Building towards your first push up takes consistency and patience, but also good exercise selection and the use of progressive overload. In this article we will provide you will 14 variations that you can progress over time to work towards your first push up.
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Progressive overload is the principle of increasing the intensity (load, volume) over time to increase the amount of stress placed on the body. This is the principle that dictates the exercises provided in this list and the principle that will allow you to build to your first push up.
Training blocks, also known as cycles or meso cycles, are a way of organising training in that you create a group of workouts that you perform for a period of time (usually between 3-8 weeks) that you progress over the block of training in order to create progressive overload. This is important to push up progressions, because in order to progress overtime you will need to use appropriate exercise selection, add this exercise into a block of training, progress it through this block of training and then select the next appropriate exercise.
This allows to progressive overload within a block of training and from block to block, allowing you to see a great deal of long term progress. Most people are never consistent enough to use this kind of progression, if you can get yourself to be this consistent with your training you will see dramatic results.
Let’s use an example of someone who has no training experience and little upper-body muscle mass. For their first cycle I might pick two exercises, done on two different days of training, the High Barbell Eccentric Press Up and the DB Bench Press . If we work through the cycle for 5 weeks and make the sessions slightly harder each week, then we build another training block and move to a progressively more challenging exercise like Press Up on High Box whilst keeping the DB bench press but increasing the weight used.
To simplify thing here, think about picking an exercise, getting better at it over the period of weeks or months and then picking a more challenging exercise. Doing this on repeat with the exercises above will allow you to see long term progress and eventually achieve your goal of doing a push up. For more detail here, please refer to the extensive article on progressive overload.
Start with an exercise that is both approachable and challenging at the same time. You should be able to perform 4 sets of 5-8 repetitions of the exercise you perform to start with. If you can only perform one or two repetitions it’s simply not enough to build enough volume over time.
Weights are so useful when it comes to developing the push up. Using only bodyweight exercises and push up variations (which resemble the desired exercise) is essential to progress due to the principle of specificity , which outlines the need to perform exercises or training specific to the goal pursuit. However, using push up variations can get very mundane and frustrating especially if you are deep into the goal pursuit of performing your first push up and still have a long way to go.
Using free weight variations to get strong and build muscle can not only reduce this mundanity, it can also speed up the process. Weights can be progressively overloaded in a way that push ups cannot, we can add 0.5kg to a bench press, but we can only manipulate the height of the press up. Also building high volume repetition workouts with free weights is easy, with exercises like the DB Bench Press it is very achievable to gain the desired muscle mass required to perform a push up.
If you are training consistently two times a week, I would suggest using two horizontal press variations , one a push up specific exercise outlined in the article and the other a free weight variation that puts emphasis on either building strength or muscle mass.
Building enough muscle mass and strength to perform a push up can take a very long time, especially for female individuals, but also for obese individuals who have to take a much greater load when attempting a push up. This is why understanding the importance of patience at the beginning of the endeavour is extremely important, as it will prevent frustration throughout, or at least calm it. Some athletic individuals may only take a few weeks to get their first push up, while for others it can take over a year or more. Play your own game and try not to focus on the progress of others.
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This resource was written by Sean Klein. Sean Richard Klein has thousands of hours of coaching experience and a BSc in Sports Science with Management from Loughborough University. He owns a gym in Bayonne France, CrossFit Essor, which runs group classes and a Personal training studio.