Want to Blow Up Your Arms and Chest? Try This Pushup Challenge

Ah, the humble pushup. It doesn't receive nearly as much credit as it deserves when it comes to muscle building. Shall I sing its praises? 

Relative Upper Body Strength

The most obvious of the benefits. Pushups, primarily, challenge the triceps, delts, pecs (sort of, depending on the angle of your feet). I would even argue that your biceps receive a piece of the action as antagonist muscles (aka: slowing down the decent and counteracting the triceps). It's relative strength since the ability to perform a repetition(s) is based on your bodyweight as opposed to an external load, such as a dumbbell. Possession of a high relative strength is a key quality not only for athletes, but for anyone. It's a fantastic thing to be able to control and move your own bodyweight. 

Core Strength

Pushups are essentially moving planks. When I say "core" I mean all of it, front and back: rectus abdominus (the coveted "six pack"), obliques, transverse abdominus, as well as the glutes, erector spinae, multifidi... I could go on. Pushups engage all the muscles surrounding your spine and pelvis to maintain a neutral position of both (or, ahem, they should).

Pushups connect the core and the upper body into one solid movement. Oftentimes trainees have pretty decent upper body strength (thanks to our collective love-affair with benching, curls, and tricep push downs) but fairly poor core strength. Having the former without the latter is like trying to drive a car on flat tires: you can have the most powerful engine in the world, but if you can't transfer that power to the ground, that car stays in the driveway. 

Poor pushup form includes saggy hips or a banana-shaped back (here's our car with flat tires).

Classic Banana-Back    from greatist.com

Classic Banana-Back    from greatist.com

Often in this situation, a person's hips will drop more quickly than the chest during the descent in a pushup. This is indicative of both a lack of strength and spine and pelvic stability. Now the lower back is in a compromised position and is ripe, like a banana left in a paper bag for too long, for irritation or injury. Core strength and spinal stability are essential for both athletic success and injury prevention. You would do well to improve both!

Remember! Practice doesn't make perfect, it makes permanent. Therefore, training perfect pushup form is the antidote to poor pushup form. 

Shoulder Stability and Health

Two major players are involved in shoulder health: the rotator cuff and the scapula (shoulder blade). The rotator cuff keeps the humerus (the upper arm bone) in its proper place in the socket, like a suction cup. The pushup is one of the best exercises to challenge and strength the RC, both statically and dynamically. The shoulder blades should glide along the rib cage (and not stuck up by our ears) and pushups encourage and reinforce this movement- when done properly of course. Muscles surrounding the scaps (mid- and lower-traps, serratus, ect.) act as both movers and stabilizers of the scapulae to corral them into the correct positions throughout the movement. Pushups require these bad boys to activate too in the form of antagonists to the "pushing" muscles in the front (mentioned above). 

Ok, ok, enough praising. Assuming that you have mastered the pushup, let's get to the challenge. Ready to blow up your upper body? 

I stole this pushup ladder from Dan John, as I do most thing since he's pretty much Yoda of the strength world. 

from strengthnet.com

from strengthnet.com

The Ladder:

1 --> 10 --> 1 pushups. Start at 1 rep, stand up. Two reps, stand up. Three reps, stand up... and so on up to 10 reps. Then, repeat 9 reps, stand up. 8 reps, stand up... back down to 1 rep. 

Note that your "rest" period is the time it takes to stand up and get back down into the pushup position. The other rest position, is holding the plank at the top off the pushup. Yeah...

The Challenge:

Perform the full ladder, up to 10 reps, in under 5 minutes. 

Good. Luck. And enjoy the pump!

If you can't perform it in under 5 minutes, well, keep practicing. If you can't finish the ladder, go as far as you can with good form. My advice to complete the challenge? Get stronger. 

Below is a video of me doing the challenge, if you want to watch me struggle, feel free to watch the whole thing. I start to sag a bit towards the end and I was hurtin'. I should note that, in my defense, that I naturally have a more pronounced kyphosis (upper back rounding) and my shirt only accents it so it looks like I'm reaching my neck forward. Trust me, that's as far back as my neck will go, it's a perpetual struggle. 

