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High Performance Training without the Equipment: 5 Pushup Variations

Written on January 20, 2011 at 8:07 am, by Eric Cressey

I’ve written several times in the past about how it’s important to not only balance your upper body pushing and pulling exercises, but also make sure that you have a similar volume of open- and closed-chain exercises in the pushing component.  In other words, you need to have plenty of pushup variations to “cancel out” all  the bench pressing variations in your strength training program.

There’s a problem, though; most of you can do a ton of pushups, and are in need of something more challenging that can take this beyond simply a warm-up.  With that in mind, I wanted to use today’s post to highlight some pushup variations we use quite frequently at Cressey Performance.  While a few might require some of the cooler amenities (e.g., chains, slideboard) we’ve got at our fingertips, most are drills you’ll be able to perform without them.  Without further ado, here are five pushup variations to throw some variety in your strength and conditioning program.

Pushup Variations #1 and #2: Feet Elevated and Band Resisted Pushups

I combine these two not only because they were both in the same video that I’d taken for Show and Go, but also because they represent two of the most convenient solutions for the typical lifter.

Elevating the feet not only makes the movement a bit more challenging from an anti-extension core training perspective, but it also increases activity of the serratus anterior, as I wrote HERE.  Believe it or not, while this modification makes the movement harder as a whole, it can often take away symptoms completely in some folks with shoulder pain.

In the case of the band-resisted pushup variation, the resistance accommodates the strength curve.  In other words, the band deloads at the bottom of the movement where you’re the weakest, and picks up resistance as you go further up toward the top of the movement, where you’re the strongest.

Pushup Variation #3: Chain Pushups

Okay, this one will require you to have some equipment, but trust me when I say that if you do decide to get some for your home gym set-up, you’ll use them over and over again – and not just for pushup variations!  As with the bands progression above, chain pushups are a form of accommodating resistance; the load is heavier where you’re strongest.  I also like chains because they allow you to quickly and easily modify resistance on the fly for drop sets or to simply make the exercise easier as a set progresses.  And, they can be pretty challenging:

Let’s assume conservatively that you’re lifting 60% of your body weight with a pushup.  At 190 pounds, that’s 114 pounds for me.  When you combine it with 10 chains at 15 pounds each, you’re looking at about 264 pounds of resistance.  Who says you can’t load up a pushup?

Pushup Variation #4: 1-leg Pushup Variations

One quick and easy way to make any exercise harder is to reduce the number of ground contact points.  On a normal pushup, you have four (both hands and feet).  Simply taking one foot off the floor not only increases the loading on the upper body, but also imposes a subtle anti-rotation challenge to your core.  You can do it feet-elevated, too:

Of course, you can combine the 1-leg pushup with external loading, too:

Pushup Variation #5: 1-arm Push-ups

Sticking with the theme of reducing the numbers of points of stability, you can go to one-arm pushup variations as well.  You don’t have to be diesel enough to do these from the floor to get the benefits, though; you can simply press from a pin in a power rack.

As you get stronger and more comfortable with the movement, you can move the pin down to increase the challenge.

Start thinking about how you can integrate these in your strength training program, and I’ll be back soon with five more pushup variations you can use to take things even further.

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19 Responses to “High Performance Training without the Equipment: 5 Pushup Variations”

  1. Rob King Says:

    Hey Eric

    Love your stuff, quick question, when it comes to the chains what lengths and thickness of chains do you recommend/use?

    Thanks

    Rob

  2. Robert Autry Says:

    Eric, Great job! I have never thought about using chains while doing pushups. Going to Home Depot today a buy some. My clients will hate me because of you..Thanks for always having the best ideas.Robert Autry

  3. Eric Cressey Says:

    Rob,

    Ours are about 5′ long and 5/8″ wide. They work out to 15 pounds apiece.

  4. Eric Cressey Says:

    Robert,

    Not sure that you’ll be able to find this kind of chain at Home Depot. For these, you may need to go to a marina (good for anchor chains on boats) or just search around online.

  5. Michael Says:

    Great post! As always.

