In this push-up guide, I hope to outline a few reasons why push-ups are so hard, how to start doing push-ups as a beginner, how to correct any mistakes you might be making, and how to progress to more difficult variations.
The idea for this article came up one day when I was heading to the bathroom during a break in my university class. I heard music coming from one of the dance studios down the hall. It sounded like intense workout music, so there was a one hundred percent chance I was going to explore. Looking through the door, I was exposed to a group of people doing push-ups.
Since it was a musical theatre class, it was mostly made up of women. Everyone in this class was doing their best to execute the push up properly. However, they were struggling.
It makes sense that they were struggling. Hardly anyone is capable of doing a classic push-up properly on their first try, so if you’ve never been shown proper progressions, it is almost guaranteed that you will ingrain bad habits, and then even with plenty of practice, be doing them improperly for a long time to come.
I believe the push-up is essential because if you can do it correctly off the ground, it shows you have a great connectedness in your body. The push-up requires solid upper body strength, but more importantly, it’ll only look good if you can hold your entire body in a strong position.
That is not easy, but I will show you how to do it.
Men genetically have more upper body muscle than women. We also love developing big arms, chests and shoulder muscles. It is no surprise that we always hear about people like Mike Tyson and Mohammed Ali doing hundreds of push-ups a day. It is not just them: most men have gone through a phase in their life when they were doing many push-ups (however secretly) on their bedroom floor.
In talking with women, they just don’t have the same relationship with push-ups. Mainstream media pumps images into your brain that a nice ass and a flat stomach are the only things you need. And while those things can be healthy, and help you develop the body you are after, being able to do a proper push-up from the ground is just as important. While squats are more famous, push-ups will do as much for your physique, as well as improving your squat. Let me explain: learning how to do a proper push-up involves learning how to hold your hips in the best position to develop your glutes, and it develops your upper body to be able to hold more weight when squatting. Push-ups also decrease your chances of getting injured, and they improve your day-to-day abilities.
Also, if any of you watched the Oscars this year, you might have noticed the timeless Jennifer Aniston’s deltoids popping out. I’m guessing she did a few push-ups backstage before announcing the award.
Being able to do 5–10 clean push-ups off the ground means you have a base level of core and shoulder stability, and wrist and shoulder mobility. It won’t make you huge, but you will notice that your upper body looks quite a lot better.
That strength will then seep into your other lifts, improving the results that you get out of all your lifting.
Push-ups are great if you learned how to do them properly from a young age. They require great core strength, shoulder strength, shoulder and rib mobility. You know the old saying: “if you don’t use it, you lose it”? Well, that happens. Bodies adapt differently to what an individual does. So the longer you’ve gone without doing a push-up, the harder it gets.
The problem is that most people who teach push-ups have been doing them from a young age. (You remember how I confessed that many men do push-ups secretly in their bedroom?) So when you see someone doing them effortlessly, they can seem easy. They are not.
Because of the steep learning curve, most women have been taught “girl” push-ups at some point in their lives. While I am actually a big fan of the exercise, it all depends on how you use it. Making someone do girl push-ups without first showing them how to do a classic push-up will extinguish further learning.
Girl or not, you will do better by learning classic push-ups. And make no mistake, you will soon be strong enough (if you are not already).
Since the push-up is an upper body exercise, it makes sense that you need a solid upper body to execute it properly. Well, the foundation of your upper body starts with your rib cage, then your shoulder blades, then your arms. If your rib cage is in the wrong position, it can mess up the rest of the sequence. This is why starting with a more advanced variation can lead to so much struggle—everything collapses.
Rib Breathing Execise
Try this exercise for me: put your hands on your ribs, breathe in, see how it feels. Then take a long, slow breath out. See how that feels. When you are inhaling, you are elevating and externally rotating your ribs—opening the blinds. When you are exhaling, you are depressing and internally rotating your ribs—closing the blinds.
If you notice that when you exhale there is not much movement, it means that your ribs are biased to a more elevated, “open” position. And guess what muscles make you exhale? The obliques! Your ability to exhale—to depress and internally rotate your ribs—is essential to internally rotating your arm bone. That is also precisely what you need to do a full range of motion push-up. Not to mention the more “open” your ribs, the less air pressure you will be putting under your shoulder blades.
You can see how doing a push-up can be difficult, but also that learning how to do them properly can have a huge positive impact on your body.
To do a push-up you need to be able to get air pressure under your shoulder blades to stabilize, and you need the ribs to be able to move so you can rotate the shoulders properly to get low in a push-up.
