The Perfect Push-up Progression Guide
Want to develop a chest that causes your foes to kneel before you? Do more push-ups.
Want to be the center of attention each time you go to the beach? Do more push-ups.
Want to build arms worthy enough of wielding Mjolnir? Do…more…push-ups.
From your arms, shoulders, and chest, to your lower back and glutes, push-ups are one of the most functional exercises around. This is partially due to the various muscle groups that are worked while simultaneously helping you to maximize strength.
Push-ups also teach you how to engage your core for maximal muscle activation. This will help you to excel with other movements such as the squat and deadlift.
But while the benefits are plenty, many of us find push-ups to be too difficult. Or, we might be performing the movement incorrectly thus preventing us from actually getting results.
That all ends today.
In this article I will show you how to progress from the standard pushup, all the way to more advanced techniques.
4 Perfect Push-up Progressions
If you’re capable of cranking out a handful of push-ups, then feel free to skip this section. For all others who are struggling, follow these 4 easy progressions to get started on the road to push-up mastery.
You can do these in order, 2-3 times per day. Once you are able to complete several sets with good form, move on to the next progression.
Place your hands on the wall in front of you at shoulder height and a little bit further than shoulder width. Take in a deep breath and unlock your arms so that you move towards the wall. Your elbows should now be close to your sides. Exhale and push your body away from the wall. Repeat.
As you get better at these, take a few steps away from the wall. This will shift most of your weight to your upper body thus adding extra tension to your chest, shoulders and arms. In turn, you build more strength which will prepare you for a full range of motion push-up.
The purpose of progressions is to increase the difficulty until you’re able to perform the exercise in question. By eliminating the wall and placing your hands on in inclined surface, you increase the difficulty by having to work with more body weight.
Start by placing your hands at shoulder width on an elevated surface. Same as the wall push-up, lower your body with flexed elbows and raise yourself back to the starting position.
To increase the difficulty, decrease the elevation or use parallel bars to lower your body even deeper.
If there’s one thing I have to say about knee push-ups it’s…
…don’t do them.
While everyone will tell you to start off on your knees, the truth of the matter is that this position won’t help you much.
When you think of the proper push-up form, your back is aligned straight with your hips and your entire body is stabilized. This allows the whole body to work as one. Knee push-ups remove the stabilization causing the required muscles to not be worked. So instead of growing stronger and eventually performing a proper push-up, your progress comes to a stand still.
So you’ve gone from the wall all the way down to the floor. But…you’re still not strong enough to string several push-ups together.
Not a problem.
Negatives will help you increase strength by focusing on the eccentric part of the movement. Eccentric (negative – lowering) movements build muscle faster than concentric (positive).
Start by taking the top (arms locked in plank) position and then slowly lower yourself to the ground with good form. This is one rep. Now, instead of pushing yourself back up with just your upper body, use your legs to assist you at getting back to the starting position and repeat.
Performing a Perfect Push-up
Now that you’ve gone through the progressions and are able to complete a full push-up, it’s time to perfect it.
On paper, push-ups look easy. Simply lower yourself parallel to the floor, and then push yourself away from it. Or if you’re name happens to be Chuck Norris, you push the earth down.
But while performing a push-up may seem elementary, it can be quite challenging. Especially if your form is all wrong.
Let’s go ahead and fix that.
Depending on your hand position, you can target different muscle groups and produce different results. But for now, we will focus on the standard push-up hand position.
Begin by placing your hands right outside of shoulder width. For help, lie flat with your chest on the floor. Place your hands right next to your shoulders. This is the width that your hands should be at throughout the movement. Now, keeping your hands at this width, lower them a bit so that they align with the middle of your chest.
Brace Your Core
As mentioned in the intro, push-ups are also a core exercise. To maximize core activation you must keep your torso inline with your hip. Avoid rounding your back or allowing your hips to drag down. As with most exercises, maintaining stability is key to doing it right.
Keep Your Head Straight
Along with a tight core, good posture and a strong chest play an integral role in your ability to perform a perfect push-up. If you are suffering in any of these areas then there is a chance that your head will be positioned forward and down. This will prevent you from activating all the required muscles to perform a push-up with full range of motion. Instead, make sure that your head is straight and aligned with your torso.
- Set yourself in a plank position with your hands locked straight out at slight shoulder width
- Align your hands at chest level
- Brace your core and glutes
- Lower yourself under control until you come about one inch above the floor with elbows at a 45 degree angle from your ribs
- With your head still facing straight and your hips aligned with your torso, push yourself away from the floor
3 Push-up Mistakes to Avoid
T Instead of Arrow
Wide positioned elbows – parallel to your chest forming a T – makes the movement easier as your pec fibers are able to produce more force but requires less muscle activation. Those who are new to doing push-ups tend to gravitate to this hand position. However, if you want to build muscle and get stronger, your arms should be placed shoulder width apart with elbows flexed at a 45 degree angle forming an arrow. This also provides less stress on your joints.
