Push-ups: Beginner, Intermediate and Advanced

A few weeks ago I suggested that everybody should be working on chin-ups (see “We’re All Doing Chin-ups!“).  How’s that going?  Ready for a new challenge?  How about push-ups?  You’re groaning?  Like the chin-up, the push-up can be a very humbling bodyweight exercise.  And like the chin-up, it’s something everyone should include in their strength training bag of exercises.  Now for the good news ~ like chin-ups, there are a variety of ways to progress and regress (i.e. make harder or easier) the push-up; and truthfully, doing one good push-up is an easier goal than one good chin-up.

Before you get down on the floor and start showing off the fact that you can blast off 50 push-ups before I finish typing this sentence, let’s talk about what actually constitutes a good push-up.  While I see a lot of poor form in the gym, I have to say a push-up is one of the most abused.  Primary injustices involve a lack of a full range of motion and what I would call “incorrect elbow tracking,” for lack of a better description.  Whatever form of push-up you chose to do, tracking your elbows back towards your body, instead of out at a 90 degree angle is step one.  NOT like this:

I know, I know, you’re all looking at the diagram in disbelief…that’s the way you’ve always  done push-ups.  And yes, you can call that a push-up.  But it’s not good for your shoulders.  Shoulders, like knees and low backs, tend to be more injury prone.  So change your elbow position, spare your shoulders.  You should look more like this (without looking like a convict):

Elbows don’t have to be tight to your body, but they should track back.  Yep, they’re harder that way.  Stop whining.

Now that we’ve got step one of proper form down, the next requirement is to keep your body tight…no sagging hips/arched back.  If your hips get to the floor before your chest, you have a problem.  Don’t drop your head (and don’t pick it up, like in the picture above).  Here is a push-up that has a lot of bad going on:

Okay, so now that we’ve gone through the form, lets see a good basic push-up in action. FULL RANGE OF MOTION…that means all the way to the floor, all the way back up (I see a lot of “partial” push-ups at the gym).  This is truly what I would call a perfect push-up:

Truthfully, a push-up like that is not easy. What do you do if you can’t do even one push-up like that?  No, the answer is NOT “girl” push-ups.  The problem with “girl” push-ups (push-ups on your knees) is that you are taking most of the core work out of the exercise, and while a push-up is a great upper body exercise, there is a lot of core work going on too.  Plus it’s just a bit humiliating.  The better way to regress a push-up is to elevate your hands.  Depending on your strength, you can start with you hands on the wall.  I would prefer to see wall push-ups over “girl” push-ups.  Here’s a quick demo:

As you get stronger, you can place your hands on something lower.  As much as I hate the Smith Machine and consider it a big waste of space, most gyms have one.  This is actually a great device for progressing your push-ups, as you can lower the bar gradually as you get stronger.  Here is an example…but what is wrong with his push-up?

That’s right, his elbows are not tracking back.  But it still shows how you can get some use out of the Smith machine.  You can also put your hands on a bench or on a step with a set of risers, slowly reducing the number of risers.  Don’t get frustrated.  Doing a good, hands-elevated push-up is far better than doing a crappy push-up on the floor.  If you really want to get better at push-ups, do some every day (or 4-5 days a week anyway).  Like I did with my chin-ups, do one or two multiple times during the day, accumulating 8-12 for the day.  You will get better at them.

So, once you’ve mastered the push-up and can do 8-10 good push-ups on the floor it’s time to add some challenge.  Option #1:  eat a bunch of junk food and pack on an extra 10 pounds, then do your push-ups.  Option #2: add external weight in the form of a weight vest, weight plate or a chain.  I would guess that most gyms don’t have weight vests, and they are expensive to buy one of your own.  You can add a weight plate on your back, but I would recommend doing this with a partner.  I also like chains, as the weight increases gradually, but admittedly most gyms don’t have these.  But they are super bad-ass, so I’m going to show you a video clip anyway.  This guy makes them look easy, but they’re not.  Admittedly the guys at Cressey Performance do them totally loaded up with chains.  I’m still working on 3 sets of 6 with one chain.  But I’m playing the age card.

You can also make your push-up harder by elevating your feet.  Elevate your hands = easier, elevate your feet = harder.  You can also pick up one foot off the floor.  Or, you can elevate your feet, pick up one foot, and add a few chains, as below:

Any one of those elements makes the push-up harder, so give them a try one at a time before trying to put them all together.

Another option, which I included with my post about superbands, is to use a band as external resistance ~ here it is again:

Finally, I like push-ups off dumbbells…you need hex dumbbells (the head of the dumbbell is a hexagonal shape so that you have a flat surface to rest on the floor) ~ don’t try this with conventional round dumbbells.  Some people find this more comfortable for their wrists. But the real benefit of this push-up is that you have a greater range of motion…use that extra few inches to lower your body into that hole between the dumbbells.  I actually like doing these.  I am giving you a Girls Gone Strong video montage ~ these women are so damn inspiring.  The whole video is awesome, but if you just want to see an example of a dumbbell push-up (with an added weight plate) performed by Nia Shanks, skip ahead to the 2:05 mark.

I’m going to leave you with a “don’t try this at home” clip of a woman doing a one-arm push-up with one foot off the ground.  I’m not even going into one-armed push-ups as they should be reserved for people like Jack Palance and GI Jane (actually, they are just very advanced…if you’re really motivated, start them on the Smith machine).  This is pretty damn good.  Now go out there and do some push-ups!

About Lisa Van Dore

I have lived in Sherborn, Dover and most recently North Walpole, for a total of 15 years (and counting). Having recently been through the process of selling a home and buying (and renovating) a new one, I understand the conflicting emotions of excitement and anxiety inherent in the process, whether you are a seller or buyer, whether this is your first home purchase or your tenth. I have a BA from the University of Michigan and an MBA from Indiana University. My early career found me working as a CPA, and later as the controller of Crate & Barrel. More recently I spent seven years running my own personal training business. I understand the hard work and dedication necessary to build a business and a reputation...most of my personal training clients came to me by referral and my first client was still with me when I decided to leave personal training. This speaks to the level of effort I put forth for my clients, week after week. On a more personal note, I raced triathlon for seven years and more recently completed my first half marathon. In my free time I enjoy cooking, reading, Maine, hiking and, in the fall, following college football...my teams are the University of Michigan (Go Blue!) and Texas Christian University (Go Frogs!).
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1 Response to Push-ups: Beginner, Intermediate and Advanced

  1. I just found your blog and OMG I love you! HAHA! You are a badass. It took me 2 years to be able to do 5 chin-ups in a row! (Is it totally creepy that I’ve read *that* much of your blog? Sorry.)

    ANYWAY. I know you haven’t posted yet this month but I really really hope you keep blogging! We need more BAMFs around the blogosphere 😉

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