The push-up is a basic, entry level mass-builder that may get you as far as you want to go in terms of muscle size. For those interested in real size gain, variations on the basic bodyweight exercise can produce significant increases in mass and physical strength.
Push-ups are simple to perform, and you can do them almost anywhere. To build muscle mass, you need to load and stress your muscle fibers so that they break down enough to stimulate protein synthesis -- the repair and and growth of muscle fibers -- resulting in a stronger, larger muscle. Push-ups allow for loading of your deltoids, pectorals and triceps with about 60 percent of your body's weight. To maximize the muscle-building process, perform your pushups slowly, especially in the downward phase. Do not allow gravity to pull you down.
Setting It Up
According to the Indiana Law Enforcement Academy's “Protocol for Maximum Push-ups,” you'll make size and strength gains much faster if you train according to your endurance level. To do this, count as many push-ups as you can do in one minute, and multiply your result by 0.75. The product will be the number of reps you should perform in a set. Perform three to five sets, separated by 60-second rests, every second day.
It Takes Time
If you are completely out of shape, your initial improvements will be in your body's recruitment of more muscle motor units due to improved neuromuscular pathways. After several weeks, the cross-sectional area of your muscles begin to increase, according to exercise scientist Len Kravitz of the University of New Mexico. Initially, you'll see results in terms of your type II, fast twitch muscle fibers adapting. Once you pass 12 to 15 reps, you'll start building your type I, endurance fibers. These have some potential for growth, but you'll probably cease to see growth at the 50-repetition mark.
Change It Up
According to Mark Lauren and Joshua Clark, authors of “You Are Your Own Gym,“ there are ways to keep building muscle size while sticking to your push-up routine. Learn to do one-arm push-ups and decline push-ups, or wear a backpack and fill it progressively with sand or weight plates according to your desired intensity. Alternatively, visit a gymnastics school and learn to do planche -- French for "plank" -- push-ups, which involve performing push-ups with your body horizontal and your feet off the ground -- a kind of super bodyweight bench-press that develops every muscle, from your head to your toes.
Training to do too many push-ups -- training for endurance -- can lead to reductions in limit strength and even decreases in muscle size, as the excessive conditioning of growth-restricted type I endurance fibers prevents the expansion of your type II fibers. If you're looking to make continual, conventional bodybuilding wisdom would dictate that you abandon the basic push-up once you hit 12 reps and move on to more advanced exercises.