The Push Up exercise has been around for hundreds of years. It’s a great conditioning exercise for most muscles of the body and requires no equipment.
In this post I’m going to break down this excellent exercise and show you not only how to perform it effectively but how to design your own push up workouts to get to that magical 100 push ups in one go!
The Push Up is a full body exercise that works lots of major muscle groups including:
- Pectorals – these are your fan shaped chest muscles and are heavily used in all pushing exercises.
- Triceps – another pushing muscle attached to the back of the arm. The triceps work hard at straightening the arm. So if you don’t fully straighten the arm you won’t get the most out of these muscles.
- Deltoids – the shoulder muscles play a large role in all pushing exercises but also in the stabilisation of the upper body to maintain alignment during the exercise
- Serratus Anterior – these muscles on either side of the rib cage attach to the shoulder blade and prevent it from winging during movement. Well developed serratus anterior muscles look like a bunch of bananas just underneath the arm pit. Nice!
- Abdominals – there is loads of core involvement in the push up. From the Push up position gravity forces the hips to the floor and it’s your core muscles that prevent this from happening. You can think of the Push up as a moving plank exercise from the hands.
- Glutes – the large buttock muscles are responsible for extending the hip and stabilising the core. When you hold your body in the straight position of a Push up it is your Glutes that are keeping your hips extended and in line.
- Latisimus Dorsi – these large wing like muscles on the back of the body run from your arm down to your buttocks. Not only do they create internal rotation of the arm but they help with stabilisation all the way down to the buttocks too!
- Secondary Muscles – there are so many more muscles involved in the push up that also help with correct alignment and stabilisation. The back of the body is actually more involved that you might first imagine.
How to Do the Perfect Push Up
The Push up is so much more than going down and up a few times. Lets break it down and see how to perform the exercise correctly:
Hand position can vary and as a general rule the closer your hands are together the more Triceps engagement. The wider the hands the more you use your shoulders. More on the different types of Push Ups later or you can find 10 variations on my 100 Push Up Challenge App for iPhone and iPad but for now lets stick with hands shoulder width apart and directly underneath the shoulders too. Fingertips should be facing forwards.
If you struggle with painful wrists then you can try forming a fist and doing your push ups off your fists. Use a mat or towels underneath the fists to make this more comfortable. Another option for sore wrists is to try using Push Up bars that put the hands in a different position that some people find more tolerable.
Keeping the feet together will better engage your core muscles but if you find this a bit too wobbly then separate the feet to a comfortable distance. You may have seen people performing push ups with one foot on top of the other or raised in the air, these variations produce less stability for the feet and challenge the core muscles and shoulder muscles to stabilise more during the movement.
During the push up movement your shoulder blades will want to wing out or stick out backwards. Winging scapular are very common and often down to weak serratus anterior muscles so it is very important that you work hard to keep your back flat during the movement.
As you think about the middle of your back between your shoulder blades you want to actively push this area up and do not allow this section to sag down as you get tired. Ensure you finish the top part of the movement by pushing up through the middle back.
When in the starting position of the Push Up there should be a straight line from head to heel. You can test this position by having a friend lay a broom stick along your back and by following their feedback you can adjust your position accordingly.
Strong activation or bracing through the abdominal muscles and a contraction through the buttocks should bring everything into alignment. If during the exercise your posture changes and your lower back begins to arch then it’s time to stop. An arching lower back is usually a sign of core weakness and you may be better working on core strengthening exercises first before progressing with the push up.
The head and neck alignment should continue the straight line from the heels. A good rule of thumb is to look down just in front of your hands. Keep the head still throughout the whole movement, you should not be bobbing around during the exercise even as you get tired.
Those ‘piece of junk’ Ab Rollers are often to blame for weak neck muscles during these type of exercises. Remember you are only as strong as your weakest link!
The elbows should not be pushed out during the down and up phase of the exercise. You never push something with your elbows splayed apart so now is not the time to start. Keep your elbows in close to your body for a more favourable shoulder joint angle.
