Pushup Fitness Tests… Or How I Schooled The Competition and You Can Too

Pushup fitness tests and competitions are a great way to measure your upper body relative strength, not to mention that they are plain fun! A few years ago at our gym we had an athletic competition with all kinds of disciplines – pull-ups for reps, weighted pull-ups, sprints, long jumps and so on. The push-up fitness test was one of the disciplines.

People from all over Bulgaria were invited to join the competition. Many enthusiasts came – some were professional athletes, others were just fitness buffs or amateur bodybuilders. The competitors from our gym won most of the disciplines as well as the overall title.

I was the winner of the pushup contest, even though I wasn’t the strongest or most athletic one.  In this article I will share my secrets to pushup greatness. Here is a video we shot showing the first two push-up positions that you can use in your training. You can also see the elbows out push-up. Again – avoid this one.

Here is Why the Push-up is a Great Exercise


Push-ups often get neglected as a valuable exercise because once you start working out regularly, they become easy. The push-up, however, is still a great choice because when performed with proper form it is a great tool to build up your upper body relative strength – the ratio between your body weight and your strength.

Push-ups can be performed anywhere – you only need some space and the desire to get better. Another reason I’m writing about this exercise is because I see a lot of videos of people doing the push-up incorrectly. Although this is a fantastic exercise, when performed improperly it can harm your shoulders. In this article I will explain how to perform the push-ups safely and what one mistake we need to avoid.

Here is the Correct Way to Do Push-ups

The push-up is the exercise of choice in places where a lot of people are trained at the same time – for example in the army or in martial arts classes or bootcamps. It is at these exact places that I see the worst push-up technique.

Here is a quote from the Official Guinness World Record book on proper push-up form. If it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for us too:

The body must remain straight throughout, i.e., no bending at knees or waist. The body must be lowered until at least 90 degree-angle is attained at the elbow. The body must then be raised until the arms are straight. This equals one push-up.

Keep the Body Straight

The correct way to do push-ups is to keep your body straight – either in a neutral position or (and this is one of my secrets) in the hollow position. When you are in this gymnastic position, you can squeeze extra reps on the final part of the test by tensing your glutes, abs and lats. Here is how to do it:

  • Rotate your pelvis forward – this shortens the distance between your chest bone and your hip bone and allows you to contract your abs hard.
  • Tense your glutes – by tensing the butt, the nearby muscles can contract harder and thus get stronger. On the final reps you can squeeze a few extra reps.
  • Tense your lats – the lats, the armpit muscles, can act like a spring board for your arms on push-ups. This way you can use this lat contraction to initiate the movement when you press up from the ground.
  • Grab the ground – this is another technique for those last reps. Spread out your fingers and try to “grab the floor.” This will add a rep or two to your total.

On the photo above I am using all of these techniques, including grabbing the floor.

How to Get Really Good at Push-ups

Before giving specific training tips I will introduce two types of pushups that I find valuable for the purpose of increasing your push-up performance and will also show you what NOT to do.

In the photo above you can see two hand positions that are great for push-ups. Fig. A shows a wider grip push-up that is great for chest development, but is useless for the advanced irradiation and tension techniques we discuss here. Note however that the shoulders stay down and the elbows are not directly out to the sides, but point slightly downward.

Fig. B shows a shoulder width grip push-up position which is great for using whole body power and tension for those last reps. I suggest using both of these pushup positions in your training. On the actual test, assume a position somewhere in the middle between these stances. This way you can use both your chest and the tension techniques.

What NOT to Do

On Fig. C below you can see a push-up variation with the elbows straight out. This is how most people do push-ups and it’s wrong. It endangers the shoulders (every time you elevate the shoulders, you put them in a weak position) and doesn’t allow you to use tension techniques.

 

Here are my top tips to increase your push-up performance.

