Home Blog Max Pushups and Upper Body Strength

Max Pushups and Upper Body Strength

Written on April 23, 2007 at 7:39 am, by Eric Cressey

Q: I read your Ultimate Off-Season Training Manual and really enjoyed the chapter on “Performance Testing for Succcess.” What is your opinion on using the push-up max rep test as a measurement of upper body strength for female athletes? Do you believe there is a correlation between performing max push-ups and absolute upper body strength? I was discussing this topic with another strength coach who believes if a female athlete can only give you 5 push-up reps then it may be a good assessment of absolute strength.

In addition, take the following scenarios (if all is equal such as weight, body fat, arm length, mechanics, etc):

Male Athlete A: 170lbs; Max Push-ups reps = 35
Male Athlete B: 170lbs; Max Push-up reps = 20

Would you say Athlete A has greater absolute strength (or better muscular endurance in the upper body)?

I have an opinion but would like to get yours. There are research articles on the NSCA website regarding the push-up test as a measurement of upper body strength and the infamous 225 rep test and its correlation to maximum strength.

A: I’d rather use the push-up as an assessment of an athlete’s ability to stabilize the lumbar spine. Frankly, I don’t use actual dynamic push-ups very much early on in females simply because there are very few people who do them correctly. I’d rather build upper body strength with movement that enable me to manipulate load differently while I work on stability with other exercises (push-up holds for time, prone bridge variations, side bridges, Pallof presses). Eventually, we work in limited ROM push-ups on a bar set up in a power rack and gradually move them closer and closer to the ground.

Your example is a bit tricky. Sure, having more max strength will help your muscular endurance, but that’s not to say that certain athletes can’t become more metabolically conditioned to do a lot of rep at a high percentage of their 1RM. I recall hearing that elite rowers can do as many as 20 reps at something like 95% of their 1RM!

And, as a little aside, I wish people would just stop throwing 1RMs under the bus. Everyone seems to be so afraid of making athletes actually lift heavy stuff nowadays, and it’s one reason that very few female athletes are strong enough to punch their way out of a wet paper bag. If you look at the research, you’re more likely to get hurt on a 3RM+ test than you are on a 1RM test. If you want an assessment that goes beyond just a 1RM test, try the five rep bench press for speed test that I outline in the Off-Season Manual.

Eric Cressey

Technorati Tags:
, , , , ,

6 Responses to “Max Pushups and Upper Body Strength”

  1. P. J. Striet Says:


    Would you give me your opinion on what you feel would be considered “average”, “above average”, and “excellent, in terms of percentage of bodyweight for a 1RM for the following lifts (all lifts raw): barbell bench press, weighted chin-up, standing barbell press, barbell squat, barbell deadlift.

    If you could give standards for both males and females, that would be great. Also, I’m not talking about elite athletes but realistic bench marks for the every day joe and jane who just wants to be considered “strong” and who hits the weights 3-4 days/week. For example, “a 1.9 x bodyweight barbell bench press would be considered above average for an adult male”.

    I’m trying to develop relative strength standards for my “everyday joe and jane” clients on a handful of basic lifts that would allow, for example, my 180 lb. client to see how he stacks up against a 220 lb. guy who may have greater absolute strength but whose relateive strength may in fact be lower. Thanks.

  2. Anthony Says:

    PJ, Mark Rippetoe has a chart that organizes some of the lifts you mentioned. It’s in the back of his book “Starting Strength” but it’s also available in PDF at:


  3. Anonymous Says:


    Thanks…this was a big help.

    PJ Striet

  4. tan Says:

    i’m 28, and can’t do pushups. there i said it. i have the measly strength required to do about 10, but it feels as if tendons etc are popping around on my medial epicondyle. possibly tightness along with weakness in the tissues above and below the joint. consequently i worry about injury.
    i’m trying to remedy this by employing a host of preparation exercises (partial ROM push ups, scap push ups, push up holds, planks, side bridges) as i’d love to be able to do heavy chain loaded ones at some point in the future. baby steps of course.
    the max strength book is on the way, but i’m willing to accept a life of bodyweight training if it means healthy functional joints

  5. Jess Says:

    I dream about push ups.

    Not cleared for them at the moment due to a displaced ulna @ the distal end.

    Including prone bridge, side bridge, pallof press variations with resistance bands / 10kg vest in an attempt to preserve pectoral girdle strenth/ stability.

    Scap push ups on forearms are as close as I can get to the real thing for another week or two.

    Pallof press is my new favourite exercise – just love the look on peoples faces when they try it for the first time 🙂

  6. Nick Says:

    This was a great question. Maybe we should broaden the question to “what is a proper test for horizontal push for strength? Strength endurance?” The type of test should be based on the specific goal and training age. If the “push up test” is warrented for the specific goal and appropriate fot the training age, then it should be used. Thoughts??

  • Avoid the most common deadlifting mistakes
  • 9 - minute instructional video
  • 3 part follow up series