by Michael Plank

Yesterday we wrapped up a 4-week Upper Body Push strength cycle. We spent this month working on barbell strict presses and yesterday we had the option of going for a new Personal Record or trying to level up in the Upper Body Push category on the Level Method Map of Athletic Progression. What happened a couple of times is what always happens when we test Upper Body Pushing… one or two people set massive press PRs but don’t level up!

Here’s why…

The Level Method (which we use at our gym) is the best systematic approach we’ve seen for improving overall fitness. We’ve been using it for several years and the results have been fantastic. But it can be frustrating! And the reason it can be frustrating is that it demands a strong foundation. If you build a house and rush through the foundation, it doesn’t matter how well-built the roof is, that house is going to fall down because the foundation isn’t as solid as it needs to be. We focus on a strong foundation with all kinds of things at our gym – strength training, skill training, nutrition coaching, and habit coaching. One of our core values is Client Service – which means being able to get our members results. Sometimes that means you have to go slow to go fast. You have to really nail the basics before you progress to intermediate and advanced movements. That takes time, but it will make the higher level skills much more solid down the line. Looking at the Upper Body Push category a little more closely gives a good example of this approach.

Our progressions are designed to be universally applicable. The flow of the Upper Body Push category is this: the first thing we want to do is build the required strength to do a strict, gymnastic-style push-up off the floor. Once we can do that, we want to start to be able to do some bigger sets. Once we can do that, we want to see if you can continually do sets of 4, or 6, or 9, for several minutes at a time. Then we move to barbell presses. Then we move to handstand push-ups and increasingly large sets of handstand push-ups, and then finally back to barbell presses.

If you’ve ever done a workout with a lot of push-ups in it, you know that when your arms get tired and start to give out, you are in trouble. When your arms fatigue in any kind of strict pushing movement (presses, push-ups, dips), they take a comparably very long time to recover enough to do more reps (minutes as opposed to seconds in something like squats). When we develop the Upper Body Push, we want to see some basic strength first, but then we need to see a solid stamina base – in other words, we need to see that your arms can keep doing stuff for awhile and don’t just have flash-in-the-pan moments of glory. Once we see that solid stamina base with push-ups, then we start to be interested in what you can do with raw strength on a barbell. But stamina will come back into play when we get to increasingly large sets of handstand push-ups. And at the elite levels, we’re back to looking at very high levels of raw strength again. In the Upper Body Push category, we are constantly walking the line between stamina and strength as you progress, because the ultimate goal is that your arms become more useful to you – that they can do more stuff for longer than you can right now.

Is this the slow way? Kind of. But it depends on the timeline you’re looking at. If you want to race your friends to see who can get the biggest bench press in 6 weeks, ours is not the best approach. But if you want to start today and be as strong and injury-free as possible 1, 2, or 3 years from now, I don’t think there’s anything better.