A couple of years ago, I wrote an article, Strength in Numbers, about my journey towards a set of 100 pushups. I used ’grease the groove’ (GTG) sets regularly throughout my day to achieve a high daily volume.
With Pavel’s advice, I added cycles of explosive pushups using Strong Endurance™ principles. I became a sort of pushup guinea pig, trying different programming, rep ranges, peaking tactics, and so forth.
Along with increasing my rep max (although I didn’t quite make 100), I was also able to maintain—and even slightly increase—my strength in other pressing movements with little to no additional training.
Pavel’s new book, The Quick and the Dead, brings to the masses a simple program that uses only kettlebell swings and explosive ‘power pushups’. It began as ‘StrongFirst Experimental Protocol 033’—one of many plans explained in depth at Strong Endurance™. However, it is not imperative to understand the molecular biochemistry behind why it works, simply that it is brutally effective.
As Pavel says, it is not a program for beginners. In order to get the most out of Plan 033, you must know how to maximally express power in your pushups. Pavel generously permits de-loading pushups using a resistance band, if required. However, the preferred option is to simply get stronger first. Optimally, you should be able to perform a powerful set of a least 15-20 reps, since 033 calls for multiple sets of 5 and 10 reps, done without accumulating any ‘burn’.
Let’s start by clarifying the difference between a standard pushup for strength and a maximally powerful pushup, as used in The Quick and the Dead. We’ll be using both in the plans set out below. I also demonstrate using a band to increase difficulty when required.
To a seasoned lifter, performing power pushups may not be a hard task, but doing a set of 20 can be challenging. To a beginner, doing just 1 can seem daunting.
I want to help make Plan 033 accessible to everyone. The following pushup programs have given great results with those I coach—beginners and veterans alike. Both plans include variations to suit a range of abilities.
‘Heads and Tails’ Plan for Pushup Strength
As with many movements, GTG works very well for increasing pushup strength. Since I have found most people do better with a target number of sets to perform each day, I created a guided GTG protocol that also takes care of waving the daily volume with a flip of a coin. This has been very effective for my students trying to achieve their first pushup from the floor or increase their standard pushups to multiple sets of 10-20.
If you fall into this beginner/intermediate category, test your standard pushup rep max (RM) when fresh, then start with this plan:
- Train 3-7 days per week. Generally, the more advanced the student, the more volume required to progress. Beginners have done fine with 3 days weekly
- One set consists of half your tested maximum number of reps (50% RM)
- Number of sets to perform daily:
- Option #1: 3, 4, or 5 sets
- Option #2: 6, 8, or 10 sets
- Choose the option you feel best suits your current ability with regards to how much daily volume you can perform proficiently and recover from
- Stick with your chosen option for 2 weeks
- On day 1, complete your lowest number of sets
- Every training day thereafter, flip a coin to choose between the two numbers not used the previous training day—heads means high; tails means low
- Rest at least 10 minutes between sets or as much as several hours
After 2 weeks, retest your standard pushup RM, recalculate your reps, and restart. Once your RM no longer increases when tested, increase the volume of your next cycle by adding another training day per week, or moving from option #1 to option #2, or moving to another program.
Even though this plan works 99.9% of the time, for many people with busy lives, GTG can still be difficult to adhere to. People tend to forget to do their sets during the day, plus I have yet to convince anyone to drop down at the office and do pushups with onlooking co-workers.
Explosive Pushup Power Plan
The next program was specifically designed to increase explosive pushup power. For those looking to hit that 15-20 rep set of power pushups, this is the plan for you.
This can also be used by anyone wanting to improve their standard pushups, and many of my students have had great results. For those with time constraints or not great at keeping up with GTG sets, this plan is more accommodating.
You will experience some muscle burn and fatigue, especially in Phase 1. Follow the volume-waving guidelines, letting your body and the previous day’s performance tell you whether to choose more sets or fewer today.
If it’s been a while since you have trained pushups, follow the ‘Heads and Tails’ GTG plan above for a few weeks first to become accustomed to some volume.
