Not everyone has heard of a burpee but there aren’t many people who aren’t familiar with the push-up. We equate the ability to do a lot of push-ups with physical fitness. This may partially stem from popularity of push-ups in military boot camps. Push-ups are also used as a measure of fitness in the military and in school settings where being physically fit is a priority. Why has the push-up become synonymous with being physically fit?
Doing push-ups isn’t easy for everyone. To complete a set of push-ups requires strength and muscle endurance and when you do them you’re working multiple muscle groups, including muscles in your upper back, arms, shoulder and chest. Plus, you’re activating your core muscles as well. Remember, if you’re on your toes, you’re doing a plank as well and getting tummy toning as well. Although it takes strength to complete a push-up, this exercise is really more a measure of muscle endurance than raw strength. A better measure of upper body strength is your one-rep max on bench press.
So, how many push-ups SHOULD you be able to do if you’re reasonably fit with decent upper body strength and endurance? The American College of Sports Medicine published these numbers:
20 to 29 years 17 to 33
30 to 39 years 12 to 24
40 to 49 years 8 to 19
50 to 59 years 6 to 14
60+ 3 to 4
Note: The numbers listed above are for modified push-ups with your knees touching the floor.
20 to 29 years 35 to 44
30 to 39 years 24 to 34
40 to 49 years 20 to 29
50 to 59 years 15 to 24
60+ 10 to 19
Where do you fall on the continuum? When testing yourself – no cheating! It only counts if you go all the way down with good form. No partial push-ups or going so fast that you’re using momentum. Keep in mind that it’s harder to do as many push-ups if you have long arms because your body has a longer distance to travel with each push-up. Even if you can’t do as many as the chart suggests, you can always get better.
Why the Ability to Do Push-ups Is Important
Other than being a marker for upper body strength and endurance, the ability to do a push-up means you have enough strength to reduce the impact of a fall if you stretch your arms out in front of you. Plus, having enough upper body strength to complete this exercise means you can push yourself up off the floor after a fall. That’s why you should keep doing push-ups as you get older to preserve this ability.
If You Can’t Do a Push-Up on Your Toes
If you can’t do full push-ups on your toes, you might modify the move by dropping to your knees. Yet, modifying the move doesn’t force your core to engage and become stronger. One reason you may not be able to do a full push-up is because you lack adequate core strength. Take a different approach. Rather than dropping to your knees, place your hands on a bench when doing push-ups until you develop enough strength to do them with your hands on the floor. This will engage your core more and more closely approximates what it’s like to do unmodified push-ups. Gradually, lower the height at which you place your hands so that you force your upper body and core to work harder.
Also, work on strengthening the muscles that do most of the work when you do full push-ups. Include a variety of exercises to strengthen your triceps and chest including dips, bench press, and triceps extensions. Work on planks to strengthen the muscles in your core. You need a baseline level of core and upper body strength to do push-ups on your toes.
Push-Up Variations Add More Challenge
If you want to improve muscle endurance even more, increase the number of standard push-ups you can do and then add more challenging push-up variations. To make push-ups more challenging:
Do push-ups in a decline position with your feet elevated on a bench.
Try one-legged push-ups. You’ll engage more muscles since you’re unstable.
Do push-ups with each hand on a medicine ball.
Do plyometric or clap push-ups. Excellent for developing power!
If you’re the ultimate push-up queen, try handstand push-ups. (not for the faint of heart)
Don’t think these are the only ways to do push-ups. There are at least 50 more variations on push-ups that you can explore once you’ve mastered the basics and can do them with good form.
Not Everyone Can Do Push-Ups
If you can do push-ups, be proud! In one study where researchers asked middle school students to do this exercise, half of the boys and 75% of the girls failed the push-up test. Yet, with a little focus and determination, anyone can learn to do them. If you’re still doing push-ups on your knees, switch to push-ups with your hands higher than your feet and gradually reduce the elevation. You’ll progress faster this way. If you’re already mastered standard push-ups, increase the challenge with push-up variations. Don’t get into a rut doing the same push-ups every time you work out.
The Bottom Line
The ability to do push-ups says something about your fitness, particularly how much strength and muscle endurance you have in your upper body. Yet, there are different types of fitness. The capacity to do push-ups says nothing about your aerobic capacity or ability to do sustained aerobic exercise. Push-ups should be part of a well-rounded fitness program that includes aerobic exercise and total body strength training.
Another tip – When you do pushing exercises, like push-ups, it’s important to do pulling exercises as well. Focusing exclusively on pushing exercises can create muscle imbalances that lead to injuries. Push-ups shouldn’t be your only exercise, but it’s nice to know when you don’t have access to any equipment and you have little space, you can whip out sets of push-ups.
American College of Sports Medicine
The New York Times. “An Enduring Measure of Fitness: The Simple Push-Up”
Stack.com. “Why Push-Ups Are Great and 5 Ways to Make Them Harder”
ExRx.net. “Push-Up Test”