Push-ups are more of a challenge than bench or chest presses because they force your entire body to work as a unit, with your abs, back, leg and hip muscles stabilizing your body as your chest, shoulders and arms do the work of pushing you up and down against gravity. Getting better at push-ups means increasing strength and endurance while avoiding injury; proper technique is essential for achieving all three of these goals.
Grasp a push-up stand or a hex dumbbell in each hand, then position yourself face down on the floor. Your body should be in a straight line from heels to head, your weight supported on your toes and your hands, lined up below your shoulders and slightly further than shoulder width apart, positioned on the dumbbells or push-up stands so that your wrists are straight and your palms face back toward your feet.
Squeeze your abdominal muscles tight to keep your body straight as you bend your elbows, lowering your body until your shoulders are even with your elbows. Inhale as you lower, then exhale as you press up to the starting position. Do as many push-ups as you can, with good form, to complete a single set. If you can’t do at least five full-body push-ups with good form, drop to your knees and complete the push-ups from there; the form remains the same except that your body is now in a straight line from knees to head instead of heels to head.
Rest for about two minutes or perform another exercise during this time, then perform another set of push-ups. Limit yourself to two or three sets, total, on your first workout day; then wait another week before doing push-ups again. After the first two or three weeks you can gradually introduce a second, then a third day of push-ups during the week. Always take at least one day of rest between push-up days.
Challenge yourself by making the exercise harder any time you can manage at least 20 of a given type of push-up. Once you can do more than 20 knee push-ups, start doing full-body push-ups; once you can do at least 20 full-body push-ups, lift one leg in the air and hold it there through the entire set, or rest your hands or feet (or both) on a stability ball or Bosu trainer.
Tips and Warnings
- Other techniques to help you get better at doing push-ups include emphasizing the eccentric contraction–prolonging the downward phase of the movement so that it lasts to a slow count of 4, while the upward phase only takes a slow count of 2–and doing isometric holds. If you see that you have a “weak” or “sticking” point in the range of motion–say, you can’t seem to get yourself back up past the halfway point–practice holding yourself at that specific joint angle for anywhere from 3 to 10 seconds at a time, then move through the rest of the range of motion to complete the push-up.
Make sure to keep breathing as you do push-ups; holding your breath or straining may increase your blood pressure and impede the flow of blood to your heart.
A rhythmic, controlled motion is essential for building strength and avoiding injury; you should take at least two seconds, or a slow count of 2, to move from the up position to the down position, then another slow count of 2 to get back up again.
About this Author
Marie Mulrooney has written professionally since 2001. Her diverse background includes numerous outdoor pursuits, personal training and linguistics. She studied mathematics at the University of Alaska Anchorage and contributes regularly to various online publications. Print publication credits include national magazines, poetry awards and long-lived columns about local outdoor adventures.