Push-Up Training: Regressed to Advanced

For some, doing a regular push-up can be extremely easy, but for others, it can be impossible. In either case, how should push-up training be adjusted? For strength training to be effective, you must find the appropriate stress level. Too much stress, and you elicit overtraining and an increased risk of injury. Not enough stress, and the body won’t make any positive adaptations (e.g. increases in muscle mass and strength). This article takes a look at how to find the appropriate stress level with the push-up, according to your individual status.

Benefits of the Push-Up

First, it is important to describe the benefits of the push-up. Unfortunately, the push-up often gets sequestered to the world of calisthenics and general fitness. In the world of strength training, the push-up often gets swept under the rug while its free weight counterpart, the bench press, gets all the glory. For one reason or another, the bench press finds itself as the most salient upper body exercise. However, the push-up has unique merits that are under-appreciated.

Benefits of the Push-Up:

  1. Safety: The push-up has a very low risk of injury. Unlike the bench press, there is no risk of dropping a weight on yourself, or getting stuck underneath a barbell. In addition, the push-up is more forgiving on the shoulders and wrists.
  2. Core Control: The push-up requires that you actively stabilize your spine throughout the entirety of the exercise. In the bench press, you lie on a bench that provides a great deal of external stabilization, as opposed to the internal stabilization that must be muscularly generated in the push-up.
  3. Assessment: When it comes to identifying muscular imbalances and joint instability, a push-up is more telling than a bench press, because the push-up requires a greater deal of total body control.
  4. Natural Movement Pattern: It can be argued that pushing one’s self away from the ground while in a prone position is a movement pattern that humans have been doing since their inception. However, pressing a barbell away from your body while you lie on a narrow bench, with your legs hanging off either side, is likely not a movement pattern that humans have found themselves doing since time immemorial. This may be one reason why it’s easier to coach the push-up than the bench press.

Considering all these benefits, why is it that the push-up is not commonly utilized in strength training?

How to do a Push-Up

The Starting Position

The Descent

The Bottom Position

The Ascent

Regressing the Push-Up

If you find that you cannot perform a single push-up, you must regress the push-up. Let’s define what an exercise regression is. Any time than an individual is incapable of performing a specific exercise due to a lack of strength, mobility, or stability, they must choose a less challenging version of the exercise (i.e. a regressed version). Once the individual has demonstrated competency in the regressed version of the exercise, they “earn the right” to graduate to the regular exercise. In this process, you “regress to progress”.

For someone who cannot perform a single push-up, training to be able to do one by attempting push-ups is not effective. It’s like a person completely new to weightlifting who wants to squat 300 lbs, and in their attempts to do that, they just try squatting 300 lbs. In both cases, way too big of a jump is being made. The body needs to gradually progress over time in order to develop the strength to do a push-up.

In the case of the individual who cannot perform a single push-up, the best regression to use is the incline push-up with a step-up platform and risers. This modification of the push-up gradually introduces more and more challenging positions that allow the body to gradually develop the strength to perform a regular push-up on flat ground.

The Incline Push-Up

Here is the basic concept behind the incline push-up: the more vertical your torso position is, the lesser percentage of your own bodyweight you lift, and the more horizontal your torso position is, the greater percentage of your own bodyweight you lift. By removing risers from underneath the step-up platform, you gradually shift your torso position more horizontally, so that you gradually lift a greater percentage of your own bodyweight. Over time, your body adapts to more challenging positions and develops the strength to be able to perform a regular push-up on flat ground. Removing 1 riser-level per week in the incline push-up is the equivalent of adding 5-10 lbs per week in the bench press (which is a typical increase in intensity).

Safety Precaution with the Incline Push-Up

Alternative Forms of the Incline Push-Up

If you don’t have a step-up platform with risers available, here are some alternative forms of the incline push-up:

  • Power Rack Incline Push-Ups

    • Adjust the level of incline with the safety bar in the power rack. To increase or decrease the incline, simply increase or decrease the height of the safety bar, respectively. Once the appropriate height is set, grab onto the safety bar and do incline push-ups.
Unmodified image located at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Power_Rack.JPG.

Unmodified image located at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Power_Rack.JPG.

  • Smith Machine Incline Push-Ups

    • Adjust the level of incline with the smith machine bar. To increase or decrease the incline, simply increase or decrease the height of the bar, respectively. Once the appropriate height is set, grab onto the bar and do incline push-ups.

While these are both effective alternatives, the increments of incline won’t be as gradual as they are with a step-up platform with risers, which may make them less effective as a tool to progress to a flat ground push-up).

