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Let me introduce myself. My name is Mark Sisson. I’m 63 years young. I live and work in Malibu, California. In a past life I was a professional marathoner and triathlete. Now my life goal is to help 100 million people get healthy. I started this blog in 2006 to empower people to take full responsibility for their own health and enjoyment of life by investigating, discussing, and critically rethinking everything we’ve assumed to be true about health and wellness...

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February 07 2013

Push-ups: The Perfect Primal Exercise

By Guest
201 Comments

Push-upThis is a guest post from Al Kavadlo of AlKavadlo.com.

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-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.

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201 thoughts on “Push-ups: The Perfect Primal Exercise”

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  1. I’m nowhere near – yet! For the time being I’m on planks, but one day….

    1. I tried that “drop and give me twenty” on my husband when he was sniggering about my push up attempts.

      He immediately fell to his knees and pulled out his wallet.

      1. I’ll have to try that on my husband, but with “drop and give me 100”!

  2. What about the common adaptation of knee pushups for people who can’t do pushups?

      1. Al includes knee push-ups in the book, as a possible intermediate step between wall and lower inclines.

      2. I think part of the problem with knee push ups is people tend to disengage the legs and core a lot more. So if someone can progressively lower the incline to eventually get a full push up without doing knee push ups it will probably be better.

      3. it will depend on the incline. you could find the knee push up harder or easier than the incline push up depending how high or low your hands are from the ground. an excellent book for bodyweight strength progressions is ‘convict conditioning’. bad name but excellent book. bodyweight is an amazing way to train but people don’t know how to progress, convict conditioning is a very good tool to learn from.

        1. also incline also teaches you to hold the core because you hold your body straight, where as knee doesnt engage the core much.

    1. Kelly Starrett actually advises against the knee push-ups, because it’s not actually helping you with muscle memory, your mechanics, and in general there is no progression to a full push up. Instead, he recommends a worming motion where you begin and end in the same position as a standard push up, complete with your core tight and back flat. It makes a lot of sense if you look at it from the aspect of motor patterning.

      http://www.mobilitywod.com/2013/01/pressing-mechanics-and-the-knee-pushup-up-disasterfroning-and-bailey-edition.html

    2. Check out mobilitywod.com for K-Starr’s opinion on this. In short, he says knee pushups require such a different movement pattern, they teach bad form for moving to an on-the-toes pushup. The forearms are not perpendicular to the ground, the core is not engaged, etc. A better option is to work on the lowering half of an on-the-toes pushup and eventually progress to the “real” thing.

      1. I don’t know – I did knee pushups until I could full. I still them when tired (aka after a full) — I don’t really think my form suffered either way.

    3. As a professional, I’m not a big fan of these. Too many issues with keeping the body in a straight line with a stabile spine. Just re-enforces bad habits in my experiences. Specificity is key in strength training, I’d rather have the body positioning the exact same and manipulate the leverage to fit he trainees’ ability.

    1. There are always variations you can do to step it up. You can also increase the time under tension by slowing them down dramatically.

    2. For you, perhaps. For some, this might not be the case. Please keep that in mind.

    3. Ever try them with highly elevated feet, almost handstand? Or how about one armed push ups? If you dare, try planche push ups… tell me how easy those are. 😉

      1. Or full handstand pushups. You’re only limited by your imagination — and your particular physique.

        I’ve seen a mountaineer drop and do a rapid set of fingertip pushups in a straight-armed crucifix position. I’m still wondering if my eyes were playing tricks…?! Has anyone else ever seen this type of pushup, or was this fellow just an anomaly?

      2. he spoke about standard pushups. he is right about them being no challenge for most fit folks. handstand pushups are a different story though. i am not yet there either 🙂

        1. Handstand pushups are much harder because they approximate a shoulder pressing movement rather than a bench pressing movement. It is harder to lift things with smaller muscle groups obviously. For the standard pushup moving from wide to narrow stance will make the triceps and deltoids do more of the work and they are smaller than the pecs. But for a strength trained individual a normal pushup is not very useful for developing the chest compared to benching because the weight is too low.

