Mistressing the pushup

Come on, admit it, we all envied Demi Moore after that pushup footage in GI Jane. A one-arm pushup is a neat party trick, it looks cool and butch, and pushups in general have a wonderfully basic military flavour to them.

Personally, I think the noble pushup has been overshadowed by fancier things, and has acquired a rather underrated status. Pushups are things they do in the army, or things you might remember from gym class years ago. In any case they’re not cool.

Of course, I beg to differ. Pushups are a fun, challenging exercise, and everyone can benefit from them. Pushups and pushup variations are a great addition to a program. They can serve many purposes. You can incorporate them as an exercise in their own right, as an assistance exercise for another lift like bench press, as a plyometric exercise to build explosive pushing strength (perhaps for a throwing sport of some kind), as a bodyweight conditioning exercise, as an endurance challenge, whatever you like. Interestingly, though I experienced shoulder pain from bench pressing and dips, I never had a problem with pushups.

Pushups demand more stability and body control than a bench press, even though the movement looks sort of the same (essentially a pushup looks like an upside-down bench press). However, unlike the bench press where you’re lying on a bench, in the pushup you are required to stabilize your body as it moves through three-dimensional space. You can’t allow the body to sag in the middle; you must keep it rigid. As a result, you get lots of bonus work through the rest of the body. Often, when I do pushups, especially with elevated feet, what hurts the most are my abs!

Pushups train pretty much every “pushing” muscle in the upper body: shoulders, triceps, and pecs, along with lots of stabilizer involvement from the rest of the body. The forearms are helping out to keep you in position, the torso (abs, obliques, lower back) is working to keep you rigid, and the lower back is tensing up to do the same thing. As you know, I like to knock off a bunch of birds with one stone, and pushups definitely fit the bill.

Contrary to fitness doctrine, one thing pushups will not do is anything for your boobs. Pushups will not make them perkier or smaller or bigger or anything at all, because pushups work muscles, and breasts are not muscle.

Like a lot of stuff to do with exercise, I think women get told a Big Old Lie on the pushup issue. Way back when in elementary school they had us doing “girl pushups” from the knees. This despite the fact that none of us–male or female–had hit puberty yet, so we were all sort of the same size and strength (okay, I was always the smallest kid in my class, but all the normal kids were at least the same), all of us had a good strength to mass ratio, and loads of childhood energy. If you think about it, it’s pretty stupid to tell a sugar-fuelled kid whose bodyweight won’t see triple digits for years, and who can scoot up a tree like a spastic squirrel, that they should take it easy. The Man pretty much sold us short right off the bat, so we grew up thinking that “girl pushups” were the only thing we could do.

Anyhoo, it’s never too late! Any healthy adult woman, with enough training, should be able to crank out at least one, and preferably more, pushups from the feet. Of course, just like chinups, most women don’t start out strong enough because we wasted so much time doing the sucky “girl pushups”. That’s okay, because if pushup weakness is the sickness, Doctor Krista has the cure! I’ve provided a progression program from Pushup Chump to Pushup Champ (and by the way, I hear rumours that there’s a 90-year-old female powerlifter out there who can crank out 30 perfect pushups, so none of you have any excuses for not at least trying… unless you’re 100, then I’ll let you get away with, like, 10).

Start wherever you feel comfortable in this progression. Some of you might want to start right at stage 1, while others can jump to stage 2 or even 3. Before you move to the next stage, ensure that you can perform the easier exercise with rigid body and a good range of motion. You can also try doing one or two sets of the harder exercise, then finishing up with an easier one. You’re ready to move to the next stage when you can comfortably do about ten to fifteen reps of the easier pushup. You don’t have to go for long sets of pushups, though. If you like, something like 5 sets of 5 can be fun, especially if you alternate with a partner: when she finishes, you start, and vice versa. If you really want to get better at pushups, do a few (not a lot) every day, and gradually increase the number you do. Let’s say you can do 10 but you want to do 20. Start by doing 5 every day. Over several days, gradually add 1 rep, so you’re doing 6, then 7, then 8, and so on.

Because I’m always a bit concerned about shoulder health, I don’t recommend taking the pushup deeper than a 90 degree bend in elbows. However, you may adapt this recommendation to suit your own abilities. If you have healthy shoulders and have never had any shoulder discomfort, go deeper if you like. If you have ever had any shoulder pain, stick to the suggested 90 degree limit. Deeper pushups can stretch the shoulder capsule and put strain on the joint, and if the joint is already compromised, this can cause pain.

1: wall pushup

Stand facing a wall. The farther away your feet are from the wall, the harder the pushup will be. Place palms on the wall, just below your shoulders, a bit wider than shoulders. Keeping body rigid in a straight line, lean in towards the wall.

