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I have been doing some basic calisthenics for about a year now. Mainly just doing push ups, inverted rows, squats (I mix the squats with lunges sometimes) 3 times per week for 3 sets each, every set to failure except for the leg exercises. Sometimes I throw in some skill work, like frogstand or some gym ring shenanigans. I am a 25 year old male, quite heavy at 98kg, so when I started I was doing mainly easier variations like incline push ups etc.

I have a question regarding my perceived progress, during the last couple months especially. When it comes to my muscle size, I have noticed significant changes when it comes to size of my arms, quads and chest. I am also quite happy with my strenth gains; when doing strength skills like back bridges or handstand walks on the wall for example I notice them to be significantly easier than when starting out, even though I don't really train for them.

But I have noticed that the number of reps I do does not nearly increase as fast as I though they would. About 3-4 months ago I was doing 3x6 push ups per workout. Currently I am doing 3x13 and to me that does not seem like a large improvement for multiple months of consistent work, especially because the increase in reps seems to slow down. My short term goal was being able to do 3 sets of 30, but that seems like it's going to take forever. Most people active in calisthenics I have talked to seemed to imply that you outgrow push ups after a month or so and need to switch to a harder variation like diamond push ups quite soon. My experience doesn't reflect that.

Is incresing your rep numbers supposed to take that long or is there something I am doing wrong with my approach? I have never really taken a week off my training, so I was thinking maybe not doing deload weeks could be a mistake and slow down progress? But if that's the problem then wouldn't my size and strength gains be hindered too?

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    My first guess would be that you're not doing enough volume to induce adaptation. Three sets of a push-ups is just not very much. 3 sets of 30 seems perfectly doable if you ramp up to at least that much volume, or better yet 1.5-2x that, on a per-workout basis. One of my favorite approaches is to pick a number of total reps and focus for a few weeks on minimizing the number of sets necessary to hit that number. Jun 18, 2023 at 19:32
  • @DaveLiepmann So are you saying high volume (as in total number of reps per week) is the main concern when trying to increasing rep numbers? I'm only well versed when it comes to hypertrophy training, where the number of reps is essentially irrelevant as long as you take sets close to failure. Could you go into more detail about how I should ramp up the volume? Do I just start adding sets? Do I keep working to failure? I feel like it will still take forever until I could do for example 9x10, to match the 3x30 volume. Jun 18, 2023 at 21:50
  • How long do these workouts take you right now? Three exercises for three sets each doesn't sound like it should take very long. (And rest periods can be shorter if you don't go to failure.) Jun 19, 2023 at 8:40

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You're probably just not doing enough volume to induce adaptation. (Three sets of a push-ups is just not very much.) Your "3 sets of 30 push-ups" goal seems perfectly achievable by increasing your per-workout volumeto at least equal that goal, or better yet 1.5-2x that. One of my favorite approaches is to pick a number of total reps and focus for a few weeks on minimizing the number of sets necessary to hit that number. You can add a set per workout if you want to take it slow, but you can also just jump to your target volume and see how it goes. Most likely it goes fine, or maybe you get a little sore, or maybe you bonk and can't make it. Either way it tells you something.

Going to failure or near-failure is fine. At the same time, when doing more volume it can be nicer to stop a few sets shy of technical failure and do many sets at that challenging-but-not-grueling number.

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From my personal experience:

If I train 4 sets of overhead press once a week and 4 sets of slightly narrow benchpress once a week I can progress in both lifts. The overhead press progress is slow and varying. The bench press progress however is consistent and OK. Further the more I bench press the more push-ups I can do.

On the other hand when I have trained push-ups twice a week the progress has been slow.

First I tried going close to failure for 3-4 sets like you have done. That worked very poorly. Doing more sets further from failure worked better. In your case that may be doing a total of 50 reps with as little effort as possible instead of 3x13. For instance you may do 10,10,10,8,7,5. However the progress with that approach was not very good either.

So in my experience the best way for me to get better at push-ups is to do train 4 sets of overhead press once a week and 4 sets of benchpress once a week!

I have 3 theories on why this is:

I. Training in the ca. 5 rep range is much more effective (for me when it comes to pushing) than training in the > 10 rep range.

II. My push-ups are limited by core strength. I would get better at push-ups if I in addition to the 2 x a week push-ups did planks 2-3 x a week.

III. The overhead press trains (indirectly) small muscles on the back called scapular stabilizers. Interestingly these muscles are antagonists to the pectoralis muscles used in the push-ups. Matt Wenning has a M.S. in Biomechanics and holds an all-time world record in powerlifting. In this video (from 2 mins - 2 mins 30 secs) he discusses how muscle growth in a muscle is shut down by the nervous system if the antagonist is weak.

This video The Problem with Push-Ups seems to discuss my 3 points above. It seems that if you could get from doing push-ups to doing a combination of dips and push-ups that would solve issue I and II. However the problem is to get strong enough from push-ups to do dips is difficult. You probably need to be able to do ca. 25 push-ups before being able to train dips. And as discussed above doing > 10 push-ups seems to be an inferior way of getting stronger. A solution could be to do weighted push-ups with either a weight vest or some weights in a backpack. In addition you probably should train the core by eg. doing planks on other days.

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  • Point II is not an issue for me, my core strength improved with push ups as well and I don't think I ever stopped a set due to postural fatigue. Point III adresses training antagonist muscles, which I believe I do with inverted rows. As far as I know your body limiting force development due to strucural imbalance only happens in extreme cases, like if somebody only trains push but never pull movements. Could you elaborate on Point I? Why do you think the 5 rep range is much more effective than 10+; more effective in what sense? For endurance goals working high reps seems to make sense to me. Jun 25, 2023 at 13:05
  • In the video by FitnesFAQ you linked Daniel essentially says that if you're not a beginner and don't have endurance goals doing endless reps of push ups is a waste of time. I am a beginner with an endurance goal and when he said doing 'endless reps' I don't think he meant 13 reps... Jun 25, 2023 at 13:13
  • Regarding point I it is just a personal observation. My quads on the other hand seems to benefit from ca. 10 reps. It may just be the type I vs II muscle fiber distribution in my body. However here is an argument: If you get stronger at pushing by any means your endurance will also increase automatically. At least up to a point. But that point >> 13 reps. I have seen a video of a heavy powerlifter easily cranking out 70 push-ups.
    – Andy
    Jun 26, 2023 at 5:42
  • You may also want to take a look at "The Hundred Pushups Training Program": hundredpushups.com. I have not tried it, but it seems legit. It uses many sets far from failure.
    – Andy
    Jun 26, 2023 at 6:01

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