Adding complexity to your push-ups is just one way to make them “harder”. It’s the most common method. There are endless varieties that involve more flying limbs and body coordination than a performance at cirque du soleil. Don’t get stuck with these inferior methods. There are better ways to build muscle and strength with these smarter push-up progressions.
KISS – Keep it simple, stupid!
Doing, like, a bazillion push-ups with your own bodyweight is no way to improve your upper body strength or size. Adding extra resistance is the simplest way to up your push-up game.
There are plenty of good options there, each offering a different feel and type of loading. While wearing a weighted vest or having a weight plate stacked on your back provides a more constant load, looping a resistance band around your back has a more variable resistance – As you push the floor away the band tension increases. A weighted vest can be more comfortable, while a plate can easily be removed for things like drop-sets.
Chains can also offer some unique advantages. Link them over your shoulders for more upper body loading, or over your hips as an anti-extension core challenge. Chains can be set-up so a few links are still in contact with the floor – This will place more focus on the accommodating effect of the chains. Alternatively the chains can remain off the floor completely for an unstable training effect.
Get creative with adding weight. Even a child or pet could work. Here’s a drop-set using a few 10kg chains and a 30kg vest.
Manipulate your tempo
Making reps faster or slower or even holding in certain positions can make things harder – in the right way. Not only does increasing time under tension increase difficulty, but manipulating tempo during different phases of the push-up can offer some unique benefits, too. Many of these go beyond the scope of this article.
Increasing the time it takes you to complete each rep creates an occlusion-type effect, increasing metabolic stress and subsequent GH and IGF-1 release. As an example, one method might involve you taking a full 60-seconds to complete just one repetition; a full 30 seconds to lower and 30 seconds to lift yourself back up again! For something less mentally gruelling try reps of 4 seconds up and 4 seconds down.
Performing slow eccentric push-ups capitalise on the greater strength levels you have during the lowering portion. You can overload this portion with more weight, or with an increased time under tension (or a combination of the two).
Pauses can be added in at various phases of your push-ups. For example adding in an iso-hold at the bottom of a push up can capitalize on the stretched position a create a lot of mechanical tension. Or you can iso-hold at mid-point, say, to improve strength at that joint angle. You could even finish a set with a pause to make the most of the extra isometric strength you’ve available.
Slower repetitions and iso-hold push-ups can also be used to keep form tight and get a better contraction. Here’s a guillotine push-up complex combining a variety of different tempos.
Change moment arm length
By changing moment arm length you can make things easier or harder. In a push-up you’re essentially manipulating leverages so you can press with either a greater or lower percentage of your own bodyweight. For example something as simple as a push-up done on your toes versus your knees can knock off around 15-20% of your bodyweight.
Elevating your feel is the simplest way to take you to a mechanically disadvantaged position – to make your push-ups harder. You could also try pike push-ups, or even strict wall handstand push-ups. Keep this in mind for a little later on where I’ll be sharing some mechanical drop-sets using this info.
Vertical press push-ups are a hybrid between a pike push-up and a handstand push-up. They’re much easier to get in position than a handstand push-up, and way more stable. Having your feet up on a bench make these harder than a regular pike push-up. Versus a regular horizontal push-up these are more of a vertical press, and as such shift greater emphasis on to your upper chest and shoulders.
Shift muscle emphasis
Some push-up variations can place more emphasis on smaller and weaker muscle groups. For example your chest and horizontal pressing patterns tend to be stronger than your shoulders and vertical pressing patterns.
Push-back push-ups are more “vertical” and hence more difficult than regular push-ups. They’re also pretty fun. Make them even harder by wearing a weighted vest, or getting creative with your band setup.
Complexity can build muscle if you do it right. When you add complexity you generally change how many points of contact you have with the floor, or reduce your base of support. This decreases stability.