        2. Headstand push ups come before handstand push ups. Head stand push ups are where the top of your head comes level with your hands. Hand stand push ups are where your hands are elavated so your hands become level with your shoulders. Not much difference in movement but a big difference in strength required.
          I recently became able to do what i thought (and are commonly thought of) were handstand pushups. I was very happy! Then i read some gymnastics books and they pointed out to me that i couldnt yet do a handstand pushup, i’m doing a headstand push up. My ego deflated!!!
          In bodyweight there’s always another progression and it doesnt matter what ability level you start from. About a year and half ago i could do about 6 reps max of standard push ups. Consistency, hard work, patience and understanding of when and how to progress helps people progress through bodyweight movement.

      3. Remember the movie Marathon Man? Roy Scheider does pushups with his feet on the bed and hands on the floor. I went home from that movie and tried a few. Tough!

        1. I do about 10 pushups every Mon, Wed, & Fri at work. I put my feet on a short, 2-drawer filing cabinet.

          Some day I’ll work up to putting my feet on my desk, ’cause it’s a standing workstation. 🙂

    4. I would try going for extreme rep counts if a standard push up is becoming easy. I think you will find doing 100 in a single set to be sufficiently challenging.

      1. depending from your fitness goals. looking for great endurance? go for the 100 reps. want to get strong and big? keep reps low but gradually increase the load Berkhan style.

    5. So how many standard pushups in perfect form can you do in one set then pray tell Wayne?

    6. Yes they can. That’s when you start doing the plyometric, diamond, uneven, one-arm and my favourite…dive-bombers.

      1. Please describe or post a link to a video of these “dive-bombers.” I am now very, very curious!

        1. I’m curious too; maybe “dive bombers” are the same to “Tiger Bend” pushups. A Tiger Bend has your feet about shoulder width apart, hand positioned like a normal push up, but your legs are straight so that your rump is highest point in the air. (Like a cat stretching). Think that there is a fence with a hole beneath it. Using a cat like wave motion you go under the fence.

        2. Hi . If you have an iphone or android phone i’d really encourage you to get an app called ‘you are your own gym’. It’s by a guy called mark lauren and the app is amazing bodyweight tool. It has video of loads of different excercises as well as different bodyweight programs. I started bodyweight training about 2 years ago and got his book and he used that. he then brought out the app and its excellent. it’s got dive bombers (very hard unless oyu have decent stregnth levels) .

        3. If you’re familiar with yoga, it’s like going from down dog to up dog and you bend your arms while moving through the position. Try to hit 90 degrees (or less) with your arms as your chest is at its lowest point. When you’re going back to down dog do the move in reverse.

    7. I kinda went through something similar..
      Pushups got boring. I could do 75.
      then at crossfit they made me do “chest to deck”.
      wow, I could only do 15-20. So it was like starting over.

      1. yeah… most people are not near the push-up gods they think they are. Even consistently going to true 90 degree bent arms takes peoples reps down VERY significantly. Most people “cheat” horrendously on form.

        1. I learned to do push-ups in the Army and work for the Army Guard. In the Army, it doesn’t count as a push-up until you “break the plane” (at least hit the 90 degree arm bend)….. It never occured to me that other people might not being going as far down, and still counting it as a push-up. That info, combinded with my shoulder problems, makes me much feel better about my slow progress.

    8. So stop doing the standard ones and step up to feet-elevated pushups, weight vests and chains, and progressing towards un-even and one-armed pushups.

    9. I’d have to agree. Once you go above 20 reps it’s more about stamina than strength.

      There are however plenty of variations that you can incorporate if you want to increase the challenge.

      I’m currently working towards a one-arm push up for example. Google One Arm Push Up Progressions for ideas.

  3. Awesome …. you’ve inspired me….the upper body strength has always eluded me. I have never been able to do a push up or chin up in my life. I’m starting on the wall today.