On the downward phase of the Push Up screw your hands into the floor towards the body this will activate your Latisimus Dorsi muscles down the back and side of your body. You should feel the muscles just underneath your armpits activate as you pull yourself down towards the floor.
At the top of the movement you should aim to straighten the arms. Don’t snap the elbow back but ensure that they straighten in order to activate the Triceps muscles at the back of the arms.
You can perform the push up at lots of different speeds but I would recommend a controlled pace of 2 seconds down and 2 seconds up. Do not let your body fall to the floor. Pull the body down under control. It is during the downward phase that you actually gain more strength so don’t miss out on half the exercise by dropping to the floor.
As you become more advanced at the push up your can lower yourself slowly and push back up more explosively, but to begin with you are better focusing on technique and controlling the movement.
Your goal should be to reach a 90 degree angle at the elbow. If you go much deeper than this you increase the risk of damaging soft tissue and ligaments. Be particularly careful if using push up bars which produce the tendency to go too deep.
If you need a depth guide you can put a rolled up towel underneath the chest and aim to touch it with your sternum every repetition.
As you descend down into the push up take a deep breath in and as you push up from the floor breath out. When performing more strength based push up variations like claps and plyo push ups then you may need to hold the breath for a split second just to get maximum core tension. The reason why you need to hold the breath is because the diaphragm acts as a secondary core stabiliser so it’s not possible to both breathe consistently and perform the exercise at maximum effort.
Here’s a Tutorial I put together of the Perfect Push Up:
What if you Cannot Do 1 Push Up
Many people struggle to perform just 1 perfect push up. In particular ladies find the push up more difficult due to the lack of strength. No I’m not being sexist here, men natural have more upper body strength.
If you struggle with the Push Up then you need to regress the movement in order to perform it correctly and avoid getting injured and forming bad habits.
Here’s how to do it:
- Wall Push Ups: start by performing push ups with your hands against a wall and feet 3 feet from the wall. When you can perform 20 repetition move onto the next level
- Table Push Ups: next perform the push up with your hands on the side of a table. Ensure the table is against a wall so it does not slip. After 20 repetitions move to the next stage
- Stool or Chair Push Ups: the final stage is taking the hands even lower onto a chair or stool. Once you can complete 20 repetitions move down onto the floor
- Half or Seal Push Ups: you may not need this stage but if so perform the push ups off your knees. Its very important that you maintain a straight line from head to knees even during this version of the push up
Progressing the Number of Push Ups
Once you are performing perfect push ups you can start working on increasing the number of repetitions.
Here’s how to increase the number of push ups by putting them into a 5 set workout.
If you want to increase the number of push ups you can perform then you first need to know your starting point. How many push ups can you do right now without a rest?
Perform as many as you can with perfect form. If your hips start to sag or you push your hips up nice and high to rest then it’s time to stop.
Make a note of this Max Number.
Putting together the Initial Workout
Now you know how many you can perform in one go you need to put together a workout to improve on your maximum. I have found that 5 sets tends to work best for improving on your push ups. You want to perform double the amount of repetitions that you performed during your maximum assessment.
So, this is how you calculate the numbers for your workout:
- Multiple your maximum Number by 2
- Divide this new number by 5
- So if your max was 20: 20 x 2 = 40 / 5 = 8 reps
- Perform 5 x 8 reps for a total of 40 reps
- Rest 60-90 seconds between each set of 8 reps
This simple formula enables you to put together an initial workout that will help to improve on your Push Ups. However, in order to get stronger you need to progress the number of reps each workout.
6 Week Push Up Workout Plan
So you should have your initial starting numbers as worked out above. Now lets put them into a 6 week workout program so you can get stronger and continue to get results from your workouts.
Workout 3 Times Per Week
I recommend that everyone start with a 3 times per week program. Monday, Wednesday and Friday is a good start. Remember that you actually make gains in strength from your recovery so you need those days rest. More is not always better in this case. If you find that you are too sore when its time to perform your workout then it’s OK to take another days rest.
