Push ups are such a great upper body movement, especially for those who are just getting into exercise and want to set a bodyweight strength goal. For some it’s getting the first press up, for others it’s hitting that set of 20, either way progressive overload should be an important part of the process. Let’s have a look at how you can use progressive overload in multiple ways to improve your push ups.
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Progressive overload is the act of manipulating training variables over a time period so that the load on the body increases to create a wanted adaptation, in this case, push ups. For a more detail description on progressive overload, read our full article on the topic here.
Using progressive overload to improve your press up ability is going to be crucial if you want to make steady progress. That being said don’t try and rush this process. Strength takes time, so it’s important to be patient, especially if you’re just getting into training.
The physical properties that are required to complete 100 push ups in a row are very different to those of performing a 1-arm push up, of course there is cross over between the two but training training programmes aiming towards either of these goals will be very different. These are goals that would be selected by very advanced individuals. This article will provide examples for people of all abilities, but beginners and intermediate individuals will be focusing on gaining the strength required to perform 10+ push ups. Whereas advanced individuals will be able to work on both strength and endurance simultaneously.
Volume is the amount of working sets completed, this can be framed as in a workout, in a week or in a training cycle. A simple way to think about it is the amount of work done in a movement pattern within a time frame. As most studies indicate the most important volume landmark is the total amount of sets done in a week.
The intensity which the work is done is very important. Intensity is the difficulty or a set or repetition. It’s the difference between a warm up set and a working set and it can be manipulated in many ways. This could be manipulating the RIR or RPE. It could also involve the adding weight to the exercise or increasing exercise difficulty.
These are important terms to understand because they are the toggles in which we can turn to use progressive overload for all movements including push ups. So how do we manipulate these toggles in practice, how can we get someone from no push ups to the first push up, from one set of 3 to multiple sets of 8-10, from 12 push ups to 10 ring push ups? In all scenarios we use progressive overload to create the adaptation.
For the beginner example, we are going to use someone who is 35, female, has looked after her health and has done some physical activity over the last 5-10 years but has by no means done enough to create the strength to do a push up. This is normal for females who find upper body strength work challenging without very specific training. For this example we are going to look at how to use progressive overload from one cycle to the next, this long term progressive overload is particularly important if you have goals to perform tough upper body movements like push ups and pull ups.
The first cycle will focus on two movements for gaining strength in the horizontal press movement pattern that is so crucial to performing press ups. One will be specific to the press up (press up on box) while the other will focus on gaining strength and muscle mass in the muscles required for the press up (DB Bench Press).
The second cycle will progress the press up on box to a low press up on a racked barbell, this will make the exercise a lot more challenging. Picking the progression will of course be based on how the individual has performed on the previous cycle, if the press up on box was still challenging, then staying with this exercise or moving to an easier exercise may be the right approach. For our example however, we can imagine that our client has progressed nicely and performed 15+ reps on each set of the press up on box and is ready to move to a more challenging variation. For sake of simplicity we will stay with the dumbbell bench press but make it more challenging through progressively adding weights.
Finally we move to an even more challenging press up variation in that of the eccentric press up. This final phase of the press up when the chest is close to the floor can take a lot of time to gain strength in. The repetitions will likely be a lot lower than on the previous two exercises, putting more emphasis on true strength training. The dumbbell bench press will continue to be used to develop muscle mass.
This is an example of a 9-12 week training block where we have taken an individual from no training experience in the horizontal press movement pattern, to being well on their way to performing a press up. Whats likely to happen in this example is the progression will slow down and the client will still be unable to perform a press up. This is where you might move back to a simpler movement like a press up on medium barbell, but you will perform more volume (set and reps). When taking an annual view of the training process this will still count as progressive overload even if it may feel like the client is doing an easier exercise than the previous cycle. This is a great example of progressive overload being successfully used to improve push ups.
An intermediate can find it very demoralising when trying to move from 3-5 push ups to 10+. In this example I want to look at how progressive overload can be use within a cycle. Our client will be a 50 year old male who has been training for 1 year and can now perform 3 push ups with excellent form. He trains 3 times a week and wants to be able to perform 5 press ups. As it’s one of his main goals, we will use two horizontal pressing exercises in the cycle to ensure progress.
His push up work will focus on two areas, building strength in the position and building muscle mass in the muscles required for the press up whilst using specific movements. For the strength potion of the training a push up will be used and for hypertrophy a medium barbell press up will be used.
Here we can see how progressive overload really is within a cycle. It’s literally just adding slightly more reps or more weights to a movement. Adaptation takes time though and you cannot just keep linearly adding repetitions or adding weight, you will need to change out the exercises and repeat the same form of progressive overload within a cycle. Also fatigue and lifestyle factors can play a huge role in a sessions intensity so it’s the coaches role to understand how someone is feeling that day and many other factors to make progressive overload work over the course of a year or multiple years.
For an advanced individual who wants to progress their push ups, using progressive overload will be particularly important as without structure it can be very difficult for advanced individuals to progress. As mentioned previously, for advanced individuals, push ups split into two types of movement, a strength based movement like a single arm press up. Or an endurance based movement like a max set of press ups. For our example lets say the individual wants to improve both qualities.
To improve the strength of a push up for an advanced individual, I would use an archer press up. When using this movement make sure the the individual or yourself are taking as much weight as possible in the working arm. This will help you move towards a single arm press up. For improving endurance qualities in the muscle, using sets to near failure will be an excellent way to work on this quality. Here you can see how these exercises might be progressed over the course of a three week cycle.
These are very specific examples of progressive overload in action, your goal shouldn’t be to copy them, but understand the concept of how we can use progressive overload to progress any physical attribute, including push-ups. Good luck improving your push ups! For more information and training tips have a look through some of our other resources and exercise library.
Yes, if you’re looking to optimise your progress, applying progressive overload is going to be very important.
As I layed out in this article there are many ways to make bodyweight training progressive, from improving strength to muscle endurance, it’s all about turning the toggles of training volume and intensity up over time. This could be with pushups or pulls, squats or pulls, the progressive overload principle still applies.
No, improving your push-up wont improve your power if you mean power in the sense we use in strength and conditioning thats usually measured by some form of jump test. Improving how fast you can perform press up’s maybe, but I wouldn’t call this power by any means. Fitness can be hard to define, but yes I would say improving your push up would be regarded as improving your fitness levels.
This principle called progressive overload can help bodyweight training build muscle, which can be very hard to do with bodyweight training alone.
If you’ve achieved progressive overload over long periods of time you will likely see better results than 99% of people exercises on a regular basis, most of whom progress has been on hold for years.
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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.