Military Fitness: Why are Pushups used as the Standard for U.S. Army Upper Body Strength?
The question proposed in the title of this article may seem like it has a very simple answer: “because the pushup is a movement in which you must push your body up from the ground.” This answer may be simple enough for the average civilian, but if you’re continuing to read this article, either you yourself are enlisting, or you just suck at pushups and want to learn how to achieve what is the absolute bare minimum of measurable strength. Learning the reason why pushups are indicative of upper body pressing strength is a major advantage to someone wanting to improve his own.
First, your reason for wanting to increase the number of pushups doesn’t really matter. You’re here, you’re reading this article, these are facts. Facts are what we’ll use to establish the foundation of understanding regarding physical training. So do me a favor and cut the bullshit fitness myths out of your head right now. You don’t know as much as you think, and it will significantly hinder your progress by trying to fight proven methods just because you trust your 140-pound buddy with “toned” arms and a visible six-pack.
Good, now with all that out of the way, onto the methodology of the pushup.
Pushup Anatomy and Physiology:
The United States Army implemented the Physical Fitness Test (PFT) that we all know and love, back in 1980. For the 17-21 age group, the Army PFT includes the following:
- Pushups for maximum amount of repetitions within 2 minutes with 42 pushups being the minimum and 71 pushups being the maximum.
- Situps for maximum amount of repetitions within 2 minutes with 53 situps being the minimum and 78 situps being the maximum.
- Timed 2 mile run with 15 minutes 54 seconds being the minimum and 13 minutes being the maximum.
The pushup is used as the only measurement of the upper body in the PFT because it is a compound movement that requires the user to contract the most amount of muscles responsible for pressing. These muscles include the triceps (part of the arm), pectoralis major and minor (chest), and the anterior deltoids (part of the shoulder) as the prime movers. But the question must be asked, if the military wanted a measurement of upper body pushing strength, why not use exercises like the bench press or standing overhead press with a loaded barbell? I mean, these movements have a huge advantage over the pushup in the sense that the amount of weight being lifted isn’t directly dependent on the bodyweight of the individual, and you feel fucking alpha doing it.
Aside from the obvious logistical issues of cramming an entire company’s worth of enlistees into, at max, five pieces of what can be very expensive equipment, the pushup works additional muscles that aren’t stimulated to a large extent in the barbell movements. The pushup also uses the glutes, abdomen, and erector spinae group as stabilizers for the lumbar spine, as well as the serratus anterior group to support the external rotation of the shoulder girdle during the exercise. So ultimately, in order to be able to do a lot of pushups, your entire body needs to be strong. Remember that sentence, you’ll need it for later.
How to get Stronger at Pushups:
Now that we’ve covered the anatomy and physiology by using terms you’ve already forgotten, let’s ask the question: How can you increase the number of pushups you can do? There are two very simple parts to that answer:
- Do more pushups.
- Barbell Training.
Yes, as absolutely obvious as it sounds, in order to do more pushups, you must practice doing pushups (shocking right?). But you’re not going to do it for the reasons that you think you are. You’ll want to practice doing some high-repetition sets of pushups in order to maintain the neuromuscular efficiency of the movement (the ability to efficiently perform the pushup). In addition to maintaining the proper neurological pathways, these higher rep schemes of pushups will also allow the individual to make some physiological adaptations often associated with “muscular endurance” (figure 2).
You’ll want to take note on how I highlighted the word “some” in that last paragraph. You’ll want to limit how many of these sets you’re doing as these are not the core of your workout, but rather an accessory. By including too much pushup volume, you run the risk of overreaching in your training, and possibly stalling. That said, don’t be afraid to do a lot of them. I personally do between 250-400 pushups per week across three days of training.
But then on to the second and arguably the more important part of the answer to that question: barbell training. For reasons that will not be explained here due to the already excessive article length, barbell training has been shown to be the most effective method of building strength and muscle (research “progressive overload” to learn why). Focusing on full body training (remember when we concluded your whole body has to get stronger), three days per week, within a rep scheme that provides the physiological adaptations desired. The physiological adaptations desired: bigger and stronger muscles.
You might ask the question, why do we want bigger and stronger muscles? And to that I might ask, did your mother intentionally drop you on your head as a kid, or was it an accident? The force production of a contraction is directly proportional to the cross sectional area of the muscle belly, or in other words, a bigger muscle is a stronger muscle (see figure 2 for rep ranges). So stop being a pussy, train like hell, pick up a fork, start eating (start your day off with a breakfast like mine), and put on some goddamn muscle!
For more information on how to efficiently program this into your training, I would highly recommend you read an article by Major Ryan Whittemore: A Strength-Based Approach to the APFT. He goes over how to effectively implement a barbell strength training program with enough specificity to improve your score on the Army PFT.
- Rippetoe, M., Baker, A., & Bradford, S. E. (2013). Practical programming for strength training(3rd ed.). Wichita Falls, TX: Aasgaard Company.
- Rippetoe, M., & Bradford, S. E. (2013). Starting strength: basic barbell training(3rd ed.). Wichita Falls, TX: The Aasgaard Company.
- Calatayud, J., Borreani, S., Colado, J. C., Martin, F., Tella, V., & Andersen, L. L. (2015). Bench Press and Push-up at Comparable Levels of Muscle Activity Results in Similar Strength Gains. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research,29(1), 246-253.