6 Tough Push-Up Workouts for Real Gains

by Gareth Sapstead

Simple Exercise, Crazy Complexes

No, you're not too advanced for push-ups. In fact, you might not even finish these challenging push-up workouts. Take a look!

Complexes: Next-Level Push-Up Workouts

There’s no better all-around upper body exercise than a push-up. But for some reason, people stop doing them. Oh, you think you’re too “advanced” for push-ups? Think again.

To build muscle, you need to produce tension, metabolic stress, and tissue breakdown. But if you’re able to knock out fifty reps or more, you’re rendering traditional push-ups useless for muscle or strength building. It’s not enough of a challenge at that point.

You’ll develop some endurance and maybe even get a good poolside pump, but that’s about it. That’s where complexes come in. They’re highly effective for stimulating muscle growth.

You’ll start by choosing a challenging variation, then extending the set using easier variations – a mechanical drop set. The hardest exercise always goes at the beginning. It’s the one you can do the fewest number of reps with. Then as you reach failure, you’ll move to an easier version. You might even drop again (and again).

Here are six examples:

1. The Chest And Triceps Builder

Exercise Sets Reps
A1 Close-Grip Push-Up on Medicine Ball 2-3 4-10
A2 Switchover Push-Up on Medicine Ball 2-3 4-10/side
A3 Offset Push-Up on Medicine Ball 2-3 4-10/side

Hat tip to Coach Nick Tumminello for this one. Starting with the hardest one – close grip and squeezing the ball – you’ll then switch to a switchover variation, either walking the ball across or hopping yourself over a static ball. Finally, you’ll stay on one side to squeeze out some extra reps before blurting out a few curse words.

This medball push-up complex makes a great finish to your chest workouts. The ball also challenges those oft-neglected shoulder stabilizers. If you can do more than 10 reps in the close-grip position, then use a weighted vest to add some load.

2. The Jacked Shoulders Complex

Exercise Sets Reps
A1 Vertical Press Push-Up 2-3 6-12
A2 Hand Release Push-Up to Y-Reach 2-3 6-12
A3 Y-Reach 2-3 6-12
A4 Y-Reach Iso Hold 2-3 20 sec.

The vertical press push-up is a great variation on its own. It’s like a pike push-up but more comfortable for those who struggle with tight hamstrings. Placing your body in a more vertical position with feet on a bench changes the pressing angle to bias your shoulders in a joint-friendly position.

When going from the hand release push-up to Y-reach there should be some external rotation of the shoulder since your thumbs are pointing up towards the end of the reach. You’ll be asking quite a bit of your delts and shoulder external rotators by this point, as well as getting some extra shoulder range of motion.

Next, drop the push-up component and just do the Y-reaches to really burn out the shoulders. You’ll then finish with an isometric hold. Simply hold for 10-20 seconds, stay tight, and think of America (or respective homeland).

This is a good combination of exercises to hit the entire shoulder complex while improving overall shoulder health. Plus, it burns like a MOFO!

3. The Strong Shoulders & Mobile Hips Complex

Exercise Sets Reps
A1 Pike Push-Up 2-3 6-12
A2 Reverse Yoga Push-Up 2-3 failure
A3 Yoga Push Up 2-3 failure

This complex also has a shoulder emphasis. If your hamstrings have seen better days, then use the previous one instead. If you’re only a little tight, then these are a good opportunity to gain some upper body strength and size while bringing out your inner yogi. A few sets at the end of your next upper-body workout is a great way to finish.

4. The Simple Mechanical Drop-Set

Exercise Sets Reps
A1 Feet Elevated Push-Up (loaded or bodyweight) 2-3 8-12
A2 Push-Up 2-3 6-10
A3 Hands Elevated Push-Up 2-3 4-6

Elevating your feet is the hardest variation. Once your feet are on the floor it gets a little easier, then the hands-on-bench variation is the easiest. This sequence reduces the percentage of body weight you’re lifting by adjusting the leverages.

A resistance band works well here since you get the benefit of accommodating resistance. A weighted vest is excellent too. Try to complete one extra rep of each move every workout, or gradually add a little weight each week.

5. The Triceps Finisher

You might be thinking these are more like bodyweight triceps extensions than they are a push-up variation. Well, whatever you want to call them, they work. There are a few ways you could do them. Using a weighted vest is always an option too.


