There’s no better all-around upper body exercise than a push-up. But for some reason, people stop doing them. Oh, you think you’re too “advanced” for push-ups? Think again.
To build muscle you need to produce tension, metabolic stress, and tissue breakdown. But if you’re able to knock out fifty reps or more, you’re rendering traditional push-ups useless for muscle or strength building. It’s not enough of a challenge at that point.
You’ll develop some endurance and maybe even get a good poolside pump, but that’s about it. That’s where complexes come in. They’re highly effective for stimulating muscle growth.
You’ll start by choosing a challenging variation, then extending the set using easier variations – a mechanical drop set. The hardest exercise always goes at the beginning. It’s the one you can get the smallest load or do the fewest number of reps with. Then as you reach failure, you’ll move to an easier version. You might even drop again (and again).
So let’s look at six examples.
1 – The Chest and Triceps Builder
|A1||Close-Grip Push-Up on Medicine Ball||2-3||4-10|
|A2||Switchover Push-Up on Medicine Ball||2-3||4-10/side|
|A3||Offset Push-Up on Medicine Ball||2-3||4-10/side|
Hat tip to Coach Nick Tumminello, for this one. Starting with the hardest one – close-grip and squeezing the ball – you’ll then switch to a switchover variation either walking the ball across or hopping yourself over a static ball. Finally, you’ll stay on one side to squeeze out some extra reps before blurting out a few curse words.
This medball push-up complex makes a great finish to your chest workouts. The ball also challenges those oft-neglected shoulder stabilizers. If you can do more than 10 reps in the close-grip position, then use a weighted vest to add some load.
2 – The Jacked Shoulders Complex
|A1||Vertical Press Push-Up||2-3||6-12|
|A2||Hand Release Push-Up to Y-Reach||2-3||6-12|
|A4||Y-Reach Iso Hold||2-3||20 sec.|
The vertical press push-up is a great variation on its own. It’s like a pike push-up but more comfortable for those who struggle with tight hamstrings. Placing your body in a more vertical position with feet on a bench changes the pressing angle to bias your shoulders in a joint-friendly position.
When going from the hand release push-up to Y-reach there should be some external rotation of the shoulder since your thumbs are pointing up towards the end of the reach. You’ll be asking quite a bit of your delts and shoulder external rotators by this point, as well as getting some extra shoulder range of motion.
Next, you’ll be dropping the push-up component and just doing the Y-reaches to really burn out the shoulders. You’ll then finish with an isometric hold. Simply hold for 10-20 seconds, stay tight, and think of America (or respective homeland).
This is good combination of exercises to hit the entire shoulder complex while improving overall shoulder health. Plus, it burns like a MOFO!
3 – The Strong Shoulders & Mobile Hips Complex
|A2||Reverse Yoga Push-Up||2-3||failure|
|A3||Yoga Push Up||2-3||failure|
This complex also has a shoulder emphasis. If your hamstrings have seen better days then use the previous one instead. If you’re only a little tight then see these as a good opportunity to gain some upper body strength and size, while bringing out your inner yogi. A few sets at the end of your next upper body workout would be a great way to finish.
4 – Simple Mechanical Drop-Set
|A1||Feet Elevated Push-Up (loaded or bodyweight)||2-3||8-12|
|A3||Hands Elevated Push-Up||2-3||4-6|
This one’s the most simple complex, so if you’re lacking the coordination to do any of the others, try this.
Elevating your feet is the hardest variation. Once your feet are on the floor it gets a little easier, then the hands-on-bench variation is the easiest. This sequence reduces the percentage of bodyweight you’re lifting by adjusting the leverages.
A resistance band works well here since you get the benefit of accommodating resistance. A weighted vest is excellent too. Try to complete one extra rep of each move every workout, or gradually add a little weight each week.
