Ask Stew: How to Improve Pushup Performance

Sgt. Guadalupe Campos, the marketing and public affairs representative for Recruiting Station San Antonio, performs push-ups during a physical training session as part of the inaugural Battles Won Academy (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Bryan Nygaard/Released).

Improving your pushup performance can come in many different shapes and sizes as we all have different reactions to different methods. 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 pushup training. (Note, the following methods will also work for pullups).

Stew, I have been trying to get better at pushups 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 Pushups – If you are the type of person who is doing daily pushups 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!  In fact, you need to give your push muscles (chest, shoulders, triceps) a rest from any pushing and do them every other day. Especially if your calisthenic workout volume of pushing exercises (pushup / dips) is high (over 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 with prior workouts of the 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 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 lifting upper body (push) on Monday and Thursday and did pushups on Tuesday and Friday at a moderate level (100-150 reps in small sets). Once again, this is similar to the daily pushups issue with not giving yourself enough time to recover between chest/shoulder/arms days (bench, military press, dips, triceps) and the days pushups were added.

Rearrange the week and do your pushups 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 pushup growth you seek.

Sparse Random Workouts – If you workout 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 pushups. BUT you are a good candidate for the Pushup Push.  Take your current max reps (50) and multiple by FOUR. That equals 200. Do 200 pushups a day for 10 days straight. Make ODD days part of a normal upper body workout period to get your 200 pushups (pyramids, super sets, etc) and on EVEN days spread pushups 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 pushups to the non-pushup days. (read more).   Then after 10 straight days of adding pushups to your training, rest from ANY pushing activity (bench, military, chest, shoulders, triceps, dip, etc) for 3 days.  Then 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 pushups and dips with a weight vest, or do bench press, military press, triceps isolation exercises as well, but always warmup with regular pushups and see if you can cool down with a pushup 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 would also add in pulling exercises to balance out your pushup 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 pushups 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 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 for you. THEN, if you want to try the Pushup Push after that – try it for weeks 7-8 of your training.

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