The Best Way to Improve Push-Ups: Mini Study Results

Adam Scott, MS, CSCS


Push-Ups are abounded not only in tactical but also in the fitness world.  They are used in fitness tests (1,2).  They are used during training programs (3,4).  And they are even used to predict injuries and job performance (4). 

So, we set out to examine four commonly used methods for improving Push-Ups.  Here is what we found…



We began the pilot program back in mid-December (Article #1).  The study design was based on our previous work investigating Pull-Ups (Best Way to Improve Pull-Ups). 

Basically, we took the four push-up training programs and randomly split our lab rats among them (see TABLE 1 for details).  Then, for six weeks our athletes completed their assigned push-up training as part of their daily training session.


TABLE 1: Push-Up Training Programs by Group
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RESULTS:  As you can see in TABLE 2, we lost quite a few athletes over the course of the study.  Overall we dropped from 17 participants to 10.  The hardest hit group was Group 1, the Maximum Effort Training Group.


TABLE 2: Athlete Attrition by Group
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Results (1) Between-Group Comparisons:
Regrettably, our lower numbers means that none of our between-group comparisons were statistically significant.  Without statistical significance, basically, we do not know if our results are a product of group training differences or just random chance.  
So, for what its worth, TABLE 3 shows how the four groups compare.  At the far right of the table, you will see that groups’ averages during their three assessments.
TABLE 3: Group Demographics and Assessment Performances
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Looking at the data, we see that all three groups showed improvement during the first three weeks.  However, it is important not to be too misled by this quick adaptation.  Changes like this are almost universally accepted to be the result of short-lived neurological adaptations and familiarity with movements (12,13).  This seems supported by the fact that the two group which solely trained push-ups improved the quickest – in other words, they just got used to doing push-ups.

Contraryto the quick neurological gains experienced during early training, it is usually around 5-6 weeks when we start to see real, lasting strength changes in the musculoskeletal system (12,13).  Looking at GRAPH 1 we can see the changes by group at each assessment.

GRAPH 1: Push-Up Performance By Group
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Like previo
usly stated all between-group comparison should be viewed with plenty of skepticism due to the small sample sizes.  For this reason, I don’t want to spend too much time examining them.  However, a couple of things stand-out in this graph.– First is that fact that, statistically, there was no difference between the four groups  – all four improved at roughly the same rate (8-18%).- Another interesting finding was that the group which improved the most (Group 1) did so only during the first 3 weeks.  The group’s performance then decreased during the last 3 weeks (-0.5 reps).  This might be a product of the training’s inability to transfer quick neurological gains into enduring strength adaptations.

– Lastly, the group with the least amount of improvement was Group 3, the Bench Press only group.  However, this group was also the oldest, tallest, heaviest, and strongest at the beginning of the study.  This undoubtedly affected their results – as you will see below.

Results (2) Demographic Comparisons:
Moving on, the last thing we wanted to examine was how anthropometric measures like height and weight might effected performance changes.  While there is very little research into specific training regimes there are plenty of studies looking at how these measures relate to push-up ability.
For this analysis, we lumped all the participants together into one group and examined the data set as a whole.

TABLE 4 displays a correlation matrix of the demographic statistics we collected for each group.  To read the table, follow the row to the corresponding column which you want to examine.  For example, the first row contains the correlations for the initial push-up score and all the other measures.  Row 2 contains the correlations for age and the remaining characteristics…and so on.

TABLE 4: Correlation Matrix of Demographic Statistics and Percent Change
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* Statistical Significance (p<.05)

What really stands-out in this matrix are the relationships associated with 1RM bench press (strength) and weight.
– First, higher 1RMs were significantly correlated to higher initial push-up performance.  However, higher 1RMs were also negatively correlated with improvements in push-up performance.  Basically, the stronger the athlete, the less they improved.  Also, the taller and heavier an athlete, the less they improved.- Second, an athlete’s initial score seemed to have little or no effect on their push-up performance change (seen in the top, right-most cell).

– Third, the results outlined in TABLE 4 also seem to support previous findings which show that health-related anthropometric variables (like height, weight, etc.) are most predictive of push-up performance (3).

– Finally, looking at the correlations between 1RM bench presses and push-up scores, our data seems to support some of the previous research which shows that push-up performance and body mass can be used to predict 1RM bench press (5,6).

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It is tough to draw any conclusions from this small study.  One big takeaway is the need for more lab rats and longer training times.  However, small sample aside, looking solely at push-up performance here are a few suggestions:  
  1. Not surprisingly, it seems like doing push-ups is a necessary training component, if for no other reason than to simply build the neurological familiarity with the exercise.  However, careful consideration should be given to ensuring that those gains become enduring strength gains.
  2. Based on our small study it seems that at least three of the four training programs could be effective (Max Effort, Interval, and Bench Press plus Interval).  We would probably recommend staying away from the Bench Press Only training program.
  3. Heavier and taller athletes are likely going to have more trouble improving their push-up performance in a short, six-week study.
  4. High 1RM bench press strength is highly correlated to initial push-up performance.  However, that higher level of strength seems to be a liability when trying to make improvements in a short amount of time.

Lastly, looking ahead, one possible way to expand the study would be to examine push-up variants.  This could include the use of plyometrics, tempos and even hand position variations.  Earlier studies have shown these to be useful alternatives (8,9,10).    



For us, the next step is to take this design and find a larger group to test what we learned.  So, if you have access to a group of 30-40 lab rats (we would like 8-10 per group) and are interested in helping us examine this topic further, please let us know.  

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