By Geoff Chiu
Push-ups are one of the most commonly used exercises among fitness buffs and elite-level athletes. As a closed-chained exercise that targets the chest and upper body musculature, push-ups are highly effective for improving upper body pushing strength and endurance, and can be done with no equipment. There are plenty of regressions, progressions, and variations to pick from, making push-ups useful for athletes of all types. From bodyweight push-ups to loaded isometric push-ups, there are also various ways to load and challenge the movement.Because push-ups can be regressed, progressed, and varied, they are useful for all types of athlete. Click To Tweet
This article will specifically go over several plyometric push-up exercises, their progressions, and ways to utilize them to improve upper body plyometric ability and power development.
Plyometrics for Upper Body Power
There is no doubt that strength and power are cornerstones of physical development when it comes to developing elite athletes such as martial artists, football players, and rugby players. Being able to produce large amounts of force, and produce it quickly, is crucial for advancing a position, warding off a defender, or landing a knockout punch.
One of the most effective ways to improve power is through the use of plyometrics. Plyometric training involves a movement that has a quick turnaround between the eccentric and concentric phases of a muscle action. An athlete that can reduce the time of the turnaround (called the amortization phase) has a greater ability to use the stretch-shortening cycle (SSC) of their muscles and tendons, resulting in faster, more explosive movement.
When the topic of plyometric training comes up, many people immediately think of depth jumps, bounding, and lower body training. Utilizing plyometrics for upper body training is just as effective and must not be forgotten. My goal in this article is to offer some creative push-up variations and methods to improve upper body power.
Before I dive into plyometric push-up variations, let me reiterate some push-up basics for a safe and efficient press. Here are some pointers and principles to perform the push-up with great technique, regardless of the variation.
- Your body forms a straight line from head to toe. Tuck in your rib cage and engage your core to keep a neutral back and the whole body moving as one unit.
- Head/neck position should be neutral to promote a long and tall back.
- Hand placement and width should be comfortably outside shoulder’s width, but can be altered to emphasize different muscles and pushing patterns (wide grip—more chest contribution, close grip—more tricep contribution).
- The push-up is a closed-chain movement, meaning the hands are stationary, while the shoulder joint and shoulder blades can move freely.
Accelerated plyometrics, sometimes called overspeed training, is one of many ways to add variation into your plyometric training. Accelerated plyometrics operate on the opposite principle of weighted plyometrics: weighted/loaded plyometrics consist of exercises like depth jumps with a weighted vest to further increase the difficulty and intensity of the exercise, whereas accelerated plyometrics commonly use a band to unload a percentage of an athlete’s body weight. This makes plyometric exercises more feasible for heavier athletes or athletes with lower max-strength, while still allowing them to produce force in an explosive manner.
Unloaded plyometric training has several benefits:
- It acts as a regression, allowing heavier or weaker athletes to perform the same plyometric exercise with technical proficiency.
- It allows some plyometric exercises to be done extensively, meaning athletes can perform them for a longer duration or for a higher amount of repetitions.
- Extensive plyometrics can be beneficial for building the skill of plyometric muscle action and developing rhythm and fluidity, as well as for tendon health.
- Unloading a percentage of bodyweight means less weight to move, allowing for a quicker amortization phase/SSC.
Band-Assisted Plyometric Push-Up Variations
The video below shows three different band-assisted plyometric push-up variations, each with its own application.
- Low Height – Quarter Extensions are small plyometric hops used to build and improve rhythm, an important principle for repeated plyometric training. This is particularly great as a warm-up for more powerful movements later.
- Medium Height–Full Extensions are used to further improve the timing of the landing and transition phase.
- Full Height – Full Extensions are the main variation used to improve power development. Push with full intent on each rep while keeping the core engaged. Try to minimize the time spent touching the bench and stay explosive. The bench is lava!!
Video 1. This video shows three different band-assisted plyometric push-up variations, each with its own application.
You’ll notice I perform these banded push-ups elevated, on a bench. This makes the exercise easier to perform. To increase the difficulty, you can do these on the floor and use a thinner band. The band I’m using provides about 25-40lbs of tension when I anchor it up 5.5-6 feet off the ground (attached to a barbell in the video).
Advanced Variation: Depth Drop Plyometric Push-Ups
For more advanced athletes who want to further challenge and develop their plyometric ability, here’s a plyometric push-up variation that accentuates the SSC. To perform this exercise, start in your regular push-up position, making sure to engage the core and maintain tension throughout the entire body. Quickly lift your hands, allowing your body to drop towards the bench/ground, catching yourself and performing an explosive push-up. You can draw some similarities between this exercise and the commonly used depth jump off a box.
Video 2. The depth drop plyometric push-up accentuates the stretch-shortening cycle. More advanced athletes looking to further challenge and develop their plyometric ability should try this, using open hands or closed fists, depending on shoulder girdle stability.
