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The How and Why to Maximize Push Ups

Improving your push up max is easy, and benefits other movements too.

So you want to do more pushups. Maybe you’ve made a foray into calisthenics training and want to get better at it. Maybe you’re preparing for a fitness test, like the CPAT for Firefighters in New York, or the PRT for the Navy. Maybe there’s a test at your school, or an upcoming challenge at your gym. Or maybe you’re just tired of being weak on pushups.

Whatever the reason, the purpose of this article is to help you obtain and SUSTAIN the best possible form during pushups so that you can achieve as many as possible with good form. But, once form breaks down, you will not stop. Instead, you will break form as needed in order to get the last few possible reps and improve on your total.

Why do it this way? The longer you can maintain good form, the longer you can apply the most force and hence, achieve a higher total. But why allow form to break down at all? Why not stop as soon as it breaks down? Because you’re trying to maximize your TOTAL pushup number, not just your “good form” number. And using bad form allows you to do more pushups, ultimately.

This is because bad form gives you, the lifter, a mechanical advantage. If your elbows flare excessively, if your hips sag towards the floor, if your shoulders rise towards your ears and protract heavily...all of these make the movement easier. But what they also do is a) reduce the amount of force you can apply, and b) transfer the work onto smaller, weaker muscles. Both outcomes result in the same thing: fewer total reps.

Therefore, if anything, you don’t want to START the set with bad form. You want to FINISH it with it. Get me? Just don’t get injured.

What Is Good Form

Good pushup form means hands are outside shoulder-width with moderately flared elbows (ideally about 60 degrees), shoulder blades pulled back and down, a tight midsection that doesn’t sag towards the floor, head pulled back with chin tucked, and a range of motion that constitutes a full rep. If anything, your chest should touch the floor first, not your hips or your face. And when you actually “push up,” your entire body should come up as one solid unit, instead of “peeling” off the floor: first the chest, then the hips, then the thighs.

How Does This Workout Work?

My approach is what’s called a “maximalist” approach: rather than just training the exercise you’re trying to improve (which is a “minimalist” approach), you will do other exercises (“accessories”) to improve on the elements of the pushup required for achieving good form. I have identified the five main elements that must be addressed and improved upon. I will go into them in a moment, one at a time.

The challenge for you, the reader, is to figure out which elements of the pushup you are weak on and select the appropriate accessories to address those weaknesses. But, even if you don’t select the absolute “optimal” ones, it doesn’t matter. Your pushup will still improve because your overall form has improved. So don’t worry about it.

(Five minutes later) Still worrying? I get that. Just train all of them. You can’t go wrong.

Workout Structure

The workout is four weeks in length, consisting of two workouts per week. If you want to double it, go ahead, but instead of assessing your regular pushups twice a week, just swap in a pushup accessory or a bench press with a normal grip width on that day. Do NOT assess your pushups twice a week. It’s a waste of energy. The point is to BUILD strength, not continually TEST it. (In fact, you could even test it once a month if you wanted).

During the first workout, you will assess your current pushups max. Then, you will select some accessories based on what “gave out”: what element of good form started to erode first? Was it tired arms? Flared elbows? Sagging hips? Et cetera. Then, you’ll do some accessory exercises  corresponding to these elements before assessing your pushups again (in the same workout). If your pushups improve despite the fatigue of both the initial assessment and the accessories, it means you probably selected the right elements to work on. If it didn’t, that’s okay because you’ve still learned something: 

You should’ve picked the other ones. So just focus on them going forward. No biggie.

During the first three weeks of the program, you assess the pushups every week during the first workout. But for the last week, you assess them on the second workout. Why? This is so that you can use that last workout as “Game Day” if you have a fitness test coming up. If this is the case, schedule your workouts so the LAST ONE occurs on Game Day.

If you don’t have a test coming up, or you intend to run the program multiple times, that’s okay. You can still run the program as written.

What are the Five Elements of the Pushup?

The five elements of maintaining good form on pushups are: Quality Negatives, Triceps Endurance, a Strong Bottom Half, Packing the Shoulders, and Minimal Sagging/Peeling. All of them are interrelated. I’ll break them down one at a time and describe how to train each one.