    1. Go Judy, Go! I’m still working on an unassisted pull-up myself. I’m going to make it someday.

      1. Maybe it would be worth holding a bar and jumping in order to complete a pull-up. Keep doing that until your arms are tired and you’ll be getting a good plyometric leg workout too.
        There’s under-the-table (or whatever) pull-ups with your feet supported on the floor or something. Those are easier.
        To climb through my window/door to a derelict trailer I was staying in I’d put my hands on the ledge and jump and push down. That’s also how I get over fences and other obstacles sometimes. Doing reps of that would also be useful conditioning.

    2. I’ve done wall pushups forever. I didn’t know there actually was such a thing until I read this article. I always thought of them as a lazy person’s pushup, but they really do help if you’re sort of fitness challenged.

    3. I’m with you Judy. I’ve never successfully done a pullup either. My brother even installed a pullup bar in his doorway and I would work on just holding myself up, which I never was really able to do. Might be able to do one pushup. Going to start the wall ones, or maybe kitchen counter ones tonight!

  4. Nice post indeed. More of this type would be good, mark. It’s not like your busy or anything.

  5. Dude’s tattoos are sweet! Don’t forget kids on the back and weight vests, both add a little more challenge.

    1. Right on! “Bodyweight” can be someone else’s bodyweight too!! Yesterday’s workout: 2 wrestling sessions with the kids and sledding…

  6. I’m up to 40 pushups, 50 deep squats and 2 minute plank every morning. I’m turning 57 in a couple months. If old farts can do it, we all can.

    1. I’m right next to ya. 50 pushups, 50 squats and 10 pullups. I’m 56. I need to work on some of these different pushups. The diamond looks tough!

  7. Just got down on the floor and did TWO, count ’em, TWO pushups. Thanks, Al!

    I know people tell you this all of the time, but you are probably the coolest dude on the planet.

  8. “knuckle pushups are totally badass” Love it, Al! Thanks to your inspiration, I’m working up to 1-arm pushups (incline about knee height) and am amazed how much it requires out of the core. That’s what I like about all the bodyweight stuff, whether on the floor or bar, it seems like the benefits to the whole body are so underrated, so I’m glad you’re getting people to take it seriously. See you in Tompkins Square Park!

    1. One leg pushups work the core well too especially the farther out you hold the leg you’re not using.

  9. Do all the pushups!!! I think I’m going to steal this drill tonight along with flips.

  10. I only do knuckle push-ups. My hands just don’t bend back far enough for regular ones. The wrist pain is severe. 🙁

    1. Me too. I went to physical therapy and increased my range of motion; however, I’m convinced my pain is due to an unhappy nerve in my wrist joint. Not sure how to address that, I’m looking into “rolfing”.

      1. Would building up the muscles in around your wrists (specifically) possibly help protect the nerve/tissue? (If it’s not painful?)

        I ask that because my husband has an irregular knee joint. He has to keep the muscles around the joint at a certain level to be pain free. He did a few sessions of PT and then figured out what he needed to do to continue to build/protect muscle.

        1. Wrist pain is one of the things that always kept me away from pushups. I’m hyper-mobile and things come out of joint way too easily (Like my knee last night doing pilates…OUCH ). Plus I broke my left wrist as a kid, and it’s always been painful since. Good to know there’s hope if I start slow.

        2. I used to do wrist curls excessively and I definitely increased my wrist strength and overall upper-body strength once my forearms got stronger but after a while started to lose a little mobility. I felt a bit like a golem or the tin man. Flexibility and agility can be a trade-off for strength.

      2. Did rolfing Bon. Pretty good. But the scenar on the spine has fixed more issues, more quickly, for the same outlay.

  11. Al is my hero! I owe my one pull up so far to him, gonna have to work harder on push ups!

  12. Nice reminder to stick with basics! I love the multijoint movements. Some favorites: push-up (of course), pullup, seated row, pulldown (this one is killer), pullover, shoulder press. And I focus on time under load. As previously noted, slowing things down greatly increases the difficulty when you keep the muscle in tension (no resting at top or bottom of movement).

