How to Progressive Overload Push Ups

For this article, we interviewed personal trainer and physical therapist Clyde Staley, PT, DPT, CSCS. Clyde is a Doctorate of Physical Therapy and a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, he has over 6 years of experience training athletes and clients to increase hypertrophy and perform their best in their sport.

Progressive overload is the process of gradually increasing the workload of an exercise or training program. 

Progressive overload triggers the body to continuously adapt to the demands placed on it.

To progressively overload, the athlete must increase the demands of the training program in a gradual manner. Examples of how to progressive overload push ups include:

  • Increase the intensity of the push up
  • Increase the number of reps performed
  • Increase the number of sets performed
  • Increase the frequency of training days
  • Reduce rest time between sets

The principle of progressive overload can be applied to any exercise, and push ups are no exception. So how do we apply progressive overload to push ups?

Progressive overload with push ups can be done by changing the intensity of the exercise itself by changing the angle of the body, adding external resistance, or performing tempo reps.

Progressive overload also includes changing the exercise parameters, such as the number of sets, number of reps, and length of rest periods in between sets.

Push ups are a relatively simple exercise for more experienced athletes. By increasing the intensity and manipulating the parameters of the push up, the push up becomes a much more challenging and effective way to increase upper body size and strength.

How to Increase Push Up Intensity

The most effective way to progressive overload push ups is to increase the intensity of the exercise. This can be done by adding external resistance, changing the angle of the body, performing tempo reps, or performing advanced variations.

Adding External Resistance

Push ups are a bodyweight exercise; however, they can also be performed with external resistance in addition to the athlete’s bodyweight. 

The most common way to apply external resistance to a push up is to have another individual place a weight plate or chains on the athlete’s back prior to them performing the exercise.

Another slightly safer option is to wear a weighted vest over the torso. This puts less pressure on an athlete’s back and allows the resistance to be better distributed across the torso. 

These variations are commonly used among gym goers; however, the best option for adding external resistance for push ups involves using resistance bands wrapped around the athlete’s back and stabilized by their hands.

This dynamic challenge forces the athlete to work harder at the top of the push up due to the tension of the band.

Changing the Angle of the Body

Manipulating body position changes the level of ease or difficulty an athlete has when performing a push up.

A conventional push up involves the hands on the floor and a body position parallel to the floor.

Easier variations of the push up for more novice athletes involve putting the hands on an elevated surface such as a therapy table or weight bench. The easiest variation involves putting the hands on a wall.

Progressively difficult variations involve elevating the feet while the hands remain on the floor. Placing the feet on a bench or a stability ball changes the angle of force and requires the pectorals and shoulders to work harder to complete the movement.

Slow Down the Tempo Reps

A tempo rep involves performing a rep of the exercise at a specific pace, usually somewhere from 2-5 seconds per rep.

A common way to progressive overload push ups is to slow the tempo of the movement. Rather than perform more reps at a rapid pace, athletes will count to 2-5 seconds while lowering or raising their bodies from the floor.

The athlete can also perform an isometric hold at the bottom of the rep by holding for a set number of seconds before ascending to the top of the push up position.

These variations of tempo reps increase the time under tension of the muscles, which facilitates greater demand on the muscles and more muscle breakdown compared to more rapidly performed push ups.

Advanced Variations

Finally, push ups can also be progressed to more advanced variations than the traditional push up.

A table of different advanced push up variations is shown below and includes variations involving additional equipment and bodyweight-only.

Variations with Bodyweight
  • Spiderman push ups
  • Clap push ups
  • Superman push ups
  • Wide and narrow grip push ups
Variations with Equipment
  • Medicine ball push ups
  • TRX push ups
  • BOSU ball push ups
  • Stability ball push ups

How to Increase Push Ups Reps Per Set

The parameters of any exercise can be manipulated to achieve a certain goal. To progressive overload push ups, we can change how many reps or sets we perform, how long we rest between sets, and how frequently we perform the exercise.

Progressive overloading push ups can be done by increasing how many reps we perform per set. This is the most common way to progressive overload push ups.

If during one workout an athlete can perform 3 sets of 10 push ups with relative ease, in the next session the athlete can progress to three sets of 11-12 reps per set.

Keep in mind that the progression should be limited to a magnitude that is still doable for the athlete.

The athlete can also increase the number of sets performed. Rather than perform 3 sets of 10 reps for each workout, the athlete can progress to 4-5 sets of push ups for the next session.

Finally, an athlete can also decrease the rest time when progressive overloading push ups.

If the athlete normally takes 90 seconds between sets, they can progress to rest periods of 60-75 seconds between sets.

The premise of progressive overload is to make the following session gradually more challenging than the one before it. This will ensure the athlete doesn’t plateau at a certain number of sets and reps of push ups.

How to Progressive Overload Push Ups Safely

One of the most important details when progressive overloading push ups is to not overload too much too quickly. Doing this increases the risk of burnout and injury.

If changing the parameters of push ups in the program, it is important that the athlete only manipulates one variable per session, and that manipulation should be doable for the athlete.

For example, if an athlete performs 3 sets of 10 push ups in the last session with 90 second rest breaks between sets, it would be illogical to progress to 4 sets of 15 with 60 second rest breaks between sets in the next session.

Rather, the athlete should choose one variable at a time. This can include performing 4 sets of 10 reps with 90 second rest periods in the next session. The session after that can include 4 sets of 11 reps with 90 second rest periods.

When an athlete tries to progress too much too quickly, their likelihood of making sustainable, safe progress decreases.

Further, when choosing a progression from the traditional push up, such as a spiderman push up or a medicine ball push up, it is important that the athlete starts at a set and rep range that they are comfortable with. 

While a certain number of sets and reps may be doable for a traditional push up, increasing the difficulty of the exercise may mean the athlete reverts to a lighter volume of sets and reps.