Plans for Building Powerful Pushups

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.

ilaria Scopece power pushup
Power pushups checklist, from The Quick and the Dead

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
Table showing an example Heads and Tails pushup plan
An example of the ‘Heads and Tails’ plan, following option #1

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.

bottom of pushup

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.

An example ‘Pushup Power’ training plan. Notice that since 18 sets were done on day 6, the only option would be to do 14 or less on day 7 because 20 is the maximum number of sets per 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

Karen Smith pushup at SFB
  • 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.

jon Engum power pushup
StrongFirst Certified Master Instructor Jon Engum
knows power pushups

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!

StrongFirst Bodyweight Fundamentals online course
Jody Beasley
Jody is a StrongFirst Certified Team Leader and Elite Instructor residing in Birmingham, AL, with his wife and children. He owns and operates HMG Fitness where he helps people become the strongest version of themselves. He trains all types of people ranging from weekend warriors and grandparents to tactical operators and athletes.

When he isn’t running his gym, he can probably be found in his garage doing his own training, be it push-ups, swings, or bending steel. Other times he is enjoying his wife’s delicious cooking, working in the yard, or watching a Disney film while a toddler uses him as a jungle gym.

56 thoughts on “Plans for Building Powerful Pushups

  • Hi Jody, I would like to increase the number of regular Push-up due to the PST and my current RM is 40. The good number is 80. What would you suggest? Should I start the Heads and Tails, or Power Push-up Plan? GTG might be an issue for me.

    • You’ve got a high RM to start with and 80 is tough to reach, but very doable. You can get to 60 easy in a month.

      I would recommend you do 2 weeks of Heads and Tails using the 6-8-10 set scheme. If GTG is an issue, you could easily split the require number of sets into 2 training periods, one in the morning and evening, resting 10 minutes between sets (5 at the very least).

      After this block of Heads and Tails, run the first 2 weeks of the Power Push-up plan, don’t worry about the 2 week explosive pushup block that follows as I have not seen improvement in standard pushup numbers past those first 2 weeks.

      Repeat this pattern for as long as you need.

      • Jody, after four weeks with your guidelines (2 weeks of GTG as the Heads and Tails, and then 2 weeks of the first phase of Power Push-ups Plan), I improved my RM by 20 reps.

        Thanks, man. I’ll continue this pattern, for sure.

  • Mr. Beasley, your Explosive Pushup Power Plan worked wonderfully. I’m soon to be 58 years old and over the summer I worked on pushups while working out with my son. On my own I got up to a personal record for me at 22 pushups. So I didn’t start your Explosive Pushup Power Plan de-conditioned nor in a state where I would be recovering past PR rep numbers. I was already at my recently achieved PR numbers.

    I used sets of 7 reps, I waffled between using 6 and 7 reps and finally settled on 7. One observation, during my first 3 training sessions on this program, after about 5 or 6 sets I did have to add up to an additional minute of rest to make sure all 7 reps were crisp. From session 4 and onward I was able to start all sets at the top of the minute. Not sure if that means anything but I found it interesting.

    I’m now going to switch over to working on the OAP, something I’ve never been able to do, but after I achieve that I will be revisiting this program of yours. I really loved the two blocks a day. It’s so easy to squeeze in two 6-10 minute blocks in any day of the week. Much easier than GTG in my opinion.

      • Well that’s embarrassing, I didn’t mean to leave that detail out. I finished with 29 reps. Started with 22 and finished with 29. Both numbers were the number of reps completed at a constant rep pace, no slow grinding extra reps.

        I will add that for the last month I’ve really been working heavy (for me) one arm swings. I don’t know if they helped or hurt my pushup numbers. I would usually do block 1 of pushups early, wait an hour to do the swings, and then do block 2 of pushups much later in the day.

  • Jody,
    Great article and program design! Clarification on this piece: “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.”
    Does that mean to repeat Phase 2 cycles (retest after two weeks and re-run Phase 2 with the new numbers – assuming the power pushup RM is still increasing – until you get to the 20 power pushup RM), or to alternate a cycle of Phase 2 with 2-4 weeks of GTG/H&Tails? Thanks!

    • Pushup Power Phase 1 and Phase 2 are meant to be run together as one 4-week program. If you have completed the whole 4-weeks, you will then do something different (such as Heads and Tails) for 2-4 weeks, then you may do another complete 4-week cycle of Pushup Power (Phase 1 and 2) with your new numbers.

