The push-up is the classic bodyweight exercise for the upper body. It will help you develop strength and endurance, build upper body muscle, fortify your joints and better coordinate the work of the muscles in your upper body, core and legs.
There is no other exercise that can be compared to the push-up when talking about effectiveness, practicality and real world application. If you were told that the bench press in the most productive strength exercise, you were told wrong. Bench pressing does not only create artificial loads for the upper body, but can also damage your rotator cuff and cause trauma in your elbows and joints, even if performed for brief periods. On the other hand, the classic push-up protects the joints and develops practical natural power indispensable in the training room, as well as in everyday life. That is why the push-up is the number 1 exercise for building upper body muscle and strength, and still the most common exercise in military training camps and academies, from ancient history until today.
Unfortunately, the bench press has become by far the most popular exercises in the gym, and push-ups have been relegated to bodyweight/home exercises, or boring exercises requiring heavy repetition. Which is quite astonishing when you factor in that if you master the technique of gradually increasing the challenge of your push-ups (detailed in our push-up series below) you’ll be able to develop your upper body power to such a degree that no bodybuilder or powerlifter can accomplish in the gym. Furthermore, your shoulders will be in perfect order! In this article, we’ll show you how to exercise properly to become the master of push-ups.
The value of push-ups
While different types of push-ups can better work specific muscles, all of the modifications offer unsurpassed value in providing natural physical strength and muscle mass. Push-ups are dynamically working your upper body muscles, create load for all the large and small muscles of the chest and the deltoid muscle and use all three triceps muscles as well – the most important muscles of the upper arm.
In addition, your muscles are also trained in isometric fashion – keeping and balancing the body in the correct position during the movements. These muscles include the latissimus dorsi, the internal muscles of the chest, your back & spine muscles, the abdomen muscles, the hips and glutes, the quadriceps and tibialis anterior muscle (the lower leg). Are we missing some muscles? Oh, yeah, even the feet and toes are getting their dose of isometric exercise!
When performed correctly, push-ups have a fortifying and revitalizing effect on the joints and tendons, too. Essential inner muscles that support the operation of your fingers, wrists, forearms and elbows are gradually becoming stronger and tougher, lowering the risk of carpal tunnel syndrome, elbow injuries and a number of other diseases. Some push-up modifications (like the Uneven Push-Up) that require you to have the arms at different heights effectively strengthen the rotator cuff, an often traumatized and troublesome area for athletes.
Push-ups also increase blood flow, cleaning your blood vessels and joints from decay byproducts and other accumulated bodily debris. Ultimately, anyone who includes push-ups in their workout is less likely to suffer from joint damage than those who use iron (weights) only.
Ideal technique = ideal result
Since push-ups are as old as exercising itself, there are many push-up techniques, all of them with some slight variations from each other. Techniques can vary according to the length of limbs, relative strength, obesity and injuries. Therefore, instead of giving a strict definition of the “ideal” push-up technique, we’ll outline a few general rules and principles:
- Avoid unnatural body or overly rigid body positions. Try to find the position where you are most comfortable to perform push-ups;
- Keep your legs, hips and back straight. Unnatural sagging at the waist or the butt sticking out is a sign of a weak lumbar area;
- Always keep your legs together. By placing your legs wide apart you make the exercise much easier because you eliminate the need to balance and stabilize the torso during the movement;
- The arms should be straight at the highest point in the exercise, but do not straighten your elbows till the end – keep them just slightly bent, as this helps reduce the load on your joints;
- Breathing should be flat and regular. Always remember one unwritten rule: exhale on the rise and inhale when descending down. If you notice that your breathing strays off, or you find yourself gasping for air – just take an extra breath, don’t suffer through.
Our push-up technique involves a short pause (up to 1 second) in the lowest position of the exercise – this negates any inertia, thus increasing muscle strength and improving body movement control. That is why we advocate to always add a one-second pause at the bottom, before pushing up.
