How To Do Push-Ups: Unleash Your Pushing Strength

Man performing close grip push-ups on a ledge near a lake

With the rise of free weights, such as bench pressing, people no longer know how to do push-ups. They would much rather lay on the bench and give me 20. If you are unable to do a push-up but have a goal in achieving that, we are here to help you out.

In calisthenics this exercise is one of the staples and it builds up to so many other cool progressions, such as the handstand counterpart. Once you achieve that level, you can be sure that your fitness is on point and people will be in awe when seeing you.

Before we reap the rewards though, we have to do the work. We’ll start by having a brief look over the muscles that engage in this movement, as well as how to get started with it, how to address potential weak links, and how to progress once you have your first repetition.

While being overlooked by many people nowadays, especially the ‘gym bros’, this exercise has lots of benefits that should be taken advantage of.

Make sure to also check our article on the benefits of push-ups.

Muscles worked

A diagram of the muscles used when performing the 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 smaller muscles.

As a matter of fact, there are three primary movers in a push-up, while there are seven muscles that engage to stabilize your body during each repetition. This is a feat of bodyweight exercises only.

While all exercises do require stabilization from other muscles, bodyweight exercises require the greatest number of muscles to work in synergy.

Primary muscles

As mentioned above, there are three main muscles that get a workout with any pushing exercise. Depending on the exercise or variation, some get worked more than others. However, these are the main pushing muscles:

Pectoralis

Diagram of the pectoralis major

This is one of the beach muscles that most 'gym bros' try to develop aggressively. That is because it is a big muscle and, truth be told, having a big chest feels nice. Exercises such as the bench press get the most out of this muscle, but progressions such as diamond push-ups will provide similar results.

It should be noted that the pectoralis group is split into two distinct muscles:

  • Pectoralis major
  • Pectoralis minor

The minor lies under the major and has a big role in stabilizing the scapula. In calisthenics it is especially important as it helps with scapula protraction.

Having good protraction will not only prevent any injuries, but will also help you a lot down the road in planche training.

Anterior deltoid

Diagram of the deltoid muscle and its three heads: front, medial, and rear

The anterior deltoid is the fiber (or head) that is positioned in the front of your shoulder. There are also the lateral and rear heads but they are not important for the purpose of this article so we’ll skip them.

As a general rule, the more elevated your feet are, the more engagement there will be in the deltoid. The best variations for this muscle are the handstand push-up and the planche.

Triceps

A diagram of the three heads of the triceps

The triceps is situated at the back of your arm and it is the muscle that gives the look of big, muscular arms (contrary to the popular opinion that big biceps = big arms). The triceps is separated into three fibers (heads):

  • Long fibers
  • Lateral fibers
  • Median fibers

The best progressions that work the three heads at once are the diamond push-up and the bodyweight triceps extension.

Stabilizing muscles

Diagram presenting all the muscles that engage during a repetition of the push-up

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 it is not the purpose of this article, I will just mention the muscles. For a more in-depth look at the muscles worked by push-ups, check the article on that.

  • Biceps
  • Posterior deltoid
  • Rectus abdominis (the six-pack muscle)
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    Obliques (the V-cut)
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    Erector spinae
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    Gluteus maximus
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    Quadriceps

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! This is one of the differences between machine/free weights training and calisthenics. If you want a full body workout, then make sure to at least add some bodyweight exercises into your routine.

How to do push-ups

A man performing push-ups in the gym

The information presented above will be helpful if you need to address potential weak links. Now that we have the necessary information, we need to start laying the foundation. Depending on your fitness level you may need to start from the very first progression or the last one.

You may even know how to do a push-up but the movement is too difficult for you or it looks jerky. For that you may want to check the section below on how to progress or check out the article on form.

Note that all exercises should be performed with perfect form as presented in this article.

Wall push-ups

Woman stretching close to a wall

This is one of the easiest variations and should be done if you are a complete beginner and have to grasp the movement. To be honest, it puts so little pressure on your muscles that I recommend using it just to understand how the movement works, then jump to one of the following two progressions.

How to do them:


Start by facing the wall at a distance of 30-45 cm (12-18 inches). Place your feet shoulder width apart. Place your hands on the wall at shoulder height.

From there bend your elbows to lower yourself towards the wall, then push to come back up.

When you are able to achieve three sets of 15 repetitions of this progression, you will be able to go to the next one. Bear in mind that this progression is only meant to slightly strengthen your muscles and joints, as well as get you used to the movement.

Incline push-ups

Sportsman performing inclined push-ups on a bench

If you want to learn how to do a push-up, this is the best exercise to start with. The incline variation is very useful, because the intensity can be easily changed

All you have to do is change your angle in relation to 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 and closer to the ground.

Eventually, you will reach the point where you do a basic push-up.

Find a surface that is high enough to allow you to perform the movement, but low enough that to feel the intensity.

Place your hands shoulder width apart, then start descending until your chest nearly touches the surface. Push back to the starting position and repeat.

This is one way to progress. The following two variations are also good choices when it comes to achieving your first push-up.

Progression to a harder variation or to a lower height object should be done once you are able to do three sets of 15 repetitions.

Knee push-ups

Woman performing knee push-ups in the gym on a yoga mat

This variation is the second most effective if you can’t do the exercise yet. It will take away some of the resistance of the body and it’s a go-to for those who are not able to complete even one rep of the full movement.

