Increase Your Push ups

In the New Year, I challenge you to up the ante with your pushups!

Being good at pushups is a worthy goal that deserves some of your time because they build a sculpted, strong upper body. But more importantly, being able to do pushups on your toes – or more difficult full pushups – makes you feel good about yourself. It means you worked towards something important, followed through, and achieved it.

Pushups primarily use your pectorals, triceps, and anterior and medial deltoids to push your upper body up from the floor. However, your entire body is engaged, including your abs, rhomboids, quads, and glutes. Thus, pushups are a full-body exercises and a good test of upper body endurance and strength.

There’s no reason you shouldn’t be able to master full pushups (barring injury, etc.), and if you haven’t yet it’s because you haven’t been training correctly. If you can already do full pushups, it’s time to bring them to the next level! Doing high reps of the same kind of pushup is only increasing your endurance, not strength or muscle. I’ll show you how to add challenge, no matter how advanced you are.

As a trainer, I see firsthand that very few women can do full pushups. Yet I think all would like to. So let’s go about seeing how you can attain that in short order.

Get on Your Toes

Modified pushups support nearly 62 percent of your own bodyweight in the down position; full pushups support 75 percent of your own bodyweight [1]. That may not seem like much of a difference, but it’s a significant step up. No matter; even if you can do just 3 pushups at the end of 6 or 8 weeks you have broken past the barrier.

As I alluded to above, you have to train for pushups, and there are a lot of ways to do this. How long it will take will depend on your current level of fitness. If you’re carrying extra weight and haven’t been training your upper body at all, you might need 10 to 12 weeks. If you’re relatively fit but lack upper body strength, if might take 6 to 8 weeks (or less). Set a realistic goal and train your chest 1 to 2 times per week with at least 2 to 3 rest days in between. Then take these steps:

  1. Start at your level. The progression for pushups, from least to most difficult, is hands on wall -> hands on bench -> hands on floor, on knees -> hands on floor, on toes. There are shades of gray between each of these, of course, and you should use them.
  2. Know proper pushup form. The most common form issue I see is sagging torso and head. If you can’t keep your body in a straight line you need to work on your core and pectoral strength first (see techniques below). Also, do not let your elbows flare out! See the best damn pushups article.
  3. Ensure you can do a straight-arm plank for at least 30 seconds. If you can’t, you don’t have the proper trunk stability to do a pushup correctly yet. Practice this until you can.
  4. Set small goals and have patience. For example, if you’re doing pushups with your hands elevated on a bar or bench, strive to lower the bar a little more each session.
  5. Do barbell bench presses and incline presses. If you’ve been doing chest presses with the same weight or just slightly more weight for months (years?), this partially explains why you still can’t do full pushups. Aim to get progressively stronger each week.
  6. Do isometric/eccentric/negative pushups. All different names that mean the same thing: lowering your body very slowly to the ground to build endurance and strength.
  7. Follow a systematic plan. Check out the 100 Pushups program or these effective techniques for progressing. Set small goals that will actually progress you each week instead of keeping you in the same place. Please note: The 100 Pushups program is good and I recommend it. However, you do not have to use it to get to 100 pushups – you can use it simply to increase the number, then move on to more difficult versions.

Be forewarned that if you stop pushups training, you’ll be back on your knees in no time.

Once you can do 10 pushups on your toes, it’s time to add in different variations, which I’ll discuss next.

Take it Up a Notch

Figuring out new ways to make pushups harder is one of my favorite past times (I know, I’m peculiar). If you can already do pushups, commit to going to the next level. If you’re still doing only traditional pushups on the floor then your body has adapted and needs additional challenge to progress.

There’s value in being able to do many pushups because you’re increasing your endurance. But if you want to increase your strength and size you need to increase the difficulty. More difficult versions rely on different angles of the muscles and use more of your own strength.

TIP: Don’t stop doing traditional pushups. Integrate these into your training a few times a month to keep up your endurance.

Killer Pushup Variations

  • Scorpion pushup
  • Spiderman pushup
  • Single-leg pushup
  • Leg swing pushup

See demos for the above exercises

Keep me posted on your progress! I want to hear how you’re doing.

This article originally appeared on

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  1. Oh.. push-ups.. such a love/hate relationship. It took me so long to be able to do 10 real ones, and once I got that, I somewhat gave up on pushing for anything more. Sure, I can do 10 but then what? I am really thinking about that 100 push-ups program.. Can you crank out a lot? 🙂
    Jennifer recently posted..Last day of Crossfit, a mini-vacation, and a potential injuryMy Profile

    • Hey Jennifer, well done you beast :). Last spring there was a competition among the trainers and I did 40. I injured my elbow shortly afterwards and had to give them up for awhile, but then I started training for handstand and one-arm pushups. Currently I’m sitting at about 30 floor pushups and 6-8 one-arm and handstand pushups :D. It varies according to how much I’m focusing on them too.

  2. I do a lot of pushups but modified. I wish I could do real ones, I’ve tried. I just don’t have it in me! Wrist pain too!
    Lisa Eirene recently posted..Healthier Holiday SnackingMy Profile

    • Hey lady! With wrist pain, try holding on to dumbbells (not round) or pushup handles…. or use your fists. I also tape my right wrist with athletic tape before every workout – my wrists are abnormally small and have a little pre-arthritic stuff going on but I have no pain when it’s taped. You CAN do this Lisa. You are strong. Give some of these suggestions a try and let me know how it goes.

