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Push ups are a strength standard that everyone should work towards. This seemingly simple exercise can actually be complex, and most will actually have to work up to doing push ups properly in what’s called push up progression. There are many out there who do push ups…INCORRECTLY! Form breaks can be seen all the time – hips drop too low and don’t come up with the shoulders, people let their shoulders go up towards their ears, or they barely go down before shooting back up. Not only is this dangerous, but it doesn’t affect your body like a perfect form push up does.

Start Your Push Up Progression

A good push up will fit the following criteria:

  • Hips go down with your shoulders.
  • Forearms are as vertical as possible.
  • Head/Neck is neutral and in line with torso(head not dropping before chest)
  • Shoulders packed not raised towards ears.
  • Hands inline or below shoulders.
  • Elbows do not lock out at top.
  • Keep a good tempo, but don’t fly off the floor either.

When learning to do push ups properly, be patient. Aim for proper form and always work at your current pace, not where you think you should be. As stated before push ups are complex, this is because it is a multi-joint movement that is quite taxing on the body. As you work through your own personal push up progression, you’ll see that you can do more push ups over time. Don’t advance yourself too fast, and only move forward when you are able. An injury only sets you back a few weeks, if you’re fortunate.

Use These Exercises to Supplement Your Push Up Progression

Low Plank

Low Plank

This will teach you to engage your midsection and glutes properly. Because the movement is done on the elbows, it places less stress on the body. Low plank form should look a bit like a push up.

  • Position your elbows below your shoulders
  • Keep your shoulders and hips in line
  • Do not let the head drop down or pick it up to look in front
  • Keep your eyes focused on the ground below.

Aim for 3 sets of 20-45+ seconds. Start where you can and gradually add more time. Once you can get 3 sets of 45 seconds or more, move on.

High Plank

High Plank

A high plank is literally the top of a pushup and as such positioning will be the same.

  • Hands just below your shoulders
  • Do not lock out the elbows
  • Neck neutral
  • Shoulders and hips in a straight line.

Aim for 3 sets of 20-45+ seconds. Again start with what you can and move up gradually. The goal is to hit 3 sets at 45 seconds.

Incline Pushup

Incline Push Up

Think of a push up as a moving plank. Your body should stay in a plank position, the only different being that you are moving towards the ground and back up. We start with an incline position because in a standard floor push up you are moving around 70-75% of your body weight. The incline decreases that percentage into a more manageable range.

Incline push ups can be done against a wall, windowsill, chair, bench, or using a smith machine at the gym with the bar lowered.

  • Set a manageable incline
  • Hands will be a little in front of your shoulders – that is OK here
  • Control yourself on the way down

Aim for 2-3 sets of 5-10 reps and as you get stronger lower the incline until you are on the ground.

Eccentric/Negative Push up

By this point, some will be able to get a few push ups but if not, don’t worry. We will be working on your push up progression, however this time we’ll only focus on the negative, or eccentric portion of it. The negative/eccentric portion of the movement is where the muscle is lengthened under load. In this case that muscle is the chest, and the load is your body weight.

Position yourself in a high plank. Lower yourself slowly towards the floor staying in control for as much of the movement as possible. Once you are on the floor, DO NOT push yourself up, instead re-position yourself into a high plank and repeat.

Aim for 2-5 sets of 3-5 reps here. For the purposes here, the slower the better.

The Real Deal – Push Ups

The next step is adding full push ups into your training and gradually doing more overtime.

Aim for 1-3 sets of 3-10 reps, at first it may take a few sets to actually get only 10 repetitions but overtime you will get stronger.

****Advanced Tip*****

It is possible to cut down how much time it takes you to do push ups by using a technique popularized by former Russian Special Forces trainer, Pavel Tsatsouline called ‘Greasing the Groove’ (GTG). GTG is an unconventional form of increasing strength that involves training a specific movement every single day. Strength is a skill and like all skills, one must practice to get better. With this technique, you would train frequently but never until failure.

Here is the criteria:

  • Train everyday
  • Train multiple times per day
  • Never train till failure (only about 50-80% of your max effort)
  • Only works with one to two exercises at a time
  • Never train if tired or sore
  • Minimum 15 minute rest between sets

This technique can work with helping you get better at push ups and can be used with any progression but will work best from the incline push up on.

Lets say you are doing floor push ups but can only get about 3-4 at a time. With this technique you would do 1-2 reps when you feel fresh as many times per day as possible.

For example:

  • Wake up in the morning – 1-2 reps
  • Before dressing for work – 1-2 reps
  • Lunch Break – 1-2 reps
  • Before Dinner – 1-2 reps
  • Before bed – 1-2 reps

At the end of the day this person would have gotten 5-10 reps of perfect push ups. Overtime this number will creep up as the max effort rep count does.

GTG can work for almost any exercises, but is especially great with body weight movements.


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