5 Ways to Make Push-Ups Harder

There’s never an excuse to marginalize this simple-yet-effective upper-body exercise.

By Eric Velazquez, NSCA-CSCS | October 24, 2016

While they might not seem as impressive as a set of heavy bench presses, push-ups still test your ability to produce upper-body force while maintaining a rigid core. A compound exercise to its core, the push-up provides developmental stimulus to your pecs, triceps, delts, lats and even your fingerlike serratus anterior. 

But if you can do 50 or more in a single go, you may consider increasing their level of difficulty by one or more of the following methods in order to continue enjoying the many benefits that push-ups offer.

1. ON A DECLINE

This is an easy first step up — figuratively and literally — for those looking to improve their push-up game. Simply elevate your feet on a stable surface (such as a bench or box) behind you and perform push-ups as you normally would. This angle mimics that of an incline press, moving the emphasis to your upper pecs and requiring greater contribution from your delts. 

The higher your feet are elevated, the more difficult the set becomes. Want greater core engagement? Remove one foot from the box.

2. AS A FINISHER

Oh, you can do 100 push-ups? Cool. How many can you do at the end of your 16 sets of heavy chest work? Try using push-ups as your finishing exercise on chest day instead of more isolation work. By further engaging your delts and triceps with this compound exercise, you’ll achieve greater muscle breakdown in these areas and you’ll burn more calories overall. 

Try finishing your chest day with 100-150 push-ups, done in as little time as possible, taking breaks when necessary.

3. IN CONJUNCTION WITH CARDIO

Push-ups can be pretty pedestrian … until you hit a set of them after a long run, between rounds on a heavy bag or while doing anything else besides push-ups. Consider this approach a distant (strange) cousin to pre-fatigue, in which you exhaust your entire body with another cardio-based activity before tackling push-ups. Try setting a goal — start with 100 reps — and run half a mile every time you hit failure. If you have to run three times or less, increase your rep goal in increments of 25. 

For variety, you can also pair your push-ups with other unrelated moves such as kettlebell swings, farmer’s carry or bodyweight squats.

4. WITH RESISTANCE AND EXPLOSION

If your only reluctance with push-ups can be traced to your love of iron, then just add weight to your push-ups. This is most easily achieved through the use of a weighted vest such as the HumanX by Harbinger ($90, vitaminshoppe.com). But a trusted training partner can carefully place weight plates on your back and “spot” the weight as you perform each set. No vest or training partner? Do plyometric push-ups instead. Try five sets of five, with a full minute of rest between sets. 

You can increase the difficulty by doing box-jump push-ups: “Jump” your hands through a push-up onto two low boxes set just beyond shoulder width, then “jump” your hands back down to the floor between them.

5. WITH ONE ARM

If you still don’t think they’re tough enough, try mastering the one-arm push-up. Less about strength and more about balance and body awareness, the one-arm push-up is the true expression of push-up superiority. Many schools of thought exist on progressions for this move, but one good place to start is by leaning into a wall and pressing away with one arm at your side. 

As you become more proficient, move your feet away from the wall. When the wall is easy, try it on the edge of a couch that’s braced against a wall. Then a bench. Finally, if you can perform clean reps with each of the aforementioned variations, hit the floor.



About the Author

Eric Velazquez, NSCA-CSCS

Eric Velazquez, CSCS, is a veteran health and fitness writer and editor. Over the years, he has carved a niche int he realm of participatory fitness journalism, often putting himself through the paces of the programs he writes about. Notably, he trained for 12 weeks with professional boxers, spent six weeks immersed in the world of CrossFit and went hand-to-hand with (and against) mixed martial artists from Spike TV's The Ultimate Fighter. Velazquez lives in Southern California with his wife and two daughters.