I hear this a lot: “I’ve never been able to do a pushup!” or “I used to be able to but it’s been a long time since I could.” There’s something ingrained in a lot of our minds about the primacy of doing pushups – whether it’s the (good or bad) memories of gym class in grade school or something even more deep-seated in our subconscious, the act of pushing your own bodyweight up from the floor with your arms seems so basic a measure of fitness. Is it really that important? I think in some ways it is, and it involves a lot more than just determining how strong your upper body is. A properly-done pushup requires a great deal of “core control” as well as a decent measure of upper-body strength. What a lot of people don’t realize is that the classic test of seeing how many pushups you can do is actually a muscular endurance test and not considered so much of a strength one. However, if you can’t do a single push-up then of course going from zero to one says that you got stronger! If you can’t do any right now how can you work up to doing one?
The key is progression. Start with what you can do and build on that. Here is a three-part progression to follow:
1. Wall Pushups – Stand a few feet away from the wall and place your palms on the wall level with your shoulders. Lift your heels off of the floor, brace your abs (tighten them up, like if you were doing a crunch), pull your shoulder blades together, and slowly bend your arms to move yourself closer to the wall. Just before your nose touches the wall, straighten your arms to reverse direction. Repeat this up to 10 times. When you can do 3 sets of 10 reps with only a minute’s rest in between, move to the next part.
2. Angled Pushups – This will require having a horizontal bar or bench set to midriff height. This can be done standing or kneeling depending on what you have available to you. Follow the same form as in the first part: hands level with shoulders (though now they will be lower because you’re at an angle), brace abs, shoulder blades back, lower chest to bar/bench and push back out. When you can do 3x10 with 60 seconds rest in between, it’s time to move into the full pushup!
3. Full Pushup – This version will differ depending on your gender.
a. Females – Kneel on the floor (place a padded mat under your knees if that is uncomfortable). Place hands flat on the floor and walk your body forward until your hips are level with your shoulders and knees (your butt should not be sticking up in the air!) Brace abs, pull shoulder blades back, and lower until your chest is within an inch of the floor (think about bringing your arms to 90-degree angles if you’re not sure how deep to go). Push back out to start.
b. Males – Get down on the floor with hands a little wider than the shoulders and your feet pulled towards your shins so you’re on your toes. Brace abs, pull shoulder blades back, and lower until your chest is within an inch of the floor (think about bringing your arms to 90-degree angles if you’re not sure how deep to go). Push back out to start.
You’ll notice some similarities in the form of each part: make sure your hands are shoulder-width or a little wider, keep your abs contracted throughout the movement (if your low back starts to lag then you know you’ve relaxed your stomach muscles too much), squeeze the shoulder blades together, and use as full a range as possible. If you’re having trouble with any of these cues, check with your fitness coach. There are a LOT of variations of this basic movement and little tricks to help you work on specific parts of it or progress even further than the full one for more strength development.