    Pulldowns(palms UP grip) are great using door-anchored strength bands or using resistance machines/cable crossover stations, where on the negative, instead of letting the weight pull you straight back up the way you brought it down to chest level, you focus on fighting the vertical direction of force and going horizontal/away from the body, as the bar slowly rises back up. This horizontal movement really loads up the lats. Best to you all!

  13. GrEAT to see Al Kavadlo on such a wonderful site.
    “Start where you are, use what you have, DO what you can..
    All of Al’s books are easy to follow and progressions are the best.. If u you think visual is better to follow , buy is DVD raising the bar.. Very informative as well. Thanks again Al..

    1. Sounds good! Sounds like you have experience with all his material. So, if you had to choose one of those resources as “the best” one, what would you suggest?

      1. To jump in on your question I’ve one Al K book, raising the bar, and its very specific, errrr… to bar work, pull ups, muscle ups etc. Not tried his other books but for bodyweight progressions i used ‘convict conditioning’ and i’d recommend that for a starter or intermediate. It outlines progressions very well, from beginner to advanced. Half the problem with bodyweight is people have little idea how to progress. CC also covers a lot of different exercises such as back bridges, squats (up to 1 leg squats), pull ups etc.
        Bodyweight is not like weight training where you can just add a little weight to progress, you need to understand leverage and how to use that leverage to progress gradually and patiently.
        I’m passionate about Bodyweight and i’d really recommend CC but i reckon anything by Al K would be pretty awesome too. But i can ionly comment on what i know and have learned from and CC covers lower and upper body progressions in good detail from beginner (wall push ups) to adavanced (1 arm push ups, 1 arm pull ups)).
        18 months ago i could do about 6 push ups, max, nowt i’m popping out headstand push ups, 1 arm push ups, pistols, full inverted push ups by following the progressions laid out in CC.

  14. Timely and much appreciated. My workouts need a reboot, and I’ve been stymied by pushups. At 48, my fitness journey has had some success and some stalls: I run frequently, can do 50 squats no problem, have good upper body strength. But core strength (abs, lower back) make doing standard pushups problematic.

    I had an all-or-nothing approach to pushups before, but I think I’ll try some transitional pushups (inclined). Thanks, Al! This is just the KISS advice I needed to read to get back to trying pushups again.

    1. in addition to Al’s info, you might also look into You Are Your Own Gym–it has some progressions for working your way up through bodyweight exercises. Not selling here–it just worked for me.

    2. Finnegan, sounds like you should work more with the planks/core exercises to get ’em up to speed. This will allow you to strengthen from the inside and iot will help your lower back/abs.

      1. Running and losing weight has helped the core, but you are 100% right. This is what I need to focus on…

  15. For those that think push ups become too easy too quickly, I say… ever tried planche push ups? Probably not… lol

      1. Kinda like Like a push up but with only your hands making contact with the floor. Yep, no feet! Advanced to say the least.
        Once you master that your not far from being able to float 🙂

        1. I wonder if someone is able to get fit enough they can fly (or at least extend their jumping range) just by flipping repeatedly, using their momentum (think Samus in Metroid). Can people get that strong? I guess it would take a whole life devoted to training.

  16. Try “frictionless” pushups. Hang a pair of handles from a chin-up bar by long ropes. You want the handles just above the floor. Do pushups on the handles. You have to really fight to keep them under you, because they’ll move around wildly if you don’t stay perfectly aligned. A pillow on the floor below your face is a good safety precaution. Then try one-handed.

    1. lol I pictured doing this in my head, but as a planche. Then you said to try it one-handed…

  17. 16 years ago when I was in the army I could crank out about 80 pushups in 2 minutes – chest to ground. I’ve just now worked my way up to 10 having been soft and lazy for the past several years. I generally do my pushups as part of burpees now. It’s kind of amazing how much you can feel it in your glutes just from doing a handful of burpees, and of course there is no rule that says you have to do only 1 pushup per burpee rep, so you can get in a lot if you so desired.