This exercise gives athletes a shorter window of opportunity to catch themselves on the eccentric and redirect that force. The objective here again is to minimize the amortization phase for better plyometric development.Push-ups performed with a closed first are beneficial for wrist resilience and forearm development. Click To Tweet
In the second part of the video, you can see that I perform these depth drop plyometric push-ups with closed fists—this is optional. As a martial artist myself, and a coach who trains martial artists, I’ve found push-ups performed with a closed fist beneficial for wrist resilience, forearm development, and transference to punching specific plyometric ability. Depending on the athlete, using a closed fist may or may not affect the stability of the shoulder girdle when performing these exercises, so I’ll leave that for you to experiment with.
Reactive Plyometric Push-Up
For the last variation, a reactive component is added to the plyometric push-ups. The reactive component can be any external auditory or visual stimulus that requires the athlete to alter their push-up direction, depth, or grip width in a timely fashion.
Video 3. The reactive plyometric push-up has a reactive component that requires the athlete to alter their push-up direction, depth, or grip width. This adds higher cognitive effort and time-stress into the exercise, which may hone fast decision-making skills that transfer to sport performance.
Adding a reactive component to plyometrics incorporates higher cognitive effort and time-stress into the exercise, which may be beneficial for fast decision-making skills that will transfer to sport performance. As for many, if not all, reactive drills, this is best done with a partner or coach. In the video above, I’m changing my push-up grip width in response to my training partner’s visual cues. You can also use bands here for assistance.
Programming and Application
Learning the different variations of push-ups and how to biomechanically perform them with proficiency is only the first step. In order to fully reap the benefits, a coach must know where these exercises fit in a periodized plan and how to apply them in the daily high performance setting. This section will outline the variables that can be manipulated in order to drive the adaptations we want to see in our athletes.
At its core, the plyometric push-up is a full-body horizontal pressing movement, performed in an explosive manner. Plyometric push-ups can therefore replace or be used in conjunction with other horizontal plyometric push exercises like medicine ball chest tosses while standing, if the goal is to improve the SSC of the upper body and upper body pressing/pushing power.
Within Training Session
Since the plyometric push-up is performed at a relatively high velocity compared to strength-based compound movements, the plyometric push-up should be placed high up in the exercise order of any training session. The general guideline for power- and plyometric-based exercises is that they should be done in a fresh, non-fatigued state so that the athlete can focus on absorbing and producing the most force possible, as quickly as possible. The power output and velocities achieved with power and plyometric exercises will be compromised if athletes perform them after strength-based compound lifts and auxiliary exercises. The exception for this is using plyometric exercises in conjunction with post activation potentiation. More on this later.
Within the Meso and Macrocycles
It’s hard to offer concrete guidelines on how to program these in the mesocycle/macrocycle level without knowledge of the athlete and the nature of the sport. Generally speaking, I’m a proponent of performing exercises extensively before moving on to more intensive programming. For team sports and mixed athletes that require a high amount of power output, this means gradually increasing intensity of the plyometric push-ups (and decreasing volume) as the competition season nears, or keeping intensity high during the in-season to maintain power output qualities.
Programming and Prescription
Extensive plyometrics and intensive plyometrics have slightly different objectives; therefore, they should be programmed and prescribed differently.
- Multiple sets of high(er) repetition (10-30 reps+).
- Used to build rhythm, develop timing, increase technical proficiency.
- Can be used as a conditioning tool since the goal is not maximal power output.
- Can be used in conjunction with/be prescribed using work-to-rest ratios.
Keep in mind the goal of using plyometrics extensively is to build rhythm and fluidity, and create muscle-tendon adaptations that will lead to better performance when it comes time to perform max effort, intensive power, and plyometric exercises. We are not looking for maximum power output or the shortest contact times.
- Multiple sets of low(er) repetitions (3-10 reps).
- Can be used in conjunction with velocity-based training (VBT).
- Establish a velocity cut-off for the concentric phase; keep on performing repetitions with maximal effort until the cut-off is met or is no longer in the desired range.
- Establish a power output cut-off; keep on performing repetitions with maximal effort until power decreases significantly or is no longer in the desired range.
- Establish a contact time cut off for the amortization phase; keep on performing repetitions with intent to minimize contact time on the floor/bench.
- Quality over quantity!!!
Post Activation Potentiation, Complex Sets, and the French Contrast Method
Plyometrics, along with other power and ballistic exercises, can be paired with potentiation loading methods (post activation potential or PAP) such as complex sets and French Contrast Method (FCM) to further increase the rate of power development.Pair plyometrics with potentiation loading methods to further increase rate of power development. Click To Tweet
PAP is a phenomenon where neuromuscular contraction is acutely increased after performing a bout of heavy compound movements. In practice, the heavy compound movement, commonly called the “potentiating exercise,” is paired with a lower load power/plyometric/ballistic exercise in order to acutely improve power production.