Regressed Push-Up Program

  1. Start with a platform height that allows you to perform 5 sets of 8 reps, with at least a few reps left in the tank after each set. Rest for about 2 minutes between sets (more or less, depending on how you feel). The initial platform height should be EASY. Things will become more challenging as the weeks progress.
  2. Each week you will remove a riser-level from the platform set-up, but you will continue to perform 5x8. Each week your goal is to perform 40 total reps with good form.
  3. When you train 5x8, that is your primary push-up day, but you will also have a secondary push-up day in which you will use the same platform height and perform 3 sets of max reps UP TO 12 reps. That is, you will do as many reps as you can for 3 sets, but you are not to exceed 12 reps per set. The secondary push-up day is performed weekly as well, and should be at least 2 days apart from your primary push-up day.    
  4. As the weeks progress, you may find that you cannot perform 5 sets of 8 reps. If this is the case, perform more sets with fewer reps per set, while still achieving the total 40 reps. For example, instead of 5 sets of 8, you could do 8 sets of 5, or 10 sets of 4. Or, you could do [2 sets of 8] + [4 sets of 5] + [1 set of 4]. However, stick to 5x8 for as long as you can. When you change your [sets] x [reps], keep them as close to 5x8 as you can. For example, don’t do 10 sets of 4 if you are capable of 8 sets of 5.
  5. If you get to the point where you can’t perform sets of 3 reps or more, go back to the initial platform height that you used on week 1 and restart the progression, but this time performing 4 sets of 10 reps. Use the same progression described in step 2 – decrease the platform height by 1 riser-level per week, while performing 4x10 for as long as you can (increasing sets while reducing reps per set as necessary). All that being said, the gradual progression of removing 1 riser-level per week should make step 4 unnecessary for most people.
  6. Follow steps 1 through 4 (or 5 if necessary) until you are able to perform a regular push-up!
  7. This push-up progression can be included in your current program, just make sure to prioritize it by:
    1. Performing the push-ups as your first exercise if you use an upper/lower program.
    2. Performing the push-ups as your first upper body exercise if you use a total body program.

Summary of Program:

  • Decrease the platform set-up height by 1 riser-level per week.
  • On your primary push-up day, complete 40 total reps each week.
  • On your secondary push-up day, perform 3 sets of max reps (up to 12 reps per set) each week.
  • Stick to 5 sets of 8 reps for as many weeks as you can.
  • Increase sets and decrease reps as needed as the weeks progress.
  • When you change [sets] x [reps], keep them as close to 5x8 as you can.
  • Don’t allow sets of less than 3 reps (unless you have just one odd set left to finish your total of 40 reps). If you get to the point where you’d need to perform more than half of your sets of less than 3 reps to achieve your total 40 reps, go back to your initial platform height from week 1 and start again with the same progression, but doing 4 sets of 10 reps.
  • Always use good form and full range of motion! Don’t count the reps otherwise.

Key Components of Program:

Consistency  ► For this program to work, you must follow the progression every week.

Patience ► It’s hard to know how long it will take you to develop the strength to perform a regular push-up. It all depends on your individual status (i.e. age, bodyweight, training history, strength level). Keep in mind that heavier individuals will have a harder time performing a regular push-up, as the push-up is an exercise that uses your own bodyweight. For example, a push-up for a 250 lb person is much harder than a push-up for a 150 lb person, as the former has to lift 100 lbs more!

Why “From the Knees” is not an Ideal Regression

I am not a fan of the “from-the-knees” push-up modification (more commonly known by its politically incorrect term, the “girl push-up”).

There are two reasons why I dislike the “from-the-knees” (FTK) push-up as a tool to progress to a regular push-up:

1.) It’s a binary progression. There is nothing bridging the large gap between the FTK push-up and the regular push-up. The FTK push-up is significantly less challenging than the regular push-up, making it an ineffective tool to progress to the regular push-up.

1a.) It’s like training to be able to bench press 200 lbs by only benching 100 lbs. To effectively progress from a 100 lbs bench press to 200 lbs, you would typically increase the weight by 5-10 lbs per week for several months. You would not train with 100 lbs for 3 months and then suddenly attempt 200 lbs.

2.) The overall mechanics of the FTK push-up differ greatly from that of the regular push-up, rendering it ineffective as a tool to progress to the regular push-up.

2a.) It’s like trying to get better at the bench press by doing the standing overhead press. There is a low degree of movement specificity, so there is little carryover in strength from one exercise to another.

Comparison of FTK Position and Regular Position

Advanced Push-Up Training

Now to address the other side of the coin – how should you approach push-up training if you can easily perform several high-rep sets? Simply doing more reps is going to get you nowhere fast in terms of absolute strength, as you are just training strength endurance. One big reason why push-ups are often left out of strength training is because they are difficult to load, making them a problematic exercise when it comes to increasing absolute strength.  However, there are several ways to increase the intensity (or load) of the push-up.

  • Weighted Push-Up

    • By adding weight to the push-up, you can progress it like traditional barbell lifts (i.e. adding 5-10 lbs per week).
  • Decline Push-Up*

    • It’s the same concept as the incline push-up progression, but taking things further past flat ground. The more vertical you invert your torso position, the greater percentage of your own bodyweight you lift. Again, as a safety precaution, be sure to place the entire platform set-up flush against a wall.
  • Weighted Decline Push-Up*

    • In this exercise, you combine the weighted push-up and the decline push-up to create one of the most challenging push-up modifications.