Instead of keeping straight, most people let their hips sag leading to anterior pelvic tilt. This is caused by tight hip flexors and erector spinae. The result is a movement that is much easier to perform since most of your lower body is hanging close to the floor. This in turn leads to half reps thus preventing you from completing the full range of motion.
The leading cause of half-rep push ups include the two common mistakes listed above: lack of shoulder strength and strong hip flexors. As a result, your stability takes a hit which is why you might be short changing your push-ups.
Remember, strength is developed by performing the full movement instead of stopping half way and fooling yourself – and others – that you have completed a full rep.
Leveling up Your Push-up
So you know how to perform a perfect push-up. Now what?
Well the fun doesn’t have to stop there. Just like the pull-up, there are many ways to spice up the push-up.
Below you’ll find some of my favorite variations that will help you target different muscle groups.
Make sure that you are able to complete the full range of motion for each variation that you try. If you find yourself losing form, then regress to an easier variation and progress from there.
Why you should do them: Build stronger shoulders.
Placing your hands further than shoulder width apart causes your shoulder muscles to work overtime. Your pecs will also get in some action.
How to do them:
- Place your hands wide while aligning with your chest
- Flex your elbows out and lower yourself to the floor
- Use your pectoral muscles to push yourself back to the starting position
Why you should do them: Build stronger triceps
The name says it all. Unlike a regular push-up, your hands will be closer together forming the shape of a diamond. You will feel the burn in your chest but more importantly, in your triceps.
- Place your hands closer than shoulder width with your thumbs close to each other
- Lower yourself to the floor (Your chest should be close to your hands)
- Use your triceps and chest to push yourself back to the starting position
Note: The closer your hands are the more difficult this movement becomes. Try to move them closer each time to form a perfect closed diamond.
Why you should do them: Improve balance
Spider-Man push-ups are a great variation for improving balance and stability since you will only have three points of contact.
How to do them:
- Keeping the elbows close to your sides, lower yourself to the ground while bring your left knee up to your left elbow (you should look like our friendly neighborhood web-slinger)
- Push yourself back up while locking out your left leg to return to the starting position
- Repeat with right leg
Medicine Ball Push-up
Why you should do them: Build a stronger core
Elevated push-ups activate the core better than normal push-ups. Throw in some instability and your core will be firing on all cylinders.
How to do them:
- Place both hands on a medicine ball
- Keeping your core braced, lower yourself under control
- Push yourself back up
Pro tip: Try not to fall over. But don’t worry, you got this.
Why you should do them: Build power and strength
Being strong is great. Being able to produce that strength quickly is even better. Plyo push-ups – while high in difficulty – will help you translate that strength to pure power.
How to do them:
- Get into normal pushup position with hands at slight shoulder width apart.
- Lower yourself to the floor
- Push yourself off the floor with enough force that your hands leave the ground
- Re-adjust yourself back to the starting position
Note: Increase the difficulty by clapping your hands while you’re airborne.
Why you should do them: Build stronger shoulders
Pike push-ups share a similarity with the downward dog yoga position which might feel unnatural at first. Just as with wide hands, pike push-ups put focus on your shoulders.
How to do them:
- Place your feet at about hip-width and your hands below your shoulders
- Lock this position and inch your feet closer to your hands until you can’t go any further (you should now resemble an upside down V)
- Bend your elbows and lower yourself down so that the top of your head touches the floor (You might want to place a towel or mat on the floor so you don’t bang your head)
- Use your shoulders to push yourself back to starting position
Note: As you lower yourself to the ground, you might feel the urge to stand on the balls of your feet. This is fine as you will still be recruiting your delts on the way up.
Why you should do them: Build stronger shoulders. Plus, you’ll look cool doing them.
As the love child of both handstands and pushups, handstand pushups will help you increase your upper body pressing strength while at the same time making you look like a complete badass.
Handstand pushups can be compared to overhead pressing your own body weight, while going against gravity. They will help you build big shoulders while also strengthening the rest of your upper body and core. And like the spiderman pushup, it will improve your balance and stability.
How to do them:
- Stand a few feet in front of a wall
- Kick one foot up and follow with the other until you’re in handstand position against the wall
- Brace your core and glutes
- Lower yourself towards the floor
- Push yourself back to starting position
Push-ups should be part of every fitness regimen. By following the progressions listed in this article, and throwing in some variations, you will be well on your way to becoming a pushup master.
So now it’s your turn. Have you tried any of these progressions? What were your results? Which are your favorite variations? Leave a comment below.
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