Although you may be capable of doing numerous impressive acrobatic style movements in the weight room, I’m willing to bet that the first exercise you ever attempted was a pushup.
While simple in its set up and execution, the exercise works over half of the muscles in your upper body.
The push up is a true gold standard for strength and an entry point into fitness for many.
My four year old son has been doing pushups for over a year now, and other than needing a little more depth, his form is pretty solid.
Now I’m sure you are wondering why you would continue to incorporate pushups into your strength routine when preschoolers are able to do them. Well, that brings me to my next point; the push up is not only one of the most accessible exercises, it is also one of the most versatile.
The standard pushup is essentially the same movement as a bench press (albeit using 60-70% of your bodyweight). The exercise primarily works your triceps, pecs, and front delts, with your abdominals and serratus playing a supporting role for stability.
By turning the pushup into a plyometric movement, you can challenge these same muscles in a more dynamic, explosive fashion, and recruit many secondary muscles particularly in the hips and core as stabilizers.
Today, I want to share with you 4 of my favorite dynamic pushup variations. Just because these exercises are the descendant of that basic push up you learned as a kid doesn’t mean they are suitable for beginners.
These pushups are advanced movements, but I will include some beginner versions of each one to bridge the gap to these extreme variations.
When it comes to plyo-pushups, this one is the granddaddy of them all. Start in a normal push up position with your arms no wider than shoulder width. Lower yourself slowly and as soon as your chest touches the ground, press against the ground explosively with your feet and hands.
As your hands leave the ground, arch your back and raise your hands out in front of your head in your best Superman impression. Immediately bring your hands back to the starting position and catch yourself as you descend. Aim for sets of 5 with a 5-10 second rest between reps.
Strength Required: In addition to the prime movers of the pecs, triceps, and delts, this variation requires considerable core and hip flexor strength and good thoracic spine and shoulder mobility.
Related: Coach Myers' Top 10 Hardest Core Exercises
As your muscles contract concentrically on the way up (great for building speed and explosive power), a strong eccentric contraction, particularly of the triceps and pecs is required to catch yourself and slow your descent towards the floor.
Starter Plan: To work up to this variation, try first breaking a Superman up into two different pushups. During the first one you will push off with your hands and lay your arms out over head with your feet still on the ground.
For the second one, keep your hands planted as you explode up and “hop” your feet off the ground keeping your body as straight as possible. Once you have mastered both, it’s time to put them together and draw a giant S on your chest.
Start in a normal push up position. As you lower your body, lift one foot and draw your knee towards the elbow on the same side. Twist away from that side slightly so you will be closer to the opposite side hand at the bottom of the push up. Return to starting position and alternate sides with every rep. Sets of 5-10 reps per side.
Strength Required: While this style of pushup isn’t a plyometric, it is an incredible variation for building strength and stability in the hips and glutes. The serratus, obliques, and hip flexors (such as the psoas) play an important role in stabilizing your body during a Spiderman.
The side to side movement as you lower away from your active leg will also create a greater range of motion in the pecs and delts than a normal push up.
Starter Plan: A good way to work up to this variation is to simply lift one leg up as perform basic pushups. This will allow you to strengthen the hips and lower abs sufficiently for the Spiderman. Once you can do 10 unbroken reps on each leg it’s time to move up and channel your inner Peter Parker.
Med Ball or GSP
There are many fantastic variations of medicine ball pushups, but I have always called this version the GSP. It is named after legendary UFC champion, Georges St Pierre, as he was the first athlete I saw doing them.
Start with one hand on the ground and the other on a small medicine ball. Without letting the ball move, explode up and over to the other side, having your opposite hand land on the medicine ball. Be sure to “catch” yourself without hitting the ground and keep the ball in the middle as you go from side to side. A set of 5 to each side is a good starting goal.
Strength Required: In addition to the concentric power and the eccentric strength required for the pecs, delts, and triceps (similar to Supermans and all other plyometric variations), the med ball requires you to recruit a number of muscles, including the lats and rhomboids to stabilize and keep your torso even during the movement.
Related: Metabolic Med-Ball Core Training
The addition of the med ball also allows you to go much deeper into the push up on that side, creating a great stretch through the pec and anterior deltoid. Be careful though! Because of that lower range of motion it is important to catch yourself and control the descent to keep your rotator cuff safe.
Starter Plan: The best way to work up to a GSP push-up is to “walk” your way through it. As you pushup, bring your far hand onto the medicine ball and carefully transition your original med ball hand to the floor. Lower into a push up and repeat the process, walking back over to the other side.
Once you can perform 10-12 unbroken reps per side it’s time to fly back and forth like one of the greatest MMA fighters of all time.
Skull Crusher Combo
I wish I could tell you that I got this killer pushup from a super hero or champion fighter. The truth is I made it up one time on vacation while jogging on the boardwalk. Start in a pushup position with a box (an ocean boardwalk bench will suffice) a little less than arms-length in front of you.
Perform a plyo-pushup and catch yourself on the edge of the box as you straighten your arms out. Keeping your body completely rigid, bend your elbows down towards the ground as you lower your forehead to your hands. Extend your arms forcefully and then drop back down into a push up. Sets of 5 are a good goal on this one.
Once I’ve hit my last one I like to stay up on the box and rep out as many skull crushers as possible before ending the set.
Strength Required: One word: Triceps. If your triceps are weak this one is going to be impossible. Doing a body weight skull crusher at anything less than 45 degrees is tough, and unless your plyo game is so strong that you’re blasting up and catching a 36” box, then this is going to be pretty low.
Related: Tricep Trifecta - 3 Power Exercises for Tricep Strength
Out of all the variations on this list, this one also requires the most static core stability to keep your hips from sagging due to your hands being out so far in front of you.
Starter Plan: The fast track to this monster is to master the two movements comprising it. Work on doing a plyo-pushup where you catch yourself on a low box that sits in front of you. You can even begin by “walking” your hands up rather than jumping to get used to the angle.
It’s also important to be proficient (15-20 reps minimum) at bodyweight skull crushers at the same low angle as the box you plan to use.
Push Up Trivia:
- The Push Up was originally known as a “Floor Dip”.
- The actual term “pushup” first appeared in print in 1905.
- The World Record for push-ups in 24 hours is 46,001 and is held by Charles Servizio (USA).
- There are at least 82 different documented variations of pushups.
- To the best of my recollection, I have never lost a push-up challenge. Ever.
Keep your eyes peeled to Muscle & Strength next month when I reveal my 10 favorite pullup variations to grow huge lats! In the meantime, you got work to do on these pushups. Get after it!