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I don't know what to do. I'm desperate. I do pushups regularly for almost three years but not only haven't I managed to reach some decent increase pace (I hope you understand what I mean by my clumsy English; "increase pace" sounds a bit off to my ear but I don't know how to say it otherwise), I also every so often see the number of my repetitions fall by 1, 2 or even 3 with no apparent reason at all. Last time I did this type of pushups (it was 4 days ago; two days ago I did wide pushups), I did 32 repetitions, the same as in late December (and last month I managed to do 33). Today, without any evident reason, I couldn't straighten my arms after just 30 pushups. In these three years, I tried everything I could think of:

  1. I experimented with the number of days between similar exercises (initially, I did pushups every day, then every two days, then every four days, then every three days, now I got back to a four-day cycle, i.e. no pushups (abs+squats, instead) — regular pushups — no pushups (again, instead, abs+squats but different) — wide pushups, and then all over again);

  2. I experimented with the number of sets (initially, it was just one set, then two sets, then two sets of one type and two sets of another type, then many low-rep sets, now I'm back at two sets of the same type);

  3. as already mentioned, I experimented with different types of pushups (initially, it was just regular-width pushups, then I mixed in narrow/diamond pushups, then found out that diamond pushups target the same triceps so I replaced them with wide pushups that target pecs);

  4. I don't eat fish; maybe, it has something to do with iodine deficiency, I thought? (I didn't google it, though) I started popping iodine pills, no difference;

  5. every time the number of repetitions drops, I started to take three days off of any pushups (it's my most recent experiment); it, actually, proved somewhat effective: after such a break, the number of repetitions slightly increases (usually, by one); but guess what? I took a three-day no-pushup break just a few days ago (two days ago I did, as I said, wide pushups, two days before that, like today, I did regular pushups, three days straight ahead of that I did no pushups).

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  • 2
    You definitely need to do multiple sets. I would suggest following an exercise program. Getting a personal trainer might be the most effective. I've had some luck with hundredpushups.com, which is free and adjusts according to your fitness and over time (as any good exercise program should). – NotThatGuy Feb 29 at 11:48
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    I think your mindest is also something you should work on. Listen to your body. Next time you train, pay attention to how your arms feel the next day. Train again when you feel ready. Your body isn't a machine. Taking of exactly three days might not work for you every time. Your body's functions depend on many factors, including sleep, nutrition (which is more than getting some special nutrients) and your emotional state. They are all equally important and can affect your training results. – idmean Feb 29 at 17:16
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    In your question you mention depression. Doing physical exercises alone at home may help slightly with that, but depression is an illness for which you need to seek professional help. – 11684 Feb 29 at 17:31
  • Where do you fail with push ups? Do your arms give out? Can you no longer maintain a plank position (your core giving out?) Do you get out of breath and have to stop? – Dark Hippo Mar 2 at 9:19
  • @DarkHippo My arms simply stop unbending – Sergey Zolotarev Mar 2 at 10:42
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Don't worry. The question is perfectly on-topic here.

When I read through your description of your process, I'm on the lookout for one single thing. And unless I'm missing it, I don't see it anywhere in your process.

You gotta add some resistance!

Every attempt you make at "switching it up" is fine. But at the end of the day, if you can do 30+ repetitions of something, it's no longer challenging enough for you to just keep grinding out hundreds and hundreds of repetitions, and expect the body to change. This is now something your body considers easy, and your body will simply get really good at doing 30 reps, and not feel the need to improve further.

You need to challenge your muscles in the way that makes the most sense: Get some extra weight. Give your muscles (not to mention your central nervous system) a new challenge.

Progressive overload

The phrase we always use for this is progressive overload. It's done in a few different ways, but what we refer to is the act of challenging the muscles either by, for example, adding more resistance to a movement, or adding more volume.

You've tried adding volume. And that's good. Eventually, you'll get back to that. But what you should try now, is to add more resistance to the exercise. Try putting a weight plate on your back, or a weighted vest on your torso. Get someone to stand over you and press your body down. Get someone to push you down with irregular intervals. Anything to make your muscles and CNS go "oh shit, we need to adapt to this".

