How To Make Push-Ups More Difficult
18 Variations Of Push-Ups To Gain Strength And Build Muscle
By: Zack Mathews, NASM -CPT, CES, & PES. PN-L1
I have to start by saying I applaud you for wanting to learn how to make push-ups more difficult.
In today’s workout scene, it seems like everyone is focused on barbells, dumbbells, and machines to work their chest, shoulders, and triceps.
The push-up has taken a back seat because people think that because they are good at them and they become easy, they lose the stimulus to build muscle from them.
That’s true if you only do traditional push-ups, but there are so many variations of push-ups you can do to build strength and gain muscle.
Learning how to make push-ups more difficult through these 18 push-up variations will improve your relative strength, which is how strong you are relative to your body weight, get you stronger on your other lifts in the gym, and build firm, developed muscle.
Push-up variations that require increased stability.
- Seesaw push-ups
- Bosu ball push-ups
- TRX push-ups
- Shoulder tap push-ups
Make push-ups more difficult through added resistance.
- Band resistance push-ups
- Weighted vest push-ups
- Chain push-ups
- Stabilization push-ups
- 3-2-1 push-ups
- Deficit dumbbell push-ups
- Band deficit dumbbell push-ups
- Weighted vest deficit dumbbell push-ups
Unique twists for more difficult push-up variations.
- Slider push-ups
- Lateral sliding push-ups
- Single leg push-ups
- Spiderman push-ups
While barbells and dumbbells require you to achieve tougher sets through heavier weights, one of the great things about push-ups is that making sets harder can be achieved through adding elements that require more stability.
The seesaw push-up is one of those.
Instead of having your hands flat on the ground, you’ll place a barbell on the ground with a dumbbell under the center of it.
The barbell becomes a seesaw and your goal is to not let either end touch the ground!
As you can see from the video, this push-up variation requires you to control the tempo on the way down. If you don’t, that barbell is tapping the ground.
Controlling the barbell is going to require your shoulders to stabilize and your core to be engaged as you do your push-up.
This is a more advanced push-up variation, but you asked how to make push-ups more difficult so we had to start with a bang!
Bosu Ball Push-Ups
Ahh, the Bosu Ball. One of the most wrongly used pieces of equipment in the gym.
The Bosu Ball is NOT for you to stand one and do squats with.
Push-ups on the other hand? Oh, this one is good!
Similar to the seesaw push-ups, there is an element of stability your shoulders and core require to not rock back and forth on the ball.
This exercise is easier that seesaw push-ups because the range of motion is reduced from the size of the ball. To overcome that and still make this push-up variation difficult, I like to have my online clients execute a 3-2-1 tempo (sneak peak of an exercise to come), which means you take 3 seconds to lower yourself, pause for 2 seconds at the bottom, and take 1 second to raise your body back to the starting position.
We are ramping up the shoulder and core stability required for push-ups with the TRX push-up variation.
I love the difficulty level with this movement, but I don’t love the fact that I always worry that the band is going to snap on me and I’m going to lose a bunch of teeth. 😹
If you want to venture out and give this one a go, I’m all for it. This is probably the hardest of the first 3 movements so make sure you can do the previous two before you get to this one.
Shoulder Tap Push-Ups
We finish off the stability section with a much safer variation that keeps you on the ground.
This is an awesome exercise because it’s the only one that will get you briefly balancing on one arm.
It’s also easy to learn.
Perform a normal push-up, but on the way up bring one hand up to the opposite shoulder. Pause briefly and lower your hand back to the ground.
There’s two ways you can perform the reps. Either do all one side and then switch to the other, or switch back and forth.
Getting good at these stability push-ups will set you up well to try the advanced dumbbell movements, such as Ho/Ho presses, in the 11 best bench press with dumbbell variations.
Band Resistance Push-Ups
I’ve explained that relative strength is how strong you are compared to your body weight, so why not make your brain think you weigh more?!
That’s what we are doing here by adding different forms of resistance.
The first is using a band. What’s going to happen here is that at the bottom of the push-up you “weigh” the same since their is no tension on the band, but as you push yourself up, the resistance starts pushing against you.
Normally at the top of a push-up you can relax, but not with band resistance push-ups! The band is at peak tension when your arms are locked out trying to push you back to the ground.
Start with the lightest band you have and your form of progressive overload will be to add more reps or use a thicker band.
Weighted Vest Push-Ups
Investing in a good weighted vest is a solid choice if you are really wanting to make push-ups more challenging.
Using a vest is the closest thing you will get to “adding weight” like you do with barbells, dumbbells, and machines.
The only downside to using a vest is that depending on the vest size, your range of motion might be reduced.
With the vest I’m wearing in the video below, I’m loosing about 2 inches on my normal push-up because of the vest touching the ground. It’s not a huge deal but something you should be aware of when you shop around for a vest.
Draping chains around your neck to make push-ups more difficult has a similar effect as a band.
