There’s a reason why the classic military push-up saying goes, “Drop and give me 20!” instead of demanding a higher number. Because somewhere around this rep count is where most people hit a ceiling on their max push-up reps. Perhaps you’re able to bang out considerably more than this — like, say, 50 — but even so, a push-up sticking point can be a huge annoyance for anyone looking to take their bodyweight training up a notch.
Here to help you smash your ceiling, however high or low it may be, is Zach Even-Esh, founder of Underground Strength Gym in New Jersey and author of multiple training e-books, including The Gladiator Project: Primitive Training for Maximum Muscle & Strength. (Visit him online at underground strength.tv.) Implement his push-up-specific pointers and you’ll be cranking out considerably more consecutive reps within weeks.
Do More Than Just Push-Ups
No single exercise will cover all your bases, regardless of how specific your goal is. Push-ups, of course, involve the chest, shoulders and triceps primarily, and there are countless other gym moves that train these muscles, as well, albeit in a slightly different manner. But being different is exactly the point.
“If you’re only doing push-ups in hopes of boosting your rep max, you’re eventually going to hit a wall because you’re not attacking the weak points that are holding you back,” says Even-Esh, who recommends subtle tweaks of many exercises you may already be doing. For example: barbell bench presses with varying grips (wide, medium, close); flat-bench and incline dumbbell presses with different hand and elbow positions (palms facing each other as well as forward, elbows flared out and in tight); overhead shoulder presses using a barbell and dumbbells; and all variations of triceps pressdowns to strengthen the top or “lockout” portion of the push-up.
One other push-up-enhancing exercise Even-Esh suggests isn’t quite so common in gyms: band pull-aparts. “These strengthen the backs of your shoulders and also improve shoulder health,” he says. To perform band pull-aparts, stand holding an elastic band with an overhand grip (keeping a little tension in the band) with your arms extended directly out in front of you. Keeping your elbows locked, pull your hands apart in a reverse-flye motion until your arms are pointed directly out to the sides. “Perform these slow and controlled, alternating between underhand and overhand grips for sets of 10 to 20 reps, then boosting up to 30, 40 and even 50 reps per set,” Even-Esh says.
Diversify Your Push-Ups
You’ll obviously want to do push-ups, and lots of them, but you shouldn’t always perform them the same way. “The body gets used to the same exercises, the same sets and the same reps,” Even-Esh says. “Your mind gets bored, too. This will cause the body to adapt to the training and stop responding.” Give any and all of the following push-up variations a try, as recommended by Even-Esh:
• Weighted Push-Up: Use either a weighted vest or backpack and start at 10 to 20 pounds of additional weight.
• Incline Push-Up: Elevate your feet by putting them on a bench or other stable surface behind you with your hands on the floor.
• Medicine-Ball Push-Up (two different variations): Put one hand on a medicine ball and the other on the floor and then switch hands; or “close grip” style — with both hands on the ball (shown).
• Slow-Motion Push-Up: Do a standard push-up with a five-second count on both the positive and negative portions.
• Plyometric (Clapping) Push-Up: Explode up on each rep so your hands leave the floor; clap at the top optional.
• TRX Push-Up: Put your hands in the TRX, feet on the floor.
Get Your Rest
This isn’t boot camp; push-ups shouldn’t be an everyday thing if you want to break a rep-max PR. “Recovery is the ticket to gaining strength,” Even-Esh says. “Try doing push-ups every other day or alternate between upper-body workouts focused on push-ups and others focused on free weights.”