Many pros recommend doing push-ups at high speed and some also argue for plyometric push-ups (the push-up with a clap). There are a number of advantages of fast push-ups. Rapid movement of muscles has its benefits and also stimulates the nervous system due to the “stretch reflex”. Nevertheless, to perform fast push-ups, your level of training should be on a higher level. In any case, one should only increase the speed of push-ups slowly, allowing the body to adapt to the stress.
A few quick series of push-ups alternated with conventional speed push-ups, will not only diversify your training, but also increase your endurance. Still, we recommend performing push-ups in a relatively slow manner. Make the downward movement in one second; make a pause for a second or two when down before moving upwards and then immediately downwards without pause. You must aim to develop a steady rhythm. There are two reasons for this:
- The first is that uniform technique allows achieving a high level of natural strength development. When performing high-speed exercises, at some point you inevitably begin to rely on inertia meaning your muscles do not do the work.
- The second reason is your joints. They will adapt to stress easier during a regular and uniform motion than during blasting. By practicing a steady rhythm, there is significantly less risk to injure the joints. Rapid movement only becomes safe enough to perform after the joints have adapted and are strengthened by regularly practicing uniform, steady motion. Explosive exercises are useful as a supplement to training, but not as its foundation.
Some push-ups described in this lengthy article are performed with the help of certain exercise tools. This additional “equipment” helps you diversify the exercises and increase the depth of the movement. While not necessarily, these tools can be very useful, especially if you train alone.
You will only need two things – a baseball or tennis ball and a basketball. If you don’t have any, simply buy the cheapest in the shop. While veterans often use special medical balls, regular balls are also good, and what’s more, they are cheap. You can even substitute the ball with any other object of an appropriate size – e.g. three bricks replace the basketball, one brick the baseball/tennis ball. Just make sure that the object you use is sufficiently sturdy and secure. When using objects to determine the depth of a push-up, make sure you just lightly touch them with your body – do not put your weight on them.
Palms, fists or fingers?
We advise you to do the majority of the push-ups with open palms on the floor. Many athletes show off exotic hand positions – push-ups on their fists, fingers and thumb or even on the backside of the hand. While some of these positions may have some specific uses, we recommend doing the exercises with the classical hand position – it’s better for the joints, decreases injury risk and makes performing push-ups sustainable deep into old age. Furthermore, for most people, the classic position – open palms on the floor – is also most comfortable. The only exception might be push-ups on fists, which if the performer has an injured hand might find preferable as it reduces the load on the carpal joints.
Another variation is push-ups on your fingers which help develop the muscles on the hands and forearms. They can be great complement to daily workouts, especially if you aim to develop grip strength. However, this is a completely different type of push-ups and if you want to perform them you should start gradually, from Level 1, Wall Push-ups, slowly increasing the load and giving time and opportunity for the fingers to adapt. For most people, a few series of push-ups on all fingers per week or two is more than enough to develop their fingers and arms and keep them stronger and healthier than the average person.
Certain athletes, however, may find this insufficient. If this is the case, do not succumb to the temptation to do push-ups on two, three or several fingers. Use all ten of your fingers and work out through all the 10 levels in our series. When you come to Level 10, One Arm Push-ups, try not to force yourself too hard. It’s a very exclusive club of people who are able to perform the trick of one arm push-up on 5 fingers. However, by the time you reach Level 10 it won’t even be necessary to perform it – your fingers will already be stronger than steel.
Push-ups on the back of the hand or wrist joints are painful and limit the work of muscles as the wrists get tired faster than muscles. Avoid at all costs (very limited benefits)!
Our 10 Level Push-up Series
In general, push-ups offer little room for modification. Athletes are often advised to increase the number of repetitions, or position one leg in the air, as soon as the exercise becomes easy to perform. As soon as the technique is mastered, all that remains is to increase the number of repetitions.
In strength training, however, the most important thing is consistent development. If you continue to do what you have always done, you end up with what you already have. No matter how many repetitions you do. You just employ the volume of muscle mass and strength that you already possess.