This is why in the video below, I go over the “All Four Reach” exercise. It should help you improve the internal rotation of your ribs (shoulder) and improve your ability to get air into your upper back.
The other exercise I go over is the “90/90 Hip Lift.” It uses the hamstrings to put your pelvis in a better position, which directly impacts how you put air into your upper body, and how your ab musculature works. Hamstrings are incredibly important in keeping your body connected to the ground.
Doing these exercises consistently along with the right version of the push-up for your level will help you take control of your body (while also making it look way better). Done over time, it will bring you to the point where you can rep out perfect push-ups with your feet elevated impressively behind you.
While there are a few different styles of push-ups out there, what is right for you may be different from what is right for another. I usually recommend a semblance of a straight line from your head to your toes, with the main movement coming from your shoulders and elbows. Keep in mind that everyone will have different postures based on how they’ve grown up. There is no need to try to be perfect, only to start with the right progression and to make sure it feels good while you do it. If your technique looks like that of the women in the video, then you’re okay in my books.
Check out the video below to get a feel for the rib and pelvic drills as well as how I teach the push-up. Take note that each person has a slightly different way of doing it. They are all new to lifting.
In this video the girls share their struggles with the push-ups:
Progressing the Push Up
In the video I demonstrate how to do the rib and pelvic drills as well as technique and a few progressions of the exercise. I will now go into the steps on how to progress.
1. Choose the right level to start at.
The right level is one that allows you to do perfect technique for 90% of your reps. If you find you’re moving in places other than the shoulders elbows and ribs, you’ll want to make it easier. An example of this would be the second person. After a few reps you can see her struggling a bit and start to move in other spots. So I would start her at an easier level until she could do 20 reps, then try a new height.
2. Challenge yourself.
If you start at the right level, the first couple sets should be easier so that you can get a feel for the technique and develop confidence with the exercise. That will help ingrain good, natural technique. Once you’ve achieved that feeling, it’s time to give yourself a challenge that you suspect you can overcome. So if your first two sets feel great, lower the bar and do as many reps as you can, stopping before you revert to bad habits.
Like I said in the video, it’s easiest to use a Smith Machine or the side of a power rack. The small progressions in height make it easier to progress. However, if you don’t have access to those machines, I think it’s more beneficial to do most of your work at levels that allow for great technique. Just do more reps.
Here are two examples, one if you are doing push-ups in your workout and one if you’re trying to rapidly improve your ability to do push-ups.
Example 1—Adding Push-Ups To A Workout
In this scenario, Kate trains twice a week and is using the push-up as her main upper body “push” exercise to improve core and upper body strength and size. She is a new lifter with a pelvic and rib position of someone who has a more fatigued posture. She is doing a simple workout plan that covers the basics.
Warm Up – All Four Reach, 90/90 hip lift.
A1. Goblet Squat 3 x 10
A2. Push Ups 3 x 10,10, As many reps as possible, stopping before her form becomes forced.
B1. Romanian Deadlift 3 x 10
B2. Seated Row 3 x 10
C1. Farmer Walks 2 x 100 yards
C2. Push Up Plank 2 x 3 full breath cycles
I like to progress the height of the push-up when someone can do 20 push-ups in a row at a certain height. That way when we lower the height, they’re more likely to be able to at least do at least 5-8 reps.
Here is an example for someone doing a big jump in height:
Achieved 30 reps at table height. Next step is to do them off a workout bench. Start with 4 sets of 3 reps and progress to 3 sets of 8-10 reps.
Faith really wants to improve her push-ups fast because she’s passionate about feeling good. Here is her plan:
All Four Reach, 90/90 Hip Lift then 3 sets of push-ups done throughout the workweek (Monday-Friday)
Set 1 – Easier warm up set done for 20 reps – choose a height you could get 30 reps at and take your time through these reps, breathe through them, take pauses at different heights, make your technique great.
Set 2 – A challenging set of 15 reps – Choose a height you can only do 20 reps at
Set 3 – A challenging set of 5-12 reps – this should be quite challenging, yet keep your technique perfect – leave 2-3 reps in the tank since you will be doing these every day.
Push-ups are a great exercise to link the upper and lower body as well as make you a more useful and safe human. It will also dramatically improve the appearance of your entire upper body: arms, shoulders, chest, and posture.
While I use more volume when learning the push-up, once you can do 10 from the ground, you can program them however you feel like. Get your ribs moving, get your pelvis moving, start at the right place and challenge yourself!