Push-Ups Feel Impossible? Start with These 4 Beginner Progressions

Have you ever walked into a group fitness class or personal training session and thought, “Please please please don’t let there be push-ups today”?

If the idea of a set of push-ups fills you with dread, you’re not alone. Push-ups are tough! They’re a skill exercise, meaning they require upper body strength, trunk stability, range of motion, and even mobility… all at once. Just being strong or fit isn’t enough — it takes time and practice to master the technique.

As such, many women avoid push-ups. Maybe they’ve always struggled to do them, or they just don’t think they’re strong enough (or they’ve internalized the incredibly frustrating misconception that women can’t do standard push-ups, and should stick with push-ups off their knees instead!).

But the truth is, with proper form and some practice, almost anyone can master the push-up.

In this article, I’m going to show you how to build the strength and skill you need to do push-ups, step by step. In addition to discovering all of the benefits of push-ups, you’ll learn:

  • How to align your body properly during your push-up practice.
  • Four exercises that will help you progress to full push-ups.
  • Exactly how to perform a full push-up.

Plus, I’ve included a 12-week training program that shows you exactly how to program these four exercises so you can achieve your push-up goal!

What Are the Benefits of Push-Ups?

The push-up is an effective bodyweight exercise whether your goal is getting stronger, building muscle, or improving overall fitness. A horizontal pressing exercise, push-ups primarily work the chest (pectorals), triceps, deltoids, and core, but require some assistance from the glutes and leg muscles, too.

Learning to perform push-ups creates a unique opportunity for you to:

  • Build your upper body strength. This will carry over to other exercises, such as bench presses and burpees. Plus, daily tasks — like moving furniture, pushing heavy doors, and getting up from the ground — will become easier and safer.
  • Improve your cardiovascular health. Push-ups engage several large muscle groups at once, forcing your heart to work harder to pump blood to those tissues.
  • Increase shoulder strength and stability, which can help reduce shoulder pain and risk of injury. (Note: If you have shoulder pain or an existing shoulder injury, push-ups could be painful and even make things worse. Speak with your doctor or physiotherapist before you practice these push-up progressions.)
  • Exercise anywhere. Whether you’re short on time or don’t have access to a gym, add push-ups to a bodyweight circuit and you’ve got a full-body workout.
  • Boost confidence. Mastering push-ups can help you feel empowered and strong, especially if it’s been on your list of fitness goals for a while.

Now you’ve seen why push-ups are a great exercise to incorporate in your training, let’s look at an important alignment tip to help you perform the standard push-up — as well as all the push-up progressions I’m going to cover shortly — safely, effectively, and with proper technique.

Alignment and the Proper Push-Up Position

Whether you’re performing a regular push-up or a modified variation, being mindful of your form and alignment is important.

Here’s the trick: Think of placing a broomstick down your back.

As you get into your starting position and then perform your push-up, that imaginary broomstick should maintain contact with your body in three places:

  • The back of your head
  • Your upper back
  • Your tailbone

Jen Comas demonstrates proper alignment in the starting position of a push-up

Jen Comas demonstrates proper alignment in the bottom position of a push-up

Maintaining a straight line with your body — and engaging your entire core throughout the rep — will allow you to move smoothly as one solid unit, which can help your push-up (or push-up variation) feel less challenging and protect your lower back.

Quick tip: Some folks find it helpful to video themselves from the side so they can check their alignment and make any necessary adjustments.

Keep your imaginary broomstick in mind as you work on each of the following push-up progressions.

Interested in training one-on-one with me? Consider enrolling in our GGS Coaching program and becoming the strongest, fittest, most confident YOU from the inside out.

4 Progressions to Help You Achieve Your First Full Push-Up

The key to learning push-ups is to break the movement down into small, doable exercises. As you practice these progressions, you’re developing the strength and skill required to be able to perform the full push-up.