This is why our system comprises of 10 levels, each including a different variation based on the classical push-up. All of these exercises are arranged in such a way that each following exercise is a bit harder than the previous one. The first 3 levels are relatively easy for most people and can even be employed for therapeutic purposes for athletes who are recovering from injuries. They are also useful for beginners and the elderly. The complexity of the continuing levels increases gradually. Hence, the 10th level – the master level – is the most difficult exercise and offers the greatest challenge. Each level has its own 3 training levels, with sets and reps determined for each, which we recommend you to follow.
The execution of each of the exercises can be further improved and modified through a variety of techniques and practices, which are explained inside the article for each exercise. We have also added description of the training program and the progression path to be taken from exercise to exercise.
We present you the 10 levels of Push-ups:
- Level 1: Wall Push-Ups – 3 sets of 50 to advance to Level 2;
- Level 2: Incline Push-Ups – 3 sets of 40 to advance to Level 3;
- Level 3: Knee Push-Ups – 3 sets of 30 to advance to Level 4;
- Level 4: Partial Range Push-Up – 2 sets of 25 to advance to Level 5;
- Level 5: Full Range Push-Up – 2 sets of 20 to advance to Level 6;
- Level 6: Close Grip Push-Up – 2 sets of 20 to advance to Level 7;
- Level 7: Uneven Push-Up– 2 sets of 20 to advance to 8 Level;
- Level 8: Partial Range One Arm Push-Up – 2 sets of 20 to advance to Level 9;
- Level 9: One Arm Push-Up with Support – 2 sets of 20 to advance to Level 10;
- Level 10: One Arm Push-Ups – your ultimate goal is 1 set of 100 reps for each hand.
About the series
Whoever you are, the ability to properly perform full-range one arm pushups, slowly and with large number of reps, is a great achievement. All the hard work you’ve done during the previous levels will lend itself during the one arm push-ups.
How fast can you get there is another question. Much will depend on your commitment, motivation and a number of physical factors – the ratio of muscle and fat mass, length of hands, natural abilities, etc. However, if you bite the bullet and make the effort, you are sure to reach your goal. Perfection is a path, not a goal. However, perfection in one arm push-ups depends on your goal.
One of the possible goals is the number of repetitions. Once you master the technique of bodyweight exercising, you’ll notice that a few additional reps per set is not a difficult proposition. For determined athletes, 2 sets of 50 repetitions of one arm push-ups is an impressive achievement, and yet it’s still only a medium-term goal.
Once you’ve reached your goal of 2 sets of 50 repetitions, you are already on a notable level. Nevertheless, in order to achieve excellence it is necessary to perform 100 push-ups in a single set. You read that right – 100 repetitions. Raising your body with only one hand, repeated 100 times in a single set, may be relegated to fiction by many of you reading right now – the stuff of superheroes. Yet, it is achievable. The current Guinness world record for most one arm push-ups in 30 minutes is 1382 and is held by Canadian athlete Doug Prado. So, no excuses!
Bodyweight exercising is traditionally a strength discipline and not endurance drill. By increasing the number of repetitions you can also develop endurance, but your strength development might take a hit. If you want to build muscle, you have to find ways to make push-ups progressively more difficult.
The first thing you should do is to master the technique to the maximum, that is, reduce the speed of implementation, making sure that not a single muscle is relaxed during the exercise. Once the movement becomes crawlingly slow, try adding isometric tension to the muscle. While driving the movement with your arms, tense & strain your arms, shoulders and back as much as possible and literally fight for every inch of movement. While this might look like self-torture, it is in fact the highest level of training.
If, however, one arm push-ups are not a problem, try performing one arm push-ups with your feet on a rack, or a bench. This exercise loads the muscles of the upper body in much the same way as the conventional one arm push-up, but it is somewhat more difficult because of the tilt angle and total body weight relying on only one hand.
This approach will allow you to continue to build strength over the years, until you reach your maximum genetic potential. Include extra weight into your workout is not necessary. But if you still prefer to work out with weights, try some hybrid routines. Perform one arm push-ups and afterwards continue with dumbbell exercises. This approach distinguishes real men from the rest!
Further reading: Check out this awesome variation of the classic push up – the Forward Fold Push-up.