5 – The Triceps Finisher
You might be thinking these are more like bodyweight triceps extensions than they are a push-up variation. Well, whatever you want to call them, they work. There are a few ways you could do them and using a weighted vest is always an option too.
|A1||Decline Bodyweight Skull Crusher||2-3||6-10|
|A2||Bodyweight Skull Crusher||2-3||6-10|
|A3||Decline Narrow Grip Push-Up||2-3||AMAP|
|A1||Bodyweight Skull Crusher||2-3||6-10|
|A2||Incline Bodyweight Skull Crusher||2-3||6-10|
|A3||Narrow Grip Push-Up||2-3||AMAP|
Skull crushers do a great job of hitting the long-head of the triceps brachii. Doing them in push-up style can add a core component to them as well. The further up you take your hands, the more you’ll target your triceps long head in a stretched position. These will also encourage some serratus anterior activity. Finishing with a narrow grip push-up is the icing on the cake.
6 – The Sadist Complex
|A1||Low Guillotine Push-Up with Slow Eccentrics||2-3||6-10|
|A2||Deficit Push-Up with Slow Eccentrics||2-3||6-10|
|A3||High Guillotine Push-Up||2-3||6-10|
|A4||Deficit Push-Up Iso Hold||2-3||6-10 sec.|
The guillotine bench press is one of the best bench variations if your goal is chest size. It’s simply a bench press where you take a wider than normal grip, allow the elbows to flare a little, and lower the bar (carefully!) towards your neck.
Turn the guillotine bench press upside down and you have a guillotine push-up. The best way to do these is in a Smith machine for easy height adjustment. You could get away with doing it in a squat rack… if you’re okay with the squat rack being used for things other than a squat.
The guillotine push-up is just the start, and to make it a little more intense you’re going to start with slow eccentrics. Slowly lower your neck or clavicular area (depending on your shoulder range) to the bar in around 4 seconds. Then pause for one second at the bottom of each rep. Try to hit 6-10 of these before you head to the deficit push-up.
Deficit push-ups load the pecs in a stretched position. Slowly lower with these too, adding a brief pause at the bottom to really focus on the stretch. Your chest should be going down in that gap.
Next, hop straight up and knock out some high guillotine push-ups. This time don’t worry about the slow eccentrics and use a higher bar. Taking the height of the bar up will allow you to complete a few extra reps. Using a Smith machine makes this change in height easy.
Finish with an isometric hold at the bottom of the deficit push-up and squeeze as hard as you can for 6-10 seconds. That’s around two minutes of chest insanity. If you feel you need to do more than 2-3 sets, there might just be something wrong with you. Do it all with a weighted vest if bodyweight isn’t enough.
- Your hands are like your feet. Stability starts from there. So just like you wouldn’t barbell bench press with a loose grip or an extended finger, your hand should be stable with fingers spread so that you can press into the floor. Turning your fingers slightly outwards will help to limit your elbows from flaring. Your arms should look less like a “T” position from above, and more like an arrow.
- Neck, spine, and hip alignment matter. You may be asking yourself why some of the push-up variations shown include the use of a foam pad. Using a foam pad is optional, but it can help for any basic push-up variation and can help control depth while allowing proper alignment and neck position.
- Going chest or nose to floor is fine though. Making a slight double-chin will help neck alignment and make sure you’re not cheating by going nose-first.
- Push-ups are moving planks. Don’t forget this. Creating whole-body tension is one of the reasons why push-ups are so effective, providing you use them properly. While they can produce a lot of peripheral fatigue, they don’t tax the nervous system much. For this reason, they can be done relatively frequently.
- Push-ups are great for shoulder health. While many horizontal pressing exercises are done with fixed scapula, they’re free to move when doing push-ups correctly. This helps to create better strength balance in the shoulders, and one of the reasons why you should consider your ratio of different types of pressing exercises.
- You should be encouraging some load progression. They’re just like every other exercise in that progression will come from adding load after a certain point.
A full push-up will require you to press around 60-70% of your own bodyweight. If it’s too easy for the rep range you’ve set, add some weight. Bands, plates, chains or a weighted vest are all good options. To add load to the complexes shown just pick whichever feels good and secure.
Push-ups are one of the most underrated exercises in the gym. Try adding in some complexes to literally put you on your knees in your next workout.