  3. This is inspiring, and I love that you provide so many resources! I’ve seen people in the gym doing some of those funky variations, and I definitely need to experiment . . . at home . . . so I can figure them out without looking like a complete dork in the gym. 🙂
    Mary C. Weaver, CSCS recently posted..Why one size (diet) does not fit allMy Profile

  4. You know I love push ups! Variety is the spice of life…love all the options!

  5. Great post Suzanne! I always begin each new client relationship with an assessment of pushup ability. It’s an easy way for people to measure their progress over time.

    I use all of the same tricks that you do to move people forward and I love the more challenging versions that you list at the bottom.

    I worked through the first 4 weeks of the 100 pushups program before I needed to stop. The sheer volume of pushups I was doing led to some shoulder and elbow pain. I decided that doing 100 pushups in a row wasn’t so smart (for me), given the potential for injury. I did get up to 35 in a row though!
    Tamara recently posted..On the benefits of letting go of holiday exercise expectations (Guest Post)My Profile

    • So smart to start off clients with a pushups assessment – I do as well! As far as high reps leading to pain? We’re the same in that regard Some of us really do need to watch it with those high reps (myself included).

  6. Great post!
    1. I learned years ago that pairing pushups with latt pulls makes both exercises more effective!
    2. I can do a few standard pushups, but need to work on these (and pullups) in the next 90 days.
    deb roby recently posted..Where Can I Go From Here?My Profile

  7. My push-ups game is pretty solid, so maybe I’ll shoot for some of those clapping push-ups now. I might be able to pull off one… or none. LOL!
    Yum Yucky recently posted..We Wish You A Greedy Christmas!My Profile

    • Ha!! I have not evah done clapping pushups (do they turn off the lights? lol) I *think* they might destroy my already creaky wrists. Let me know if you manage it!

  8. How about tricep pushups and burpees? Ball (full or bosu)? I do pushup with a side plank twist, which I’m really liking at the moment (I’ve done it with weights too like the video, phew!). How about Dynamic planks? (from full plank to half one arm at a time). Chatarunga in yoga helped me be able to do pushups and I also tried the 100 pushups app.

  9. Such a good challenge. I have not been able to a proper push-up to save my life since my surgery last March. So my goal for 2013 is to get back to being able to easily bang out a set of proper regular pushups (no girlie modifications).
    Krysten Siba Bishop (@darwinianfail) recently posted..Musical #Motivation Monday – Catch My BreathMy Profile

    • Krysten, if anyone can accomplish something they set their mind to, it’s you. Physical barriers are obviously the exception to “anyone should be able to do a pushup.” What amazes me is when people who’ve had barriers are motivated and determined to put it behind them. Those who won’t try or give up can learn a lot from the example you set.

  10. Trying to catch up from my unplug time & saw this – LOVE! I have to read more careful tomorrow but you know I LOVE PUSH-UPS IN EVERY WAY!!!!

    I did clap push-ups when I was younger. Took me about 3 months to get to them & then only did 4 or 5 at a time but I was proud of that! Need to see if I can even do them anymore!

    Will check this out more tomorrow but I can see it is great as always!!!!!
    Jody – Fit at 55 recently posted..Holiday Workout Help – Same Effect in Less TimeMy Profile

    • Wow!! I am thinking you’re still very well-versed at pushups Jody. I’ll never be able to do plyo pushups due to my wrists/elbow, but I enjoy watching others do them… heh.

  11. love LOVE the variations! adding in those 5 from the video will really help get me pumped, i’m sure. well, at least they’ll make me sweat! I’ll let you know how I do with them. (opens bag of tricks and adds these 5).
    peace, YO!
    gene @boutdrz recently posted..Numbers 4 and 10My Profile

  12. Suzanne, great timing for me personally with these tips. I’ve recovered from an arm injury enough to try push ups again and really want to make sure my form is good. So per your advice, i’m going to focus on holding a plank for 30 seconds to start when I go to the gym tomorrow. Am meeting my trainer again for a refresher session after six months without him, and will make sure my form looks good from his perspective too. Thanks!
    Shira recently posted..Can Partnerships Help Reduce Childhood Obesity?My Profile

    • Sounds perfect Shira, and glad you’re on the mend. Be sure to hold the plank on your hands and toes, not elbows (this is called pillar strength, which includes your shoulders, hips, and core). Good luck and keep me posted!

  13. After having that terrible elbow injury this last year, I have done nothing except my PT to get better. My body is so weak now. My new and only goal for next year is to start doing push ups the right way. If my arm begins to hurt, I’ll stop, but if it doesn’t I am going to do it!
    Sheri – Motivation for Health & Fitness recently posted..Mom and Daughter TimeMy Profile

    • I really feel for you Sheri, particularly since I also had tennis elbow this year. Not nearly as severe, and I count my lucky stars for that. I look at injuries as wake-up call, since they many times reflect some dysfunction in the body we could have prevented. I wish I could have the opportunity to train you! Pushups can be hard on the elbows… use care and go slow. Tuck your elbows at a 45-degree angle and don’t let them flare. If you feel pain, stop.

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