Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
7 Feb

Push-ups: The Perfect Primal Exercise

Push-upThis is a guest post from Al Kavadlo of

Push-ups are one of the oldest and most widely known strength exercises on Earth. They’ve been a staple in military fitness, martial arts and just about every other type of exercise program that’s ever existed. Anyone who has even the slightest interest in working out has probably tried to do a push-up at least once in their life.

Funny thing is, amongst many modern fitness enthusiasts, the push-up is often overlooked due to its simplicity. A lot of people are under the misconception that something so basic couldn’t possibly be the best overall upper-body exercise out there. Even members of the primal community who know better than to buy into mainstream hype are often skeptical of my claim that the humble push-up is nature’s perfect exercise.

I hope you’re at least willing to hear me out.

Perfect Push-up


Push-ups are as close to a perfect exercise as you can get. They work your entire upper-body (including your abs), and can be modified in an infinite number of ways to suit any fitness level. Push-ups emphasize the chest, shoulders and triceps but every muscle in the body has to do its part for a proper push-up to take place. Your lats, traps and abs must stabilize your pushing muscles, while your lower back, legs and glutes need to stay engaged to keep your hips from sagging or piking up too high. Like many calisthenics exercises, push-ups teach your muscles to work in harmony with one another.

But my favorite thing about push-ups is that they don’t require anything more than a floor, so you can do them anywhere. And as I always say, If you don’t have a floor, you’ve got much bigger problems!

Wall Push-up

Wall Push-up

Everyone knows strength training is great for your muscles, but a lot of people don’t realize that working out also does a lot for your bones, tendons and other connective tissue. It’s true though; strength training makes the entire body strong. It’s obvious when you really think about it – your connective tissue needs to be strong to support those muscles! Sometimes people are so concerned with aesthetic goals that they overlook the changes that can’t visibly be seen.

If you have bad shoulders, wrists or elbows, in time your joints can be restored with lower intensity variants like the wall push-up. The body can only be as strong as its weakest link, and connective tissue tends to be slower to adapt than muscle. A novice or an injured person should start with the wall push-up, working to 20 and eventually 50 consecutive reps in each set before moving on. To perform this variant, simply lean against a wall with your toes a few feet away and do the push-up movement from this semi-upright position.

Incline Push-up

Incline Push-up

If wall push-ups have gotten too easy for you, but full push-ups are still out of reach, incline push-ups can be a nice intermediate step. In fact, they can be several intermediate steps. The higher your incline, the easier the push-up will be, the lower the incline, the harder it becomes. A high incline eventually becomes a wall push-up and a low incline eventually becomes a regular push-up but there are many levels in between. You can experiment with various household objects or things you may come across outdoors to find ways to incrementally lower yourself toward the floor.

Full Push-up

Brick Push-up

When doing push-ups, I recommend placing your hands just wider than your shoulders (your thumbs should wind up right beneath your armpits). Keep your elbows fairly close to your body and point them back; do not flare them out to the sides. Lower until your chest is just above the floor, pause for a split second and then press yourself back up.

Many beginners have trouble going low enough on their push-ups. Sometimes this is also the case for people who’ve practiced for years. Your arms should bend past 90 degrees as measured along the outside of your elbow for the rep to count; the lower the better. You may find it helpful to place a tennis ball, brick or other object on the ground under your chest in order to have a reference point for how low to go. You could even try to touch your chest to the floor if you want to extend the range of motion. The ability to do clean chest-to-floor push-ups with proper alignment demonstrates excellent strength and mobility in the upper-body. You might not be here yet, but it should be an eventual milestone. If you don’t get in the habit of performing your push-ups with a full range of motion, you will not get the most out of them.

Diamond Push-up

Close Hand Position

Generally speaking, the closer you keep your hands during push-ups, the harder the exercise is going to be, it’s simply a matter of leverage. The classic “diamond push-up” is probably the most well known of the close grip push-up variations. Before you start working on these, make sure you can do at least twenty standard push-ups.

A diamond push-up involves keeping your hands close enough to touch the tips of your index fingers and thumbs to each other, making a diamond-like shape of those four digits. Be careful not to flare your elbows out when you perform diamond push-ups, as doing so can be troublesome for your joints and less effective for your muscles. You’ve gotta keep your elbows right by your sides. I actually find it preferable to keep my hands in more of an arrowhead shape with my thumbs tucked in, rather than a traditional diamond. This makes angling my elbows closer to my torso more natural.

