A Step-By-Step Guide: How To Do A Push Up

Push ups are kind of a big deal.

They are considered the standard, routine and after-thought of physically fit individuals.

But what happens if you can’t do a push up?

Where would you start? How do you practice? How do you progress? More importantly, how do you scale it back to something you’re able to do?

Let’s take something that seems impossible for some and break it down into manageable, bite-sized pieces of success. I’ll help you go from Level 0 to Level Hero.

This progression is how I got my Mom to go from 0 push ups to 5 in just 1 week.

Let’s begin.

Level 0 – The Plank


The Plank.

If you’ve never done a push up, or been unable to successfully complete a push up, this is where you should start. Many people, when their goal is to do a push up, lack the core strength and stability to hold their body straight and end up bowing their backs or sticking their butts high in the air.

Don’t make this mistake. Don’t overestimate your abilities.

There are two levels you should practice. High Plank and Low Plank. High plank will gather the shoulder stability, tricep endurance and strength to help you at the top of the push up. Low plank will place more emphasis on your core strength and stability.

To get in High Plank:

– Start on all 4’s, on your hands and knees, as if you’re going to crawl like a baby.

– Have your hands directly underneath your shoulders.

– Straighten one leg, then the other.

– Hold this position for  5 seconds. (If this is difficult, spread your feet apart.)

– When finished, bring one knee down at a time.

– Repeat to practice. (6-10 times)

To get in Low Plank:

– Start on all 4’s, on your hands and knees.

– Place your elbows down on the ground and directly underneath your shoulders. Now you’re on your elbows and knees.

– Straighten one leg, then the other.

– Hold this position for 5 seconds. (If this is difficult, spread your feet apart.)

– When finished, bring one knee down at a time.

– Repeat to practice. (6-10 times)

Start with this exercise until you are comfortable getting in and out of high and low plank easily. When you get better, increase the reps first (from 10 to 15 to 20), then increase the amount of time the planks are held (from 5s to 10s to 15s). Don’t worry about “tightening your abs and squeezing your butt”. Your body should come up and stabilize naturally. We’ll get into the advanced stuff another time.

Again, keep your body flat. Don’t bow the back, don’t stick the butt up.

If this is still to difficult you can always practice the planks by leaning against a wall. First with arms extended, then on your elbows.


Level 1 – Wall Push Up


Wall Push Up

Now that you’ve perfected the plank, it’s time to use it in a low-stakes environment to progress you to a full push up.

The purpose of this exercise is to enable you to maintain the plank position while going through a dynamic movement that is the push up. To minimize failure and maximize success, we’re going to start on the wall.

– Find a wall and face it. Place your hands flat on the wall at arms length and shoulder width apart.

– Now step back so there is now a gap between your hands and the wall.

– Lean into the wall and hold yourself up with straight arms. You are now in high plank position.

– Slowly lower yourself towards the wall by bending your arms, keeping your elbows into your body. Hinge on the balls of your feet. You are now in an alternate low plank position.

– Straighten your arms.

– You’ve successfully completed a Wall Push Up.

This might feel easy. You might feel you’re cheating yourself because it’s not a “real push up”, but it’s an important step. Again, the purpose of the wall push up is to practice holding your plank position while moving from a high to low position.

Don’t overestimate your abilities. Take it slow, controlled and focus.

Practice this movement until you are comfortable and have perfected the execution.

You’re now ready for Level 2.


Level 2 – Eccentric Push Ups


Let’s build some strength, shall we?

We’re going to work backwards a little bit here. We’re going to use the strongest phase (lengthening) of our muscles to aid in pushing through (haha, get it?) the problem area of the push up.

For a beginner it’s difficult to get the full range of motion of a push up. This is because of the “sticking point”, the transition between the chest and the arms as the prime movers of the push up. I know many people who can do 1 inch push ups (their body only moves an inch).

To get over this hump, we’ll develop our strength by practising only the lowering phase. What I like to call, the Eccentric Push Up.

Like the Kobayashi Maru, this exercise is designed for you to fail.

Don’t worry though, because that’s the whole point. You’ll see why.

– Find a mat or place a small pillow under your chest.

– Start in the high plank position.

– Lower yourself slowly down to the ground by bending your arms, keeping your elbows in close to your body (count 5 seconds from top to bottom).

– Go down as far as you can, trying to get your chest to touch the mat/pillow.

– Flop. Relax on your stomach and reset into high plank position however you’d like.

– Repeat.

At first, you might only make it half way down before you flop. Work on going down further each time. Give yourself a long rest (10-20s) before each attempt. Keep a perfect plank throughout the entire movement.

When you master this step, the bottom to top portion of the push up will be easy peezy.


Level 3 – Incline Push Up


This is where shit get’s real.

An inclined push up will mimic the movements associated with the actual push up without the full blown strength requirements. Remember the plank, remember it well. Use the Eccentric Push Up technique here as well.