If you cannot yet do a minimum of 10 strict standard pushups from the floor, find an elevation which allows you to do them with perfect form (place your hands on a box, barbell in a rack, bench, countertop, etc.). If you still can’t do at least 10, increase the elevation.
Pushup Power Phase 1
Test your standard pushup rep max (RM), and your power pushup rep max if you can perform them. Do these tests on separate days, or with plenty of rest between if done on the same day.
During this first phase, perform standard pushups using just enough tension as necessary to maintain form. Don’t overdo it. Cadence should be high but controlled, with full lockout reached on each rep.
- Train 5-7 days per week
- One set consists of around 30% standard pushup RM
- Split your sets across 2 blocks per day, each up to 10 minutes long
- Aim to perform one set every minute, but if form suffers or rep speed slows down significantly, add an extra minute’s rest before starting the next set
- Rest at least an hour between blocks, preferably much longer
- On day 1, perform as many sets as you comfortably can across the 2 blocks within the performance guidelines
- Thereafter, a minimum of 20% difference in volume, either up or down, is required from each day to the next
- Minimum daily volume is 6 sets and maximum daily volume is 20 sets
Decide the total number of possible sets to be done that day and split them how you choose over the two 10-minute blocks. You can do them in one block if the day’s required volume will fit easily into 10 minutes or less.
Remember to listen to your body when deciding whether to change the number of sets up or down by a minimum of 20% each day. This rule is taken from the Plan Strong™ volume-waving principle, providing variability and recovery (very important for higher-skilled trainees). If you mess up your math a bit, don’t lose sleep over it, just get back on track the following day.
After 2 weeks, retest your RM. If your RM from the floor is still less than 20, start another 2-week block using your new numbers. Do this as many times as necessary until you can perform 20 pushups from the floor. Once 20 is reached, you should have the ability to perform decent power pushups and may proceed to Phase 2.
For those performing elevated pushups:
- If your previous RM was under 15, retest at the same elevation
- If your previous RM was 15 or more, retest at a lower elevation
- If you are still unable to do at least 10 at the new lower elevation, rest, then retest at the current elevation
- Start another 2-week block using your revised numbers and/or elevation
- Repeat the phase using elevation as many times as necessary until you can perform 10 pushups from the floor
Pushup Power Phase 2
- Train 5-7 days per week
- Perform power pushups using high tension and maximum power output
- Follow the same instructions as phase 1, except perform only half the reps per set (around 15% of your standard pushup RM).
- After this block, retest your power pushup RM
After successfully completing phase 1 then phase 2, follow a different plan for 2-4 weeks (such as Heads and Tails above) before running another cycle.
Welcomed side effects of this plan were noticeable changes in body composition. Shirts were tighter and guns were blazing. Evan Marcantonio, SFGII, SFL, and owner at Elevate Strength and Performance, increased his standard pushups from 33 to 45 after the first phase. After completing the program, his explosive pushups increased from 23 to 27 and were noticeably more powerful. He also increased his barbell bench press by 15 pounds for a lifetime PR, with zero bench training.
Additional Tips for Maximal Pushup Gains
You can easily run this plan along with other strength or conditioning work, though I would lay off other horizontal pressing. Balance out the pushing with some pulling movements to keep your shoulders happy. Swings, snatches, and bodyweight horizontal rows work well for this, or do what works best for you.
If you have difficulty generating tension and keeping a solid plank with power pushups, be sure to train your abs and glutes. Hardstyle planks, side planks, hollow holds and rocks, leg raises, ab wheel rollouts, dragon flags, and their regressions/progressions are all great ways to create that necessary ab strength and teach you how to stay tight with high tension.
Are you already a pushup machine? Feel free to add resistance to your pushups by wrapping a band around your back—as shown in the video above—or using a weighted vest.
Once you can do a powerful set of 15-20 explosive pushups, you’ll be ready to tackle The Quick and the Dead, Plan 033, and other more advanced protocols from Strong Endurance™.
As Pavel might say, pushup power to you!