When performing diamonds (or arrowheads), make sure to go all the way down until your hands touch your chest with your forearms grazing your ribs at the bottom. It’s also important to stay aware of your alignment. It’s common for people to leave their hips too low when performing this exercise. Remember to keep your abs, legs and glutes tight.

Knuckle Push-up

Knuckle Push-ups

Doing push-ups on your fists is totally badass, plus knuckle push-ups allow for a bigger range of motion than flat palm push-ups. That extra few inches of depth can make repping out a lot more challenging.

While some people’s wrists may need time to acclimate to the extra work required to maintain stability during a knuckle push-up, for others, the neutral wrist position can actually make the push-up less stressful than having the wrists bent back. The skin on your hands may be sensitive when starting out, so the simple discomfort of supporting your weight on your knuckles might be an additional obstacle. You may want to start out practicing on a soft surface for this reason.

Plyometric Push-up

Plyometric Push-ups

The term “plyometrics” is just a fancy way of talking about explosive movements. Anytime you get airborne while doing an exercise, it’s a plyo. There are many different types of plyometric push-ups, and you need to be very strong to do any of them. (Remember how I said the push-up can be modified to suit any fitness level?)

The most common type of plyometric push-up is the clap push-up. As the name implies, the objective is to clap your hands in the air at the top of your push-up and return them to the ground before you fall on your face. But just in case, you might want to practice on a soft surface when starting out. Also be mindful to absorb the impact during the lowering phase and avoid landing with your elbows extended.

When performing plyo push-ups, aim to be as explosive as possible. Your objective should be to push your body as far away from the ground as you can. While speed is an important part of performing a clap push-up, getting your body high enough is what will eventually allow you to perform a behind-the-back clap, double clap or superman push-up.

Push Yourself

The push-up is one exercise that can continually be adapted to suit your needs; the variations I’ve discussed here are barely the tip of the iceberg. There are many other two-arm push-up variants you can experiment with – and when those cease to be a challenge, there are also plenty of one-arm options. Watch the video below for a demonstration of progressively harder push-up modifications, from the beginner’s incline push-up all the up through some pretty intense single-arm variations.

Nobody’s Perfect

I’m the first to admit that nothing can ever be truly perfect, but the push-up is about as close as it gets. We as humans are constantly looking for a better way to do things, but sometimes the way we’ve already been doing it is the best way. I’ve tried just about every type of workout under the sun and the push-up is as good of an exercise as there will ever be. But don’t take my word for it, give some of these variations a shot and see for yourself!

This post contains excerpts from Al’s new book, Pushing The Limits! – Total Body Strength With No Equipment.

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. I was a total wuss about pushups. I was only able to do 5 and then another 5-7 on my knees. NOW I can do 40 or more and I mix up the different types. I am 46 years old so it isn’t about age or being a “girl”. If you don’t like pushups its because you don’t do them. I used to literally want to cry. Just keep at it and you’ll improve. IF I did, anyone can. Seriously!!

    LindaT wrote on February 7th, 2013
    • I’m adding a me, too. I can do 10 in row, up from the zero I never accomplished in high school. I can also do 10 burpees in a row as well. It takes time, put it can be done!

      Amy wrote on February 7th, 2013
  2. don’t forget about one-armed push-ups! (and pull-ups)

    Bill Berry wrote on February 7th, 2013
  3. This post is much appreciated, especially the comment about “If you have bad shoulders, wrists or elbows, in time…” I really needed the reminder that I, with my shoulder issues, need a bit more time than most to reach my goals. My shoulder (and neck) problems are due to a few cases of whip lash (two of which were when I was the passenger). (Gotta figure out how to get that target that I can’t see, off my car.) My progress with push-ups and pull-ups has been excruciatingly slow, but is still progress. I’m still doing wall push-ups and two leg assisted pull-up, after almost a year of working on them. However, I have managed to lower the number of naproxen (Aleve) I take from 4 a day to 2, most days. (When I push myself too hard, I have had to go back up to 3 or 4 a day for a couple of days, due to neck and shoulder pain, which, when left unchecked, becomes a screaming headache.) I am sure that if I keep up this slow progress, I will eventually get to the point where I won’t need NSAIDs every day.

    b2curious wrote on February 7th, 2013
    • Yep those pesky targets.. I’ve been staying in a shelter the last couple days waiting to turn myself in to probation, and maybe jail. My reputation preceded me. “You ate a squirrel?” “Squirrel-eatin’ (rude words).
      And of course, lots of questions along the lines of “wtf is that, tuna?” (salmon)

      Animanarchy wrote on February 11th, 2013
  4. seriously these photos are making me lol………….also good for the abs.

    jessica rae wrote on February 7th, 2013
  5. push-ups have been my #1 Primal strength-training exercise since starting the PB last May.

    i’m 55 lbs lighter and am starting to see very obvious, uh…”toning” (?) in my chest and abdomen. i’ve been using the “Perfect Pushup” by BodRev that i purchased at Target years ago. set me back about $15 or $20 bucks.

    great blog entry.

