One of the most common goals I see with my clients that are beginners to strength training is mastering the push-up. Getting a full, on the toes push-up can feel impossible when you’re just starting. It can feel especially out of reach for women that are new to resistance training, and the option to “just switch to ‘girl’ (read: on the knee) push-ups” isn’t actually helpful.
I’m going to take you through 5 steps to go from absolutely no push-up skills to full push-ups. Go through each variation until you find one that’s difficult. If possible, have a training partner with you to keep an eye on your form, or even record yourself for review after!
Perfecting the push-up requires more than just brute upper-body strength. You’ll need to be able to comfortably hold the plank position, have good control over what your scapulae (shoulder blades) are doing, AND have enough strength in your chest, shoulders, and triceps to complete the movement. That’s why you’ll notice that with each step up towards the full push-up, you’ll have two extra assistance movements to work on – to ASSIST with building your core strength and scapular control.
What’s with all the scapulae talk? To stay injury-free while doing lots of push-ups, your shoulders need to move through a pretty large range of motion. You need to be able to smoothly retract your shoulder blades (squeeze them together and down towards your butt) as you lower down in the push-up, and then you’ll need to smoothly protract your shoulder blades (push them out and apart) as you push back up to the top of the push-up. Often you’ll notice that your shoulder blades stay retracted (squeezed together) during the entire exercise, which puts a lot of strain on the shoulder joint. This is probably more common in people who already love to bench press a lot, but is necessary to keep in mind for everyone. For a quick and more scientific breakdown, watch this two minute video from Eric Cressey.
How to Use This Guide
- If you are brand new to strength training, start right at Step One.
- If you have a bit of experience, start at Step Two.
- You will do 3 sets of each exercise, and you’ll have a ‘goal’ number of reps. Do as many as you can (they only count if your form is good), and keep repeating that step until you can do the full number of reps.
- For example, on Step Two, you can do 8 elevated push-ups in your first set, 7 in your second set, and 6 in your third set. You’ll continue working on Step Two each time you train until you can do 8 reps in every set. Then you move on to Step Three.
- As you move through the progressions, you’re going to keep revisiting the previous steps. So if you’re on Step Four, you’ll complete your work on that step, and then ONE set of the previous Step’s exercises. That way, you’re still working on all aspects of you upper body and core strength, plus scapular mobility.
- For example, you’re working on Step Four. Once you finish your Forearm Planks, you’ll go back and do 8 Mid-Elevated Push-ups, followed by 8 Hi-Elevated Scap Push-ups, and a :30 Mid-Elevated plank to finish the session.
- You can do these exercises as often as every other day! You’ll want to do them at least two times per week to make consistent progress.
- Pay close attention to the goals of each step. When you can complete the requisite numbers of sets and reps (or timed holds) it’s time to move on up, even if the next step feels really hard!
- Watch the videos (below) for visual cues on the push-up and scapulae exercises.
- Wall Push-up, perform 3 sets of 10 reps
- Cat-Cows, 3 sets of 5
- Hi-Elevated Plank, 3 sets of :30 hold
- Using stairs, the highest step you can reach
- Hi-Elevated Push-up, 3 sets of 8 reps
- The same step you used above
- Scap Push-up on Wall, 3 sets of 8
- Mid-Elevated Plank, 3 sets of :30 hold
- Move hands down 1-2 steps
- Mid-Elevated Push-up, 3 sets of 8 reps
- Same step as plank above
- Hi-Elevated Scap Push-up, 3 sets of 6
- On stairs, using original step
- Straight Arm Plank (top of full push-up position), 3 sets of :30 hold
- Low-Elevated Push-up, 3 sets of 6 reps
- On stairs, move to lowest step
- Scap Push-up on Toes, 3 sets of 6
- In ‘top of push-up’ position
- Forearm Plank, 3 sets of :30
- Push-up on Toes!, 3 sets of 4 reps
- Scap Wall Angels, 3 sets of 5 reps
- Long-Lever Plank, 3 sets of :20
- Walk toes backwards so shoulders are aligned BEHIND elbows