  • Thank you for publishing a push up plan that works!

    GTG is hard as I wear a shirt and tie at work 😕, but your Phase 1 busted me past a plateau. I went from 15 standard to 18 standard over 2 weeks.

    Aim to build up so I can run 033.

  • Great article, Sir.
    I have a question though, in Explosive Power Push-up Plan Phase 2 you wrote that the goal is 20 pushup from the floor. Would you please write you mean by that? Should I start each set from lying on the floor or just chest touching the floor?

    • Thank you.

      It just means dropping down to the floor and performing 20 standard pushups, versus having to perform them with hands elevated.

  • Great post. For an advanced trainee looking to further increase number of pushups, do you think the “Heads and Tails” or Explosive Pushup Power Plan would yield the best results?

    • Thank you.

      It depends on your definition of advanced (current RM) but I would say you need a good bit of volume. Follow the Heads and Tails 6-8-10 option for 5-7 days per week. Retest every 2-3 weeks, and continue to run it until progress stops. Then run the Power Pushup Phase 1. You could continue on to Phase 2 if you are interested in training explosively, but I didn’t see an increase in standard pushup RM past phase 1.

  • one more question please:
    i read that explosive strength should be trained with low reps (1-3) and many sets.
    hows q&d take on this, considering rep ranges up to 20 are recommended?

    • I’ll defer that to Q&D. Books are in stock and shipping, as well as available on Kindle.

      • in naked warrior pavel wrote that your explosive strength goes up as long as you are getting stronger, without having to train for explosive power specifically. does that view still count?
        can i concentrate on OAPU and still get more power?

        • Yes, you are correct.

          Before worrying about explosive power, you need to develop strength first. Thats why I stated in the article to have a minimum of 20 standard pushups before worrying about explosive power.

          Being explosive is still a skill. Just because you are stronger, giving you access to be more explosive, does not mean you know how to do it effectively.

          • thats true.
            a skill must be practiced.

            i can highly recommend ross enamaits never gymless. he has a whole section dedicated to explosive push ups. very informative.

  • Wow, what a treat! Really elegant application of GTG and volume variability.

    I have a couple of questions on rep ranges.

    For the Heads & Tails plan, what rep range is advisable? Say a beginner could do 8 pushups at elevation A and 12 reps at elevation B, and 16 pushups at elevation C, wich elevation should she choose for her current training?
    I am guessing the tested elevation should fall into 6-10 reps, resulting at sets of 3-5 in training?

    And on a related note, if you are able to do 22 pushups off the floor, should you GTG with 11 reps per set?

    • Good question. I would say it depends.

      If form was lacking at the 8RM elevation, and at the 12RM elevation form was solid, I would go with the 12RM.

      All things being equal, I would use the 8RM. I would agree testing elevation should at the very least be a 6RM.

      Yes, you would do 11. But if you did sets of 10, being slightly under 50%RM, you would be fine.

  • Great article! Pushup set every minute as in wait a full minute between sets or each set on the minute?

    • Thanks!

      Sets are on the minute.

      When you reach one of the performance stop signs (rep speed slows / form suffers) during a set, you may skip the next set on the minute, then pick up the following.
      Min 1 – good set
      Min 2 – good set
      Min 3 – rep speed slows significantly
      Min 4 – skip
      Min 5 – good set
      And so on

  • Can you pause at the top of the push-up position when testing your rep max? Thanks

    • Sure you can, though I wouldn’t pause longer than 1-2 seconds. Keep your RM pace rather consistent.

      If you are going for a PR, such as when I was going for a 100 rep set, longer pauses (up to 5 seconds) just to complete the feat might be ok, but I would never use that number to base my training on.

  • Ive used Pavel’s program for pull-ups and can totally vouch for it working I could not ever get past 24 reps but after following it for only about 4 weeks I hit 30 good reps once at 53 years old Thoe the elbows got a little sore with the high reps I cured that by adding load and dropping reps to the 1-5rep range for the last 12 days,will definitely try this push-up program, Thanks.

  • Hi Jody,
    Awesome thoughtful and detailed article! I do not know how you find time for it while raising a young family!

    I can do 25 strict push-ups on the floor but have not trained them in a long time. Im not sure where to begin w your program? (Sorry if this is redundant or if I misunderstood!)