    Andrew wrote on February 7th, 2013
  6. I love push ups as well. In order to get better I started a challenge at the beginning of the year. One push up each day for the day of the year. Today is the 38th day of the year so I have to do 38 today (I can break them up however I want).

    Oh, and I’m doing it with pull ups as well.

    For me, this is a great way to increase my numbers and keep it challenging. We’ll see where I’m at in October/November/December

    paleoeqlife wrote on February 7th, 2013
  7. Push ups are great. Check out some of the Youtube videos people in far greater shape than I am post of body weight exercises for all kinds of interesting workouts. I still can’t manage a “muscle up”. Bar Brothers is a good place to start or a guy called Hannibal.

    Ian wrote on February 7th, 2013
  8. Gotta go with the push up. 300 a day, 150 am 150pm and easy 30min run in the evening. Happiest I have been on the vanity front. Plus its cheaper than the gym. Hitting the 40’s looking better than my teens. One day I will catch Herschel.

    MrT wrote on February 7th, 2013
  9. Push ups are great exercise–if you do them right. No one taught me, so I did them wrong for a long time (hands too high, elbows flaring out) and created a world of shoulder problems for myself. I’ve seen a lot of people make the same mistakes. Save your shoulders–watch your hand and elbow positions to be sure you’re doing them correctly, not just fast. :)

    MindyK wrote on February 7th, 2013
  10. Hey, what about the one arm, one leg superman pushup?

    Craig wrote on February 7th, 2013
  11. Oops, I’ve been flaring my elbows out and not going low enough. I THOUGHT I was doing a full push up and am amazed at how much harder going a few inches lower is. It’s hard!

    Tina wrote on February 7th, 2013
    • Yea the difference is like being able to do 20 unbroken, and only being able to do like 2… It blows my mind.

      Kevin wrote on February 7th, 2013
      • Usually the more difficult exercise is the better one. The easier one is more popular of course.

        There is no right or wrong way. Elbows in work the triceps and lower pecs more. Elbows out and wide hands work the inner/upper pec’s more and less the triceps.

        Brad wrote on February 8th, 2013
    • This is totally me too. My trainer calls the elbow out ones “yoga push ups.” They are a different animal. Oddly, I was also keeping my back TOO flat. The tiniest flex in my hips has made both the plank and the push up so much more comfortable with no lower back failure. And yes, getting to the ground in order to count the push up is something I have to challenge myself to do every single time.

      Juli wrote on February 8th, 2013
      • Good tip, Juli, I will keep that in mind about the hip flexion, and thanks, Brad, for the clarification.

        Kevin, exactly my experience. And, there I was all proud of my old push-ups. Humbling is what that was.

        Tina wrote on February 8th, 2013
    • There is nothing wrong with elbows out. A wide hand position and elbows out versus close to the body will actually work your chest much more than your triceps. The fact that more reps can be performed with elbows in should tell you something – their easier. Often the more difficult exercise is the better one. To see the equivalent with a barbell look up the “neck press”. This is bench press with the bar lowered to upper chest with wide grip and elbows out, always under the bar. It is a superb chest exercise and limits tricep involvement. It was the preferred chest exercise by Vince Gironda one of the best and most famous trainers of all time. Best thing is to mix it up with different hand and elbow positions to work the various muscles.

      Brad wrote on February 8th, 2013
  12. I have fibroids and cysts in my breasts. Any time I try pull-ups or push-ups, I have a great deal of pain. I very gradually started lifting weights in very small increments, but had to stop because of the pain, and had to drop down to only 4lbs.

    Kate wrote on February 7th, 2013
    • Think about starting with wall pushups, if you can. I did those when I was pregnant. It’s much easier on those frontal areas and you do get the benefits.