The order of these advanced modifications is not haphazard; it actually represents increasing difficulty. If you want to advance your push-up strength beyond regular push-ups, start with the weighted push-up for a time, and then progress to the decline push-up. After developing strength in both the weighted and decline variations, finally progress to the weighted decline push-up.

* If the angle of the decline becomes too steep, you start doing more of a modified bodyweight overhead press instead of a modified push-up. While in the start position of the push-up, be sure to not have the contact point of your toes higher than your ears. vod

By utilizing these more challenging modifications, you can increase your absolute strength in the push-up, which is beneficial for both strength development and muscle growth of the upper body pushing muscles.

The Main Problem with the Push-Up (and how to solve it)

While the push-up is a fantastic exercise with unique merits, there is a practical difficulty associated with it. They are hard to load! With the bench press, you can simply add plates to the barbell, but loading the push-up is not that simple. There are ways to load the push-up, but it depends on the equipment you have available.

Here are some solutions:

  • Weight Plates with a Partner

    • If you have a training partner, you can have them hold a weight plate steady on your back while you do push-ups. However, if you don’t have a training partner, or someone you are comfortable asking for help, this will not work.
  • Weighted Vest

    • You can use a weighted vest. However, most gyms don’t have weighted vests, and if they do, they rarely have several with incrementally different weights.
  • Weighted Backpack

    • You can use a cheap (but sturdy) backpack to put the weight plates in. This is the best option, but it will have you getting strange looks in the gym. Be sure to check with the front desk before doing this. This option is ideal for those with a home gym.
backpack edit.jpg
  • Band Resisted Push-Up

    • You can do band resisted push-ups by placing a resistance band across your back and anchoring either end with your hands.

Common Technique Errors (and how to correct them)

There are two errors I commonly see in the execution of the push-up.

  • Error #1: Excessive Arching of the Lower Back

    • This technique error occurs when the abdominal muscles fail to stabilize the spine, allowing the lower back to excessively arch.
    • This hyperextended position of the spine puts excess compression on the posterior components of the vertebrae, which increases the risk of injury.
    • This unstable spinal position also decreases the efficiency of force transmission in the push-up. If the spine and pelvis are allowed to wobble around due to a lack of core-engagement, force is “leaked” from the push-up movement, resulting in a weaker push-up.
  • How to Correct Excessive Arching of the Lower Back

    • Cue #1: Pull your navel away from the floor and brace your abdominals. Imagine you are creating and maintaining a tense flat surface that extends from your lower ribs to the upper crest of your pelvis.
    • Cue #2: While in the starting position, actively press your shoulder blades and hands into the floor, as if you are trying to push it away. This will help activate your abdominals.
    • Cue #3: Actively squeeze your glutes. This will tuck your pelvis in a stable position, and help maintain that flat surface from your lower ribs to the crest of your upper pelvis.
  • Error #2: Elbows Flaring Out

    • This technique error occurs due to shoulder instability. Unstable (or “unpacked”) shoulders allow the elbows to flare out away from the body during the push-up descent.
    • Shoulder instability in the push-up allows the “ball” of the ball-and-socket shoulder joint to shift around excessively, which increases the risk of joint injury, as well as impingement issues. Shoulder instability decreases the body’s ability to transmit force effectively through the arms and into the floor, leading to a weaker push-up.
    • The flared elbow position decreases the contribution of the large pectoral muscles, also leading to a weaker push-up.
  • How to Correct Elbows Flaring Out
    • Cue #1: In the starting position of the push-up, extend/tighten your upper back (think “tall chest”) and rotate your upper arms externally while pulling them against your ribs, as if you are trying to hold an object in the back of your arm pits. This “packing” of the shoulder creates joint stability and helps the elbow track closer to the torso during the descent of the push-up.
    • Cue #2: Simply guide your elbows backwards, instead of out away from your torso
      • In the following video, you can see how a rounded upper back and an “unpacked” shoulder lead to the elbows flaring out. You can also see how to pack your shoulders into a stable position so that your elbows will track closer to your torso.

Summary of Push-Up Training: Regressed to Advanced

To effectively progress your strength in the push-up, you must:

1. Assess your current status in the push-up.

1a. How weak or strong is your push-up?

2. According to your current status, choose the appropriate stress level for push-up training.

2a. Incline push-ups? Regular push-ups? Weighted/decline push-ups?

3. Increase the intensity of push-ups gradually and consistently.

3a. Progress to more challenging push-up modifications over time.

4. Have an understanding of excellent push-up technique, and utilize that technique.

4a. Be aware of your tendencies for poor movement, and correct them.

Push-Up Progression: Regressed to Advanced