CPT OPT Model

NASM Guide to Push-ups (Part 4): Strength and Hypertrophy

Kinsey Mahaffey
Kinsey Mahaffey

Can pushups build muscle mass and be incorporated into strength training? Yes! In part 3 of this series, we explored different variations of the push-up and how to progress the push-up in Phase 1 of the OPT Model, Stabilization Endurance Training, using creative ways to challenge your client’s stability in each variation. In this article, we will focus on how to build strength and increase muscle mass using, you guessed it: push-ups.Once your client has completed Phase 1 of the OPT Model, it will be time to progress to the strength phases of the model starting with Phase 2: Strength Endurance Training. Using push-ups to build strength and increase muscle mass is possible when you train according to the acute variables and guidelines of this training phase.

Let’s look at the specific training goals of two of the strength phases in the OPT Model: Strength Endurance Training (Phase 2), and Muscular Development Training (Phase 3).

A Brief Explanation of Strength Endurance

This phase helps clients continue to build upon the stabilization endurance foundation that they laid in Phase 1 while also progressing them into some strength building. Strength Endurance Training, Phase 2 of the OPT Model, promotes increased stabilization endurance, hypertrophy, and strength. To accomplish these adaptations, this phase utilizes supersets that include one stable strength exercise (like a barbell bench press) immediately followed by a biomechanically similar stabilization-level exercise (like stability ball push-ups).

By starting with a strength exercise, increased demand is placed on the type II muscle fibers, causing fatigue in the muscles, and promoting strength gains and muscle hypertrophy. Fatiguing the type II fibers in the first exercise of the superset requires the type I muscle fibers to work harder during the stabilization exercise, thus promoting stabilization endurance.

A Brief Explanation of Muscular Development (Hypertrophy)

The main goal of Phase 3, Muscular Development Training, is to maximize muscle growth. To achieve this adaptation, high levels of volume and intensity are required. For clients who aren’t necessarily looking for muscle hypertrophy, the acute variables in this phase can be tweaked to include shorter rest times, resulting in a more metabolically demanding workout that promotes weight loss and cardio conditioning.

Progression Examples for Enhancing Strength

There are a variety of ways to build strength using push-ups:

o Body Alignment

The angle of the push-up will determine how much load the client will have to press. If your client starts with an incline push-up (push-ups on an elevated surface), you can increase the strength demand by gradually lowering the surface over time to increase the load.

o Hand/Foot Placement

Placing the hands slightly wider than shoulder-width will be easier then placing the hands in a narrower stance, which adds an increased challenge for the triceps. You can also progress toward single-arm or single-leg variations which will increase the load on the upper body significantly.

o Planes of Motion

Push-ups occur in the transverse plane of motion (due to the horizontal ad- and abduction at the shoulder joint). Get creative to add frontal and sagittal components to this movement. One example would be lateral traveling push-ups using a ladder for a visual guide for the hands.

o External Loading (Weights)

If your client has mastered the basic push-up, you could consider adding external resistance in to enhance strength gains. Specific examples will be explored later in this article.

• How to Design Pushup Workouts for Strength Endurance

In Phase 2, you’ll program supersets consisting of a stable strength exercise followed immediately by a stabilization-level exercise that uses the same muscle groups and is biomechanically similar. Consider your client’s current strength and fitness level to guide your exercise selection in this phase. Here are some strength endurance superset examples focusing on upper body push movements.

You’ll notice that push-ups can be used as either the strength exercise or the stabilization exercise in the superset. For a complete workout, choose one of these supersets to incorporate as part of a workout that includes supersets focusing on other muscle groups, too.

3 Superset Examples:         Sets             Reps            Tempo              Rest

   Flat dumbbell chest           press (strength)

   Push-up, Single leg              (stabilization)

         2-4

 

            8-12

 

          Medium

            Slow

     0-60 Seconds

    Incline dumbbell            chest press (strength)

     Decline push-up                (stabilization)

2-4

 

  8-12

 

Medium 

  Slow

    0-60 Seconds

  Weighted push-up                   (strength)

  Standing cable chest         press- staggered   stance (stabilization)

2-4

 

8-12

 

        Medium

           Slow

   0-60 Seconds

 

How to Build Strength With Pushups

To build strength, the intensity, or the load, must be increased. Since push-ups are traditionally bodyweight, we can add load by adding external resistance. This should only be done once the client has mastered the bodyweight push-up and demonstrates good shoulder and core stability in the movement.