How to do them:


Kneel on the floor, place your hands shoulder width apart and stretch the arms so there is a perpendicular line between your hands and shoulders. While in this position, lift your lower legs and feet and relax them.

Extend the upper body so there is a straight line going from your head all the way to your lower back.

Start descending in a controlled manner until your nose and chest are close to the floor. Raise your body, pushing through your arms, and fully lock the elbows.

When you are able to reach three sets of 15 repetitions you are good to go to the next progression.

Eccentric push-ups

Man at the bottom position of a push-up

If you can do this variation then progress will come easily to you. Eccentric training is the most effective way of building strength to do any exercise.

In this variation you will only do the negative movement.

The eccentric (negative) movement is the part of the exercise where you lower your body towards the floor.

How to do them:


Start by descending towards the floor as slow as possible. When you reach the floor, get on your knees and return to the starting position (note 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 eccentric, get on your knees and return to the starting position.

Sets and reps: three sets of 8-12 reps every other day will bring good results in a couple of weeks. Again, if you are not able to complete 8 reps, do as many as you can while keeping the exercise difficult.

Full push-up

Two gym buddies working out together

Now that you’ve learned how to do push ups and have achieved your first repetition, it’s just a matter of doing them more so that your body builds the necessary strength. Remember that with exercising, what matters most is frequency.

The more you do of a certain exercise, the better you get at it. Remember to rest properly, especially if the exercise is fairly difficult for you. Doing it every other day should be more than enough to progress nicely.

Weak links

A picture showing a piece of string between two chain links to signify a weak link

If you’ve gone through the progressions but still find it hard to do a single repetition of this exercise… if you’ve ‘mastered’ one of the progressions but cannot advance to the other one for some reason... then it must mean that there are some weak links that should be addressed in your training.

Let’s imagine you have enough strength in the triceps and chest, but your anterior deltoid is underdeveloped. That is a weak link that will at least decrease performance – if not make you unable to perform the movement.

When it comes to addressing weak links for compound movements (movements that require more muscles and joints), the best course of action is to isolate the weak link. This can be easily done with the use of dumbbells, barbells, machines, or, in some cases, resistance bands.

Triceps weakness

If the lack of strength in the triceps prevents you from doing your first repetition, you can easily fix the issue using the cable machine or using dumbbells.

Additionally, some of the exercises that can be performed with dumbbells can also be performed with the resistance band.

Here are three of the best exercises when it comes to triceps strength and mass:

  • Single-arm cable pushdown
  • Triceps kickback
  • Skull crushers
Woman pulling on her skin around the triceps to signify weakness in that area

Single-arm cable pushdown

This exercise is done at the pushdown machine. Adjust the weight according to your needs. Grasp a single handle with a supinated (underhand) grip and pull it down until your elbow is locked. Doing this exercise a couple times a week should fix any weakness in the triceps.

Triceps kickback

Grab a dumbbell, put your knee over a bench and lean keeping a straight back. Keep the upper arm parallel to your body, having a 90 degree angle in the elbow. Push the dumbbell back until your elbow is locked then slowly, controlled, return it to the starting position.

Skull crushers

Lie on a bench and hold the bar directly over you (imagine the top position of a bench press). Lower the weight towards your face by bending at the elbow, without moving the shoulders. Push the weight back up and that counts as a repetition.

Anterior deltoid weakness

The anterior deltoid is a fairly small muscle so there’s a chance that a weak link in this region will show up eventually.

The good news is that, being a small muscle, you won’t need much to train it and you can develop it quite quickly.

If you have a weak link in the anterior deltoid here are a couple of exercises that you can do to fix the issue:

  • Front dumbbell raises
  • Dumbbell shoulder press
3D model of the human body indicating pain or weakness in the anterior deltoid

Front dumbbell raises

Get two dumbbells and stand with a straight torso. The grip should be overhand, so the palms are facing your thighs.

Now lift one of the dumbbells to the front, keeping a slight bend at the elbow. Raise the dumbbell until your arm is parallel to the ground. Slowly lower the dumbbell and raise the other one.

Dumbbell shoulder press

Even though this movement doesn’t necessarily mimic a push up (but more of a handstand push-up), it is a great exercise to develop your shoulder muscles.

Get two dumbbells and sit on a bench with a back support. Get the dumbbells shoulder height on each side and rotate the wrists. Your palms will be facing away from you. Push the dumbbells up and slowly lower them to the bottom position.

How to progress

As you might’ve noticed there are only a couple weak links that may arise. There are a few more covered in the perfect form article, as they do not influence strength but the technique.

Now that you know how to do a push up, your next goal should be to progress with this exercise. There are three main routes you can go: weighted, progression based or repetition based. Let’s slightly break them down just so you can get a general idea on them.

Add more weight

Man performing weighted push-ups with a weight plate on his back

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.

Slowly increase the weight as your progress.

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

Sportsman doing a handstand on parallettes

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:

  • Diamond PUs
  • Pike PUs
  • Archer PUs
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    Handstand PUs
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    Planche PUs
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    90 degrees PUs
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    One arm PUs

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 awesome explanatory video on how to increase your number of repetitions to 50.

Conclusion

This is all the information you need to start training for this movement. You should be aware that it’s far from being a difficult exercise, so you will see that progress comes quicker than expected.

If you feel like you have trained for a while but don't seem to make any progress, take a step back and analyze. You may have a weak link in your triceps or anterior deltoid. These weaknesses will slow down your progress and can prevent you from doing your first push-up.

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.