Max Pushups and Upper Body Strength

About the Author: 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

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