I’ve been plateauing on how many push-ups I can do for the last 1-2 months, and I think I’m finally pushing past it. The real telltale was that I was tired but not particularly sore/stiff after my workouts, and not necessarily that the number of push-ups wasn’t increasing.
For this post, I’m assuming that you can confidently do knee pushups with good form, but are hovering at a pretty low number (<10) of push-ups per set. Incidentally, when I started being able to do ~15 knee-pushups per set without feeling tired, I skipped directly to push-ups despite the recommendation to do 3 x 30 AND do half-push-ups before advancing to push-ups. So I knew that I skipped some steps.
I think everyone on the Internet is basically correct that you should check your form. It’s pretty easy to not have the correct form. My issue with Internet advice is that they tend to comment on only the most common mistakes (especially buttTooHigh), and often the advice for correcting form isn’t very actionable. You can also ask a friend to watch for you, but I’m too chicken to do this, so I recorded myself ~10 times before realizing that my neck was arching in a way that didn’t look correct.
If you notice your form is off, this is probably because some other muscle group is too weak, and it’s often not obvious what is too weak. For example, at my plateau, it constantly felt like my triceps were the ones giving way but it turns out that some part of my upper shoulder was not really doing any work. So use bad form as a signal that something needs correcting, and keep in mind that form isn’t that easy to correct directly.
General advice for correction is to back off and make the exercise easier, which also seems mostly correct, but I’d like to add some detail to this. There are many ways to make an exercise easier: lower weight, fewer reps, fewer sets, or any combination of these. For bodyweight exercises, you don’t get a lot of granular control over the weight, but there are other tactics you can use: longer rests between sets, brief pauses between each push-up. The important thing is to do something that gives you room to do your exercises more slowly + with more control and focus on holding good form. The answer for me came from this video, which loosened the exercise by forcing me to rest at the bottom of my push-ups in lieu of squeezing my shoulder blades more.
My model for gains is that it’s proportional to the number of reps you do (with good form) after feeling sufficiently tired. So in a set of 10 push-ups, I see the first 6 push-ups as an upfront cost to let me reap the gains of the remaining 4 push-ups. During the first 6 push-ups, my energy level hovers around 1, and during the last 4 push-ups, my energy level tends to decrease ~linearly to 0. One signature of bad form I noticed was that I would be able to do the first 6 push-ups, but as soon as I hit #7, my energy level immediately drops off to 0. This was very sad because even if I knew how to fix my form, I didn’t have the capacity to push those changes.
What ultimately got me past the plateau was to hybridize the exercise. Knee push-ups were easy, but full push-ups were hard. So I did push-ups until I broke, and then transitioned into knee push-ups for additional gains. In retrospect, this is pretty similar to what I’ve been doing to build up to pull-ups: Do as many pull-ups as I can, and then fill in remaining reps with negatives.