Complex Sets/Contrast Training
The general guidelines for the “potentiating exercise” are as follows: They should be performed with near maximal effort (85-100% of 1RM) and should resemble some of the traits seen in the power movement being potentiated. Whether this is the same movement pattern or similar joint angles, the more biomechanically similar the two movements, the better the potentiating effect.
Following these guidelines, the best exercises to potentiate higher power outputs in the plyometric push-ups should possess some of these characteristics:
- A horizontal pushing/pressing pattern.
- Involve the chest, front delts, and triceps as the primary movers.
- Performed with near maximal effort, 85-100% of 1RM, for a 1-5 rep max, or at least done until a RIR of 1 (reps in reserve)/RPE of 8 or 9.
- Can be an open-chained or close-chained exercise (more examples later).
- Supramaximal loading such as eccentric-only exercises with 100%+ of 1RM can also be experimented with.
- Rest times depend on the intensity and volume of both exercises, as well as the training mesocycle. Improvements can be seen from a wide range of 3-12 minutes of rest in between exercise. More here: Science For Sport and NSCA Guidelines
Potentiating Exercise: Barbell Floor Press – 3 reps @ 90% of 1RM
Potentiated Exercise: Banded Plyometric Drop Push-Up on Bench Press – for Reps or Based on Velocity/Contact Time
Potentiating Exercise: Weighted Push-Up – 5 reps @ 85% of 1RM
Potentiated Exercise: Banded Reactive Push-Ups – for Reps or Based on Velocity/Contact Time
Potentiating Exercise: Jammer Press – 5 Reps @ 85% of 1RM
Potentiated Exercise: Banded Plyometric Push-Up on Bench Press – for Reps or Based on Velocity/Contact Time
Potentiating Exercise: Supramaximal Weighted Dips – 3 reps @ 105% of 1RM (3-4 second Eccentrics ONLY)
Potentiated Exercise: Banded Plyometric Close Grip Push-Up – for Reps or Based on Velocity/Contact Time
French Contrast Method
The French Contrast Method is the bigger brother of complex sets, consisting of a larger variation of exercises, performed in a circuit to drive power and power-endurance power adaptations. The FCM is similar to complex/contrast training in the sense that it uses a heavy compound exercise to potentiate the nervous system and acutely increase motor unit recruitment. However, because the FCM consists of more exercises, some of which may require a high degree of technical proficiency, FCM should be reserved for advanced athletes.
Beginners and intermediates can improve strength and power simply by developing proper foundational biomechanics of movement and strategic exercise selection, whereas advanced athletes might need a little bump to reach the next level. The FCM is considered that little bump in the realm of power training.
The FCM template is as follows:
- A maximal strength movement (heavy compound exercise using 85-100% of 1RM, eccentric-only exercises can be viable as well).
- A force-focused plyometric exercise (can be bodyweight, or loaded).
- A speed-strength movement (anywhere from 30-60% of 1RM, with intentions to move it fast).
- A speed-focused plyometric exercise (usually assisted).
As you can see, the FCM consists of four exercises done in a circuit fashion. Rest should be minimal in between exercises (~15-20 seconds, just enough for you to get to the other exercise), and longer in between sets (no less than three minutes, five minutes and up is preferred).
Example of the FCM applied to horizontal pushing power development:
#1 Max Strength Exercise: Barbell Bench Press – 3 Reps @ 90% of 1RM
#2 Force Plyometric Exercise: Bodyweight Reactive Plyometric Push-Ups – for Reps or Based on Force Drop-Off
#3 Speed-Strength Movement: Jammer Press – Perform Reps @ 40% of 1RM
#4 Speed Plyometric Exercise: Band-Assisted Plyometric Push-Ups – for Reps or Based on Velocity/Contact Time
More combinations of exercises can be built using the template provided above. The FCM is a method usually reserved for the peaking phases of an athlete’s competition schedule, and not to be done weekly, year-round.
The Biggest Takeaways
Extensive and intensive plyometrics, contrast sets, and the FCM: These methods can be overwhelming all together, but no coach is expected to apply all of these in their training, especially all at the same time. This article was written simply to dive into the possible training methods that coaches can use.Coaches shouldn’t apply all loading methods in their training—assess what each athlete needs. Click To Tweet
If an athlete has trouble with their push-up biomechanics, more advanced loading methods like the FCM are out of the question. Assess the current level of the athlete(s) you’re working with, where they are currently in their competition season or athletic career, and prescribe these methods accordingly. That should be the biggest takeaway from this article.
And there you have it—a guide on how I implement push-ups for power development, using various pieces of equipment around the gym, as well as several loading methods suitable for athletes of all types.