If you don't know how to do push-ups you are leaving gains on the table.
Unfortunately, with the rise of free weights such as bench pressing, people are ready to totally discard this incredible exercise.
They would much rather lay on the bench and rep out 20.
The push-up is one of the staples of calisthenics, and it builds up to so many other cool progressions, such as the planche.
If you can't to do a push-up, or a proper one, we are here to help you out.
We’ll start by having a brief look over the muscles that engage in this movement.
Then we'll continue with the steps to achieving your first push-up, how to address potential weak links, and how to progress once you have your first repetition.
Let's get started.
Muscles worked in a push-up
The muscles worked in a pushing exercise – whether we’re talking about push-ups, bench pressing, dips, or others – are pretty much the same.
Even though the same big muscle groups engage for all movements, the benefit of exercising with your own bodyweight is that you get a lot of support from stabilizers.
As mentioned above, there are three main muscles that engage during any pushing exercise. We'll be discussing each one of them below.
The push-up variation that you choose will emphasize the development of one muscle above the others.
A pseudo planche push-up will have the anterior deltoid work more than the triceps, while a diamond push-up places the emphasis on the pectoralis muscles.
Now let's get a better understanding of each of the muscles presented above.
Exercises such as the bench press get the most out of this muscle, but diamond push-ups will provide similar results.
Do we mean to imply that bench pressing and push-ups will yield the same results?
Not at all.
However, rather than getting dogmatic about a way of training, we like to integrate both calisthenics and free weights into our training.
This allows for better development, performance, and injury prevention.
It should be noted that the pectoralis group is split into two distinct muscles:
The pectoralis minor is found underneath the pectoralis major and has a big role in stabilizing the scapula.
In calisthenics it is especially important because it helps with scapula protraction.
Having good protraction will not only reduce the risk of injuries, but will also help you a lot down the road in planche training if that is one of your goals.
The shoulder muscle is comprised of three fibers, or heads:
The anterior deltoid is the head that is positioned in the front of your shoulder.
The more you lean forward when doing a pushing exercise, the more you will engage the anterior deltoid.
That is why exercises like the handstand push-up and the planche are so beneficial in developing the anterior deltoid.
The same holds true for dips, where leaning forward will increase the emphasis placed on this muscle.
The triceps is situated at the back of your arm and it is the muscle that gives the look of big, muscular arms.
The triceps is separated into three heads (hence its name):
The best progressions that work the three heads at once are the diamond push-up and the bodyweight triceps extension.
Now that we’ve glanced over the primary muscles of a push-up, we can have a look at the muscles that help in stabilizing the movement.
Since this is not the purpose of this article, we will just mention the muscles.
For a more in-depth look at the muscles worked by push-ups, check our article on that.
As you probably noticed, these are not only muscles that are situated in the arms, chest or back.
They are actually muscles throughout the body – including two leg muscles!
One of the major differences between bodyweight fitness and free weights is that the former will engage more muscles to stabilize your body through the range of motion of the exercise.
If you want a full body workout, then make sure to supplement your routine with a few bodyweight exercises.
How to do your first push-up
Now that we have the necessary information, it's time to teach you how to do a push-up.
Depending on your fitness level you may need to start from the very first progression we present here, or the last one.
You may even be able to do a push-up but you struggle reaching more repetitions. For that you may want to check the section below on how to progress after your first push-up.
Note that all exercises should be performed with perfect form as presented in the guidelines below:
This variation puts so little pressure on your muscles that we recommend using it just to understand how the movement works, then jump to one of the following two progressions.
Wall push-ups will mostly get you used to the movement. However, they won't offer much in terms of muscle development and on their own won't teach you how to do a push-up.
Once you can do 3 x (8-10) read as three sets of 8 to 10 repetitions of wall push-ups go to the next progression.
If you want to learn how to do a push-up, this is the best exercise to start with.
This variation is useful because you can change the intensity of the exercise by increasing or decreasing the distance between your hands and the ground.
The taller the surface is, the farther away you are from the ground, and the easier the exercise.
As you progress you will want to find surfaces that are closer to the ground.
Eventually, you will reach the point where you do a regular push-up.
This is one way to progress. The following two variations are also good choices when it comes to achieving your first push-up.
Once you are able to do 3 x (8-10) change the elevation to a smaller one, or go to a more difficult progression.
This variation is the second most effective if you can’t do a push-up yet.
Doing push-ups on your knees will take away some of the resistance and it’s a go-to for those who are struggling with regular push-ups.