Why Floor Press? It's Not a Bench Press...But It Can Help Improve It!

Everyone knows that Monday is International Chest Day. Granted, today is Wednesday, but hey, you might read this on ICD, so let's unpack the floor press and why it's worthy of throwing in your bench press rotation. 

What is a Floor Press

Behold!

Or, if you prefer dumbbells...

Most of the same coaching points apply as it would to a regular bench press: keep the upper back tight, try to bend the bar as you lower it, drive your back into the floor as you press away, and make sure you have a spotter. The main difference is the floor stops your elbows at 90 degrees. This has three main training benefits.

No Stretch-Shortening Cycle

This is a fancy way of explaining the reactive concentric contraction (shortening) that happens when a muscle is quickly stretched before returning to its original length (here is the Wikipedia page if you want to delve into that more). It's why you see people bouncing a little at the bottom of a squat or bench press: the muscle reactively contracts and this provides an extra "umph" of power during movement. Floor press takes out the SSC at the bottom because the elbow run into the floor before the pecs are stretched out to the point of creating a SSC. This challenges the triceps, and to a lesser degree the pecs, to really kick in to press the bar back up. So, if triceps are your weak link, try a floor pressing for a while and see how that impacts your regular bench. 

Less Risky for Shoulders

In a traditional bench press, when the bar hits the chest (hopefully not crushing it...) most people's humeruses (upper arm bones) will naturally glide forward in the socket. Depending on the extent of this humeral glide, the tendons that cross the shoulder joint can get irritated and inflamed and then you wind up with a pissed off shoulder. If you've already created an angry shoulder, floor pressing is a great way to still press, but provide relief to the front of your shoulder while it recovers.*

Heck, even if you want to avoid shoulder injuries down the road and you're not married to bench pressing- meaning you're not competing in powerlifting or you don't particularly care about your bench press numbers- you can floor press exclusively and still reap the upper body strength benefits pressing heavy things provides. (Bonus: and you get double the shoulder safety if you use dumbbells and a neutral grip.)

No Bench Required

Ok, this is kind of a long shot, but let's say you go to the gym (on Monday, no less) and it is packed and there are no available benches. Well, floor pressing, either with barbells or dumbbells requires no bench so you can do it just about anywhere you can find floor space (obviously the barbell version will need some sort of rack, though if you can bench at least 135, you could conceivably floor press with a barbell anywhere too.)

There you have it, three compelling reasons to toss the floor press into your training repertoire. I also have to say this is my first bench press related article on SAPT's blog. Wow, it took me a while... 

This has nothing to do with floor pressing but I thought it was funny. from knowyourmeme.com

This has nothing to do with floor pressing but I thought it was funny. from knowyourmeme.com

* If you have shoulder pain and pressing aggravates it, don't you think it'd be a good idea to not press for a few weeks? Just sayin'... However, I won't leave you out in the cold, if you want to keep pressing around the pain, here's a great article on tips of how to do that and, hopefully, rehab your shoulder in the process. 

Slow Down for Strength Gains

It seems that despite how long I’ve been strength training there are certain exercises that never fail to make me sore. One would think that after 10+ years of training soreness (at least the make-you-walk-funny level of soreness) would be a thing relegated to new trainees.

No such luck.

Here are a few of the most offensive culprits:

Bulgarian split squats

RDL (single or double leg)

Slow tempo pushup

Ab wheel roll outs

(Caveat: I would be remiss to mention soreness is NOT the primary indicator of a workout. Training for to get sore for the sake of soreness is not a productive method for strength gains. Just because you're not sore doesn't mean that you're not making progress.)

The commonality among these exercises is a loaded emphasis on the eccentric, or negative, portion of the exercise.

Quick primer: Concentric muscle action is the muscle shortening while contracting, think of this as the curling up part of a bicep curl. The bicep muscle is contracting (producing force) as it shortens. Eccentric muscle action is the muscle lengthening while producing force, this would be the lowering portion of the bicep curl. The bicep is still producing force by controlling the weight downwards so your arm isn’t jerked out of socket.

