5 Ways to Make Push-Ups More Challenging

Push-ups, in my opinion, should be a staple in everyone's workout regimen that steps through the doors of any gym. Male or female. Young or old. Meathead or novice trainee. If you aren't banging out sets of push-ups yet, it might be a wise idea to incorporate them into your workout the next time you head to the gym (today). Here's why.

  • Minimal equipment is required, initially. All you need is your bodyweight, or an elevated surface if you can't perform a proper push-up off the floor.
  • It's simple to assess baseline strength for bodyweight push-ups. If you're only able to complete 4 or 5 good reps, what could we do to improve that number to 12?
  • They aren't the most taxing exercise on your Central Nervous System (CNS). Although they may induce muscular soreness at first, push-ups can be performed on an everyday basis without major risk of injury... as long as they're performed correctly!
  • Unlike the bench press, where the scapulae are pinned down into the bench, the push-up allows the scaps to move fluidly along the ribcage. This is huge for people with shoulder dysfunction and pain. If bench pressing causes issues at the shoulder, try swapping them out for different push-up variations for the time being.
  • I like to think of push-ups as dynamic planks, where the core and glutes are activated throughout the whole movement. If you maintain tension throughout your body during each rep, push-ups quickly become a total body movement, rather than strictly isolating the chest and triceps.

 I could continue to add bullet points, but you get the point. Push-ups are a great addition to your workout, especially if you want to get stronger and move better. However, none of this is relevant whatsoever if we aren't performing them correctly. If you feel pain while performing push-ups, or aren't confident in your technique, I highly suggest you seek out a qualified coach to help you get on track. Your starting posture should never look like this, I'm begging you.

We're on our way! You've added push-ups into your regimen and have consistently gotten better at them over the last couple weeks and months. You're at the point where you can complete sets of 15 to 20 with relative ease... so where do we go now? Time for the meat and potatoes of this post, and five different push-up variations that each add their own unique challenges to the movement.

1.) Push-Up with Pause

Pausing each rep of your push-ups would be the first progression I would prescribe for any client. This makes the movement that much harder, as it minimizes the elasticity effect (stretch shortening cycle) of your muscles. The longer you pause in the hole, the harder the push-up becomes with each and every rep. I suggest holding your pauses anywhere between 2 to 5 seconds for 6 to 10 reps.

2.) Push-Up with Hand Switch

I'm a huge fan of hand switches because of the great demand of scapular and lateral core stability with each transition. The key to efficiently performing hand switches is to remain cognizant of the hips, and trying to prevent them from rotating every time we move the hands. By contracting the glutes and keeping the hips stable throughout the entire movement, the core has to work much harder to keep our hips from shifting. The hand switch part of the movement provides great serratus anterior recruitment, similar to the all fours belly lift and bear crawl I've spoken about previously. 4 to 5 reps in each direction, for 8 to 10 total reps is a good starting point for this variation.

3.) 1-Leg Elevated Push-Ups

When you elevate a foot off the floor when performing push-ups, the stability present at your base of support is decreased greatly. Similar to the hand switches, core stability is responsible for assuring that the hips don't sag or rotate as we perform the movement. As you can see in the video, the right foot remains elevated throughout the set, but the hips remain still the whole time. While the upper body continues to work hard, greater demands are placed on the core in this unstable environment. Additional core stability is something we could all benefit from at the end of the day, regardless of who you are! Similar to the hand switches, performing 4 to 5 reps on each leg is a great place to start.

4.) Feet Elevated Push-Ups

When elevating the feet with push-ups, the angle of the body is altered in relation to the ground. In this video, you can see that my feet are a foot higher (using a 12 inch box) than my hands. In this decline position, the push-up becomes a heck of a lot harder to perform. While elevating the feet makes the exercise tougher, elevating the hands to create more of an incline angle makes the push-up easier to execute, as you can see here. Adjust the angle as needed, and like the other variations, anywhere between 8 to 10 reps works well.

5.) Band-Resisted Push-Ups

I strongly believe that out of all the variations I've provided, this one is easily the toughest. The band contributes to making the lockout portion of the push-up the hardest part, thanks to the tension that is created when it is stretched. These are performed the exact same way as bodyweight push-ups, however, the placement of the band could be quite tricky initially. If you don't have access to a superband, chains, or barbell plates work just as effectively. Because of the external load added to this variation, lower reps might be more beneficial at the start. Stay within 5 or 6 reps, and boost the number the more proficient you become.

The great thing about all of these variations is the fact that you could mix and match while combining them together. For example, there's no rules that say you can't do sets of 1-leg elevated push-ups with the support foot on top of a box. While you're at it, wrap a band around your back, or have somebody wrap you up in chains. The better you get with these five variations, the more adventurous you could get in the long run!