Push-up Zero to Hero

Doing a simple push-up can work out your chest, shoulders, arms, core, glutes, and legs, so why aren’t you doing them?

A friend of mine confessed to me the other day that she had been doing modified knee push-ups for years now because she didn’t believe that she was strong enough to do a regular (or military style) push-up. Then one day, she thought “what the heck “and gave it a try. To her delight, she did eight of them! This got me thinking about two things:

  1. Why do we so often limit ourselves athletically because we assume we aren’t strong enough. fast enough or talented enough to go to that gym, play that sport or take part in that event. I mean, everyone has to start somewhere. Even Arnold was once a scrawny kid. Wasn’t he?
  2. Push-ups are an awesome exercise that you can do virtually anywhere – so why aren’t more people doing them?

The major muscles and body parts that are involved in performing a regular push-up are:

  • Chest muscles
  • Shoulders and back
  • Arms (mostly the back of the arms)
  • Core
  • The “big swing muscle” under your armpit 

In a 2014 study on push-ups, electromyographic signals (that indicate a muscle has been activated) were recorded in the Triceps Brachii, Upper Trapezius, Anterior Deltoid, Clavicular Pectoralis, Rectus Abdominis, Rectus Femoris, and Lumbar Erector Spinae. That is a nice collection of activated muscles.

Since so many muscles and muscle groups get involved in push-ups, they are said to burn a lot of calories. Studies have shown that by engaging more muscle groups simultaneously, your body requires more fuel to keep going than if you only engage one muscle group. 

How To Do a Push-Up

Things to keep in mind when you are doing a basic push-up:

  1. Keep your body stiff and also straight (like a plank).
  2. Put your elbows at a 45-degree angle out from the sides of your body.
  3. Inhale on the way down.
  4. Get your body all the way down to the floor, allowing your sternum to touch it gently.
  5. Exhale on the way up (forcibly, when you are getting tired).

Pro Tip #1: If the push-up causes pain in your wrists, trying holding some light dumbbells, kind of like handles for the floor. Or do fist push-ups, which look pretty awesome but can be hard on your hands. By doing either of these, your wrist will be straight instead of being at a 90-degree angle like it is when your palm is flat on the floor. That can prevent painful wrist strain.

Pro Tip #2: Get in the habit of performing your push-ups with a full range of motion right from the get-go. If you only use part of the push-up, you will only get part of the benefit. 

Where to Begin

A lot of beginners will jump directly into the knee push-ups because it is easier than regular ones, but I think (and I am not alone) that putting your knees down changes the geometry of your body too much. By placing your knees on the ground you change the length of your fulcrum, the angle of the lever, and amount your glutes and abs are involved. Knee push-ups are a fine exercise on their own but I think a better way to lessen the weight of a push-up, without changing the effective length of your body, is to perform Wall or Incline Push-ups.

To perform a wall push-up, simply lean against a wall with your toes a few feet away and do the push-up movement from a semi-upright position. 

An incline push-up is done by keeping your feet on the floor and planting your hands up on a table, countertop, chair, stair or anything else that is raised off the ground. As you get stronger and stronger, move those hands to a surface that is closer and closer to the ground. Once you can do 10-12 pushups comfortably on a single stair, you are ready to move on.

Advanced Push-Ups

As I mentioned before, the basic push-up works so many muscle groups that you don’t need to move on from here if you don’t want to, but there are so many fun variations, why wouldn’t you want to try some?

The Fingertip Push-up is a more advanced technique that will also improve the strength of your… well, your fingers. The Fingertip Push-up can also help build strength and stamina in your forearms and grip, which is helpful around the gym, the job, and the home. 

Or you can do push-ups with your hands on an unstable surface (like a half dome, swiss ball or two medicine balls). Place the palms of your hands on top of the wiggly item and perform the push-up from there. This won’t necessarily make your arms and chest stronger (as they showed in this study) but it will engage more of your core. 

Another version you can try is the Decline Push-Up, with your feet up higher than your hands. By getting your feet up, gravity shifts more of your body weight to your chest and abs. You can put your feet on a bench, stool, or another level surface that gets your feet at the same height as your shoulders (or higher, eventually). 

There are many more variations but my absolute favorite is the Push-up Dumbbell Row. Here’s how to do it (see the picture above):

  • Grab a pair of dumbbells, not too heavy, one in each hand.
  • Get into a plank position, with the dumbbells a little less than shoulder-width apart.
  • Lower yourself down to the floor, pause, then go back up (do a push-up).
  • Once you’re back in the plank position (with your arms straight), pull one dumbbell up off the floor and perform a row.
  • Pause with the dumbbell off the floor, then gently put the dumbbell back down.
  • Repeat the same movement with your other arm to complete 1 rep.

Like I said, there are many more variations of the push-up that you can try, like the wide-grip, narrow-grip, clap, spiderman, shoulder tap, thigh tap, rotational, single leg raise, staggered, corkscrew, diamond, tiger, pike, dive-bomber, and the slider. But to be honest, if you can whip off a bunch of perfectly executed plain old regulation push-ups, that is all you really need. If push-ups are good enough for Jack Palance, they’re good enough for me. 

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