Ask Stew: How to Improve Push-up Performance

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Marines perform push-ups.
Brig. Gen. William M. Faulkner and Sgt. Maj. Timothy J. Didas lead Marines and sailors from 3rd Marine Logistics Group in push-ups after the Commanding General's Labor Day Formation Run, Sept. 3, 2009. (Cpl. Shelby Shields/III Marine Expeditionary Force)

Improving your push-up performance can come in many different shapes and sizes. Some methods will work better for you than others, but it also depends on your current fitness levels, recent workout methods, workouts per week, arm/hand placement, body weight and even arm length.

Here is a question that required some follow-up questions to figure out a path for this person to see improvement in push-up training. (Note, the following methods also will work for pull-ups).

Stew, I have been trying to get better at push-ups for some time now. Have been stuck at 50 in 2 minutes and would like to build up to twice that much this year. Any advice? What are my options?

Well, the answer really depends on many things as listed above. Here is a way to self-assess and find a logical path for you to try for a cycle (4-6 weeks typically).

If you do …

Daily push-ups -- If you are the type of person who is doing daily push-ups for a long period of time (no matter what the volume), you should stop because it is not working for you. Stop Doing Daily Pushups! 

You need to give your push muscles (chest, shoulders, triceps) a rest from any pushing and do them every other day. Especially if your calisthenics workout volume of pushing exercises (push-up/dips) is high (more than 200 reps), you need to give yourself time to recover. Try the Classic Week of Military PT Training where you will do a PT Pyramid on Day 1, a Super Set on Day 3 and a Max Rep Set Workout on Day 5 or 6. Sometimes you may need another day before doing the max-rep set workout when the volume gets higher each week.

Lift weights but little calisthenics -- If you like to lift more than calisthenics, I understand, and you can build a decent foundation of fitness for military fitness tests just with lifting but with multiple sets. Higher repetitions require muscle stamina. You have the strength; now you have to take a strength exercise and make it an endurance (muscle stamina) exercise. This requires more repetitions and regular volume.

After probing for more details, the problem was the gentleman lifted upper body (push) on Monday and Thursday and did push-ups on Tuesday and Friday at a moderate level (100-150 reps in small sets). Once again, this is similar to the daily push-ups issue with not giving yourself enough time to recover between chest/shoulder/arms days (bench, military press, dips, triceps) and the days push-ups were added.

Rearrange the week and do your push-ups on the days you do bench press and add the other push elements to the same day as well. Give your push muscles a rest. Typical bodybuilding splits do not work well for this type of push-up growth you seek.

Sparse random workouts -- If you work out only a few times a week and barely have any consistent program, that is a problem with not enough volume per week with any exercise, much less push-ups. But you are a good candidate for the Push-up Push.  

Take your current max reps (50) and multiple by four. That equals 200. Do 200 push-ups a day for 10 days straight. Make odd days part of a normal upper-body workout period to get your 200 push-ups (pyramids, super sets, etc.) and, on even days, spread push-ups throughout the day in max rep sets.

Get in the gym and run or do a leg day on the days in between; only add the push-ups to the non-push-up days. (read more). Then after 10 straight days of adding push-ups to your training, rest from any pushing activity (bench, military, chest, shoulders, triceps, dip, etc.) for three days. On Day 14, test yourself.

Need more lifting -- If you are a pure calisthenics guy, you may want to add in more weight training to focus on the shoulders, chest and triceps better. Try some push-ups and dips with a weight vest or do bench press, military press and triceps isolation exercises as well.

Always warm up with regular push-ups and see whether you can cool down with a push-up reverse pyramid drop set-style workout: 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 with some stretching in between, focusing on form/technique. I also would add in pulling exercises to balance out your push-up training and place the PT Reset warmup/cooldown into the mix, too. Once again, do this workout every other day.

Hand/arm placement -- My final piece of advice is to work on your hand placement. The elbows during the push-ups should not make a 90-degree angle with your shoulder/torso, nor should they be touching your ribs.

Place the hands about chest level (think bench press) during the down position and have your upper arm form a 45-degree angle with your body when in the down position. If you have longer arms, place your arms a few inches wider than your shoulders and get used to that angle on your chest, shoulders and triceps.

But since you are a high-volume pushup/lifting person, I would rearrange your workouts so you do all pushing exercises every other day, as mentioned above, for 4-6 weeks and see how that works. Then if you want to try the Push-up Push after that; try it for weeks 7-8 of your training.

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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