      Amy wrote on February 7th, 2013
    • Kate, please go wander around the website Stop the Thyroid Madness. Lots (and lots!) of women have found that treating thyroid and adrenal issues makes cystic breasts get better. (Many have fibrocystic ‘disease’ disappear!) But you (SO!!!) can’t just rely on your doc — who will not have been taught anything useful (and several things just wrong!) about treating thyroid and adrenals! (I’m not associated with the site, just SAVED by it!)

      Elenor wrote on February 8th, 2013
      • I’ll agree 100% with the statement “You SO cant rely on your doc”, Elenor! I figure I had adrenal fatigue for 20 years before I found a natural doctor who diagnosed me. All my regular doctor did was give me Prozac. My thyroid dosage has also had to be reduced since going primal. I’ll check out the website because my dose is still pretty high. Twice that of what my Mom takes.

        Cindy wrote on February 8th, 2013
    • Rolling my shoulders in a certain way makes me feel sort of like they’re grinding. I think that might be from past obsessive bench pressing.. I was all about the vanity bro workouts back then. And yes it did have a bad effect on my posture.
      I feel like I need to start over again building myself back up, it’s been so long since I actually followed any semblance of a routine.
      I also need to take it easy on my cheats and treats rather than being enslaved to them..
      I heard someone ask, to make a point, when talking about injuries and the intake of synthetic chemicals, “How are you supposed to heal properly when you have all that mixed-up crap in your system?”

      Animanarchy wrote on February 11th, 2013
  13. Cool stuff.

    Can you do push ups everyday? Or should you take a few days off in between to recover? I’m just thinking by comparison to P90X or other intensive workouts where you’d do Chest/Arms on Monday, cardio Tuesday, Legs/Back Wednesday, Cardio again Thursday, and then return to Chest/Arms Friday.

    Wish push ups, should I be leaving three day gaps in between or can I do them every day (say 4 sets of 30) without fear of injuring myself or limiting the results?

    Thoughts? Thanks!

    Scott C. Irwin wrote on February 7th, 2013
    • Its hard to say.

      You can pretty much do them every day. If you are just starting you will definitely notice some soreness the next day, and that is normal. If you wait till you are always 100% you simply won’t be doing them enough in my opinion.

      But then again, you do have to kinda know the difference between normal muscle recovery soreness, and straight up shot.

      Kevin wrote on February 8th, 2013
      • Thanks for the reply. Guess I’ll dive in and see how it goes/feels.

        Scott C. Irwin wrote on February 8th, 2013
  14. Do I have to get the tattoos to successfully complete the push-ups?? 😉

    Amy wrote on February 7th, 2013
  15. Okay, I got 15 knee push-ups, 3 sets. I can’t do it with a full yet. Hey I’m a newbie. but im getting there. 😉

    kc @ genxfinance wrote on February 7th, 2013
  16. The push-up doesn’t include enough of the body’s musculature to be about as close as it gets to perfect.

    A well-executed pistol is probably as perfect as it gets.

    George Mounce wrote on February 7th, 2013
    • if your looking for that, pull up burpees cover almost everything. but youll want whatever your using as a pull up bar to be high enough for that jump

      pixel wrote on February 7th, 2013
    • The one armed, one legged pushup disagrees. You basically have to contract everything from your calf through to your opposing shoulder to keep your body straight. I remember reading a book basically claiming total body fitness from just that exercise combined with pistols.

      In any case, bang a few of those out in the gym and I can guarantee you’ll have people staring at you when you stand back up. Those and clap pull-ups.

      Southy wrote on February 11th, 2013
  17. Push-ups are an awesome workout! There’s no point in doing do fancy moves with terrible form when you can get more effective results (and a shorter workout) with pushups.

    Lauren wrote on February 7th, 2013
  18. In my opinion, I don’t see the need to take a day off or worse, two days off between pushups…. I would do them everyday, anyone who has ever boxed before would’ve done lots of pushups, for lots of rounds, with skipping, burpees and whatever else, daily…I squat heavy daily and i am not broken and am in my mid 30s. I’ve done that for years and usually on the same day as hard fight training…I don’t believe we are so fragile, we adapt, no one got better at anything by doing less of it, again – in my experience and according to my opinion of course. :)

    jack wrote on February 7th, 2013
    • Thanks Jack.

      Scott C. Irwin wrote on February 8th, 2013
  19. Try the free app ‘100 pushups’. I’m a month in and upto 70 in 5 reps.

