4 Push Up Progressions That Actually Work

4 Push Up Progressions That Work

The push up is one of those exercises that if done correctly can be an awesome addition to your program. Many people love to add push ups in mass quantities to their program, the quality of the push up is VERY important. If you don’t have push ups quite yet, then keep reading! By following the progressions outlined here, you’ll be doing them in no time.

I was talking with a friend the other day, and we were discussing the strength transfer from the push up to the bench press and vice versa. In my opinion, the bench press transfers better to the push up, than the other way around. There is only one caveat; both must be performed correctly to have any kind of benefit towards the other. I mention this because many people will use the bench press as a progression to the push up. But push up mechanics MUST be emphasized first. Before we get into the progressions, I want to outline a few common mistakes that I see in people who are learning how to properly perform a push up.

  1. There is not enough core stability to allow them to lower the body in one piece and arrive in a proper pressing position. (This is why the kneeling push up seldom translates to a full proper push up!)
  2. The hands are not “screwed into the ground” thus the shoulders aren’t set. This means that as they lower themselves towards the floor, the elbows fly out instead of staying slightly tucked in.
  3. Arrive in a poor pressing position. When your chest arrives on the ground, the elbows MUST be stacked directly over the wrist in order to give yourself the best opportunity to press back up. Often times, the hands will be out front. This position is ideal for playing patty cakes, but not for push ups!
  4. They are so negative about it. Seriously, this one is big. You have to have a positive viewpoint on these things. The push up is one of those things that a lot of people just write off as something they simply CAN’T do.   Famous powerlifter and coach, Dave Tate discusses the basis for training plateaus as being physical (strength), technical (in the wrong position), or mental. We are going to cover the first two in this article, but you have to do the third on your own!

Progression #1 Plank Holds with the Toes Pointed

The first progression is going to address the set up for the push up as well as some core stability. To perform this, you will start in a full plank, which is at the top of a push up position. Most people do a half plank variation resting on the forearms. This one is going to be a full plank because we are learning push up mechanics. Here is a quick list of bullet points to keep in mind here:

  • Make sure your back is flat or even slightly arched (think angry cat not tired horse). If you feel yourself lose this position, stop, rest and start again.
  • Make sure the hands are directly under the shoulders and even slightly behind the shoulders. Screw your hands into the ground so the pits of the elbows face forward but your hands stay perfectly straight.
  • Legs are together and you need to focus on squeezing them as hard as you can. Squeeze your butt cheeks together ferociously. This will create a lot of stability throughout the entire movement.
  • Point your toes so that you are pressing through the top of the foot and not resting on the ball of the foot (see the picture). This makes a big difference in the exercise and helps to really get connected.

Hold these planks for time. We are looking quality of movement and stability rather than quantity. Your goal is to accumulate between 3 to 5 minutes in the position. Even if it ends up being 30 second intervals, that is fine. Just learn to find this position and get comfortable here. Do these several times per week as part of your warm up.

Full Plank

Progression #2: The Negative

I know earlier I made a big deal about staying positive, but this is different. We are working the eccentric portion of the push up, which means that the primary muscles involved in the push up (pec major and minor, anterior delts, and triceps) are actively lengthening. This is a great way to practice arriving in a good pressing position and builds a lot of strength in the process. Here’s how to do it:

  1. Start in the full plank position, which you’ve grown so fond of by now. You can use the balls of the feet rather than the pointed toe position we use for the plank.
  2. Remember to screw your hands into the ground, which sets the shoulders and places the pit of the elbow forward.
  3. Slowly lower yourself all the way to the ground. Start with a 3 second descent.
  4. At the bottom, take note of where your elbows, wrists, and shoulders are. Use video if necessary to look from a side profile. Every time you arrive on the floor, you need to strive for receiving your bodyweight in the ideal pressing position.
  5. Get back up. Don’t worry about pressing yourself back up. You can do the worm to get back up, press to the knees and then come up, whatever works. Just get back to the top and do another rep.

Eccentric work creates significant damage to the muscle tissue because it is actively lengthening and has a tendency to produce micro tears in the tissue. This causes some serious soreness, but also strong muscle tissue once it repairs itself. Keep this in mind when doing your negatives and only perform 3 sets of about 5-6 repetitions using the 3-second descent to start with. Rest as long as you need between sets. Again the goal here is quality and practicing arriving at the perfect pressing position. As you get better at these, rather than performing higher reps, just lengthen the time of your descent. The goal is between a 8-10 second descent for 5 reps!