Depending on your fitness level, you can work these progressions into your training one of two ways:

  • Work on one progression at a time. Once you’ve mastered one, move to the next, and so on.
  • Work on two progressions at a time and increase the difficulty as you get stronger.  (Don’t worry, we’ll give you a more detailed week-by-week training guide at the end of the article.)

If you’re tacking these progressions onto a workout (rather than practicing them as standalone movements outside of your training sessions), you may find it helpful to do push-up work right after your warm-up so you’re not fatigued. Either way, always be sure to thoroughly warm up first.

A final quick note before we get started: You’ll notice that push-ups from the knees, otherwise known as short-lever push-ups, are not one of the progression exercises. Short-lever push-ups are an amazing exercise to target your pecs, deltoids, and triceps. However, they’re often not the most effective way to progress to a full “long-lever” push-up (on the toes with legs extended). This is because bringing your knees to the ground significantly shortens the lever, requiring far less upper body and core strength, which are two things that need to be developed in order to perform long-lever push-ups. Additionally, an important part of push-up practice is patterning the movement properly, which is precisely what you’ll be doing by working on variations that are also performed on your toes.

Progression #1: High Plank Hold

The high plank hold is incredibly important to practice when working toward a push-up, yet it’s almost always overlooked. It might help to think of the high plank hold as the foundation of the movement, as it’s the starting point (and ending point!) of each push-up. Plus you’ll get the added benefit of strengthening your core while you’re at it.

How to Perform a High Plank Hold

  • Get into a high plank position on the ground by pressing evenly into the floor through your palms and each of your fingers until your arms are fully extended. Extend your legs out behind you with your knees off the floor and toes tucked under.
  • Put a slight bend in your elbows. They should point about 30–45º out from your body.
  • Slightly tuck your chin so your neck is in a neutral position.
  • Create a straight line with your body by using the broomstick tip.
  • Lightly engage through your core and glutes.
  • Hold this position for 5–15 seconds (that’s one rep). Release by dropping your knees to the floor.
  • Reset your starting position, and repeat.
  • Perform 3–4 sets of 3–5 reps. Rest 1–2 minutes between sets.

If a high plank hold on the ground is too challenging, feel free to place your hands on something elevated, such as a bench or a countertop. Place your hands as high as needed until you’re able to perform several reps while maintaining proper alignment.

Progression #2: Incline Eccentric Push-Up with Full Reset

This exercise is a great way to take the foundational strength you developed in your high plank hold and start adding some movement! Eccentric training focuses on the “negative” portion of an exercise, or in this case, the descent of your push-up. Working on an incline gives you the strengthening benefits of a full push-up, but reduces the amount of weight you’re moving. Learning to descend with control while maintaining excellent alignment helps build strength and get you closer to your push-up goal.

How to Perform an Incline Eccentric Push-Up with Full Reset

  • Use a box, bench, couch, or other stable item that won’t slide under your weight.
  • Get into an incline high plank position with your hands on the object and arms fully extended. Extend your legs out behind you with your knees off the floor and toes tucked under.
  • Put a slight bend in your elbows. They should point about 30–45º out from your body.
  • Slightly tuck your chin so your neck is in a neutral position.
  • Make sure your body is in a straight line by using the broomstick tip.
  • Lightly engage through your core and glutes.
  • Bend your elbows to lower yourself as far down as you comfortably can.
  • Once you’ve lowered down as far as you can, drop your knees to the floor. That’s one rep.
  • Reset by getting back into your incline high plank position.
  • Perform 2–3 sets of 5–8 reps. Rest 1–2 minutes between sets.

You should be at an incline that allows each rep to be challenging, but smooth and relatively fast.

Working on your mobility and balance too? Learn how to perform the single-leg Romanian deadlift and incorporate it into your training program.

Progression #3: Eccentric Push-Up with Full Reset

Here, you’ll be working the eccentric (negative) portion of the push-up as you did in the previous exercise, only this time it will feel more challenging because you’re adding more body weight (i.e., resistance).