    1. Multiple push-ups per burpee…Great idea 🙂 I always run out of burpee before I do push-ups. I will try this.

      1. What is a burpee? I’ve heard of the Burpee Seed Company but am pretty sure that’s not what you are talking about…

        1. Cindy –

          Burpees are a combination of a push-up, jump, and squat.

          Start with a push-up. At the top, bring your feet forward to your hands with a jumping motion. Squat (lightly) and then jump. (Some people clap with the hands over their head.) Return quickly to the push-up position by lunging your feet out. Do a push-up and repeat.

          (There are variations that leave out the jump, etc. At it’s most basic, it’s returning to vertical before doing another pushup)

          These are less tiring directly the chest/shoulder because those muscles get a break. But the rest of your system – wow. If trapped in a prison cell, burpees and pull-ups would keep me reasonably fit.

  18. Well, I was going to go to the gym tomorrow and lift some weights. Now I’m thinking I’ll just stay home and do push-ups. Thanks for the reminder!

    P.S. The first time I did a lot of push-ups I was surprised at how much my abs hurt the next day. I had been expecting the pain in my arms and shoulders but the core took me by surprise!

  19. I’ve recently started doing 3 sets of 10 pushups. Anyone have any thoughts on this sort of setup?

    1. Aim for 2 sets of 20 next, and of course don’t forget the rest of your body. 😉

    2. I love doing 3 sets of my bodyweight exercises. First pushups, then squats, then planks/core, and then pullups. Sometimes it’s good to do just one set and do as many as you can to failure. So maybe try 25 pushups or go until failure.

    3. you can also do time trials. Today I did a workout of 20 seconds on and 10 off, 8 rounds. The pushup cycle was brutal. Do as many as you can during the 20 seconds, and towards the end you are doing less than half of what you started.

      1. A gym teacher had me doing what he called the 24 workout. It’s 24 minutes of all out body weight exercises, one minute on, 30 seconds off. The exercises were mountain-climbers, push-ups, sit-ups, burpees, pull-ups, bench jumps from what I recall. It was brutal.

    4. What is the most push ups you can do in 1 set? If you can do 2 sets of 20 push ups i’d say move to next progression, so raise your feet off the ground by 12 -24 inches (highger the harder) or do the diamond push up. Then when you get to point where you can do 2 x 15 – 20 reps in the diamond or feet raised then try half 1 arm push ups: Set yourself for a push up but in 1 hand have a basketball (directly under your shoulder), swap between sets. Then once you can do 2 x 15 try lever push ups, put 1 arm out to the side. Bodyweight prgression is about increasing the difficulty of the leverage, not about doing the same excercise and increasing the reps. If you can do 50 push ups in a set deosnt mean you can do a 1 arm push up, if you can do a 1 arm push up you can probably do 50 push ups.
      Check out a book called ‘convict conditioning’.

  20. Pushups are great, but no exercise beats sprinting. That is the perfect primal exercise. Just move, quickly, to strengthen the heart, work every muscle in the body, get lean.

    1. Worked out with a guy who would have us sprint then hit the ground and do pushups, jump up and sprint back to where we started, then do squat thrusts. He’d have us do several rounds of that, my lungs and every fibre in my body would be burning at the end of that.

      1. That’s what I am having the baseball team I coach do. Wipes them right out.

      2. I have my snow-day workout, now!

        Shoveling is usually my snow-day workout, but it looks like it will be snowing ALL DAY here, so that’s for Saturday.

  21. Don’t forget to stretch! In high school I did too many push-ups (thanks, JROTC) without stretching my chest properly, and my posture has suffered greatly. Luckily, pull-ups work the back nicely, so now, every time I do a set of push-ups, I do as many pull-ups as I can. Talk about a great workout! Especially for the abs!

    1. throw a few sets of bridges in with that as well. done properly, you’ll get the stretch you need as well as attention to spinal flexibility. al kavadlo has some bridge vids to help.

