Humans have used push ups to get stronger since time immemorial, and the exercise remains incredibly powerful in the modern era.
Weight machines and bench press stations often take the lime light, but they can’t compete with the push up when it comes to generating functional upper body strength without the injuries many weight lifters face.
In this article I’ll show you a progression of exercises that can take you from even the weakest state of upper body strength to mastery of perfect-form push ups.
Strengthening Your Body With Push Ups
When you do push ups with proper form, you develop an entire network of muscles around the torso. The pectoral muscles of your chest, the anterior deltoids that form the rounded contour of your shoulders, and the abdominal muscles required to hold your body in a straight line all come into play.
But like most bodyweight exercises, push ups do something most weight machine exercises don’t – force your muscles to work in harmony with each other.
If you want to stay in a straight line (and you do), you’ll need to draw on your glutes, quadriceps, shins, and even your feet and toes, which work isometrically to lock you into place.
If you’d prefer to get this information in a more visual format, check out my video tutorial:
There are plenty of people who can’t do a full push up, and the progressions I discuss in this article will help them achieve meet their first one.
But one of the greatest things about push ups is that they never have to become easy, and can effectively increase the strength of all but the most incredibly strong people year after year. Many assume that once you’ve achieved full push ups, it’s just a matter of adding on more reps forever. That might get you more muscular endurance, but it won’t make you much stronger, and it’s pretty boring.
Luckily, once you master the push up you can start moving toward the one-armed push up, an extremely challenging variation that will build incredibly strong triceps and pecs, and allow you to master the high level of coordination necessary to do one with perfect form.
But those are progressions for another day. For now, let’s get you doing perfect-form push ups.
How Often To Train
The frequency at which you can train push ups is entirely dependent your ability to recover from exercise, something that varies greatly between people due to existing fitness levels, diet, sleep, and other factors.
If you’re still very sore from your last push up session, the benefit of doing more will be limited.
Most people should be able to train push ups at least once every three or four days.
Sets And Reps
Every time you do a set, you should work until failure (you can’t do another rep), or until you’ve hit the progression standard – whatever comes first.
If you’re going to failure, there’s no reason why you’d need more than two, or a maximum of three sets per training session.
Anything more than that is just chasing diminishing returns, and possibly retarding your growth.
The Big Push Up Mistakes People Make
There are two big mistakes that many people who are new to pushups make. They usually occur when people try a new variant without strengthening themselves sufficiently through repetition of the previous easier variants.
The first mistake is a failure to keep the torso, hips and legs in a straight line. You’ll often see people sticking their butt in the air during pushups, and this occurs because the muscles around the waist are too weak to keep the body steady.
As you get yourself into the right alignment, engage your abs and butt, and keep them engaged through the entire exercise. This will make staying in a straight line much easier.
The second common mistake is a failure to keep the feet no more than a half inch apart. When people splay their legs out, it means they’re too weak (or lazy) to stabilize their torso during the motion. Splaying the legs makes the exercise less challenging and robs you of much of its benefit.
If you find you can’t do a variant without your butt flying higher than your legs and torso, or your legs splaying out, go to the previous variant and work it with perfect form until you build up the necessary strength.
The ideal hand position for push ups is directly under your shoulders. A wider hand position offloads some of the work of the triceps to the pectorals, but since long-term progression will demand more of the triceps, we don’t want to do this. But if you’re determined to give your pecs more work, certainly feel free to throw in some wide-handed sets here and there.
Moving your hands closer together into a so-called diamond pushup is a more advanced variant that demands more of the triceps. That move isn’t covered in this article, but will certainly be worth your while once you’ve mastered the full push up.
Wall Push Ups
They’re ideal for the overweight, the injured, those who have just had surgery, or anyone else who finds themselves too weak to do a more challenging variant.
Got gimpy shoulders, wrists, or elbows? By starting off with wall push ups and gradually increasing reps, your joints will often be slowly restored to working order; just go slow.
Muscle adapts relatively quickly, but wall push ups more slowly build up the resiliency of your bones, tendons, and other connective tissues that underly the pains people have in their joints. Strengthening them makes a lot of sense.
To do wall push ups, stand a few feet away from a wall with your feet together and your hands on the wall in line with your shoulders, cosy your face on up to the wall with your body in a straight line, and push away from it. Aim to go down for one second, hold a the bottom for one second, and raise back up for another second.
As this becomes easier, step farther and farther away from the wall.
Progression: By the time you can do 2 sets of 50 reps, you’ll be ready to move on to knee push ups.
Knee Push Ups (Kneeling Push Ups)
Knee Push Ups bring you much closer to the usual horizontal push up position, but because you’re connected to the ground at your knees, it’s much easier to push up your body.
Often, women are instructed to stick to kneeling push ups, but there’s no reason why anyone has to stop progressing here.
To do knee push ups, kneel on the ground (a mat will provide more cushion for the knees), cross your ankles, and place your hands directly under your shoulders. Aim to go down for one second, pause at the bottom for one second, and them raise up for one second.
If you’re having trouble with knee push ups, go back to wall push ups and gradually step your feet farther from the wall. You can also take an intermediate step like putting your hands on a chair or coffee table and doing pushups on them, since this brings you closer to horizontal than a wall, but not so much as a knee push up.
Note: Some contend that knee push ups should not be used because it’s hard to keep your body in a straight alignment while going all the way to the ground. They may have a point about the alignment, but I find that many people have trouble transitioning from a wall or incline push up directly to half push ups, and I think knee push ups work as a good intermediary step.
Progression: By the time you can do three sets of 30 push ups, you’ll be ready to move on to half push ups
Half push ups trade out the closer stability point of your knees for your toes, but only require half the range of motion from your arms.
To get the arm range of motion right, you may want to get a basketball or other similarly-sized ball and place it under your hips. As the move becomes easier, move it under your chest.
Once again, make sure your entire torso is in a straight line, place your hands under your shoulders, and go down for one second until you hit the ball. You should Pause at the bottom for one second, and then raise back up for one second.
Progression: By the time you can do two sets of 25 half push ups, you’ll be ready to move on to full push ups.
Full Push Ups
Full push ups may not be an elite-level move, but doing them with full range of motion, control, and proper form is actually hard or impossible for many people.
If you’ve been honest with yourself and stuck with regular training of the previous progressions, you should be able to do some full push ups with perfect form by the time you’re able to do two sets of 25 half push ups.
Once again, get into a plank with your hands directly under your shoulders and your body in a straight line.
Drop yourself down for once second until your chest hits the ground, pause at the bottom for a second, and then raise back up for a second.
Even if people manage to keep themselves in a straight line with their feet together during full push ups, you’ll frequently see them “cheating” and counting reps that don’t have a full range of motion. If you’re not touching your chest to the ground, you’re cheating.
Pushing out of the bottom position is the hardest part of doing full pushups, and it’s by forcing yourself to work hard there that you’ll really start to see gains in strength and endurance.
Progression: By the time you can do two sets of 20 push ups with perfect form and full range of motion, you’ll be ready to move on to the next hardest variant, which will be covered in another article.
- Mastered the full push up? Consider starting on a new progression that will lead you to one-handed push ups.
- Want to work another part of your body? Try these complimentary bodyweight exercises.
- Want to do something that will impress? Check out these feats of strength.