Other exercises

Variety is key to any sort of progress with regards to strength. The fact that you're doing different variations of a pushups is great. And you should keep doing that. But you should also look at adding other exercises with similar, but differently loaded pressing movements are going to get your chest and triceps growing stronger, allowing you to do more pushups.

Bench press (in all its variation, be it on a flat bench, incline bench, decline bench, with a barbell or dumbell, be it laying on the floor) is an exercise you... I'll say it... you need to add. This exercise is probably the exercise that will allow you to move the most amount of weight, giving you that progressive overload I mentioned earlier.

Don't neglect the rest

You don't mention anything about how you train your other body parts. I will assume that you have a semblance of order in your training regimen, but I'll say this in case anyone else reads this: Don't let pushups be your one and only goal. Don't let pressing movements be the only training you do. Neglecting the rest of the muscle groups, and only focusing on 2-3 of them, is bound to lead you down a road with muscular imbalances, and chronic pain in your back, neck, and shoulders.

Some times, the best exercise you can do to increase your pressing movement, is train the muscles that help out, without you realizing it. A well-performed pushup is actually a very well-rounded exercise. While it does not train them very well, it does rely on your core, shoulders, back, and butt for stability. Make sure all of these are trained with the same amount of focus. In the long run, this is provide far more benefit to your pushups than any pushup-only training.

EDIT: Regarding rep-only workout plans

You mention in a comment that you've now tried a program that is designed around reps only. These have a high chance of failure because if you can do 32 in one set, there's no guarantee that you can do 50 in two sets, or 70 in three etc.

You also mention that a gym membership isn't likely, so doing bench press etc. is out of the picture. But there is a very nice way of adding resistance to your pushups anyway, namely with a rubber band.

enter image description here

I would highly recommend getting a few different ones of these, so that you can start to incrementally challenge your muscles to make them stronger.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – JohnP Mar 3 at 17:21
  • I've been following that one hundred pushups program for some time. I fully accomplished only one day, it took me more than a week (and not just one day as it's supposed to be); now, I'm at day 2 of week 3 (hundredpushups.com/week3.html). However unimpressive my pace is, I've had some progress. After I doubled the rest time (120 seconds instead of 60 etc.), I'd been able to increase the number of reps in the fifth, final, set each pushup day. First two times, I upped the number by two and three reps at a time respectively; then, I had been regularly increasing it by one rep. At day ... – Sergey Zolotarev Mar 27 at 3:20
  • ...2, in the training following the one when I reached 19 reps in the fifth set (as you can see on the webpage, it's supposed to be "25+"), I fell by one rep and managed to do just 18. I took two days off from pushups or anything arm-related, as I do in such cases (normally, according to that program, you do pushups every other day). After a break, I did 20 in the last set (barely). In the next workout, today, I nosedived by 5 reps with no apparent reason. As you see, it's exactly the same situation that brought me here in the first place: you fall by one rep, you take a break, you do bette... – Sergey Zolotarev Mar 27 at 3:22
  • ...r, then you plummet. What am I supposed to make of all this? I very much doubt resistance would make a difference. It will be exactly the same: first I will relatively rapidly grow, then slow down, then tumble, then plod along for eternity. I feel like there's some elephant in the room I can't see. This is an accurate description of virtually everything I do, not only when it comes to sports. What is your advice? There was one unusual thing: at around the ninth pushup, it became much more difficult abruptly, as if someone put a sack of potatoes on my back. It's like some muscle just turn... – Sergey Zolotarev Mar 27 at 3:23
  • ...ed off completely. I faintly recall, there was something similar that time that made me write the initial post. – Sergey Zolotarev Mar 27 at 3:23
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I actually joined this community because I read your post. I won't say I am the know all guru on this, but from personal experience I will say it is normal to drop. Don't take this as the LAW, as others experiences may vary, and we all know the Army isn't the best reputable source as there's many injuries, but we still do our best.

