If you had absolutely no equipment whatsoever, and had to get fit and strong, without doubt the best exercise to build upper body size and strength is push ups.
In bodybuilding, the bench press is the main upper body exercise, and the mechanics of the push up are very similar to the bench press, so it’s an important and useful exercise.
If you’ve tried doing push ups before, you may have found that you can only do a handful before your arms go weak, and you collapse into a heap on the floor, breathless.
Don’t worry about it. You’re not necessarily weak… an adult of average weight has to lift a fairly heavy amount performing just one push up, so don’t be too hard on yourself or too quick to give up. The number one way to increase the amount of push ups you can do is to be persistent, and follow several tips:
- Lose weight. Ok, it may sound like cheating, but think about it. It may well be that you are pressing over half of your own bodyweight with one push up, so if there is some number you have to reach for, say, admission into the forces, or for training, then losing as much body fat as you possibly can will help you to boost your numbers by a long way.
- Don’t do them every day. When you do push ups, or any kind of exercise, you are breaking down your muscle fibres and using up their stores of glycogen (energy). The muscles need time to repair and re-grow bigger and stronger – and the glycogen stores need to replenish. This doesn’t happen in 24 hours, and in most cases, not even in 48 hours – but around 72 hours. So, try doing push ups once or twice a week, giving you several days of rest in between.
- Use a wider or narrower hand placement. Changing hand placement to wider puts more emphasis on the chest muscles (pectorals) whilst using a narrower placement tends to be more triceps. Not only this, but during the bottom part of the movement the pectorals are more involved, whilst the upper-portion is more triceps. So if you find yourself weaker towards the top, the chances are it’s the triceps letting you down, whilst weaker at the bottom, the pecs.
- Do partial push ups. This ties into the above point. If you feel you are lacking triceps strength, do partial reps i.e. the top portion of the movement only, or for pecs, do the lower half instead. This way, you use less energy and won’t drop out until the exact muscles you are targeting are exhausted.
- Eat enough calories, protein and carbs. You need an excess of calories to put muscle on, so, eating slightly more than your body needs on a daily basis for a period of time will allow your body to put muscle on to aid your push up strength. Protein and carbs will also go a long way towards helping you build muscle. Carbs will also help you to have energy for your push up sessions, so get a big bowl of pasta, rice, or potato an hour or so beforehand and you’ll be full of energy.
- Do push ups fast or slow. Variation is good for any workout routine – so don’t be afraid to really hit the push ups hard and fast from time to time, whilst taking your time in other instances. You’ll be surprised at the results.