wellness OPT Model

NASM Guide to Pushups (Part 5): Building Maximal Strength and Power with Pushups

Kinsey Mahaffey
Kinsey Mahaffey

Welcome to part 5 of our push-ups series! If you’ve been following along, then you’ve already read about the importance of form and how to perform a push-up, ways to program and progress the push-up in Phases 1-3 of the OPT Model, and the importance of progressive overload when it comes to progressing the push-up.In this article, we’ll pick up where we left off by covering the last two phases of the OPT Model: Maximal Strength (Phase 4), and Power (Phase 5) training. If you haven’t read the previous articles, I would recommend that you go back to those first to get a full picture of how to progress your clients efficiently and safely so that they can succeed in the challenges that come with Maximal Strength and Power Training.

Push-Ups and the OPT model

We’ve all seen super cool videos of people doing variations of plyo push-ups. They seem to float in the air effortlessly and execute their push-ups with stellar form. By following the OPT Model, you can help your clients reach this level of training and fitness, if Phase 4 and Phase 5 training line up with their goals.

Important Disclaimer: These are advanced levels of training, and it is recommended that clients have progressed through the foundational levels of the model (at least Phases 1 and 2) before attempting to train in these phases.

It goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyway) that good form is imperative. Completion of the foundational phases refers not only to the amount of time spent in those phases (4-6 weeks/phase) but also the improvement of compensations and overall movement patterns before being deemed ready for more advanced training. If your client is still exhibiting movement compensations, it’s best to cycle back through Phases 1 and 2 to improve those before moving on to the more advanced phases.

A Brief Explanation of Maximal Strength (OPT Model)

Phase 4 of the OPT Model, Maximal Strength Training, aims to build strength by increasing the load placed on tissues of the body. Clients seeking to achieve maximal strength, such as strength athletes or clients looking to enhance muscle hypertrophy, are perfect candidates to train in this phase. Because not all clients will have this goal, it is an optional phase of the model.

A Brief Explanation of Power (OPT Model)

The main goal of the third level of the OPT Model, Power, is to increase the rate of force production or the speed at which the muscles contract. Phase 5 training is great for clients who would like to improve overall performance. Power training is optional, but it can provide some fun training options for clients who are up for the challenge.

How to Generally Improve Maximal Strength and Power

Maximal strength is enhanced by lifting 1-5 repetitions at heavy loads (85-100% of your clients 1 Rep Maximum) as fast as possible with good form and a full range of motion. It is important to note that “as fast as possible” during a maximal strength exercise will not look fast. Consider the speed at which you might push a freight train. While your muscle fibers are firing at maximum speed, the speed of movement of your body (and the train) may not look very fast.

Developing optimal levels of power requires the client to train with both maximal strength (heavy loads at low repetitions), and fast, explosive movements (lighter loads with moderate repetitions). In Phase 5, supersets are used to combine a maximal strength exercise immediately followed by a biomechanically similar power or plyometric exercise. During the maximal strength exercise, heavy loads increase the rate of force development by increasing the number of motor units recruited. Once these motor units are activated, they are ready to perform a plyometric exercise more explosively than they would have without the strength exercise.

Why does this work? Post-activation potentiation (PAP), which describes the increase of acute muscle force generation as a result of the inner contraction of the muscle. Recruitment and rate coding also explain why this strength/power dynamic duo seems to work so well. According to Enoka and Duchateau (2017), “The force exerted by a muscle during a voluntary contraction depends on the number of motor units that are activated (recruitment) and the rates at which these motor units discharge action potentials (rate coding).”

Methods for Maximal Strength

To get the maximal strength adaptations you’re looking for, stick to these acute variables: Perform 1-5 reps (this will be a heavy load- 85-100% of 1RM) for 4-6 sets (more for advanced clients requiring more volume), at an explosive tempo with 2-4 minutes of rest between sets. Clients can train 2-4 days/week in this phase while allowing for sufficient rest between training days. Split routines will allow the client to train more days/week while still getting sufficient rest for the muscle groups that were trained.

Given the heavy load requirements of this phase, that you will likely need to add external resistance to push-ups to get the adaptations desired. Part 4 of this series discusses ways to safely add external resistance to push-ups to build strength.