To improve your push ups you will need to rest between each set. I have found that 60 – 90 seconds is usually about right. If you are working on lower numbers then the rest should be longer as this is more of a strength based workout for you. If you are working at higher numbers then the rest can be shorter as its more endurance focused.
You will begin with the calculations you made based upon your initial assessment. The following method is simple you just add one extra rep to each set every workout. So taking the example above, if you performed 20 maximum reps your first 3 workouts will look like this:
Mon: Set 1 – 8 reps | Set 2 – 8 reps | Set 3 – 8 reps | Set 4 – 8 reps | Set 5 – 8 reps |40
Wed:Set 1 – 9 reps | Set 2 – 9 reps | Set 3 – 9 reps | Set 4 – 9 reps | Set 5 – 9 reps | 45
Fri: Set 1 – 10 reps | Set 2 – 10 reps | Set 3 – 10 reps | Set 4 – 10 reps | Set 5 – 10 reps | 50
You would continue adding 1 rep per set per workout until week 6 looks like this:
Fri: Set 1 – 25 reps | Set 2 – 25 reps | Set 3 – 25 reps | Set 4 – 25 reps | Set 5 – 25 reps125
So following this method by week 6 you will be performing a total of 125 push ups.
Now retest your maximum.
You will find that your maximum should now be up around the 60 mark after only 6 weeks!
I have found the above linear approach very effective but it can be rather boring and the muscle stimulation is not as high as it could be. I therefore prefer to use an undulating method which means that the numbers do not stay consistent from one set to the next. Here an example based upon the same maximum assessment as above:
Fri: Set 1 – 10 reps | Set 2 – 9 reps | Set 3 – 9 reps | Set 4 – 12 reps | Set 5 – 10 reps | 50
Fri: Set 1 – 13 reps | Set 2 – 15 reps | Set 3 – 12 reps | Set 4 – 12 reps | Set 5 – 13 reps | 65
Fri: Set 1 – 16 reps | Set 2 – 15 reps | Set 3 – 15 reps | Set 4 – 16 reps | Set 5 – 18 reps | 80
Fri: Set 1 – 18 reps | Set 2 – 18 reps | Set 3 – 21 reps | Set 4 – 19 reps | Set 5 – 19 reps | 95
Fri: Set 1 – 17 reps | Set 2 – 17 reps | Set 3 – 22 reps | Set 4 – 24 reps | Set 5 – 30 reps | 110
Fri: Set 1 – 17 reps | Set 2 – 30 reps | Set 3 – 25 reps | Set 4 – 30 reps | Set 5 – 23 reps | 125
You will notice that the total amount of repetitions completed is exactly the same as the linear method, the only difference is the distribution of reps throughout the 5 sets.
100 Push Ups Program
I’ve had many emails from people who want to perform 100 push ups in one go. You can use either of the 2 programs above to achieve this goal.
If you want to complete one hundred push ups then you will need to perform a total of 200 repetitions over your 5 sets. Basically just continue on either of the programs above for another few more weeks and that will get you there.
Beyond the Regular Push Up
There are lots of variations of push up. As I mentioned earlier, hand positions and various feet positions will change both the instability of the shoulder and core muscles along with the demands placed on Shoulders and Triceps. Once you can safely complete the regular push up for 30 – 50 reps then you can try some more advanced variations.
Here are a few that have been taken from my 100 Push Up Challenge App for iPhone and iPad
# 1 – Stability Ball Push Ups
# 2 – Mountain Climber Push Up
# 3 – Push Ups With Leg Jumps
I hope you now feel like a Push Up expert and have the confidence to get out there are perfect this excellent exercise. Get great at the Push Up and you can take it anywhere and stay in shape no matter where you are.
Now shoot for 100 push ups and let me know when you get there.
Over to You
Do you love the Push Up? Have you reached the magic 100 yet?