Push-ups – it’s an exercise we love to hate, but one that works a variety of muscle groups. Each time you push your body off the floor against gravity, you work your pecs, triceps, and the muscles in your core. You also strengthen the muscles that stabilize your back. This gives you more resistance to injury when you do other exercises. Since you’re using your own body weight, you can do push-ups without any equipment. When you don’t have access to weights, drop down on the floor and do a few sets. How’s that for convenience? Still, you have to work hard enough to challenge your muscles. Are you doing that and are you working on your push-up progression?
Push-Up Progression: Progressing with Push-Ups
No matter how many push-ups you can do now, you’ll need to increase the stimulus you place on your muscles over time to continue to get benefits. It’s all about progressive overload, right? Unfortunately, many people get into a comfort zone and never change the style of push-ups they do or even the number. Your body adapts to that approach fairly quickly.
Push-up progression is the key to success – making push-ups more challenging over time so you challenge the many muscles push-ups work even more. When you first started out, you may have done push-ups with your knees on the floor, rather than on your toes. In the early stages, you can even do them standing by pushing against a wall, but over time, you gradually build up the strength to do full push-ups on your toes. If you’re STILL doing push-ups on your knees, it’s time to work towards doing standard push-ups on your toes.
If you’ve tried to do push-ups on your toes and were unsuccessful, you can make things easier by placing your hands on a bench so your body is elevated. A step riser works well for this. Start by doing one or two push-ups with your hands higher than your toes. Then drop to your knees to complete the rest of the set. Slowly, over time, increase the number you do on your toes with your hands on a step with one or two risers. Begin by using a step with several risers or even a sturdy table to support your hands until you build up more strength. Then gradually lower the height of the step for more of a challenge.
Suppose you can’t complete a full push-up on your toes. Build up your strength by lowering your body as low as you can on your toes and hold the lowest push-up position you can isometrically. The next time you do it, hold the position even longer. Work towards lowering your body all the way down.
Push-Up Progression: What If You’re Already Doing Full Push-Ups?
Once you can knock out 20 push-ups in a row using good form, it’s time to increase the challenge. When standard push-ups become easy, you’re no longer building strength. Challenge yourself to work harder by doing decline push-ups – push-ups with your feet elevated. The higher the elevation, the harder the exercise will be. Start by placing your feet on a low step and increase the height as your strength and endurance improve. Make sure your elbows are at a 45-degree angle with your body and you aren’t arching your back during the exercise.
Push-Up Progression: The Hardest Push-Up Variation
In one study, researchers asked 14 fit men and 9 women to perform one of 6 push-up variations, including push-ups with knees flexed, regular push-ups, push-ups with hands elevated on an 8-inch block, push-ups with legs elevated on an 8-inch block, ones with hands elevated on a 24-inch block, and ones with feet elevated on a 24-inch block. They scored the difficulty of each push-up variation by measuring the amount of force the individuals exerted against the ground when they did each variation. The toughest one was doing push-ups with feet elevated 24 inches. So, to increase the challenge, gradually increase the height of your feet when you do decline push-ups.
Another challenging variation is pike push-ups. To do this variation, get into standard push-up position, but instead of pushing up from this position, walk your feet forward and raise your buttocks into the air so your body forms a triangle. Now, lower your body up and down. Considerably more challenging, isn’t it?
If you’re a real push-up superstar, try one-legged or one-armed push-ups. Not only are you making the exercise tougher, but you’re also creating a balance challenge. Another variation that will challenge your balance skills is doing push-ups with your hands on a stability ball.
This is by no means an exhaustive look at push-up variations. A few others you can do once you’re proficient with standard and decline push-ups include plyometric push-ups, dive-bomber push-ups, Spiderman push-ups, push-ups wearing a weight vest, and push-ups using resistance bands as added resistance.
The Bottom Line
Even if you think you can’t do full push-ups on your toes, keep progressing by supporting your hands on a bench and gradually lowering the height of the bench and increasing the number of push-ups you do over time. You’ll eventually be able to do full push-ups if you’re persistent.
If you can do full push-ups, that’s great, but you, too, can benefit from push-up progression. Start by doing decline push-ups and gradually increase the height of your feet. One caveat: Make sure you’re using good form and full range-of-motion. It’s better to do an easier variation and do full push-ups with good form than to do a lot of half-way push-ups.
Whatever you do, don’t avoid push-ups. This exercise works so many muscle groups and is one of the best bodyweight exercises there is. Plus, you can do them even when you don’t have access to equipment. Just as importantly, don’t keep doing the same old push-up routine. Chances are your body has adapted to the point that you’re no longer getting benefits. Make sure you’re using progressive overload when you do push-ups too so you can avoid reaching a push-up plateau.
ExRx.net “Decline Push-Up”
Breaking Muscle. “Kinetic Analysis of the Push-Up: Which Version is Hardest?”
J Strength Cond Res. 2011 Oct;25(10):2891-4. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e31820c8587.
New York Times. “An Enduring Measure of Fitness: The Simple Push-up”
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