How to Perform an Eccentric Push-Up with Full Reset

  • Get into a high plank position on the ground by pressing evenly into the floor through your palms and each of your fingers until your arms are fully extended. Extend your legs out behind you with your knees off the floor and toes tucked under.
  • Put a slight bend in your elbows. They should point about 30–45º out from your body.
  • Slightly tuck your chin so your neck is in a neutral position.
  • Create a straight line with your body by using the broomstick tip.
  • Lightly engage through your core and glutes.
  • Bend your elbows to lower yourself toward the floor as far as you comfortably can.
  • Once you’ve lowered down as far as you can, drop your knees to the floor. That’s one rep.
  • Reset by getting back into your high plank position.
  • Perform 2–3 sets of 5–6 reps. Rest 1–2 minutes between sets.

Note: You may find you’re not able to lower yourself all the way to the floor yet, and that’s OK! There are still a lot of benefits of practicing this with a slightly shorter range of motion. Do your best, and keep practicing.

Progression #4: Incline Push-Up

Practicing incline push-ups is an effective way to progress to a full push-up. Like the eccentric incline push-up, you’re moving less bodyweight than a regular push-up. Only now, you’re adding the concentric portion of the movement — pushing back up — so you’re still progressing. As you get stronger, you can further progress this movement by lowering the height of the incline until you’re ready to do them on the floor.

How to Perform an Incline Push-Up

  • Use a box, bench, couch, or other stable item that won’t slide under your weight.
  • Get into an incline high plank position with your hands on the object and arms fully extended. Extend your legs out behind you with your knees off the floor and toes tucked under.
  • Put a slight bend in your elbows. They should point about 30–45º out from your body.
  • Slightly tuck your chin so your neck is in a neutral position.
  • Make sure your body is in a straight line by using the broomstick tip.
  • Lightly engage through your core and glutes.
  • Bend your elbows to lower yourself toward the box with control as far down as is comfortable for you.
  • Once you lower yourself down as far as you can, engage your core to maintain your alignment as you exhale and press yourself back up to the starting position.
  • Perform 2–3 sets of 5–6 reps. Rest 1–2 minutes between sets.

Perform this movement at an incline that allows each rep to be challenging, but smooth and relatively fast. If you find yourself struggling to complete the recommended reps and your form is suffering (e.g., your hips sag), find something slightly higher to place your hands on (wall push-ups are totally fine!). When each rep feels smooth and strong, it’s a great confidence booster, and it helps pattern the movement correctly.

How to Perform a Push-Up

Now that you’re ready to hit the floor, let’s review how to do a perfect push-up.

  • Get into a high plank position on the ground by pressing evenly into the floor through your palms and each of your fingers until your arms are fully extended. Extend your legs out behind you with your knees off the floor and toes tucked under.
  • Put a slight bend in your elbows. They should point about 30–45º out from your body.
  • Slightly tuck your chin so that your neck is in a neutral position.
  • Create a straight line with your body by using the broomstick tip.
  • Lightly engage through your core and glutes.
  • Bend your elbows to lower yourself toward the floor as far down as you comfortably can.
  • Maintain your alignment as you exhale and press yourself back up to the starting position as one solid unit.
  • Perform 2–4 sets of 5–6 reps. Rest 1–2 minutes between sets

Your 12-Week Push-Up Training Program

Whether you’re practicing your push-up progressions on their own, or incorporating them into your existing strength training program, you can use this 12-week program to help you work your way up to full push-ups.

I recommend doing push-up work at the beginning of your workout following your warm-up, when your muscles are still fresh. When you’re done with your session, allow 48 hours for recovery before repeating your push-up practice. Depending on where you’re at in the program, you can expect to train your push-ups between 1 and 3 times per week.

And remember: You’ve got this!

Download your PDF of the 12-Week Push-Up Training Program here.

The post Push-Ups Feel Impossible? Start with These 4 Beginner Progressions appeared first on Girls Gone Strong.