Push Up Collage

Progression #3: Upper Body Elevated Push Ups

Once you’ve found some strength and stability in the push up position on the ground, it’s time to start building some strength in the pressing movement. To do this, we need to increase either the load (how much you are lifting) or the volume (how many repetitions you do). In this case, increasing the load is probably not a great idea because you are already struggling to get full push ups. So we will increase the volume but decrease the load at the same time. To do this, we simply need to set up a bar in a power rack or smith machine if you have one and elevate the upper body. By doing this, we can manage the load and get some pressing work in. Here’s how it works:

  1. Start with the same full plank position with your hands evenly spaced out on the barbell. Make sure the bar is seated firmly in the back of J-Cups if you have a rack similar to the one shown in the picture.
  2. Imagine breaking the bar in half. This will point your elbow pits forward just like we did on the floor during the negative.
  3. Perform a push up by lowering yourself down until the barbell touches in the center of your chest. If the bar is up by your neck, or down by your belly button, adjust your feet to compensate.
  4. Make sure that during the entire movement; you are actively squeezing your feet and legs together and contracting your glutes (squeezing your butt cheeks!) You want to make sure your entire body moves in a straight line down and back up.
  5. As you get stronger, move the bar down in the rack closer and closer to the floor. This will increase the difficulty by requiring you to press a higher percentage of your body weight.

Push ups in the Rack

Progression #4 Band Assisted Push Ups

Another way to get more push up volume in is to use the aid of a resistance band. My preferred method for teaching this is to place the band across the hooks in a power rack and lay over it. As the band is stretched when you lower your body to the ground, it will assist you during the initial pressing phase of the lift. As you arrive in the locked out plank position, there will be less tension on the band and you will be lifting a higher percentage of your body weight. Here is how you do it:

  1. Lower the J-Cups on the rack to a level that will give you some assistance but not make it too easy! You might have to try a few heights.
  2. Stretch a band across the hooks. I recommend using a medium to light weight band. Adjust the height for more assistance rather than use a stronger band. It will be uncomfortable if you use one of the stronger, wider bands.
  3. Position yourself over the band in the push up position that you’ve practiced so much.
  4. Make sure that the band doesn’t interfere with your elbow placement at the bottom of the movement. The band will be just below the sternum rather than across the chest for this reason. This is an added benefit of the band. It helps to prevent the dreaded low back sag we mentioned earlier!
  5. Knock out some push ups!

Band Assisted Push Up

So now you have all of the progressions you need to finally get some push ups. The question is, how do you implement them? I’ve outlined a sample of how you can implement these progressions into your normal workout program (if you have a normal workout program). If you need one, click HERE     and sign up for the newsletter and I’ll send you a free program. Below is a month’s work of progressions to get you started. Continue the progressions in the same manner. Even after you begin doing full push ups, keeping working on these exercises!

I know many of you will ask, “how long will this take before I’m doing push ups like a boss?” The answer is, it all depends on the time and effort you spend practicing and working on your positions. Lay the groundwork first and you’ll have some push ups, I promise. The main goal is to build strength in a safe position. If you do this, you’ll have plenty of time to get those push ups!

  Day 1

(of your normal program)

Day 4

(of your normal program)

Week 1 Plank hold: 5 x :30

Push ups in the rack: 3×12

Negatives: 3×6 w/3 second descents

Band assisted push ups: 3×12

Week 2 Plank hold: 5 x :45

Push ups in the rack: 3×10

(move the bar down one setting)

Negatives: 3×5 w/5 second descents

Band assisted push ups: 3×12

Week 3 Plank hold: 3 x 1 minute

Push ups in the rack: 3×8

(move the bar down one setting)

Negatives: 3×5 w/8 second descents

Band assisted push ups: 3×10

(move the band down one setting)

Week 4 Plank hold: 5 x 1 minute

Push ups in the rack: 3×8

(move the bar down one setting)

Negatives: 3×5 w/10 second descents

Band assisted push ups: 3×10

(move the band down one setting)

 

 

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