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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!