because there is no need for equipment. I also see many home workouts (from some fitness blogs) that lack these basic “pulling” components. I try, in every workout, to promote pulling over pushing, or at least make it obvious that I am thinking about balance between the two.

    Maybe people are afraid of putting their back in to it??

    Maybe we need to teach people (trainers included) to exercise their minds more??

    Cheers
    Marianne

    Reply
  7. Elsbeth Vaino

    Interesting point on doing the push first for effect and then going 2:1 on pulls:pushes. I go 1:1, although I tend to have some additional pulling/hip dominant stuff in the movement prep. I’d like to go 2:1 I find time is a big problem as I see most of my clients for an hour (they do conditioning on their own) either once or twice a week, so I stick with a 1 day program – there’s a lot I need to squeeze in! Maybe I need to move to 75 minute sessions.

    Reply
  8. Chris

    I try to keep a good ratio of 2:1. Most of my training is Oly lift variations. I guess additional squating might put me over on pushing?

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  9. mark and the funky bunch

    I like the setup Waterbury calls out in one of his books. A push, a pull and a lower body move like a squat, lunge or deadlift.

    Reply
  10. Billy Darrer

    I use a 3:1 pull/push for upper body. 3:1 for hip dominant/ knee dom. Just like you said most of my clients posterior chain is not “too strong.” Plus, it comes down to in case working against in that one hour working against the other 23 hours in the day for that person.

    Reply
  11. Kashka

    I do push exercises first too. I do 1:1 ratio for upper body, 2:1 ratio for lower body. Just because I think regular DL probably work my quad, hamstring and glutes equally, so I add sets of RDL after DL to emphasize posterior chain.
    I think 2:1 or 3:1 ratio is more of a corrective treatment, because most people start out doing more pushing than pulling. But once muscle imbalance is cured, I don’t see any reason why we should be doing more pulling than pushing. Unless there’s some kind of research showing pulling muscles need more volume than pushing muscles.

    Reply
  12. Teri

    Right now my program consists of squats, back extensions (assistance exercise), bench press, overhead press and deadlifts so that looks like 3:1 in favor of pushes, with deadlifts being the only pull I currently train (I’m a beginner, female and 43 y/o). That said, the deads are my heaviest lift so that may change the balance somewhat as far as the physical impact. I agree that more women would lift in the ‘manly’ way if they knew how quickly it improves the rear view.

    Reply
  13. Nick Efthimiou

    An easy way to get in the extra volume of pulling (if you are that way inclined) is to super set a pull and a push, do the pull first, and do one less set of the push. You could also do higher reps on the pulls.

    I take no credit for the originality of this idea, Eric Cressey used it a lot in Show and Go.

    Also, depending on what you do for ‘conditioning’ if you do any. KB work naturally has a lot of pull built into it, so you could get away with less in your ‘regular;’ strength programming.

    Sprinting, likewise, uses a lot of glute and hamstring, so would (potentially) require less hip dominant movements.

    Christian Thibaudeau wrote in his Look Like a Bodybuilder, Perform Like an Athlete article that he does upper and lower body pressing at every training session, and staggers the pulling work, which is usually done for higher reps.

    Reply
  14. Dan

    2:1 for me. I might be a cynic, but I work on the principle that my clients are more likely to sneak in a set of bench or squats when they’re not with me, than a set of face-pulls.

    I throw pulls into my power block and in the finishers to make sure that we always end up with the right ratio. I use a lot of KB’s for power and finishers and agree with Nick that they inherently have a lot of pulls built in. It’s easy this way to ‘sneak’ pulls into a workout as you can disguise them as conditioning ha

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  17. Adam

    Would you agree that with regards to ratio, the “push” does not apply to the squat? A squat, for instance, when performed properly, incorporates as much posterior chain as it does anterior chain muscles. I would argue that a squat in and of it’s own offers a 1:1 ratio.

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