To start an incline push up:

– Find a fixed, elevated surface. (ie. counter top, heavy table, couch against a wall, bed, etc). We don’t want the surface to slip from underneath us when we’re performing this herculean feat of strength.

– Start in a high plank position with your hands under your shoulders on the fixed surface.

– Lower yourself down until your chest touches the surface. Scraping your elbows against your body.

– Push yourself back up, keeping that plank position.

– Congratulations, you’ve successfully completed an Incline Push Up.

– Repeat

Tip: The higher the surface, the less strength is required. So if the coffee table is too low and too difficult, start on the kitchen counter and make your way down to a lower surface.

If you’re not getting Level 3, go back to Level 2 and make sure you’re able to control your body all the way down to the bottom of that push up position. You can also try the Eccentric Push Up technique during the incline push up.


Level 4 – Knee Push Up


I don’t consider these “girl push ups”. I don’t like that.

Instead, I call them Knee Push Ups.

Now that you’ve mastered the incline push up on varying surfaces it’s time to hit the deck.

– Start in high plank.

– Place your knees on the floor, keeping the rest of your body straight in the previous planked position. You shouldn’t be bent at the hips, your back shouldn’t arch, your butt shouldn’t be jutting out.

– Bend your knees and wrap your ankles together. You are now in a half plank position.

– Lower yourself to the ground, keeping your elbows in close to your body.

– Push yourself back up, keeping that plank position.

– Congratulations, you’ve successfully completed a Knee Push Up.

– Repeat

The issue with Knee Push Ups is during the transition from High Plank to Half Plank, people usually break the planking formation. Their butt goes back or their back bows and they lose that beautiful plank position.

Don’t do that.

Tip: If your knees hurt place a mat, blanket or towel underneath, or do them on carpet or a rug. Save your knees so it doesn’t feel like an arrow’s been in there.

Practice this until you can successfully and confidently complete 10 repetitions. This is the last step before the final test.


Boss Battle: The Full Push Up


You’ve trained, you’ve sweat, you’ve poured your heart and soul into this, now it’s time to test your abilities.

Remember all you’ve learned leading up to this point.

– Maintain the plank body position on both the down and up portions of the push up.

– Keep your elbows in close.

– Spread your feet to make it easier.

– Controlled upper body movement.

To do a full push up.

– Start in high plank position.

– Lower yourself down until your chest touches the ground.

– Push yourself up, keeping that plank body position.

– Congratulate yourself for slaying this dragon.

Even if you grit your teeth, felt the burn and started sweating bullets, and managed to do 1 push up, that’s an incredible accomplishment!

If you did 3, 5 or 15 that’s amazing too!

Continue to practice levels 1 through 4 and never forget the basics.


Common Problems


Here, I’m going to provide some examples of common problems I’ve seen with people practising their push ups and how you can fix them, too.

On the Up phase, my back bows and I can’t maintain my straight plank position: This issue comes up a lot. You’re able to push your upper body up but your lower body and tushie region lags behind. To medicate this problem, the most important thing is to continue to practice both the high and low plank positions. Then proceed directly to the incline and knee push ups and implement the perfect plank positions there. During the plank practice, focus on squeezing your butt as hard as you can and tightening your abs by inflating your stomach to look like a pregnant lady. This will “lock your pelvis to your ribcage” and prevent the unwanted back bowing.

My head goes down, but not my body: A lot of people stick their heads out and down when attempting a push up. This makes them feel like they’re getting closer to the floor, but really, nothing is happening. This is a big no-no. Look at the floor a few inches in front of you and judge the distance you’ve travelled by touching your chest to the floor or by the position of your elbows. The more bent they are, the further you’ve gone down.

I’m still not strong enough to push myself up: Revisit the eccentric, incline and knee push ups until you’ve mastered them. When doing these, imagine your hands are on plates and screw your hands into the floor by twisting outwards. This will recruit the lats and more pectorals to aid in your push up strength.

I can’t go all the way down: Apply the eccentric push up method to Incline, Knee and even Wall push ups. Use the “screwing your hands into the ground” tip from above to recruit more muscles and muscle fibres. Keep a rock hard plank position so you’re moving a rock and not a noodle.

I can only do 1 or 2: Congratulations! That’s a huge accomplishment. Now practice, practice, practice.


Get Fit and Have Fun!


Now, I know push ups aren’t the make it or break it of the physical tests of life, but they’re fun to do.

Some of you are just starting out, some of you have been going strong for several years.

Wherever you are, never give up. Remember why you’re doing it and never forget it.

So whether you’re practising your planks or cranking out 360 push ups, have fun with fitness, cause it’ll love you back in ways you can’t imagine.


Photo Sources: rio 2016the wall GOTdragonfun fitnessenterprisebaby herculeslegoskyrimcalvin

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