Basic Combat Training (BCT) is 10 weeks, and we have a lot of people that come not being able to pass in the push up category. By the end of the 10 weeks they need to do 42 pushups in 2 minutes straight (for males). And about 99% pass (obviously this could change since there's a new Fitness Test, I am going off the old APFT).

The way we build them up is by fitness training every day, and 2 - 3 times a week they do multiple sets of one minute push up exercises. So one minute straight without stopping of push ups. Doesn't matter if they fatigue, they just go to their knees and keep pushing. Another way that helps with pushups is to multiply the amount of reps you want by 2 - 3, so if you want 50, plan to double or triple that and you can vary. 3 times a week I will split up 100 push ups into equal sets throughout the day til I hit that amount (so usually about 20 at a time). The other two days during the week that i work out, I try to hit 100 in as few sets as possible.

You can also do pyramid push ups. Start with 1 for 1 set. Then 2 push ups for 1 set, then 3 for 1 set...All the way up to 15, then all the way back down. Also, on top of varying the types, we "encourage" the trainee to do them close grip, so hands are directly under the shoulders.

Edit: Going back to the decrease...So usually I find when I'm doing intense workouts for several months, I try to do a test at the start of month 1, a second test about 5 weeks in, and then a third closer to 9 weeks. In week 5 I typically drop in push ups from what I was, or barely increase, and then week 9 I get a LARGE amount of increase. If it isn't push ups, it's typically another exercise I decrease in, but then ultimately I come back a lot stronger. Don't let the decrease get you down. You'll get to where you want. Just keep pushing (see what I did there?) and be hopeful! HYDRATE HYDRATE HYDRATE!

Hope some of this helps out!

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Listen to Alec

Alec's advice is best: you need weights to advance fastest. Since you mention doing squats, I assume you have access to free weights. Bench press is definitely going to improve your push-up reps faster than push-ups themselves, because it will help you develop more strength quickly.

There are lots of ways to schedule your lifting, but a simple and easy-to-remember system is the 5x5: do 5 sets of 5 reps with 1 minute rest between sets, using the heaviest weight that you can barely complete the 25th rep. You should be able to bench 100% of your body weight in no time, if not already (and note that this is actually about 50% more work than a push-up, because push-ups don't involve lifting much of your leg weight due to leverage). I'd say at least 90% of individuals can train to 150% of body weight, at which point you will probably stop caring about push-ups because you will get bored before you find out how many you can do.

Form

I will say one thing about form. Many people do both push-ups and bench press with their elbows at 90 degrees to their sides (so that your upper arms are straight across like a bar). This puts a lot of strain on the front deltoids and limits how much and how long you can lift. The problem is that it mostly uses the upper pecs, which are the weakest part of your pecs, as anyone who has done inclined/flat/decline bench can attest.

A much better form is about 45 degrees, which recruits the mid/lower pecs much more, and will feel stronger once you get used to it. During bench press, this puts the bar at or slightly below your sternum at the bottom of the movement. During push-ups, your arms will be closer to your body, but your thumbs should be close to the line across your sternum. If you are used to the 90 deg. angle, switching will feel unnatural and reduce your lift/reps. However, it is well worth the training to change this habit.

Schedule

Much research has been done on recovery times and optimal training schedules (think: Olympics, powerlifting, etc.). The research I have seen shows that after an intense workout (where you reach significant fatigue for the trained muscles), strength will decline over the next 24-36 hours as the body repairs itself, then rise over 48-72 hours, peaking above the starting level and then coming back down to the original level (but hopefully, a bit higher). So, if you train during this "rebound peak" which occurs 2-3 days after a big lift, you should be able to maximize your training weight, which will help you gain the fastest. This is why many lifters will alternate muscle groups every other day.

So, do big lifts 2-3x a week, and give your body a chance to rest and recover or work different groups in between (alternating upper and lower body is an easy approach).

Cardio

Finally, don't forget to exercise the most important muscle of all: your heart. While push-ups are mostly an anaerobic exercise, they will still put a load on your heart. Running/biking/swimming at medium/high intensity for a decent length of time will help ensure that your reps are not unnecessarily limited by your cardio throughput. 20-30m for 2-3x a week should keep you in balance.