Quality Negatives

The negative is the part of the pushup when you’re moving towards the floor. Too often, people try to reach the floor without adequately bending the elbows. This leads to hips sagging and other cheats.

The way to fix and improve on this is to CONSCIOUSLY bend the elbow while keeping the shoulders down and back, and to train the element of Triceps Endurance (coming up next!)

How to Train a Weak Negative: with a conventional or close grip, use Unmodified or Modified Negative Pushups, Slow-Negative Incline Bench Press, or Slow-Negative Larsen Press (with feet on bench) to be able to better control the negative phase of the pushup. Perform them for sets of 8-12 reps.

Triceps Endurance

Even with good form, triceps fatigue is a common cause of slow progress. Moreover, if hand position is too narrow during the regular pushup, it usually means the triceps will give out before anything else. In such cases, widen your grip during your regular pushup.

How to Train for Triceps Endurance: use unmodified or modified High Partial Close-Grip Pushups—meaning you only go halfway down and then all the way up—Incline Close-Grip Bench, or Board Presses, all for high reps.

Strong Bottom Half

Rarely the main issue, but still important. Whether coming up or down, “the bottom half” refers to when you’re close to the floor. If you lose control and fall towards the floor at this point on the way down, or can’t seem to rise off the floor without arching your back and/or protracting your shoulders heavily on the way up, then this is likely your problem. The cause? Weak or underutilized pecs due to bad form.

How to Train the Bottom Half: do unmodified or modified pushups starting from the floor, meaning you're lying completely on the floor before you start “pushing up,” rather than starting in the air. Other useful exercises include modified deficit pushups or any Low Partial Chest Work like a Low Partial Incline Bench.

Packing the Shoulders

The shoulder blades must stay back (retracted) and down (depressed) for as long as possible during your pushup set. This is called keeping your shoulders “packed.” If the shoulders rise up towards the ears during your movements, it means you have lost a lot of pectoral engagement and the main muscles being worked now are the triceps, front deltoids, and serratus anterior. Of course, we want to use these muscles too, but that point should come at the END of your pushup set, not the beginning.

How to Get Better at Packing the Shoulders: Pull-a-parts and Rows of various sorts build shoulder retraction, while Pulldowns or Assisted Pull-ups (using the pull-up machine, bands, or a partner) that focus on pushing the shoulders DOWN at the bottom of each rep can build shoulder depression. Another exercise is the Reverse Shrug, which is performed on a dip station. If you have very limited shoulder depression mobility (if they just won't stay down), you may benefit from stretching the neck and upper traps.

Minimal Sagging and Peeling

Sagging refers to the lower back and hips falling weakly towards the floor at the top and during the negative of the pushup, while peeling refers to what you look like coming up from the floor in this state: your body “peels” off the floor, starting with the chest, followed by the stomach, waist, hips, and thighs, like a rug being picked up at only one end. In the words of Eric Bugenhagen, “does that LOOK optimal to you?!” Me neither.

How to Have Less Sag and Peel: Core strength is king, but fewer crunches and more Weighted Plank (high or low) and Hollow Body Holds. These exercises build a core that’s SOLID!

Give Me the Workout Already!

This sample workout assumes the main concerns are the Negative, Triceps Endurance, and Packing the Shoulders, which are the most common. It also includes some core work for the Peel/Sag, and some added Chest work for the Bottom Half later in the workout.

Day One
Day Two
Week One
-Test Day: Assess your pushups
--Which gave out first? 
-PACKED: Band Pullaparts 3x12-20
-NEGATIVE: Slow-Negative Pushups 3x8
-Assess Pushups again with good form
-PEEL: Glute-Clenched Plank 3x30-60sec
NEGATIVE/TRICEPS: Negative Dips 3x8
PACKED: Pulldowns/Assisted Pullups 3x8-10
TRICEPS: Incline Close-Grip Bench Press 3x12
Week Two
-Test Day: Assess your pushups
--Did you improve? 
---If so, these are the correct accessories
---If not, swap in accessories for the other elements.
PACKED: Reverse Shrugs 3x8-12
-TRICEPS: Modified High Partial Pushup 3x10
-PEEL: Hollow-Body Hold 3x15-30sec
NEGATIVE: Negative Deficit Pushup
TRICEPS: High Partial Close-Grip Bench Press
PACKED: Inverted Rows 3x6-10