Once you can do 3 x (8-10) get started with the next progression.
Eccentric training is the most effective way of building strength for any exercise.
With negative (eccentric) push-ups you will only do the lowering part of the exercise.
In a push-up, the negative part is when you lower your body towards the floor.
Note that you don’t have to press your way back up, but simply start all over again.
In the video above, the one showing the movement is also doing the pressing part of the exercise.
You don't have to do that.
After you lower with the negative, get on your knees and return to the starting position.
Once you can do 4 x (6-8), with a negative of 5 seconds, you should be able to do at least one push-up.
If you are unable to complete six negative push-ups, do as many as you can while keeping the exercise difficult.
First push-up: 3-phase workout plan
Time to put everything together and build a workout plan that will have you do your first push-up in a matter of days to weeks.
It all depends where you're starting from.
Unfortunately, we are unable to give you a certain time frame. However, we will structure the workout plan on three phases, each having its end goal.
This way you will be able to track your progress.
Phase 1: Soft tissue preparation
In the first phase we are concentrating on conditioning your joints.
This can only be achieved with a higher number of repetitions for multiple sets.
We've chosen the incline push-up because it is very easy to change the intensity to suit your needs. Furthermore, it's light enough to allow for multiple repetitions without fatigue.
Lastly, it will be a good preparatory exercise for the negative push-ups, which will put more strain on your joints.
Before we move on to the second phase, remember that inclined push-ups alone can take you to a full push-up.
All you have to do is keep on decreasing the elevation once you reach the 3 x (10-12) mark.
Phase 2: Knee push-ups
There are lots of people who don't know how to do a push-up.
They have the strength to push their bodies back up but they don't do it using perfect form.
In this phase we'll be ingraining the good form once and for all, using the knee push-up.
Tips for having good form:
In this phase we will be concentrating on doing knee push-ups with the form presented above. Focus on having a straight line from your head to your knees.
Phase 3: Building strength in reverse
This is the last phase, at the end of which you should be able to do a few full push-ups.
In this phase you will be building strength in reverse, by concentrating on the negative portion of the exercise, with the aim of lowering to the ground over a period of three seconds.
Since negative (eccentric) training can be taxing on the joints, you have used the first and second phases to condition your soft tissue for this phase.
Once you achieve the 3rd goal, you should be able to do at least one push-up.
But, realistically, you should be expecting around three to five full push-ups.
And this is how you do your first push-up.
From here on it is just a matter of doing more and more push-ups, until you can do 3-4 sets of at least 15-20.
How to progress after you master the push-up
Now that you have mastered the push-ups, what are the next steps?
There are three main routes you can go:
We will slightly break them down just so you can get a general idea on them.
Add more weight
Once you are able to do more than 15-20 reps with perfect form, you can go ahead and increase the resistance.
The best way to go about this will be using a weight vest.
You can also put weight plates on your back but as the weight increases you’ll need a spotter.
Lastly, if you have access to the necessary equipment, you can elevate your body on three boxes and use a weight belt to which you will attach additional weight.
Let’s say you’re able to do 15-20 repetitions without any weight.
You should add 5-10kg (11-22lbs) and work with that.
Then, as you progress, slowly increase the weight.
Aim for three sets of 8-12 repetitions before increasing the weight.
This way you will give your body enough time to get used to the added strain.
Work through the progressions
This is yet another way of advancing with your brand new skill.
Now that you can do a push-up you should strive to achieve more.
There are lots of progressions that you can aim towards, the top of the pyramid being planche, handstand or 90 degree push-ups (PUs).
Here are some progressions you may want to start working towards:
And this is just scratching the surface.
The best thing about bodyweight exercises is that you can progress a lot with them and they require new skills in order to advance – so you won’t get bored.
You will never be able to do freestanding handstand push-ups if you don’t have a freestanding handstand in the first place.
Do more repetitions
If you are training for muscle endurance, you may want to consider increasing the number of repetition.
Once you have your first rep, why not increase that number substantially? There are lots of people who'd want to be able to do 50-100 push-ups in a row.
Daniel Vadnal from FitnessFAQs has created an amazing explanatory video on how to increase your number of repetitions to 50.
This is all the information you need to learn how to do a push-up.
You should be aware that it is far from being a difficult exercise, so you will see that progress comes quicker than expected.
Now that you know how to do push-ups you should go ahead and start training so you can reach higher levels and cool skills that will leave people in awe.
Over to you.