Workout Design for Max Strength

o Vertical Loading

Vertical loading refers to performing one exercise after another, working down the list of exercises on the workout template. Since Maximal Strength Training requires lengthy rest periods (2-4 minutes between sets), vertical loading can allow the client to work on other muscle groups as the rest.

o Horizontal Loading

Horizontal loading, on the other hand, has the client perform all sets of one exercise before moving on to the next exercise. For example, if the first exercise is the bench press, the client will perform set 1, rest 2-4 minutes, and then perform set 2 of bench press, etc. until the desired number of sets is complete.

o Rest-Pause

In rest-pause training, the client will perform the desired number of reps in the first set, and then rest (about 2 minutes for max strength). In the next set, the client will perform as many reps as they can until fatigued, and then take another short break. They will repeat this as many times as possible.

o Density

Generally, density training refers to accomplishing more work in less time. Training density can be calculated by multiplying the number of reps and sets of an exercise that you did. If you did 5 sets of 5 reps of bench press, your training density is 25.

Let’s say that it took you 15 minutes to do this set. You can improve your training density by either increasing the volume performed in that amount of time (by adding a set) or decreasing the amount of time that it took you to do your 5x5. This type of training promotes more explosive movement to build maximal strength.

Workout Design for Power

Here are two ways to program power workouts with push-ups:

o Super Sets

Use push-ups as the maximal strength exercise:

        Exercise      Sets         Reps         Tempo            Rest
    Weighted Vest Push-ups         4            5   As fast as can be               0
    Medicine Ball Chest Pass             10       Controlled       2-4 Minutes

 

Use push-ups as the power exercise:

          Exercise             Sets             Reps            Tempo             Rest
     Bench Press                4                5   As fast as can be                0
    Plyo Push-ups                 10       Controlled       2-4 Minutes

 

o Circuit Training

Program a circuit to increase training density (by minimizing rest time)

        Exercise            Sets            Reps         Tempo             Rest

     Bench Press

    Plyo Push-ups

             4

 

             5

            10

  As fast as can be

       Controlled

              0

              0

        Deadlift

   Kettlebell Swing

             4

 

             5

            10

  As fast as can be

       Controlled

              0

              0

        Pull-ups

       Ball Slams

             4

 

             5

            10

  As fast as can be

       Controlled

              0

       0-2 Minutes

 

Plyo Pushup Demonstrations for Power

How to do a plyo push-up:

• Start in a push-up position with the hands underneath the shoulders, the body in a straight line, and abs and glutes contracted.

• Lower to the floor and explode up and off of the ground as explosively as possible. You may choose to add a clap mid-air once you can get high enough off of the ground.

• When you land, go immediately into the next rep.

• The goal is to get the full range of motion and to perform your reps as quickly and explosively as possible. (Note that the video has parts in slow-motion- you will likely move much faster!)

• If the client is unable to perform plyo push-ups on the ground, try a stable, elevated surface to decrease the load.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MH4gcTKQiEc

Integrating Push-ups for Maximal Strength and Power

As seen in the above examples, push-ups can be programmed as part of a maximal strength training workout and power workout as long as the right intensity is used to accomplish the goal of each phase. Weight might need to be added to bodyweight push-ups to produce maximal strength gains, while you might need to decrease the load by finding a less challenging variation to perform plyo push-ups with good form at a high velocity. Program based on your client’s goals and fitness levels and they’ll be sure to enjoy this spicy push-up challenge!

References:

Enoka, Roger M., and Jacques Duchateau. “Rate Coding and the Control of Muscle Force.” Cold Spring Harbor Perspectives in Medicine, vol. 7, no. 10, 2017, https://doi.org/10.1101/cshperspect.a029702.

Sutton, B. G. (2022). Nasm Essentials of Personal Fitness training. Jones & Bartlett Learning.

The Author

Kinsey Mahaffey

Kinsey Mahaffey

Kinsey Mahaffey, MPH, is a Houston-based fitness educator, personal trainer and health coach who developed her commitment to lifelong fitness while playing Division I volleyball. She’s passionate about helping others cultivate a healthy lifestyle and enjoys educating other fitness professionals who share this vision. She’s a Master Instructor and Master Trainer for NASM.