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  • I joined the community only to upvote your answer :) now that i have joined, i will upvote others as well as all of them are giving some new insights! – user1825567 Mar 2 at 15:12
  • "So, if you train during this "rebound peak" which occurs 2-3 days after a big lift, you should be able to maximize your training weight, which will help you gain the fastest." I, apparently, have no "rebound peaks". As I said in my question, I tried 3- and 4-day cycles, no avail. In fact, I returned to a 2-day cycle (that is, it's a 4-day cycle, but there're two pushup days of different types, as I said) because, in the first half of 2019, it gave me +1 pushups each month which was better than anything I had after. Now, I don't have even that pace – Sergey Zolotarev Mar 3 at 6:38
  • The optimum is a 2-3 day cycle, but it requires you to reach your strength fatigue point, not your endurance fatigue. You need to create micro-tears in your muscle fibers to stimulate repair which builds muscle. This is really only effective by overloading the weight you lift, not the reps. If you don't have access to a gym, try putting sand bags or other found items on your back to increase resistance. But a gym with free weights is really your fastest route to improvement. – Lawnmower Man Mar 3 at 20:15
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Just to throw a slightly different approach into the mix, you might want to consider the greasing the groove technique.

For a full explanation, I'd suggest reading around the topic, but essentially the idea is that you're training your central nervous system to be more efficient in muscle recruitment required for the desired movement pattern. You're practicing the movement (in your case, push ups), not training until you can't do any more.

Though it's normally used for lower rep exercises (pull ups being a prime example as they're normally one people struggle with), I do know people who've reported good results using it for close grip (aka diamond) push ups to get their rep max from mid 30's to over 50.

What you do is take half your maximum push up reps (so, in your case, about 15), and throughout the day, perform several sets of 15 push ups. Something like a set every 2 - 3 hours should be ideal.

After doing this every day for a few weeks, test your rep max again and see how you do.

Since you say you've been stuck at the same number of press ups for a few years, give this a try for a few weeks, and if it doesn't work, then I'd suggest working towards a one arm press up in order to get much stronger, maybe by following the progressions in Paul Wade's book Convict Conditioning.

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Lots of individuals have pointed out some ways you could adapt your workout routine -- that's the stress side of fitness. Let's look at another aspect that no one has really pointed out yet: recovery.

Recovery can break down into multiple points, such as:

  • Sleep
  • Hydration
  • Nutrition
  • Mental health
  • Soft tissue + injuries

In the majority of your question, you mention different ways in which you're trying to alter the workout program. The only mention of rest is when you state "I started to take three days off of any pushups" (and it sounds like it helped). The quality of the rest period is a very important factor. Strength training is a constant tug-of-war between exertion and recovery and they are equally important.

Personally, my performance in my evening workout is determined by my day's decisions starting as soon as I wake up. How was my sleep? How was my breakfast? Did I stay hydrated throughout the day? How stressed out am I from work? Am I walking into my workout with a good attitude?

I would suggest you take a look at your daily recovery and ask yourself these questions:

If the answer to any of these isn't further on the positive side of the spectrum it can be a good starting point. Each of these points can break down into many questions so I won't cover it all but I'll list a few questions here that can provide a starting point.


Sleep

  1. How does sleep affect your workouts?
  2. Is it bad to workout when you aren't sleeping a lot?

Hydration

  1. Should I drink water during my workout?

Nutrition

  1. Protein: How much is too much?
  2. How is muscle repair affected by a caloric deficit?

Mental Health

  1. How to overcome lack of willpower when not having access to a personal trainer or training buddy?
  2. How do I know if I'm training too hard? (i.e. overtraining)