2: counter pushup

I actually prefer people to work into a full pushup using these rather than the knee pushups below. They simply push up from a ledge of decreasing depth: a counter, then a bench, then a step, then eventually the floor as in step 4. The lower the ledge, the harder the pushup will be.

A very simple and lo-tech way to progress through to lower ledges is to use a staircase. Stand facing a staircase and place hands on about the fifth or sixth step. As you get better, work your way down the staircase. Just watch your face on the way down!

Place palms on a sturdy ledge, just below your shoulders, a bit wider than shoulders. Keeping body rigid in a straight line, lean in towards the ledge. If this bothers your shoulders, try adjusting your hand position so your palms are slightly narrower, slightly farther down your body, and your upper arms aren’t so flared out.

3: knee pushup

Begin with palms slightly wider than shoulder width on floor. Knees are bent, ankles crossed. Descend until elbows are bent approximately 90 degrees, then straighten arms and return to starting position.

It’s a good idea to put a towel or mat under your knees. I did them on a hardwood floor and it was a little painful. Note that body remains rigid and straight throughout the movement. It’s like your body is a piece of wood and the knee is the hinge.

4: pushup from feet

Same idea as knee pushups. Begin with body straight and rigid. Palms slightly wider than shoulder width. Body stays straight through the movement. Descend until elbows are bent approximately 90 degrees, then straighten arms and return to starting position.

My butt’s kind of poking up a wee bit there in the bottom position, but what are ya gonna do, the thing’s got a mind of its own sometimes.

A good way to practice keeping the body straight is to do planks. Just get into the top position of the pushup, as shown in the top pic. Then stay there, rigid as possible, for as long as possible.

5: pushup with feet elevated

I’m demonstrating this with a relatively high foot elevation. You can start with a much lower elevation, such as a Reebok step with no additional tiers on it, or simply the bottom step of a staircase. If you’re in bare feet, you’re on your toes. If you’re in running shoes, you’re on the tips of your toes. You are not on the tops of your feet.

Hand position is the same as for the earlier stages, though you may find that moving your hands down your body a little is more comfortable as the angle changes.

There is a much higher risk of midsection sag with these, so really remember to keep torso muscles nice and tight throughout.

krista, i’m a frickin’ animal! this stuff is too easy!

Fine, be like that. If you think you’re so big, try the following ideas.

Triceps pushups. The bottom position is shown in the picture below. Instead of arranging your hands like you’re doing an upside-down bench press, place palms on the floor further down your body, beside your ribcage. Place them close to your body so that your forearms are nearly touching your ribs. Push up in this position, keeping elbows close to the body throughout the movement. These look easy till you try. My husband laughed at me when I suggested these to him. He quit laughing pretty fast.

Giant sets. How many pushups can you do in one set? Each workout, try to increase that number. If you can do 50, you’re pretty slick. If you can do 100, come over to my house and kick my ass. I’ll deserve it.

Clapping pushups. Start in the top position of the pushup from feet. Descend as normal into the pushup, then at the bottom push up explosively, and try to get your body high enough so that you can quickly clap your hands before returning to the regular starting position.

One-hand pushups. You’ll need to spread your feet wider to get the balance right.

Handstand pushups. This is the natural extension of elevated feet pushups. You can use a progressively higher elevation by putting your feet against the wall, or one of those gymnastics ladders if you have one. To use a wall, start in the top position of a pushup with your feet against a wall. Then, scuttle your hands backwards and “walk” your feet up the wall (ideally get a wall that you can get some friction from, like a cinder block wall, and be in bare feet if you can) to the desired height. Aim for eventually doing a pushup with body approximately vertical. Oh yeah, and send me a pic. I’ll put it up on the site, you pushup monster you. Do be aware, though, that the greater the foot elevation, the more the load shifts to your shoulders, so if you’re doing pushups for pec work, stick to lower feet elevations.

email from a satisfied customer…

Hey Krista —

I started with some free weights this past fall, about when I found your site. I’m using dumbbells at the house, and have a garage sale weight bench and bar out in the barn. I found I couldn’t do a full push-up when I started.

I just recently turned 50, and so as a challenge to myself did 50+ push-ups (3 sets of 20, 20, 15 … added 5 for good measure and just a brief break in between sets) and actually felt comfortable, so definitely some progress. Using the dumbbells got my arms in shape to allow the push-ups … as well as using a bench or picnic table to start out doing them at an angle (thanks for the tip), rather than doing the “girls push-ups” as we learned in gradeschool, starting from the knees.

Thanks for all the info, fun, and inspiration —