    Britdude68 wrote on February 7th, 2013
  20. Do we ever really use this movement in every day life, though? Squats, yes (stairs, standing up). Dead lift, sure (lifting anything off the floor). Overhead press, occasionally (reaching for something high). There are some specific sports applications like passing a basketball or punching, but otherwise…?

    TokyoJay wrote on February 7th, 2013
    • Sure! A push up contest can settle almost anything. Even though I can’t do very many, it’s very convincing to throw down the challenge. Over new year’s, I had people on the floor at new year’s party (topic: second amendment) and small children on new year’s day (topic: elf on the shelf). And yes, I lost to a 9 year old. ;).

      Juli wrote on February 8th, 2013
    • Well, if you make the push-up into a burpee, the motion is about getting up off the floor. The more I’m on the floor, the handier the move becomes. Also, any sport that requires a lot of falling to learn (skiing, ice skating, etc) it makes ideal training.

      The push-up, pull up, and squat all seem to be about the ultimate flexibility in moving your body through space.

      Amy wrote on February 8th, 2013
    • just about any time you push anything. the added strength also protects you from injury, especially in your later years. the plank part of pushups works your core, which is what holds your body stable. most of the lower back injuries and bad backs you see these days are from strained backs because they let them get weak.

      of course, youll want to pair with pull ups, rows, or supermans for balance.

      pixel wrote on February 8th, 2013
  21. Love that photo shoot theme BTW! Very urban jungle :-)

    Aggie wrote on February 8th, 2013
  22. Great Post Al. I really enjoyed it.

    The press up is the most accessible strength exercise there is in my view and too often overlooked as a result.

    Both this and your pull up post were excellent.

    Oliver Kelly wrote on February 8th, 2013
  23. OK… I’ll start doing push-ups…. And working out… This might just be the swift kick I needed to get my butt off the couch… Thanks Mark.

    Ara wrote on February 8th, 2013
  24. Push ups, pull ups, and plank! All are excellent for you and all have different variations.

    Kristen wrote on February 8th, 2013
  25. I have heard that too much push without the pull can create muscle imbalance. I don’t know if that is true with push-ups or not but I try to balance my push-ups with pull-ups. My son did a lot of push-ups in his football practices and I noticed that his shoulders seemed to slump forward. Since he has started working out with me, I have noticed that his shoulders seem more “square” and his posture is better. My workouts include push-ups (dive bombers are my fave), pull-ups, handstand push-ups, Australian pull-ups, pistols, bridges and a variety of stomach exercises.

    Anthony wrote on February 8th, 2013
  26. Thanks for the reminder about form. I’ve been increasing the number I can do, but your post helped me realize I need to check my form before trying to do more.

    Emily wrote on February 8th, 2013
  27. I could do 45 pushups at once when I was training. Then I started to get lower ab/groin pains when I did pushups. I’ve never done them since. I loved how multi-purpose they were as far as muscle training, but why was I getting those pains?

    Nicola wrote on February 8th, 2013
    • That is odd. Sounds a tad like the onset of a hernia, but they are kind of rare in women.

      George wrote on February 9th, 2013
  28. Al Kavadlo has been a role model for me ever since I went primal three years ago, and I still have so much to learn from him.

    His passion for bodyweight skills and habit for improvement have never been more inspiring!

    Timothy wrote on February 8th, 2013
  29. I’m using one of those 100 pushup apps too. You have to build up by by doing multiple sets…sure anybody can do 20 pushups, but at this point i’m up to 15 sets of 15-its the toughest part of my gym workout. By the last set it gets incredibly hard to keep going- way tougher than just doing a few sets of bench press

    Dan wrote on February 9th, 2013
  30. Oh my good gravy…what are we talking about again? That very VERY fine specimen of a man has me all flustered. I’d drop and give him 20 anyday!

    Mik wrote on February 9th, 2013
  31. push-ups are amazing… but I must caveat: it is possible to overdo it with these and create unhealthy imbalances due to over emphasis on anterior musculature, especially in the deltoids.

    qwbet wrote on February 9th, 2013
  32. I love wall push-ups for the ability to exert maximum force and get a great strain that’s only as harsh on the body as you choose. My favourite way to do them is to rock on my feet between the pushes and focus on maintaining a stable core, like a plank that’s falling at the wall.
    A good approximation of the style, if you’ve seen Batman Begins, is when Christian Bale starts from a standing position and drops like a lever right into a set of push-ups. I want to do that but I’m concerned it would result in too much inflammation or a minor injury.

    Animanarchy wrote on February 10th, 2013

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