At the bottom of your push-up, the chains will be on the ground with you so there is no added resistance, but the second you start pushing and the chains lengthen, hello!
Depending on the weight of your chains, they can get heavy quick on your way back to the top.
All of these push-up variations are great to improve your strength and muscle on your main chest lifts. If you are a fan of bench press and want to save your shoulders, check out my article on the 8 ways you can do bench press without a bench.
Not only does this apply to push-ups, but you can increase time under tension to make any exercise more challenging.
It’s something I talk about quite frequently, making lighter weight feel heavier, to save your joints and help create longevity in the gym.
I could have a whole section of exercises here but I’ll keep it to two.
Once I have a client master flat ground push-ups, the next progression I like for them to do is the stabilization push-up.
It’s the exact same thing as a normal push-up, but you add a 1 second pause at the bottom and a 1 second pause at the top.
Easy enough to learn right? I think so.
I mentioned this tempo in the Bosu ball example earlier.
This is a great push-up variation because we are not only adding a pause like in the stabilization push-ups but also a 3 second eccentric on each rep.
Having to take 3 seconds to lower your body AND a 2 second pause makes this push-up very difficult.
Another reason I like this variation is because it forces you to slow down. I see so many people performing push-ups as fast as they can, instead of having intent with each rep.
This exercise provides that intent on each rep that we are after.
Wrapping each hand around a dumbbell rather pushing from the floor is going to raise you off the ground slightly, which will increase the range of motion on your push-up.
It’s not by much but it’s effective for building muscle since it’s a new stimulus and new range of motion that you haven’t been able to do before.
There’s 3 different ways I’ll have my clients perform this difficult push-up variation depending on how strong they are.
Start by using the dumbbells and nothing else and see if you can do 3 rounds of 10 - 15 reps. Once you get that locked in, you can start adding resistance by using a band or weighted vest.
Deficit Dumbbell Push-Ups
Deficit Dumbbell Band Push-Ups
Deficit Dumbbell Weighted Vest Push-Ups
We all like fun variations right?! I mean, that’s what it seems like all of social media is made up of these days.
When it comes to learning how to make push-ups more difficult, I’ll always focus on the above variations. From time to time to mix things up, i'll throw in these movements.
The T-pushup is one of those fun exercise that does have benefits. With the rotation of your body and taking one hand off the ground, you’ll be required to stabilize with your shoulders (similar to the shoulder tap push-up).
There are three different ways to do this exercise, with each one getting harder, so make sure to check out all 3.
Slide Push-ups / Lateral Slide Push-Ups
These two variations of push-ups are HARD and all they require is a single slider.
Anytime you start spreading your body (think about how hard a lateral raise is when your arms are extended straight), you are extending the lever points in your body and making an exercise harder.
This is what is being achieved with the slider.
Once you extend the slider in front of you or laterally, the shoulder and core stabilize will come into play.
Also, to get the slider back, your pec muscles are going to be working in overtime.
Between the two, the forward sliding push-ups are easier than the lateral, so start with those. Additionally, you can always start on your knees if you can't perform them from standard push-up position.
Single Leg Push-Ups
This is the first push up that you are going to be doing without both feet on the ground!
With this example, the only difference from a traditional push-up is that you’ll lift one leg slightly off the ground.
If you decide to do 3 rounds of these, switch legs for round 2, and then for round 3 do half on one leg and half on the other.
As a Marvel fan, we couldn’t discuss how to make push-ups more difficult without adding in Spiderman push-ups!
This is a unique movement because you’ll be trying to bring your knee to your shoulder as you do your push-up, as if you are Peter Parker scaling a building in New York.
When you knee is being raised, it changes your center of gravity, so certain muscles in your, you know it by now, core and shoulders will help stabilize you.
Is It Harder To Do Push-ups When You're Heavier?
Push-ups help improve your relative strength, aka how strong you are relative to your bodyweight. That means that the heavier you are, the harder it will make push-ups.
You can get stronger with your relative strength by doing push-ups more often and/or losing body fat.
Are Push-ups Harder For Tall Guys?
Yes push-ups are generally harder for tall people because they usually have long limbs, which will increase the range of motion on the push-up.
Having to go further down requires more strength and muscle.
To play devil's advocate, tall guys are generally leaner so they don't have as much bodyweight to push up and down.
What Do I Do If I Can't Do A Single Push-up?
If you can't perform a traditional push-up there are many regressions to the exercise that will help you build strength and muscle including:
- Elevating your hands onto a bench, couch, table, or wall. The higher off the ground you go, the easier the push-up becomes.
- Working on the eccentric portion of the pushup. Get into push-up position and try and take 3 - 5 seconds lowering yourself all the way to the ground. Once you're on the ground, use your knees to help you push yourself back to the start position.
You’ll never have to wonder how to make push-ups more difficult ever again!
These 18 variations of push-ups will test you in different ways and will provide all the stimulus you need to build muscle and strength.
I’m curious to know what your favorite exercise is.
Drop a comment below and let me know which one you like.
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