Week Three
Test Day: Assess your pushups.
--What gave out this time? The same elements or something else?
---IF THE SAME: Keep working those elements
---IF SOMETHING ELSE: Swap in accessories for those elements
-PEEL: Glute-Clenched Plank 3x30-60sec
-BOTTOM HALF/NEGATIVE: Low Partial Incline Smith Press 3x8
-BOTTOM HALF/NEGATIVE: Low Partial Negative Deficit Pushup 3x8
-PACKED: Shoulder-Depressed [Assisted] negative Pullups 3x6

Week Four
(no negatives, no barbells)
PACKED: Shoulder-depressed Pulldowns 3x10
BOTTOM HALF: Positive-only Pushups from on the floor 3x8-12
PEEL: Hollow-Body Hold
GAME DAY: Go For It!
(If there is no Game Day, simply assess your pushups and then do accessories pertaining to the same elements as Day One. For example:)
PACKED: Pullaparts 3x20
BOTTOM HALF: Dumbbell Low Partial Flyes 3x12
TRICEPS: Modified High-Partial Pushup
Repeat the routine if desired.

FAQs and How-Tos

-If Your Pushup Test Uses a “Beeper”: A pushup beeper is a piece of athletic testing equipment that makes sure each one of your pushups goes low enough to “count.” You don’t actually need to own one to pass your test; all you need to do is place an object of equal thickness below you as you do your various pushups forms, and especially when you test your conventional pushups.

-Why so much incline press? Why not flat? 
If a flat press is pressing at a 90-degree angle, a decline press is an acute angle, and an incline press is an obtuse angle, a pushup is a decline press. When pushup form starts to suffer, your hips fall towards the floor partly because your body is trying to INCREASE the decline in order to make the lift easier. So how can you minimize this tendency? Simple. Train at an incline. I.e an obtuse angle. The only thing to keep in mind is that when we bench, we tend to arch the lower back a lot. Therefore, you need to make sure to train your core a lot. This is why I included some Larsen press too: benching without arching is basically what pushups are. During any modified pushup: keep your wrists UNDER YOUR SHOULDERS, not in front of them.

-How Do We Test the Pushups: Do as many pushups as you can, starting with the best form you can manage and breaking form ONLY AS NEEDED, NOT PROACTIVELY, to get as many reps as possible.

-Can We Do Core Work Both Days: If your Peel/Sag issues are especially pronounced, feel free to do core work both days. Keep in mind, however, that any time you do a pushup variation, you should be keeping your core tight, and hence, strengthening it. 

-Differences between Test Days and Non-Test Days: Lighter work is done on Test Day after the assessment, while heavier work is done on Day Two. Negatives such as Negative Incline Bench Presses should be done on Non-Test Day; don’t do negatives on Test Days. Pushup variations on Test Days are all with your normal hand width. Pushups on Non-Test Days are often with a close-grip. 

-For an extra rep or two: try the “spread the floor” cue. Without moving your hands, drive your hands apart as though you’re trying to break the floor. This will activate the triceps and allow you to do some more reps.

I hope you enjoy this maximalist pushups-building workout. If you have questions, please leave a comment below.

Mark Ludas, author for Ironmaster home gym strength training equipment

About the Author

Mark Ludas CPT is a NASM-certified personal trainer with a decade of experience in the fitness industry. After an asthmatic childhood, Mark discovered his natural aptitude for fitness in his late twenties. At age 36, he accomplished a 300+ pound conventional deadlift and 280+ high-bar squat as a 6’5” 170-pound ectomorph on a fully vegan diet, all after just one year of proper self-programming. Mark is the founder of Resistance Quest Fitness, established in 2016, and the creator of the Paralinear Method of strength training. Additionally, he is a writer, actor, model, and musician. Find him on InstagramFacebookYoutube, and at www.resistancequest.com.

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