    • Thank you, glad you liked it. The boys do tend to jump on my back if they see me doing pushups. The extra weight makes for some “variety.”

      I would do a couple weeks of 3-5 days of the Heads and Tails plan to get your body ready for some increased volume. Then move on the the Power Pushup Plan.

  • Thanks for another helpful article. I revisit your Strength in Numbers article often.

    Am I reading it right that Phase 1 is done using standard pushups, even though you are testing both types of pushups? And that the standard for progressing to Phase 2 is a set of 20 standard pushups, not power pushups?

    • Glad you enjoyed the article, thank you.

      Yes. Phase 1 is standard pushups. You test your max to determine the work sets to be performed (30%RM).

      If you can perform power pushups, test them too just for setting a baseline.

      20 standard pushups is what I found to be a good indicator of having the strength necessary to be able to perform solid power pushups (could be more or less based on the individual).

      When looking at the numbers, 30% of 20 is about 6-7.

      So Phase 1 would be performing sets of 6-7.

      Phase 2 working sets are half that of Phase 1, so you would be doing sets of 3 power pushups.

      This is another reason why 20 standard pushups is the recommended number to achieve before going to Phase 2.

  • This looks great, will definitely try the explosive pushup plan! Just wondering why does day three in the example consist of 8 sets while the next day volume of day two says 9 to 15?

    • You will love it.

      Those are “less than or equal to” and “greater than or equal to” signs next to the numbers in the chart. It doesn’t read as performing 9-15 sets.

      Day 2 volume says “less than or equal to” 9 sets, or “greater than or equal to” 15 sets. Anything between those number would not be a difference of 20%.

  • Fascinating. Seems to operate by the same logic as kettlebell swings – you take something that isn’t super heavy all on its own, but you launch it ballistically, in this case your own body, and by doing so make your body adapt to this violent exertion, which becomes power.

    • Pretty much. Explosive power training recruits more fast twitch muscle fiber, leading to gains not only in power and speed, but absolute strength and hypertrophy as well.

  • Hi Jody,

    Thanks for writing the great article! I actually happened to re-read your previous article “Strength in Numbers” the other day with the hope of implementing a program to increase max reps in pushups. Timing couldn’t have been better. Do you think the principles would also work well to increase pull-up max reps?….Specifically the Phase 1/2 program? I normally dislike attempting to pick apart a program for other needs, so to speak, just wanted your thoughts on the matter. The block 1/2 layout would really help with time constraints (although I suppose I could break in half the Fighter Pull-up Program). Regardless, thanks for sharing! -Tyler

    • I have not yet attempted this plan for pullups, but I will have some students do it soon (my elbows don’t like high volume pullups anymore). If you try it, please let me know how it works.

      Heads and Tails is great for pullups, as well as other movements. It worked well hand grippers.

      And yes, you can break up the Fighter Pullup Plan. Still works.

  • I must say this is well timed. I think I need more practice with the pushup before jumping on Q&D and the power pushup program looks excellent!

  • This is so cool! I will have to re-visit push-ups with the Heads & Tails plan. I’m excited to read Q&D but will respect the guidelines not to start Plan 033 until my power push-ups are within spec.

      • Am I reading between the lines that 20-30 power pushups is the “entrance requirement” for Q&D?

        • “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’.”

          20-30 would have you well prepared. Since training sessions of 033 can have up to 100 total power pushups (in groups of 20 broken into sets of 5 or 10), I made the above recommendation.

      • Thank you! So, I definitely need to get stronger at pushups in order to meet the requirement of 15-20 explosive-style.

        Would you recommend scaling back either S&S volume or intensity (especially Get-ups), depending on whether I choose option 1 or 2 from your article?

        • I don’t think you would have to scale anything back since these are all different movement patterns, but ultimately you need to make the call if you notice recovery becoming an issue. I for sure wouldn’t be concerned with the swings.

    • Hi Jody,
      On your example can you please explain the difference between day3 and day4 from 8sets to 15sets
      Thanks Antony

      • On Day 3, 8 total sets were performed. With a 20% minimum difference of 2, Day 4 could only be 6 sets (since 6 is the minimum daily requirement), or greater or equal to 10 sets. The trainee in this example theoretically had a strong day and performed 15 sets.

        The 20% difference is the minimum. The difference can be greater based on how your body is able to perform any given day (could be a strong day for maximum sets, could be a back off day doing less).

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