  • Get your body weight down – this one is obvious. If you are lighter, your relative strength is greater and push-ups are easier.
  • Increase your max strength – keep the body weight the same but get strong at an upper body pushing move like the bench press or the weighted dip. For push-ups the bench press is a better choice as it is in the same plane of motion.
  • Train with volume – the more push-ups you do, the better you will get.
  • Practice proper form – practice the straight body position as well as the tensing techniques.
  • Do 1 set to failure per day – this one works for 2-4 weeks and then you need to take a week off. You basically do one set of max push-ups and add a rep every day.
  • Do many sets but not to failure – this is a technique that will add 20+ percent to your push-up performance in as little as a week. I read the specific routine in Pavel Tsatsouline’s book Beyond Bodybuilding. Pavel is a former strength training specialist coming from the former Soviet Union who now specializes in instructing the US special forces. So according to his program, you do many sets throughout the day (sometimes 500+ push-ups per day) and vary the volume every day.

Here’s how to create your own high volume push-up routine according to Pavel’s book:

  • Never come close to failure except when testing your max.
  • Vary the reps and the rest periods between the sets daily.
  • Adjust the load to your recovery ability.
  • Build up cumulative fatigue.
  • Taper down before a peak.

 

Other Push-up and Fitness Test Resources

Here a few articles from some of my favorite sites on push-ups and fitness tests in general:

22 thoughts on “Pushup Fitness Tests… Or How I Schooled The Competition and You Can Too”

  1. I have been doing pushups as part of my routine for a while now and if you do them right, they are still pretty challenging every time. Glad you pointed out some of the do’s and don’ts when it comes to proper form.

  2. Push-ups are fantastic. A friend of mine worked his way up to a gigantic amount of pushups by just doing a few every hour while he was at work. Now he does something ridiculous like 1000 every day.

    -Drew

  3. I’ll be honest… I’m a MUCH bigger fan of pushups than I am of bench presses. Better range of motion, don’t have to worry about decapitating myself, and it’s a movement that seems to be more appropriate for these gymnastic-type bodyweight exercises than fully loaded weightlifting ones. Excellent authoritative post as always, Yavor!

  4. You are the pushup guru man! That’s awesome about smoking the competition in that contest – video is great as always, let’s see if we all can’t hit 100 pushups in a row 🙂 (new summer goal)

  5. Yavor,
    Great job, man! You are the push up master! This is another great post and as usual it has so much information. Your posts are never just a bunch of theory, they always explain what you are talking about in such depth with pictures and videos. Thanks, I always learn something new from you.

  6. Alykhan,

    Yeah, I believe they are overlooked a bit. If we focus on perfect form and extreme performance, the results will be fantastic – great chest and arms as well as shoulders.

    FitXcel,

    This is a great strategy and similar to the one found in Pavel’s book I quoted above. Your friend sure must have great upper body development. 1000 a day is huge. When I used to do 400-600 per day, I felt like a machine lol.

    Darrin,

    You are hilarious buddy! Decapitating… That being said, I’m all for using every tool possible, if it serves our goal. The bench press can be a great tool to increase relative and maximum strength, provided you don’t get fat. As Bruce Lee says,

    “Absorb what is useful, discard what is useless, and add what is essentially your own.”

    LD,

    Awesome! Now is the time to enjoy the outdoors (if possible) and train with pushups!

    Craig,

    It’s a great goal to shoot for, isn’t it? Maybe we should organize a pushup contest among our blogs? Here is a guys doing 87 proper pushups:


    [Note his body stays straight and also his elbows don’t go out straight to the sides, but are slightly downward. He is in a perfcect position for maximum tension as well as for maximum chest involvement. The chest is a huge muscle and should be the prime mover here.]

    Kelly,

    I try to pour out everything I know and have experienced in these posts. The cool thing is that in these blog “network” we have formed, there are a lot of experienced guys like yourself. I believe knowledge which is proven by experience is more valuable than plain theory.

    thanks guys,

    Yavor

  7. Yavor,
    I’m a big fan of pushups. I used to start every day with 3 sets of 60-70 pushups. Sadly I’ve dropped that over the past year…I’m currently focusing on building a better look and my pecs are a little too rounded now. I could probably just switch to decline pushups, but I’m letting my workout routine help remold my body before going back to a daily pushup routine.
    Dave

  8. Craig,

    it’s ON brother!