Exercise Sets Reps
A1 Decline Bodyweight Skull Crusher 2-3 6-10
A2 Bodyweight Skull Crusher 2-3 6-10
A3 Decline Narrow Grip Push-Up 2-3 AMAP


Exercise Sets Reps
A1 Bodyweight Skull Crusher 2-3 6-10
A2 Incline Bodyweight Skull Crusher 2-3 6-10
A3 Narrow Grip Push-Up 2-3 AMAP

Skull crushers do a great job of hitting the long head of the triceps brachii. Doing them in push-up style can add a core component to them as well. The further up you take your hands, the more you’ll target your triceps long head in a stretched position. These will also encourage some serratus anterior activity. Finishing with a narrow grip push-up is the icing on the cake.

6. The Sadist Complex

Exercise Sets Reps
A1 Low Guillotine Push-Up with Slow Eccentrics 2-3 6-10
A2 Deficit Push-Up with Slow Eccentrics 2-3 6-10
A3 High Guillotine Push-Up 2-3 6-10
A4 Deficit Push-Up Iso Hold 2-3 6-10 sec.

The guillotine bench press is one of the best bench variations if your goal is chest size. It’s simply a bench press where you take a wider than normal grip, allow the elbows to flare a little, and lower the bar (carefully!) towards your neck.

Turn the guillotine bench press upside down and you have a guillotine push-up. The best way to do these is in a Smith machine for easy height adjustment. You could get away with doing it in a squat rack… if you’re okay with the squat rack being used for things other than a squat.

The guillotine push-up is just the start, and to make it a little more intense, you’re going to start with slow eccentrics. Slowly lower your neck or clavicular area (depending on your shoulder range) to the bar in around 4 seconds. Then pause for one second at the bottom of each rep. Try to hit 6-10 of these before you head to the deficit push-up.

Deficit push-ups load the pecs in a stretched position. Slowly lower with these, too, adding a brief pause at the bottom to really focus on the stretch. Your chest should be going down in that gap.

Next, hop straight up and knock out some high guillotine push-ups. This time don’t worry about the slow eccentrics and use a higher bar. Taking the height of the bar up will allow you to complete a few extra reps. Using a Smith machine makes this change in height easy.

Finish with an isometric hold at the bottom of the deficit push-up and squeeze as hard as you can for 6-10 seconds. That’s around two minutes of chest insanity. If you feel you need to do more than 2-3 sets, there might just be something wrong with you. Do it all with a weighted vest if bodyweight isn’t enough.

Push-Up Tips

  • Your hands are like your feet. Stability starts from there. So just like you wouldn’t barbell bench press with a loose grip or an extended finger, your hand should be stable with fingers spread so that you can press into the floor. Turning your fingers slightly outwards will help to limit your elbows from flaring. Your arms should look less like a “T” position from above and more like an arrow.
  • Neck, spine, and hip alignment matter. You may be asking yourself why some of the push-up variations shown include the use of a foam pad. Using a foam pad is optional, but it can help for any basic push-up variation and can help control depth while allowing proper alignment and neck position. Going chest or nose to floor is fine, though. Making a slight double chin will help neck alignment and make sure you’re not cheating by going nose-first.
  • Push-ups are moving planks. Don’t forget this. Creating whole-body tension is one of the reasons why push-ups are so effective, providing you use them properly. While they can produce a lot of peripheral fatigue, they don’t tax the nervous system much. For this reason, they can be done relatively frequently.
  • Push-ups are great for shoulder health. While many horizontal pressing exercises are done with fixed scapula, they’re free to move when doing push-ups correctly. This helps to create better strength balance in the shoulders, and one of the reasons why you should consider your ratio of different types of pressing exercises.
  • Encourage some load progression. Push-ups are just like every other exercise: progression will come from adding load after a certain point.
  • A full push-up will require you to press around 60-70% of your own body weight. If it’s too easy for the rep range you’ve set, add some weight. Bands, plates, chains, or a weighted vest are all good options. To add load to the complexes shown, just pick whichever feels good and secure.



I’m excited to try these workouts, @Gareth_Sapstead! What’s more, your push-up tips are on point. If the average push-upper applied these tips, their reps would go down exponentially . . . and their gains up!

Completely agree. Way too many just knocking out bootcamp-style push-ups. Most would would benefit from using the tips I’ve described above. Thanks for checking it out!

1 Like

You shouldn’t be going anywhere near an Olympic bar unless you can do the Royal Marine Push Up test…

For 3 rounds

You’ve piqued my interest, @ChongLordUno.:thinking: What, pray tell, is the “Royal Push Up test” as you know it? (You’re welcome to link it if you’d rather not type it out.:facepunch:t2:)

You missed the Marine that goes with Royal, I guess that exceeding the fitness level of Queen Camilla may not be too taxing.
I think it means 60 push ups in 2 minutes. PRMC Royal Marines Press Up Test (60 Push Ups in 2 Minutes)

Don’t let a marine know I missed him or her.:grimacing: Thanks, @doddfrank!