When adding resistance, follow the same progression guidelines that you’d follow if you were adding weight to a barbell: add weight in small increments until you find the weight that allows your client to perform all reps with good form while still feeling challenged. Here are a few examples:

o Weighted Vest

A weighted vest is a great option for added resistance because they are easy to use, and they often come with multiple pockets that let you increase or decrease the weight of the vest as needed.

o Chains

Chains cause a variation in the load during the push-up. At the bottom of the push-up, the load is the lightest. As the client pushes up, more links of the chain lift off the ground, thus, adding resistance. The amount of resistance that is added depends on the size/weight of the chain, and the distance that the chain is lifted off the ground.

o Bands

Like chains, resistance bands also add variable resistance. The more that the band is stretched, the greater the resistance. Additionally, resistance bands can be found in a variety of strengths, allowing for use with clients at varying strength levels.

o Plates

Resistance can also be added by placing a plate on the back of the client. Start with a small plate and gradually increase as the client gets stronger. Watch your client’s form to make sure they don’t arch their back or drop their hips when the weight is added.

How to Optimize Muscle Growth with Push-ups

To see an increase in muscle size, also known as muscular hypertrophy, clients will need to train with progressively higher loads and an increased number of sets. For best results, use progressive overload, increasing the intensity or volume of exercise programs using a systematic and gradual approach.

Programming according to the acute variables used in Phase 3, Muscular Development Training, will help your clients see the muscle growth that they’re looking for. In Phase 3 resistance workouts, clients will perform 3-6 sets of each exercise, 6-12 reps of each, at a moderate tempo with 0-60 seconds of rest.

• Different Programming Methods for Hypertrophy

One way to manipulate the acute variables and the amount of rest that the client gets between each exercise is to utilize different types of sets. Here are some examples of types of sets that you can incorporate in your Muscular Development Training:

o Superset

In a superset, exercises are performed back-to-back with little to no rest. You can program two strength-level exercises that target the same muscle groups (like a Bench Press paired with a Weighted Push-up variation). You can also superset exercises that use opposing muscle groups (like Seated Cable Rows paired with Single-leg Push-ups). The client might need more rest when pairing the same muscle group back-to-back, whereas they can minimize rest when alternating muscle groups.

o Giant Set

A Giant Set is composed of 3 or more exercises that target the same muscle group performed back-to-back. The exercises that you choose don’t have to target the muscle group in the same manner. Here’s an example giant set using push-ups:

Exercise

   Sets

    3-6

   Reps

    6-12

           Tempo

       Moderate

           Rest

    0

Barbell bench press    3-6     6-12        Moderate     0
Medicine ball side to side push-ups    3-6     6-12        Moderate     0
Decline push-ups    3-6     6-12        Moderate     0
Incline chest press    3-6     6-12        Moderate     0-60 Seconds

 

o Pyramid Set

In a Pyramid Set, the client will increase the weight and decrease the reps with each set. Here is an example program:

     Exercise          Sets          Reps        Tempo         Rest          Notes
 Weighted Vest      Push-ups             4   Set 1: 12 reps
  Set 2: 10 reps
  Set 3: 8 reps
  Set 4: 6 reps
     Moderate          0         Start with              bodyweight and   add weight to vest           each set
    Landmine             Squats   4   Set 1: 12 reps
  Set 2: 10 reps
  Set 3: 8 reps
  Set 4: 6 reps
     Moderate 0    Increase weight             each set
    Landmine              Rows   4   Set 1: 12 reps
  Set 2: 10 reps
  Set 3: 8 reps
  Set 4: 6 reps
     Moderate          0    Increase weight             each set
          RDL   4   Set 1: 12 reps
  Set 2: 10 reps
  Set 3: 8 reps
  Set 4: 6 reps
     Moderate          0    Increase weight             each set

 

o Reverse Pyramid

In a Reverse Pyramid, the client will start with a heavy load and low reps and decrease the weight and increase the reps with each set. Using the acute variables in Phase 3, your Reverse Pyramid set might look like this:

    Exercise          Sets         Reps        Tempo          Rest       Notes
 Weighted Vest        Push-ups   4   Set 1: 6 reps
  Set 2: 8 reps
  Set 3: 10 reps
  Set 4: 12 reps
     Moderate    0      Decrease weight each set
   Landmine            Squats   4   Set 1: 6 reps
  Set 2: 8 reps
  Set 3: 10 reps
  Set 4: 12 reps
    Moderate    0       Decrease weight each set
     Landmine            Rows   4   Set 1: 6 reps
  Set 2: 8 reps
  Set 3: 10 reps
  Set 4: 12 reps
    Moderate   0      Decrease weight each set
          RDL         Moderate             0     Decrease weight each set

 

Summary

Push-ups are more than just a foundational move to master. When progressed and programmed appropriately, they can be part of an effective strength program that promotes muscular strength, endurance, and hypertrophy.

References:

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.