    Dave,

    3 sets of 60-70 with proper form is an accomplishment man! Why not try doing close stance (shoulder width) pushups so your arms and shoulders are hit more than your chest? At any rate, I bet you already have a solid foundation!

    Yavor

  9. Love the topic! I am a firm believer in lift your own body weight first before lifting weights.
    Learn to do pull ups, chin ups, dips and push ups before going near a gym.
    Another push up test – Craig Ballantyne of Turbulence training had one a few months ago for 3 minutes do as many push ups as you can, you can stop and start but the clock doesn’t.
    I managed 114 but at 80 my form was flying out the window. Your description on technique is spot on.

  10. If we’re going to do a contest, I need to know how many you did to win that contest so I’ll know how much ground I have to make up!

    -Drew

  11. Raymond,

    I agree – those 4 moves will take you a long way. And when they get easy – there’s always a harder variation.

    Drew,

    here is the official ranking from the competition – I’m going by the nickname Jaho there.. You are in killer shape, so if you use some of the tips here, no doubt you can smoke me.

    Some rules –

    1. you can’t rest more than 3 times (this means staying in the “up” position – otherwise somebody could just rest their way to a 1000 pushups.
    2. you cant’ change the position of the palms (no going from close grip to wide grip etc)
    3. all the way up and down (or at least down to a 90 degree angle of the elbow).

  12. Yo! Great blog man….push-ups, as most would think, are such a basic movement…but most would be surprised at how much goes into them and how important they are to overall fitness.

    Great work man!

  13. Mike, honestly, they are overlooked man. If you get extremely good at pushups with perfect form, you will be in super shape.

    Y.

  14. Congratulations on beating the competition! This reminds me of the day we had our fitness tests when I was doing my fitness instructors course. We had to do as many push ups as possible in 1 minute! I only did 55, I went too slow in the beginning and was too tired to speed up toward the end. We had to place a fist under our partner’s chest and only counted the reps where the chest touched the fist, great fun that day 🙂

    I love push ups, so count me in on that push up challenge 🙂

  15. David,

    I will anounce a date for the pushup competition. We can use a free wordpress blog to post results and vids etc. It will be fun.

    Love your blog, by the way – looking forward to more tips for a lean physique and healthy body man!

    Yavor

  16. Top post mate.

    I do some form of pushup every time i workout chest and/or triceps. No matter how advanced you are you can ALWAYS make them harder by adding weight to your back or elevating the legs.

    Key to anyone’s arsenal if they want to achieve a superior upper body.

    Nice one

    C.

  17. Great post Yavor,

    You’ve inspired me -I’m going to try one set to failure everyday.

    What do you think about doing push-ups between sets in the gym to really exhaust your chest?

    Darren at moreprimetime.com

  18. Clint,

    there are tons of variations of the pushup for every level of difficulty. I believe women with normal body weight should be able to do real full range pushups. Men should be able to do at least handstand pushups – but strict one arm pushups are also achievable.

    Btw – love your blog!

    Darren,

    Awesome – let us know how the training goes: before-after pushup numbers. And good luck with your new blog. I really dig the direction you’ve taken. Regarding your question – it is a good idea, epsecially when you are working out the way you’ve laid it out on your site.

    Yavor

  19. i do pushups regularly. and perfectly….elbows go behind and near my body…..i have NEVER felt my chest working while doing push ups 🙁
    i can only feel my shooulders and working like hell…whats wrong ?

  20. Harsh, it’s normal. elbows out pushups hit the chest, but also are very hard on the shoulders(iy hurts many people).

    The best exercise for chest is the dip. Read my article on LAT CONTRACTION also to save your shoulders when doing dips.

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