  6. Matt Wichlinski Says:

    Home Depot will carry up to 3/8″ chain, you can use it, but 5′ will only be about 6 or 7 lbs. It can still add up to some weight if its your only option. You must get galvanized chain as non galvanized will rust quickly. Nobody wants to wrap rusty chains around their neck, trust me.

  7. Matt Wichlinski Says:

    I also recommend using 2 kettlebells, loop a strap or belt through the 2 handles, deadlift them up behind your feet, then place on the back of your hips like a dip belt would rest. Now you have 2 kettlebells hanging from your hips like 2 massive guns. Be sure the strap or belt isn’t too long or the bells will swing too much, they should almost hang out of your pockets. Then get horizontal and start crankin them pushups, especially from rings!

  8. Tara Keller Says:

    Always working hard, Eric – thanks for the great post. We add a further challenge to our clients by correcting their anterior pelvic tilt (ie. fight for neutral lumbar curve) and avoiding the chin poke which cheats the core of its stability. Hold the neck into retraction (think double chin)and the push-up becomes much harder as the stability demand is pushed down to the core. You’ll notice the chin poke on the guys above, but kudos to their strength and efforts on these very challenging versions!

  9. Derek Says:

    I got my chains from mcmaster.com….decent price and quick shipping.

  10. Charlie Says:

    There are dozens of variations of pushups that require high tension without even bands or chains…

    Spiderman pushups

    Handstand Pushups

    Hindu Pushups/1-arm Hindu Pushups

    Divebomber Pushups

    Pseudo Planche Pushups

  11. Tommy Says:

    how many reps/sets do you guys suggest doing?… or should you do as many reps till failure?

  12. Stefan Says:

    A great list already! You can further overload each variation by using gymnastic rings instead of the floor or the power rack for hand support.

    A second option is to do the movement wich a more extended ellbow and a wider grip on the rings (not 90/90 of course). Interestingly, while this would lead to a less strenuous isolation exercise in open chain movements (e.g. pec flys or butterfly), straight ellbows greatly increase the overall strength needed in closed-chain upper body movements. Ultimatley, if you further lift both(!) feet of the floor, this will lead to a so called ring maltese. An example for this you can find here: http://images.t-nation.com/forum_images/d/b/db750_ORIG-jovtchev_jordan_2.jpg

  13. Peter Says:

    A great list already! You can further overload each variation by using gymnastic rings instead of the floor or the power rack for hand support.

    A second option is to do the movement wich a more extended ellbow and a wider grip on the rings (not 90/90 of course). Interestingly, while this would lead to a less strenuous isolation exercise in open chain movements (e.g. pec flys or butterfly), straight ellbows greatly increase the overall strength needed in closed-chain upper body movements.

    Ultimatley, if you further lift both(!) feet of the floor, this will lead to a so called ring maltese. An example for this you can find here: http://images.t-nation.com/forum_images/d/b/db750_ORIG-jovtchev_jordan_2.jpg

  14. Gary Says:

    Great post! One of my goals this year is to complete 100 consecutive push-ups. I haven’t started training too much yet (as is, I’m around 40 now).

    These alternative workouts will be a great way to help me achieve my goal.

    Thanks!

  15. njama Says:

    Another version I love is having your feet elevated but instead of just having your foot raised put it out to the side while doing the push up, great core activator and just plain ole hurts but in a good way.

  16. Lisa Says:

    Eric;

    As always I really enjoyed the tips you provided today. I had never thought of using the bands with the push up before. It will be a definite must for my clients now. They are thanking you in advance.

  17. Brad Wellsley Says:

    Eric,

    Even though these are ways to increase the difficulty of/progress push-ups, do you still consider push-ups as a secondary or tertiary exercise in programming outside of pure corrective situations where no actual barbell pressing may be included in the mix?

  18. Matthew White Says:

    Eric,

    great post as usual.

    I coach gymnastics for low level boys and the head coach prescribes a whole lot of different hand positions for them to do their pushups in. These include:

    Normal, close, wide, diamond, hands near hips etc

    What are your thoughts on these variations and do they warrant having a place in a strength program?

    Cheers,

    Matt

  19. Chuck S Says:

    Nick Nilsson did a variation with hands on a rail of a power rack and feet probably raised to match. Then when going down, you can get your head lower than your hands.

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