Some months ago, I started performing semi-regular press-ups with the intention of building a bit of upper-body strength, endurance and tone. I'm 39 years old, and male.

I've been doing three sets, with a thirty second break between each, and a "set" basically comprising performing repetitions until I feel I physically can't manage any more. I've been managing to do this a minimum of every other day, but frequently I can do it more often.

At first I managed to push out sets of about 2-2-1. That increased very rapidly at first, adding a total of 3-4 repetitions to the total every week that passed, then the rate of improvement began to slow, which is to be expected

As it stands I can manage sets of about 15-4-2. But I've been stuck at around that level for weeks now, with only tiny, incremental improvements which often don't last (i.e. I manage an extra rep one day, and lose it the next).

Is there anything I can do to improve the rate at which I'm gaining strength? I want to keep this relatively informal: so no special diet or gym membership or anything like that. But should I being doing my little routine more or less often? Increasing the break between sets? Doing more sets? Or given my thin, wiry physique, am I simply reaching my physical limit without much more intensive training?

4 Answers 4


It seems to me, that you're limiting your progress by going to failure. To improve with bodyweight exercises quickly, that's not the best way.

The method I'd propose would be one called 'Greasing the groove'. You'd spread a number of sub-maximal sets (say 10 reps) through your day, increasing your overall volume and training frequency. If you do this for a week and test your 3 sets on sunday again, I'm sure you will have improved by a fair bit.

Once you manage to do 3x12 consistently, I'd suggest stepping it up a bit to progress. This can be done by placing your toes on a small box, for example. Once you manage 3x12 with that box, take a bigger one. Advanced progressions include one-armed pushups or handstand pushups, if you want to go crazy.

(This answer assumes you're going for overall fitness, hence the 3x12 limit. If you're going more for endurance you can work up to 50 in a row using the same method just as easily.)

  • That's really interesting: thanks for taking the time to respond. What's curious about it is that when I started, I consulted with a colleague who was in to bodybuilding and he assured me that going to failure was the best thing, because it tore the muscle fibres and encouraged new growth. Is that not the case?
    – Bob Tway
    May 21, 2014 at 11:36
  • Going to failure is an intensity technique that advanced bodybuilders should use once all else doesn't work anymore, as these will indeed damage your muscles more than 'normal' exercise. With bodyweight exercises, the damage won't be as severe, but if you want to keep up a high frequency going to failure isn't that great. You could try to take your last set to failure and see how that goes recovery-wise, but taking every set to failure seems fairly overkill to me.
    – user8119
    May 21, 2014 at 11:44
  • Apologies for question necromancy, but how often should I be doing this for maximum effect? Every day? Every other day? Through the week and then rest at the weekend?
    – Bob Tway
    Jun 17, 2014 at 10:31
  • It's hard to say as it's quite individual. As long as your recovery is good enough, every day wouldn't be a problem, although one complete rest day per week is commonly advised. Other than that, that's really something you'd have to try for yourself as everyone reacts differently.
    – user8119
    Jun 17, 2014 at 10:40
  • Thanks. I haven't had the chance to try this properly let due to a bout of illness, but hoping to get back into a routine now. Doing it through the week and resting weekends fits well with my schedule, so I'll try that.
    – Bob Tway
    Jun 17, 2014 at 10:46

Are you doing pressups every day?

If so, it may be that the muscles are fatigued.

Muscles actually become stronger during the recovery process. So if you haven't had a day off for awhile, try that.

Otherwise, I'd agree with @LarrisaGodzilla


If I understand correctly you are currently doing 15+4+2 = 21 press-ups every other day, which equates to less than 80/week and probably around 10 minutes of exercise. This is probably simply not enough to progress past the very begginer gain and you'll have to just do more. Like all other contributors suggested, maybe not going to failure will allow you to increase you overall volume. Dedicating more than 10 minutes a week is likely required.


I'd try more sets, or more rest between sets, or not going to failure in each set, or some combination of those strategies.

For rep schemes, you could try shooting for a certain number of sets of a certain number of reps. For instance, 5 sets of 10, which would be double your current volume. Once you accomplish that, try shortening the rest periods, adding sets, or increasing the target number of reps. You could also try ladders (10, 9, 8, 7, 6... or 1, 2, 3...9, 10, 9, 8...2, 1).

Three sets to max with thirty seconds rest is getting stagnant. Start playing with the dials on your workout: total volume, per-set volume, rest times, number of sets, and so on.

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