HOW TO DO A PUSH-UP: 3-PHASE WORKOUT & TRAINING GUIDE

HOW TO DO A PUSH-UP: 3-PHASE WORKOUT & TRAINING GUIDE

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

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.

Primary muscles

As mentioned above, there are three main muscles that engage during any pushing exercise. We'll be discussing each one of them below.

  • Pectoralis
  • Anterior deltoid
  • Triceps

The push-up variation that you choose will emphasize the development of one muscle above the others.

Example:

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.

Pectoralis

Diagram of the pectoralis major, one of the main muscles that engage during push-ups

Exercises such as the bench press get the most out of this muscle, but progressions such as diamond push-ups will provide similar results.

Do we say that bench pressing is useless?

Not at all.

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:

  • Pectoralis major
  • Pectoralis minor

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.

Anterior deltoid

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

The shoulder muscle is comprised of three fibers, or heads:

  • Anterior or front deltoid
  • Medial or lateral deltoid
  • Posterior or rear deltoid

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.

Triceps

A diagram of the three heads of the triceps, one of the muscles worked by push-ups

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:

  • Long head
  • Lateral head
  • Median head

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 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.

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

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 push-ups

Picture of a man in the bottom position of a 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:

  • Keep a straight line from your head to your heels.
  • Squeeze your glutes to keep your lower back neutral. Don't arch or extend the hips.
  • When you lower keep your elbows close to your body; do not flare the elbows.
  • Go down until your chest barely touches the ground, and push back up until your elbows are fully extended.

Wall push-ups

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.

Steps:

  1. Start by facing the wall at a distance of 30-45 cm (12-18 inches).
  2. Place your feet shoulder width apart and your hands on the wall at shoulder height.
  3. Bend your elbows to lower yourself towards the wall, then push to come back up.

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.

Incline push-ups

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 and closer to the ground.

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

Steps:

  1. Find a surface that is high enough to allow you to perform about six push-ups.
  2. Place your hands shoulder width apart, then start descending until your chest nearly touches the surface. While descending do not flare your elbows. Keep them close to your body.​​
  3. Push back to the starting position, making sure that your elbows are fully locked.​​

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.

Knee push-ups

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.

Steps:

  1. Kneel on the floor, place your hands on the floor, shoulder width apart, and extend the arms so that the shoulders are right over your elbows and wrists.
  2. While in this position, lift your lower legs and feet and relax them.
  3. Extend the upper body so there is a straight line going from your head all the way to your knees. You may have to readjust the position of your arms to match the position in step 1.
  4. Start descending in a controlled manner until your nose and chest are close to the floor.
  5. Push back up and fully lock the elbows.

Once you can do 3 x (8-10) get started with the next progression.

Negative push-ups

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.

Steps:

  1. Start in a push-up position, with your hands shoulder-width apart, and your shoulders right over your elbows and wrists.
  2. Begin lowering as slow as possible. Imagine your muscles being a braking system.
  3. When your chest touches the ground, get on your knees and return to the starting position.

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.

  • Sets: 4
  • Reps: between 6 and 8
  • Lowering time: 3 seconds per repetition​​
  • Frequency: 3 days a week with a rest day in between​​

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

  • Exercise: Incline push-ups
  • Sets x reps: 3 x (10-12)
  • Rest: 1-2 minutes between each set
  • Frequency: 3 days a week, with a rest day in between

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.

  • Goal 1: 4 x (4-6) repetitions
  • Goal 2: 3 x (6-9) repetitions
  • Goal 3: 3 x (10-12) repetitions

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: Practicing perfect form

  • Exercise: Knee push-ups
  • Sets x reps: 3 x (8-10)
  • Rest: 1-2 minutes between each set
  • Frequency: 3 days a week, with a rest day in between

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:

  1. Start with your shoulders over your wrists and elbows.
  2. Squeeze your glutes and keep a straight line from your head to your heels. Don't arch your back, don't pike your hips, don't extend your hips. Your back has to be neutral.
  3. When you are descending DO NOT flare the elbows. Keep them close to your body at all times.​​

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.

  • Goal 1: 4 x (4-6) repetitions
  • Goal 2: 4 x (6-8) repetitions
  • Goal 3: 3 x (8-10) repetitions

Phase 3: Building strength in reverse

  • Exercise: Negative push-ups​​
  • Sets x reps: 4 x (6-8)
  • Time under tension: 3-5 seconds each repetition​​
  • Rest: 2-3 minutes after each set
  • Frequency: 3 days a week, with a rest day in between

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.

  • Goal 1: 5 x (3-5) repetitions, 3 seconds eccentric each
  • Goal 2: 3 x (6-8) repetitions, 3 seconds eccentric each
  • Goal 3: 3 x (6-8) repetitions, 5 seconds eccentric each

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.

Now let's see what may be holding you back.

Weak links

Picture of a frayed rope, in this article signifying the weak link that prevents people in doing their first push-up

If you’ve gone through the progressions but still find it hard to do a push-up…

Or if you’ve ‘mastered’ one of the progressions but can't 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 do a push-up.

When it comes to addressing weak links for compound movements (movements that engage 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

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 can develop it 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

Front dumbbell raises

Get two dumbbells and stand with a straight torso.

Use an overhand grip, so the palms are facing the front of your thighs.

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.

Raise 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 after your first push-up

As you might’ve noticed there are only a couple weak links that may arise.

Now that you know how to do a push-up, and how to fix any potential weak link, your next goal should be to become better at doing push-ups.

There are three main routes you can go:

  • Weighted
  • Progression based
  • Repetition based

We will 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.

What next?

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

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
  • Handstand PUs
  • Planche PUs
  • 90 degrees PUs
  • One arm PUs

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.

For example: 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.

Conclusion

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.

If you feel like you have trained for a while but don't seem to make any progress, take a step back and analyze your situation.

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.

Over to you.