Ask fitness experts what the single most important total body exercise is and a number of them will say the squat. The squat certainly earns its reputation as a power exercise. This exercise targets large muscle groups in the lower body, strengthening them and activating hormones that burn fat. But when it comes to the upper body, the push-up steals the show. No wonder the military emphasizes push-ups and use them as an exercise to whip recruits into shape. If you’re looking for a stronger, more defined upper body, so should you.
The ability to drop to the ground and do push-ups says a lot about your fitness level. The first time you were able to do them from your toes instead of your knees was a defining moment. From there, you were able to increase the number you could do in a single session and begin to feel yourself getting stronger and more confident in your fitness ability. That’s the power of the push-up. Being able to do them puts you in a special class. That’s because not everyone can. In one study of middle-school students, 75% of the girls and 50% of the boys failed the push-up test. What makes push-ups such an important exercise and how can you maximize the benefits you get from doing them?
Push-Ups Target All the Muscles in Your Upper Body
Push-ups work your triceps, pectoral muscles, and your core while working stabilizer muscles. These are muscles that help other muscles execute a movement. These auxiliary muscles serve as the underlying foundation that stabilizes and holds everything in place, allowing you to move a weight through its full range of motion. For example, when you do a squat, your thigh and glute muscles are the primary muscles doing the work but you’re getting support from the muscles in your spine and core. Push-ups strengthen the stabilizer muscles in your back and trunk so you can do upper body strength moves like chest presses more easily with less risk of injury.
A Push-Up is the Most Versatile of All Exercises
You can vary the arm position of push-ups to change what muscles you emphasize and change the speed with which you go down and up – but that’s only the beginning. You can modify the exercise by doing them against a wall or with your hands on an exercise ball. Turn it into an isometric move by holding the push-up position as long as you can or make it dynamic by doing plyometric push-ups where you push up with enough force that your hands leave the ground. Here, you’re developing strength and power as well as getting your heart rate up.
Then there are spiderman push-ups and decline push-ups where your feet are elevated above your hands on a bench or chair. If you’re ultra-fit, you can challenge your strength and balance by doing hand-stand push-ups or one-arm push-ups. With so many ways to do this versatile exercise, you’ll never become bored or complacent.
You Can Even Modify Push-Ups to Improve Your Balance
With a few modifications, you can use push-ups to do balance work. Grab a stability or med ball and place your hands on it while doing push-ups. Hand-stand push-ups are another way to work on balance. To work up to doing a handstand push-up, start by doing decline push-ups and gradually raise the height of your feet as you progress. Once you can do them with your feet maximally raised, you’re ready to tackle a hand-stand push-up. Hand-stand push-ups work your back, shoulders, triceps, and core.
How Many Push-Ups Should You Be Able to Do?
How many push-ups can you do? Based on national averages, the average 30-year-old female can do 21 while a 40-year-old woman, on average, can do 16. These are MODIFIED push-ups. The numbers would most likely drop significantly for unmodified ones.
How much easier is a modified push-up than a full one? According to the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, when you do a regular push-up you’re lifting 64 percent of your body weight. When you do a modified one, about 41%. Age isn’t necessarily a barrier since fitness inspiration Jack LaLane was able to do finger-tip and one-arm push-ups at the ripe, old age of 93.
If you don’t think you can tackle push-ups on your toes quite yet, try them with your upper body elevated above your lower body by putting your hands on a bench. This makes it less difficult. You’ll gradually progress to the point you can do some on your toes on level ground. As these become less difficult, increase the challenge by raising your feet. If you’re trying to build muscle strength, keep making push-ups harder by modifying them rather than doing more of them. Once you get past 15 to 20, you’re working on muscle endurance, not strength.
As with any exercise, you have to continuously challenge yourself to see change. One way to do that is to add new push-up variations to your routine regularly. Variations like plyometric push-ups and one-arm push-ups are a way to add a new challenge to your routine so you can keep progressing. It’s one exercise that belongs in your routine.
New York Times. “An Enduring Measure of Fitness: The Simple Push-up”
ExRx.net. “Push-Up Test”
Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. (2011) 25(10). Pages 2891-2894.