    2. If you really want to work your abs during pull-ups a good way is to do a knee-up at the same time or try to keep your body straight with your feet out as far as you can hold them.

  22. I have started doing 10 wall pushups every time I visit the loo at work (plenty of room in the disabled loo) and by the end of the day I’ve done 40-50 without even thinking about it.

    1. That is brilliant! I teach and do not want to get caught doing squats or pushups in my classroom or office (yet). The bathroom floor never entered my mind for obvious reasons, but the wall is a whole other story! Thanks! Now I’m looking forward to school Monday so I can see how many I can crank out in a day. Thank you!

  23. Great article and absolutely incredibly video, Al! Thanks for outlining all of the variety. I’m going to save the video and pass it along to my susbscribers 🙂

    That’s exactly why the push-up is also one of my most favorite exercises. There are so many different ways to perform them that it’s easy to switch things up to make it “less boring”.

  24. I’ve read that regardless of all the other factors, you’re deemed ‘fit’ if you can do 30 push-ups and 30 sit-ups. Don’t know if that’s true or not. But, 30 of each isn’t an easy task.

  25. Is it okay to do push-ups every day? Or is there a recovery period, like 48 hours?

    1. If you’re doing a few pushups for fun (whenever you feel like it) it shouldn’t be a problem every day.

      If you’re doing seriously exhausting pushup workouts (that make you sore on the days after) simply don’t start again till the soreness has gone.

    2. Stretch! I mentioned in another comment that too many push-ups without the proper balance of pullups (or other back exercise) and stretching resulted in my posture being pulled forward by too-tight muscles in my chest and shoulders. I like the two-arms-on-the-door-jam-and-lean-forward-stretch. Every time I do a set of push ups, I do a set of pullups for balance and then stretch.

  26. I’ve done all of these variations and more in my younger days, never was awesome but got up to 50 standard pushups and 30 knuckle pushups on a hard floor, but the diamond pushups always put unbearable pressure on the outside bottom of my hands for some reason, had to leave them alone. At almost 60 years old, tried some the other day and could only do 22 standard pushups, that’s embarrassing, I’m going to start hitting them hard again.

  27. My problem is that I can’t even do one push-up. My arms tremble and give out before I can lower down all the way!

    1. Start with wall push-ups, then move to knees (or high incline), then inclines, then the floor. Per Mark’s Primal Blueprint Fitness, on my self-assesment, I could do 5 push-ups (I had been doing weight machines at the gym), so I started with wall push-ups. I’m still on the wall.

    2. planks are also an often overlooked progression to full push-ups. Also, hand walk-outs with negative only pushups have worked wonderfully with many of my female clients. You are much stronger and lowering yourself than pushing up so it’s a nice bridge between the two.

      1. I agree. I couldn’t do a push up this fall and stumbled across this “100 push ups” website. I started by doing as many knee push ups as I could and then adding one per day. When I got to 20, I could do a full push up — but only later did I realize that I really, badly needed to plank to really get my abs ready. I suspect all the comments about going wall to incline to full v. knee are correct. Good luck, I can do 6 full and getting my nose to the floor nearly kills me. It’s fun to improve!

    3. The other posters have great suggestions. I couldn’t do one either until I was like 32 and started to try in earnest. Did knee pushups to get to true push-ups.

      Also, my push ups are literally the first thing that seems to weaken. (Might be the female factor. 🙁 ) I incorporate burpees in my workout warm up so I don’t lose the ability now that I have it.

  28. Glad to hear this. Push-ups are a huge part of my workouts. There are so many different variations that make doing them fun…jack push-ups, moving push-ups, squat push-ups, hindu push-ups…love em all.

    1. Great idea Doc. I just looked up a Hindu pushup and will add them to my workout! Thanks.

  29. “And as I always say, If you don’t have a floor, you’ve got much bigger problems!”
    Love that!

  30. Going to try the knuckle ones. My tiny wrists often are super sore and sometimes my pinky fingers will lose feeling during a set of normal pushups.

