A Way to Train: Push-Pull-Leg-Full-Core-Cardio

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A Coast Guard recruit does plank exercises.
A Coast Guard recruit from Company Oscar 188 does plank exercises during incentive training at Coast Guard Training Center Cape May, N.J., July 31, 2013. (Chief Warrant Officer Donnie Brzuska/U.S. Coast Guard photo)

If you are a regular at the gym or train consistently, you often may look for something new to try or be content with your current training regimen. Regardless, if you are someone who attempts to train, you may have asked, "What can I do today?"

Here is a system that I typically use as a hands-on presentation, using nothing more than a piece of cardboard with the words "Push, Pull, Leg, Full, Core, Cardio" on it. Described below is a way to train, but not the way to train.

The best part of using this system is that if 40 people go into the weight room, you will have 40 different workouts created through this process of one of my personal favorite training methods.

Here is how it works:

Upper-body push exercises available: Push-ups, dips, military presses, push presses, bench presses, incline bench presses, flies (dumbbells or cables), TRX atomic push-ups, triceps extensions, triceps kickbacks, lightweight shoulder workout.

You can use machines, dumbbells, TRX, barbells or calisthenics. It is up to you if you want to do a timed set of one minute, heavy weight of five or fewer reps, wear a weight vest for calisthenics or lift lighter weight for 10-15 or more reps.

Upper-body pull exercises available: Pull-ups, pulldowns, rows, biceps curls. You can use machines, dumbbells, TRX, barbells or calisthenics. It is up to you if you want to do a timed set of 1 minute, heavy weight of five or fewer reps, wear a weight vest for pull-ups, or lift lighter weight for 10-15 or more reps.

Leg exercises available: Squats, lunges, leg presses, leg extension, leg curls, step-ups, box jumps. You can use machines, dumbbells, TRX, barbells or calisthenics. It is up to you if you want to do a timed set of one minute, heavy weight of five or fewer reps, wear a weight vest with calisthenics or lift lighter weight for 10-15 or more reps.

Full-body exercises available: Burpees, mountain climbers, bear crawl, low crawl, fireman carry, deadlifts, hang cleans, power cleans, farmer walks, kettlebell swings, kettlebell snatches, kettlebell clean/press, Turkish get-ups, MJDB#2 or 3, thrusters, TRX squats/rows. You can use machines, dumbbells, TRX, barbells or calisthenics.  It is up to you if you want to do a timed set of one minute, heavy weight of five or fewer reps, wear a weight vest with calisthenics or lift lighter weight for 10-15 or more reps.

Core and grip exercises available: Plank pose variations, crunches, sit-ups, flutter kicks, leg levers, scissors, reverse push-ups, birds, arm haulers. Grip: Rope climbs, pull-up hangs, battle ropes, other grip-focused ideas. Many of the above lifts, like deadlifts, pull-ups and farmer walks, include a grip component as well.

Cardio options available: Walking, running, biking, elliptical, cross country skiing, swimming, rowing -- using a variety of protocols from long distance/easy pace, fast and slow intervals, tempo/paced intervals and many more. Sprints, speed and agility, fartleks and LSD (long, slow, distance) events can be mixed with a variety of cardiovascular events.

There are literally countless ways to create a workout plan using this system. Here are some ideas:

Calisthenics only:

Repeat 3-4 times.

  • Push-ups max reps one minute
  • Pull-ups max reps
  • Air squats 20
  • Burpees max reps one minute
  • Flutter kicks one minute
  • Run a quarter-mile around a track or two minutes on a treadmill.

Free weights only:

Repeat 4-5 times.

  • Bench press 5-10 reps
  • Pull-ups (weighted max) or pulldowns 10
  • Squats or leg press 10 (weighted)
  • Hang clean into push press 5-10
  • Plank pose one minute

It's your choice whether to do intervals or save cardio until after the lift section:

Bike or elliptical Tabata interval for five minutes or a 20- to 25-minute run, bike, elliptical, row or swim.

There is no need to do full-body workouts every other day. If you prefer full-body days, you can rest the day after or make it more of a cardio and mobility day. However, if you prefer to split the workouts into an upper-body day and a lower-body day (split routine), you also can arrange accordingly:

A typical Monday/Wednesday/Friday can be an upper-body day (change exercises as desired each day).

Upper-body combinations (push/pull/core/cardio combo):

Repeat 3-4 times.

  • Bench press 5
  • Pull-ups max
  • Military press 10
  • Rows 10/arm (TRX, dumbbell, barbell, machine options)
  • Sit-ups one minute
  • Plank pose one minute
  • TRX rollouts 10-15

A typical Tuesday/Thursday/Saturday (optional) can be a leg/full-body day (change exercises as desired each day and maybe do more cardio events on Saturday if running, rucking or swimming are an important part of your future training/selection preparation).

Lower-body/full/core/cardio combinations:

Repeat 4-5 times.

  • Run, bike, elliptical intervals four minutes (one minute fast/one minute slow)
  • Overhead walking lunges 10/leg
  • Box jumps or step-ups 10/leg
  • Deadlifts 5
  • Flutter kicks 50
  • Plank pose one minute
  • Light stretch legs, back

There are so many ways to experiment with this system and build your own Push/Pull/Leg/Full workout program, with supplemental core, cardio, TRX, mobility, flexibility, speed and agility mixed in as needed. Just be smart and remember that you have to recover on the days between tough workouts. You can recover by taking a rest day or working other muscle groups and/or focusing more on cardio options. Regardless, do not forget the Mobility Days when you feel you need them -- and even when you do not.

Other related workout options:

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you're looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to stew@stewsmith.com.

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