The push-up. It is one of the most well-known exercises. It is also one of the best exercises for keeping you strong and balanced from your head to your toes. Still, just because people know what it is, does not mean they do it.
One of the reasons many people do not do push-ups, even though they require no equipment and are unbelievably beneficial, is because they are hard. When someone tries to do a push-up but can’t, many times he or she will simply stop trying. Has this happened to you? You might have said to yourself: “Why continue to do something that is hard and impossible? I am too busy anyway.” But what you are really meant is: “It’s too embarrassing not to be able to do something that I think I should be able to do, and on top of that, it hurts when I try and fail.” This is how many of my friends and new clients feel about the push-up.
The first thing I tell them and would tell you is that you should not be embarrassed. How do you expect to do something really well that you have never really tried let alone practiced? If you took up baseball, would you expect to hit a home run your first time at bat? If you didn’t, would you be so embarrassed that you quit and never took another swing? Of course not. Expecting your body to do something that takes coordination and strength without even giving it a chance to build the right neural networks and muscle fibers is not fair. That same mindset needs to be applied to exercises like the push-up. You have to give yourself a chance to succeed through practice and determination.
The best part is, once your body gets it, it really gets it. When I was first able to do a push-up, I actually did four. It’s like when you learn to ride a bike. There are lots of wobbles and falls at first, but after consistent effort and practice, suddenly something just clicks and you start biking. It’s just as exhilarating when you are finally able to do a push-up. There is nothing like being able to do something physically that you did not think you could do. It is empowering to realize that you can actually control what your body does and how it looks. (See Mirror Talk for more)
Here is an anecdote from one of my friends, Laura, who heeded my advice about learning to do push-ups:
I’ve known I couldn’t do push-ups since grade school. That disappointed look on my gym teacher’s face during the fitness exams told me all I needed to know. No push-ups for this girl. Impossible.
Nearly 20 years later, after proving to myself that I could run a mile, run 3 miles, run 6 miles… I decided to try doing a full push-up to prove I had changed. I got in position, lowered myself about an inch, and collapsed.
But I kept trying and started doing planks and lowering myself to the ground, slower and slower. Still couldn’t push myself up. Kept trying, getting fitter in other ways, but still no push-up. Joined a new gym and did some strength training four times per week for 2-3 weeks. Still no push-up.
Then, I went to my grandparents and while I was visiting them I decided to try to do a push-up (because my grandparents would be excellent witnesses, but wouldn’t laugh at me when I fell flat on my face). So I dropped down with my nose close to the ground. I hovered for a second and… pushed-up! They cheered and I did 2 more before I collapsed.
And while it was fun and satisfying to finally do a push-up only a month before my 30th birthday (my goal), I’ve realized that being able to push myself up off of the ground is useful and healthy, but wasn’t my real goal. My real goal was to prove to myself that I could do whatever I set my mind to. And I did it!
Laura’s story is very inspiring. Most people do not like to do things that are difficult and might cause them to fail. However, if you’re reading this, you are not most people. You are someone interested in bettering him or herself. If you already do push-ups regularly, good for you. Keep it up and make sure you check out the information below to confirm that you are using the correct form. If you do not do push-ups, now is the time to try!!!
- None necessary. For the modifications below you may need a bench or a wall.
Lie face down on the ground or on a mat, in a prone position, with your stomach resting on the ground.
- Pull your legs and feet together and then flex your feet toward your shins so the tips of your toes are touching the ground.
- Place your hands in line with your shoulders but slightly out to your sides.
Squeeze your glutes and tighten your abdominal muscles while pressing yourself up off of the ground. The only parts of you touching the floor are your hands and toes.
- Make sure your elbows are slightly bent and in a straight line out from your shoulders. Your back is completely flat, and your neck is straight like the rest of your spine. You can achieve this relaxed neck position by looking down and a bit in front of you similar to your positioning while doing a plank.
While inhaling, lower yourself slowly and with control toward the ground until your chest barely touches the floor. Your elbows are in a 90-degree position and directly over your hands.
With an exhale, press yourself back up to a straight-arm position.
Main Muscles Targeted:
- Pectoralis Major (Sternal Head)
- Pectoralis Major (Clavicular Head)
- Pectoralis Minor
- Medial Deltoids (Med. Delt)
- Anterior Deltoids (Ant. Delt)
- Erector Spinae
- Rectus Abdominis
- Transverse Abdominis
- Rotator Cuffs
- Serratus Anterior
You may need to decrease the difficultly level. That’s just fine. The reason you will need to decrease the difficulty level is because your full body weight is too heavy of a load for you to push-off the ground. So, you need to decrease the amount of weight you are asking your body to move. One way to do this is to leave your knees on the ground while you do the push-up. In this scenario, your toes, knees, and hands stay connected to the floor throughout the movement. If that is still too difficult, you can decrease the load even further by lifting your feet off of the ground and bending your knees to a 90-degree angle. In this modification, only your hands and knees stay connected with the ground. This is not a “girl push-up” but a very effective way to decrease your body weight by shortening the distance between the two parts of your body that are touching the ground. You can think of yourself like the Golden Gate Bridge. If your two sets of supports on either end of the bridge (your hands and feet) are not strong enough to hold up the entire length of the bridge and all the cars on the bridge you can either add a third support under the bridge (your knees dropping to the ground) or simply make a shorter bridge so the two supports (your hands and knees) have less to hold.
- Another way to decrease the weight you are trying to lift is to place your hands on a bench or a wall. In this version your head and hands are now elevated above your feet. The closer you are to a standing position, the less weight you lift.
- If you want to increase the difficultly level you can place your feet on a bench so that they are higher than your head.
- You can also do a single-leg push-up (leave only one foot touching the ground throughout the exercise), which requires more balance and control.
- Do this exercise in front of a mirror or with a partner so you can monitor your form. It’s easy to “cheat” when you get tired without even realizing it.
- If you feel yourself tiring, try a modification (see above) to allow yourself to finish the desired number of repetitions.
- Inhale when you are lowering yourself to the ground. Exhale when you are pressing yourself back up.
- Keep your glutes clenched and your belly button pulled in tight toward your spine. This will help you keep your form and not let your spine sag. But keep breathing!
*Remember, it’s always advised to consult with your doctor or health care expert before adding a new exercise to your routine to make sure you don’t have any contraindications.