It’s easy to think of the concentric phase as the most “important” part-- pulling the barbell off the floor in a deadlift or getting up out of the bottom of a squat-- which they are if you’re trying to complete a lift, but from a strength building standpoint, we actually want to focus a little bit more on the eccentric phase.

Concentric Strength Potential < Eccentric Strength Potential

If you could boil down strength gains to an equation it would look like this:

Eccentric gains + isometric gains + concentric gains = total strength gains*

In this equation the eccentric gains have the potential to yield the highest contribution to the overall increase in strength. The relative weakness of the overcoming (concentric) portion of an exercise prevents and limits the complete overload of the negative (eccentric) portion to its full capacity. What does that mean? A practical example would be an athlete is unable to perform a full pushup on the floor, but can knock out 5-8 negative-only pushups (just the lowering portion). This demonstrates the principle of strength in the eccentric exceeding that of the concentric. Got it, so why do we care?

Eccentric Stress is a Superior Stimulus for Strength Improvements

Training programs that include both eccentric and concentric exercises, especially when the eccentric is emphasized, appear to yield greater gains than concentric exercises only*. Why? Adaptation to stress is the name of the game, my friends.

  1. Greater neural adaptation in the eccentric- as we know, strength is not just the size of your muscles, but the speed at which the nervous system fires signals to the muscles. The nervous system directs the muscles therefore the more efficient the neuromuscular connection is, muscles produce force all the more quickly and more powerfully. Nerves + muscle fibers = motor unit. More on that below...
  2. Muscles produce a higher force output in maximal eccentric because you can use a higher load- this results in a higher stress/stimulus per motor unit. The central nervous system (CNS) recruits less motor units in an eccentric action than in a concentric action so each motor unit (again, nerves + muscle fibers) has to work harder.
  3. There is some evidence that eccentric actions will preferentially recruit fast twitch (over slow twitch) fibers, which are more responsive to growth and adaptation.
  4. Eccentric movement causes a higher level of micro-trauma (why you’re sore) and that leads to higher rate of repair, which is the reason muscles grow bigger and stronger.

Essentially, what this means is that if you’re not utilizing eccentric training (even simply focusing on controlling the negative portion of exercises) you’re missing out on a powerful tool to increase your strength.

Eccentric Training Techniques

What kind of help would I be if I didn’t offer some ways to incorporate soreness-inducing negatives into your training? For reference, I will denote a tempo such as 1-2-3 with the first number corresponding to concentric part, second to the isometric (usually the top of the movement before returning to starting position), and the third to the eccentric part.

  • 2/1 Technique

The concentric uses 2 limbs, the eccentric uses just 1 limb. For example, a standing cable row:

Note that the load should be light enough to accelerate through the concentric phase but heavy enough to make a slow eccentric difficult.

Tempo: 0-1-5

  • 2 Movement Technique

Concentric portion using a compound movement with the eccentric portion an isolation-type exercise. For example, a dumbbell bench press to dumbbell chest fly.

Tempo: 1-1-5

  • Super Slow Negatives-- use a percentage based on a 1 rep max of a lift
  • Negative Only Training-- note that you’ll need to do this with spotters to help move the bar/weight because the goal is to have the load heavy enough to actually tax the eccentric potential of muscles, which means that it will exceed the concentric strength. The following numbers are a percentage of a 1 rep max.

110-115% → 10 sec lowering

115-120% → 8 sec

120-125% → 6 sec

125-130% → 4 sec

If you use this method, only perform single repetitions per set since this a pretty CNS-intensive method and you’ll need to rest in between to allow that to recover between sets.

Good luck fellow iron-lovers! Embrace the DOMs and let the gains begin!

from quickmeme.com

from quickmeme.com

*Much of this information was adapted from Christian Thibaudeau’s Theory and Application of Modern Strength and Power Methods.

**There are very, very few exercises that would be considered “concentric only” but I would argue that anytime the eccentric phase is uncontrolled (such as just ripping through a set of rows like you’re cranking a chainsaw, or simply letting gravity take over during the lowering portion of a squat) then the exercise turns into a more concentric-only lift.