A few years ago, I used to pass by a crew of men doing dips, push-ups and pull-ups at a local playground equipped with bars. I thought that all of them were basically idiots because a few steps away there was a gym where ”real men” were doing ”real training” a.k.a. lifting weights.
When the summer came, the bodyweight warriors started training half-naked. They all had developed chests. At that moment, I realized something very important – the chest loves medium weights and relatively high volume – something that bodyweight exercises can provide.
In general, muscle growth is a simple 3-step process:
- Hit the muscle with exercises. (Stress)
- Rest. Eat some protein. (Recovery)
- Repeat (Persistence)
The first element that you need to make the formula work is resistance. Without resistance, there is no stimulation, and without stimulation, there is no reason to take “selfies” including your chest.
How do you add resistance?
By performing an exercise that places the musculature and the joints under tension.
The push-up accomplishes this task. Your chest (pectoral muscles), triceps and shoulders (anterior deltoids) have to contract hard to push you back up.
Tension has been generated. What’s next?
In order for a muscle to grow, it has to be pushed beyond a certain limit for a long time. You can’t just do a few wall push-ups, flex in front of the mirror and expect to get big. It won’t happen even if you watch videos of Jay Cutler between the sets.
You need to stress the muscle harder.
In the beginning, regular push-ups may be difficult for you, but after a while, your body will adapt. Endurance alone does not require a lot of absolute strength and mass. If you are doing a movement for more than 15 clean reps, you are training your endurance capacity.
To keep on growing and building strength, the individual has to switch to more advanced variations (ring push-ups…etc.) or add extra resistance (weight, bands) to the current one.
You also have to realize that if you are a real natural dral bodybuilder, you cannot look like the guys in the magazines. The natural potential of drug-free men is lower. Sorry. The sooner you get used to this FACT, the smaller the shock will be when you learn the truth.
Of course, this does not mean that you cannot build a decent physique and look 10 times better than the average person on the street stuffing burgers in his mouth. You can, but for many, a strong reality check is required.
You cannot avoid the lesson, you can only postpone it.
Q: Is the push-up more effective than the bench press?
A: The bench press is easier to scale and program. Nonetheless, the push-up is a much safer exercise and a lot kinder to your shoulders because it allows the scapula to move freely and works the serratus anterior.
Q: How often should I do push-ups?
A: It depends on your overall routine, but anything over three times a week is unnecessary unless you are a professional push-up warrior.
Q: How many sets and reps?
A: Try to keep the reps under 15 and perform about 3-5 sets. When your workout becomes easy, and you can do 3-5 sets consisting of more than 15 reps, switch to a different variation or just add weight.
Level 0 – Knee push-ups
If you don’t have the strength to do regular push-ups, start with knee push-ups on the floor. Perform them 3 times a week for 3 sets. Do as many as you can with good form. Don’t go to total failure.
The rest in-between sets doesn’t matter. If you want, you can do one set in the morning, one in the afternoon and one in the evening.
After two weeks, add 3 sets of push-up planks [assume the top position of a regular push-up and hold it for as long as you can without bending at the lower back].
You will be capable of performing regular push-ups very soon.
Below is a hypothetical training cycle.
Level 1- Regular push-up
During the initial training session, perform 3 sets of as many as you can with good form. Don’t go to total failure.
The next day you train, repeat the first workout.
During the third workout, add one more set consisting of about half the reps you did for your first set on Day 1. For example, if you first set was 10 reps, the extra set should be only 5 reps.
Rest 1-2 days between workouts. Every week, try to add reps to the first workout.
The goal is to reach 3 sets of 15-20 reps with perfect form.
Below is a hypothetical training cycle.
Note: The numbers are just an example. Yours will vary.
Level 3 – Harder variations
The next step is to make the exercise more difficult.
There are three main ways to do that.
1. Elevate your feet slightly.
This will make the exercise harder by placing more stress on the shoulders and the upper chest. It mimics the incline bench press to a certain extent.
Pros. You don’t need special equipment to perform this variation. Just a low chair or a box. Don’t elevate your feet too high. You want to keep the stress on the chest. Elevating your feet too high places most of the stress on the shoulders and often causes excessive bending of the lower back.
Cons. This method comes with a higher demand for core strength, which may be a little distracting when your primary goal is to work the chest. Also, many people will cheat by bending at the lower back like a banana.
Another problem could be the extra strain on the shoulder. This variation can overwork the rotator cuff. I personally get shoulder pain from this exercise (as well as the incline barbell press).
2. Do push-ups with a backpack or a weight vest.
Pros. A great way to overload the chest and progress methodically.
Cons. It’s not very comfortable. Eventually, the weights in the backpack will start to slide too much and mess with your push-up groove.
3. Perform push-ups with resistance bands
Pros. This is a great way to overload the regular push-up. It’s more convenient than adding weight since all you need are bands.
Cons. Sometimes the band can slide towards the lower back. It should be just below the armpits at all times.
Also, the top of the push-up, which is triceps dominant, will always be harder than the bottom because at that point the band is stretched the most.
4. Do push-up on gymnastic rings
Pros. The ring push-up hits the chest extremely hard and also works the stabilizers in the shoulders very well…as long as you respect your current abilities.
Cons. For some individuals, the movement may be too difficult because the stretch at the bottom is deeper than usual and the balance requirements are high.
Once you choose the next variation, you can begin the progression from above again.
If the variation, you have chosen allows you to do less than 3 reps, it is too difficult for you. Reduce the resistance until you can do at least perfect 5 reps in a set.
Example 12-week cycle (progress through repetition increase)
Resistance bands push-ups/Weighted-push-ups/Elevated push-ups/Ring-push-ups
- Start with a variation that allows you to do at least 5 perfect reps.
- Train three times a week. Perform three sets on Day 1 and 2. Add one extra set on Day 3.
- Try to add reps on Day 1.
- Don’t go to failure ever.
- Deload after 8 weeks (repeat the workout you did in Week 5)
- On Week 10, repeat your workout before the deload.
- After 12 weeks end the cycle or deload again and continue further if you are feeling fine.
You could also start another cycle with a new push-up variation or simply add weight/resistance and bring your reps down to 5 again.
If you feel like training three times a week is too much, skip the middle day.
Train your back too – deadlifts, rows, pull-ups…etc. The goal is to prevent shoulder imbalances.
You could also add a rotator cuff complex with resistance bands such as the one below to your training. The goal is to keep the shoulder joint healthy. You could use it as a warm-up before your push-ups if you want.
Proper Exercise Execution
1. To make the push-up harder, pause at the bottom for 1-2 seconds. Don’t lose tightness.
2. Push all the way up. Lock the elbows gently.
3. Don’t flare your elbows too much, but don’t keep them too close to the body. The perfect grip is usually slightly wider than shoulder width. A really wide grip places too much stress on the rotator cuff and shouldn’t be used too often. A close grip turns the exercise into a triceps workout. The middle works just fine.
Tip to Increase ”Chest Activation” During Push-ups
While you are pushing yourself up imagine that you are bringing your hands together (or simply bring them if you are doing your push-ups on rings).
Visualize a spring being squeezed between your hands. Don’t think about pushing yourself up! Think about bringing your hands together. If you do this technique correctly, it will give you a great chest pump.
Bottom line: if you are constantly providing medium to high resistance to the muscle you train, it will grow as much as the natural capacities of your body allow. Push-ups can do that for you, and you can definitively build a decent chest from them. However, you have to add more and more resistance in the process.