How many proper push ups can you do?
Was your response driven by ego or accuracy? Many who stake claim to 30 push-ups find the real number is much closer to eight. Others who answer zero may not have given it the necessary time.
If your bench press has become stale, think about rediscovering push-ups. More than just a warmup, the push-up is a great equipment-free exercise that strengthens your push muscles (chest, shoulders, triceps plus core) while improving overall joint health and stability.
Rapid fire push-ups, chin-ups and squats may produce high numbers, but they do little to improve flexibility, strength and shape. For great workout results, sustained control is the key.
There are many variables involved in a proper push-up. If any of these variables are compromised, weak links appear in the chain, sabotaging your efforts.
So, let’s get started.
- First things first. How’s your plank? If you struggle performing a basic plank, pumping out proper push-ups will be a challenge. You must be board straight from head to heels during execution. For stability, pull your belly button into your spine and don’t allow your hips to sag or your head to drop.
- In a controlled manner, lower yourself to the floor (this should take three or four seconds), pause at the bottom and then push up. Pausing eliminates the bounce that many people use to create momentum. The slow descent ensures you are controlling the ‘negative’ or ‘eccentric’ phase of the movement. It’s like hitting the brakes as you travel down a steep hill.
- At the bottom, hover over the floor in a planked position. This creates static tension which teaches shoulder stability. For strength or hypertrophy (muscle growth), push up slowly into the heel of your palm. If your goal is power, push explosively. At the top, fully extend your arms and contract your chest.
- Ensure your upper arms don’t travel either too close to your sides or wide like a T. Tight to sides emphasizes triceps and the anterior deltoid; too wide may compromise shoulder health. Generally, mid-range is the happy medium. To adjust during execution, I ask clients to walk their feet forward — dropping elbows into a less flared position.
- If you can perform 12 slow reps (around 70 seconds), you may need to add weight in order to progress. Still, remember that quality beats quantity. This is more about muscle tension and maintaining good form than racking up numbers. (I often challenge clients who can perform 12 good reps to fail at five or six. This is accomplished by slowing down and exaggerating tension and control. It’s tougher than it sounds).
- Bench and machine presses add difficulty to your workout by upping the weight. The movement isn’t as natural as the push-up because your scapulae (shoulder blades) are pinned beneath you during execution. Cable presses, on the other hand, allow for greater scapular mobility and a fuller range of movement as long as you aren’t rocking during execution. Consider pairing a weighted exercise, such as a bench press, with a set of push-ups. This combines an exercise with an adjustable load with one that promotes shoulder stabilization. Don’t rest between movements. This is called a super set, or drop set.
- Consider single arm dumbbell presses to even out strength. Unilateral movements additionally promote core stability. Avoid anchoring your non-pressing arm to encourage instability.
If your answer to the ‘how many push-ups can you do?’ question ends in a zero, start by practicing negatives. Negatives are the lowering part of the movement. A strong negative allows you to descend to the floor without breaking your glasses or nose.
First, place a mat on the floor to soften your controlled fall. Second, make sure you’re comfortable performing a straight arm plank. Third, descend to the floor in a slow, controlled manner. Crawl back up to a plank and repeat. Become comfortable holding a static position at your sticking point (the point where you drop) with a focus on slowing down your ‘free fall’ time.
In addition to building strength, proper push-ups can act as a fantastic shoulder stabilizer, something most of us need due to years of sitting. Beginners should perform push-ups three times a week, with a day or two in between. Depending on program design, more advanced exercisers can reduce frequency.