  31. Regarding fist pushups… that’s how basketball Kevin Love broke one of his metacarpals… ever since seeing that.. my enthusiasm for it has been tempered…

    1. A soft surface can make them a lot less harsh. I prefer doing knuckle push-ups outside on spongy grass.

  32. Perfect timing… did Tabata pushups this morning… felt great when I was done!
    Love pushups!

  33. For those who have progressed beyond these standard push ups and think it’s “too easy”–grab a pair of furniture sliders and get on the floor to do some fly push ups!

  34. 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!!

    1. 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!

  35. 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.

    1. 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)

  36. seriously these photos are making me lol………….also good for the abs.

  37. 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.

  38. 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

  39. 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.

  40. 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.

  41. 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. 🙂

  42. 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!

    1. Yea the difference is like being able to do 20 unbroken, and only being able to do like 2… It blows my mind.

      1. 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.

    2. 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.

      1. 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.

    3. 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.

  43. 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.

    1. 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.

    2. 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!)

      1. 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.

    3. 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?”

  44. 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!

    1. 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.

      1. Thanks for the reply. Guess I’ll dive in and see how it goes/feels.

  45. Do I have to get the tattoos to successfully complete the push-ups?? 😉

  46. 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.

    1. 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

    2. 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.

  47. 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.

  48. 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. 🙂

  49. Try the free app ‘100 pushups’. I’m a month in and upto 70 in 5 reps.

  50. 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…?

    1. 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. ;).

    2. 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.

    3. 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.

  51. 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.

  52. 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.

  53. 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.

  54. 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.

  55. 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?

    1. That is odd. Sounds a tad like the onset of a hernia, but they are kind of rare in women.

  56. 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!

  57. 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

  58. 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!

  59. 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.

  60. 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.

  61. Here’s another good reference for body-weight training for those looking for something beyond traditional pushups.

    The Sites author has some amazing feats he’s put together and the vids are inspiring! I believe at this point he has added some weight training, but most of his vids were done from a background of purely bodyweight drills

    think bodyweight, think gymnast…there’s plenty to do beyond creating distance between your chest and the ground 🙂

  62. Some ladies and I are running a push-ups challenge on our blogs, and this is perfect timing for this article! Definitely sharing with my readers!

  63. Very useful article. In order to feel toned and replenish my energy I take nutritional supplements. I am taking them mostly before workouts, and they really do it! Especially the one I’ve tried a month ago – Navy Seal Formula manufactured by MGNutritionals. The results are outstanding. It quickly brings me up, so even after tough workout I feel perfect.

  64. Doing push-ups daily. Started @ 30 on Jan 1st, adding one a day. Hoping to finish out at 394 reps on NY’s eve. Great results so far!

  65. I’m 58.
    I average 500 pushups every morning.
    Evenings I walk and hit the bag 5-10 rounds.

  66. Don’t overlook correct shoulder position when doing push ups. To placeyour shoulders in the correct position screw your hnads into the ground and ensure you elbow pits are facing forward. Then lower yourself elbows back, maintain a perfectly vertical fore arm. May seem harder at first as you are putting the load on the tricep while using the spec to stabilize the shoulder. This is the bodies functional way of moving and prevents injury.

    Michael Boettger
    CFL1 and USAW Sports Performan Coach
    http://www.crossfitcriticalmass.com

  67. Awesome video, I am inspired. Thanks for sharing Mark. Grok on!!
    Have been Primal for 2 years now. I am 54 years old. I feel 30 years old. Thank you!!!
    Jim and Bonnie Nutter
    Idyllwild,Calif.

  68. Do 12 sets of 12 push-ups every other day and in 6 weeks you will be a muscle dude. I’ve done it and I’ve got 16 bigger and cut muscles. Good luck!

  69. 50 push ups 50 body squats 100 calf raises 100 hand grips. Every morning! I’ve been doing it for A year. It only takes 7 minutes. You can do it! Can’t is just another way of saying WONT!