What happens when you’ve plateaued in your push up workouts?
Well, if you’re cranking out the same number of repetitions for each go at your routine, and with the same trusty exercises, you’ll eventually hit a wall in your progress. This is actually a common frustration in all workout plans, and not just specific to bodyweight routines. In this post I want to discuss a few tactics to help keep your upper body strength goals on the positive end, and out of a training rut.
Repeating the same set of movements continuously will simply force the muscles to adapt instead of strengthening. As a result, the muscles will get comfortable. The triceps will get comfortable just as the pecs will get comfortable.
Let’s Look At Our Push Up Choices…
I had two gym teachers during the course of my middle school days, one good and the other bad, and I was lucky enough, on two separate occasions, to run into the bad gym teacher in my adulthood. Yea for me!
“Mr. C” —the bad one—was very hardcore…even in retrospect. In the beginning of my tutelage with him, I was just finishing a stint on a pair of crutches (me just being a stupid 12 year-old) and couldn’t run laps like the other kids. So, instead, I was required to do push ups…a lot of push ups. It was his way of doing me justice. Yea for me!
While I never developed an appreciation for push up workouts during my classes with Mr. C, I did learn how to keep myself from getting bored with the same old movements. In the beginning I started with the standards:
- Shoulder-Width Push Ups
- Wide-Grip Push Ups
- Diamond Push Ups
For most novices, like myself back then, these three exercises are going to be the foundation from where strength develops. But if this is all you do, then your progress is going to be short lived.
Seeing Progress With a Push Up Challenge
I never truly mastered the push up in middle school. I did get better at them, but once my knee was given a clear bill of health by the Orthopedist, I was off to run my fare share of laps, just like the other kids. Yea for me!
However, if I would’ve stuck with those push up workouts back then I can almost imagine my next step would’ve been to try for the 1-arm version. While I didn’t realize it at the time, as I got better at one variation, I’d move on to something more challenging. This wasn’t progress in my thinking, it was more about not getting bored.
My advice for someone just starting out on developing upper body strength is to follow a plan similar to what’s shown in the video below, which the goal is 100 push ups. For the complete beginner, try aiming for either 30-50 push ups in a single routine. Work in as many reps as possible right out of the gate, and then follow those up with either matched reps, or with a lower number. It doesn’t matter how many sets it takes you. Just keep going. But make sure you manage at least 3 reps per set.
So, say you can only do about 10 push ups for your first set, while the goal is to do a total of 50 reps as your full workout. If you could manage 10 reps for another 4 sets, then you’ve hit your number. That’s 50 right there. Yet, sometimes it’s not that cookie-cutter simple. It may take a total of 7-8 sets before you finally hit those 50 reps.
I hate the idea of doing endless repetitions. Take those 1000 Push Up Challenges you can catch on Youtube. In almost every video, those “1000 Push Ups” are performed by some skinny guy with no muscle tone who, honestly, really isn’t doing a push up…there’s no attention to proper form.
Anyway, I prefer sticking with something that’s more functional. And, since push ups are one of the best compound exercises around, working towards the 100 challenge—for a beginner of intermediate bodyweight enthusiast—will provide a much better amount of muscle stimulation for the upper body muscles.
Mastering Your Range of Motion
A simple fix to the problem of stalled progress is to switch out exercises once you notice the number of reps you’re capable of isn’t increasing. But you want to make sure the swap smart. Trading exercises just for the sake of doing something new isn’t how you’re going to improve on your numbers. They need to be challenging.
While there are many push up variations that one can add to a routine to enhance conditioning, the main focus should be to increase the Range of Motion (ROM). The basic push up only targets the muscles in a specific pattern, or movement. To force muscles to perform in an unfamiliar state can open up your strength capabilities.
Here’s a list of exercises that will expand on your ROM, and add in a bit of difficulty to your push ups workouts:
- 1-Arm Push Ups
- Elevated Push Ups
- Plyometric Push Ups
- Ball Push Ups
- Hindu Push Ups
- Handstand Push Ups
Here’s an interesting study looking at the Kinetic analysis of several variations of push-ups, and how Elevated Push Ups can add an intensity level over similar versions.
By themselves, these six exercises can be quite challenging. But try them on a BOSU, medicine or stability ball. Working on an unstable base will fire up the stabilizer muscles in the other areas of the body (eg. the core muscle group).
So, why not try a stability ball push up with your feet on a bench or chair?
Keeping your balance under control is exercise is going to be tough. But that’s the whole point, right?
Other Ideas For Pressing Success
Adding more resistance than what your own bodyweight can offer is another example of managing your progress in a positive direction. I personally like to use a resistance band looped over my back in my push up workouts. I hold each end under my hands and perform the reps as usual.
Another tactic with resistance bands is to perform partial reps. Just lift yourself up half way through the movement, and hold that position from anywhere of 3-5 seconds. Then lower yourself down, slowly, and repeat until failure.
For the most part, this is a step outside traditional exercise practice, but isometrics can offer a pretty good conditioning base. Just think about how effective planks are for developing the abs and obliques.
Remember it’s important to stick with correct form with each push up you do. This will create the most impact in the muscles as you progress in your routines.
Only after you can’t beat your personal record on a regular basis should you look to changing up your pull up workouts with different combinations of exercises and techniques. Usually minor adjustments are all that’s needed to spur on any gains.