How to Do a Push Up

How to Do a Push Upphoto by Mike Baird

How to do a push up. That seems pretty straightforward, right?

For many women the subject of push ups is fraught with anxiety and fear. If I ask a potential client how long ago she did or attempted to do a push up her eyes will often get big has she reaches back in her mind to failed attempts in high school or her last unsatisfying bootcamp experience. She will often follow her response with,

“I can’t do push ups.”

I know this statement to be untrue. She simply hasn’t found the push up that is at her level.

I have a progression that I start clients on to be able to do a standard push up – on the ground and on toes.  Depending on their individual fitness level they may start at the very beginning of this progression or perhaps at step 2.  If you start working at it, you too can do a push up.

  1. Wall push up: This very beginner level is very effective at working your upper body and learning what a push up should feel like.  Face a wall and place your hands under your shoulders. Then place your feet 1-2 feet away (this will vary with height – you want to be at a bit of angle). Keeping your feet flat on the ground, bend your elbows to lower you upper body towards the wall. You must keep your body as straight as possible, don’t hinge at the hips and engage your lower body. To progress this needs to be all about your upper body. When that gets easy move to the next level.
  2. Incline push up: You will need a chair, couch or sturdy bench for this version. Your hand placement is the same but this time hands are on the bench or chair in front of you. The same mechanics apply – straight body and tucked in core with no hip engagement. You will start on your knees and progress, as you get stronger, to your toes.
  3. Modified push up or the “girl push up”: This is the one you remember from gym class. You’ll be on the ground but on your knees. Once again, pull your belly button in, don’t bend at the hips and go as low as you can. (I hate that term by the way – “girl push ups”. This girl does push ups on her toes.)
  4. Standard push up: Speaking of toes, when the modified push ups start to feel easy that means it’s time to get on your toes. I always tell my clients just start with one. They maybe assigned 8 but just give me one on your toes with the best form you have. It doesn’t matter how far you go down that first one, just keep good form. The depth will come with time and practice.

You know what usually happens at that point? They stay on their toes for the full set. They just needed to believe they could do it.  I always get a big smile when a client busts out standard push ups for the first time.

I do love push ups. For your best upper body push ups need to be in your workout rotation.  The push up works not just the chest but also back, arms, shoulders and core. And anyone can do a push up.

  • Sarah Kerner

    Next up… how to do a pull-up? Pretty please?

  • Pamela Hernandez

    I think I can do that in the future. :)

  • Suzanne

    Well said Pamela. As trainers we have to immediately gauge where clients are. But there is a push up everyone can do. Progressing is fun and rewarding!

  • Pamela Hernandez

    It is the absolute best!

  • Mary C. Weaver, CSCS

    Hard to beat pushups for nice pecs and triceps! I love the way you help your clients succeed by helping them realize what they *can* do.

  • Pamela Hernandez

    Thanks! We all have to start somewhere, right?

  • Shira

    Pamela, thanks for giving us these detailed options. I know a number of women who consider a push-up to be Mount Everest. It will be pleasure to share these tips on how anyone can get started with such an effective move!

  • Pamela Hernandez

    I know it used to seem like Everest to me! Of course, I still haven’t achieved my ultimate variation – the one armed push up. :) The scene in G.I. Jane with Demi doing them give me chills. Weird, I know.

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