When you add instability to an exercise you get less output from the main targeted muscle. You might get more stabilizer muscle activity, but this is often at the expense of muscle activation and tension in your prime movers. In other words less chest and more rotator cuff, serratus anterior and so on. Definitely not a bad thing, but not the goal here either.
Adding complexity can also be used to improve skill development. This is especially good for young athletes or just when trying to have fun. But, if your goal is maximal muscle and strength then adding complexity isn’t the best option.
That being said there are ways to add complexity to your push-ups that can work, and will help you look great naked. Try adding in a few sets of these at the end of your next workout. Do 4-10 reps in each position. Combine with a weighted vest if you need to. Good luck!
Drop-Sets and Mechanical Drop-Sets
Start with a harder variation or with more weight, then drop to an easier version or lighter weight. It’s that simple.
For a regular drop-set you can start with whatever form of resistance you’d like. We spoke of a few options previously. Then, all you need to do is drop some weight once you reach near to failure with your weighted push-ups. You can do this once, twice, or a handful of times. The more “drops” you include the less number of sets you’ll perform.
I’ve spoken of mechanical drop-sets plenty of times before so I’ll forgo the details. All you need to do is start with a harder push-up variation then “drop” to a slightly easier one. This is usually done by a change in leverage factors. For example dropping from a feet elevated push-up, to the floor, to a hands elevated push-up. There are endless variations of drop-sets you could try. As always add load whenever needed.
Increase range of motion
With push-ups, adding range of motion would mean going deeper or manipulating position to stretch your chest further. These can be a good way of load the portion of the push-up where it’s working your chest the hardest (at the bottom). That being said it’s often better combined with other techniques described above, since providing you’re doing full push-ups anyway a little extra range of motion isn’t going to challenge you a great deal more. For some, it can also cause unwanted and cranky shoulders and elbows.
Place your hands on some form of elevated platform with a gap in the middle for your chest to drop in to – A deficit if for a deficit! You can achieve a deficit by simply doing push-ups with dumbbells in your hands, hands on a few plates or steps, yoga blocks, rotating push-up handles or even a trap bar providing the width is suitable for your structure.
Try unilateral progressions
Single-arm push-ups are a great variation, and they definitely require some strength to perform them competently. You can do the full-blown Rocky versions, change leverages and do hands elevated regressions, or do eccentric versions of them.
From my experience though (and studies tend to point in this direction too), they’re less useful as an upper body hypertrophy exercise, than they are as a core exercise and party trick.
The strength required to perform them isn’t as great as you might first believe. It’s largely because you don’t have the muscular coordination patterns necessary to perform them. Frequent practice will cause your one-arm push-ups to improve dramatically, while your overall strength and muscle mass not so much – Your strength improvements will largely be limited to the exercise itself while your chest and arms will likely be no bigger.
The single-arm nature is a huge challenge to your core strength. The ability to resist rotation while pressing with one-arm can be useful in a variety of scenarios, including performance in certain sports. Albeit for this purpose a single-arm cable press would arguably be the more “functional” option, but I digress.
Single-arm push-ups could be one to sprinkle in to your routine, but not one to totally rely on for intended purposes. Since you have the ability to overload eccentrically the one-arm push-up using the 2-1 (or BANA – bilateral assisted, negative accentuated) method offers the best muscle-building option.
A note on unstable progressions
Unstable progressions can provide massive value to any program when applied correctly. It’s my opinion though (and some may disagree) that for the purpose of strength and hypertrophy they’re not the best routes of progression.
Adding instability to a push-up we’ve briefly mentioned already. As a tool for efficient shoulder function and stabilizer activity they definitely have their place – Especially push-ups using rings which I like many other coaches are a big fan of.
Variations with your hands on a Swiss ball are seldom useful for physique-based training. Unstable surface training could be a good subject for a future article, and one to discuss in more depth elsewhere.
If you’re still busting out regular bodyweight push-ups at this point — for like, a bazillion reps — you’ve really no excuse not to up the ante. There are 10 options above to get you started.
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