Soft Tissue + injuries

  1. Using a Foam Roller
  2. How long does it take for muscles to recover?
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  • "Hydration", "hydrate" — these I hear mentioned a lot. What does it mean? Drink water? Everyone drinks water. I don't understand that point. "Is your workout causing you mental stress or is it still enjoyable?" Of course, not. ("still", lol) The only time people smile while performing pushups or any other physical exercise is when they are paid and shot for stock pictures – Sergey Zolotarev Mar 5 at 12:26
  • @SergeyZolotarev -- dehydration can poorly affect your performance. Our muscles are 75% water and not having enough water in your body affects everything from joints, to muscles, to nerves. Drink 2-3L a day. – C. Lange Mar 5 at 15:48
  • @SergeyZolotarev -- well, I for one find the gym enjoyable. Its where I go to become less stressed. Also, if you start a hard set of pushups and you've mentally decided you can't do more than 20, you likely won't do more than 20. – C. Lange Mar 5 at 15:53
  • It doesn't seem to be an issue about my mental state. My arms just stop following my commands to unbend – Sergey Zolotarev Mar 5 at 17:32
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Hundred pushups challenge

This challenge helped me achieve 100 push-ups in a row, a few years ago. I could do 35 push-ups without pause at the beginning of the challenge, and it took a bit less than 2 months to achieve this goal.

I made sure to be properly rested and hydrated before doing the workouts. It might have been placebo effect, but I made sure to make very gram counts before going for many push-ups : I went to the toilet right before training, and only wore boxer shorts during the workout.

Music helped me too. I listened to Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy" for my 104 push-ups in a row. Find something that works well with your mind, body and push-up rhythm.

It felt good to achieve it, but it mostly taught me to do quick, explosive push-up, without paying much attention to balance or proper form.

Quality vs quantity: Slower and harder

I still regularly do push-ups, but almost never more than 15 in a row. I do them very slowly though, and pay a lot of attention to my back, shoulders and core. I breathe slowly and in sync with the push-ups.

I really like close-grip push-ups, but sometimes switch to wide grip push-ups, dive bombers, Chinese push-ups or military presses. If I feel good, I'll lift one leg (alternating every 5 reps) or I'll put my feet on an elevated surface (chair, coffee table or bed) for extra resistance. When I'm properly warmed-up, I'll also try handstand push-ups against a wall. 3 of them will feel like 50 standard push-ups.

Note that all those variations are bodyweight exercises, which you basically can do anywhere and at any time. For more information, I highly recommend "You are your own gym", by Mark Lauren.

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  • I'm f.cking cursed. That website, with my number of pushups, sent me straight to week 3 (hundredpushups.com/week3.html). The first day of the third week goes as follows: 14 reps, rest (60 seconds), 18 reps, rest, 14, rest, 14, rest, 20+. I only managed to do the first three sets. Instead of 14 reps in the fourth set, I could only do 10, and instead of "20+" reps in the fifth set, I could only do 8. What does it all mean? I swear I did 32 straight – Sergey Zolotarev Mar 3 at 6:40
  • @SergeyZolotarev: You could always go back to week 2 or week 1. I made sure to be properly rested and hydrated before doing the workouts. It might have been placebo effect, but I made sure to make very gram counts before going for many push-ups : I went to the toilet right before training, and only wore boxer shorts during the workout. Music helped me too. I listened to Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy" for my 104 push-ups in a row. – Eric Duminil Mar 3 at 10:53
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I'm a newer member here but there's a few things that no one else has mentioned that could certainly be having an effect on your push up performance.

  1. Overactivation
    It sounds like you are mostly doing push ups, squats and perhaps a few other exercises, this means that you are largely repeating the same motion patterns over and over for the last several years without mixing it up too much. Without changing the motion pattern it's very possible that you've lost some strength from overactivating just the muscles needed for your push ups.
  2. Your weakness could be in stabilizing muscles
    Just because your pecs and triceps are the most dominate muscles in the push up doesn't mean that they are the only ones being used for it. If you are neglecting your stabilizer muscles aiming for high reps of an exercise can easily be limited by stabilizer muscles. Internal/external rotators in your shoulder, the serratus anterior, all of these smaller stabilizing muscles have important roles in your shoulder mobility and strength and these are difficult to train in conventional movements.

My own experience led me to realize that strengthening the above mentioned stabilizer muscles made many exercises much more efficient so I noticed a significant boost to the number of reps I could do.

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