If you have struggled in the past to nail your first push-up, or are stuck with your push-up training and can’t seem to improve, this article will lay out exactly what you need to do to get the progress you are after.
To get better at push-ups you need to increase your upper body strength and muscle mass with chest and triceps building exercises. This includes doing push-ups from a variety of angles and performing them 2-3 times a week.
No matter your starting point, you can get better at push-ups, and below I’ll offer 10 tips that will help you.
I’ll also cover:
- What Muscles Do Push-Ups Work?
- How to Do Push-Ups Properly
- How To Get Better at Push-Ups
- Sample Push-Up Routines
What Muscles Do Push-Ups Work?
The push-up primarily works the chest and triceps, however, it also trains the anterior deltoid (front of shoulder).
Here’s a quick rule of thumb:
- If you are working the push-up with a wider grip, one that allows you to go lower in a push-up, then you will train more of the chest.
- If you keep your hands narrower or do not go all the way down, you will emphasize more triceps.
Why Are Push-Ups So Hard?
Push-ups can be a challenge for people of all sizes, however, the heavier you are the stronger you need to be to move your body weight (which may explain why they are so hard).
In general, you lift 50-60% of your body weight in a push-up (with greater strength needed to go the full range of motion).
If you cannot perform bench presses with 50 percent of your body weight (or more) then you will have a tough time moving your body in a push-up, and it’s a sign that your upper body needs to get stronger.
Additionally, push-ups require you to have core stability and body awareness, as you need to hold yourself in a plank position throughout the entire movement.
So if you have sufficient upper body strength, but still struggle with push-ups, the issue could be that your core is weak and is unable to coordinate how your body moves through the range of motion.
Finally, one more issue could be that you aren’t performing the push-up with the proper technique, and thus failing to utilize all of the muscles required to execute the movement.
To make sure we’re all on the same page with the right technique, here is a quick guide.
How To Do A Proper Push-Up With Proper Technique
1. Start in a plank position with the elbows extended and your hands slightly wider than shoulder width. Your feet and legs should be pressed together, and your belly button should be pulled up into the body to help you keep the abdominals contracted. Getting your body rigid and contracted BEFORE you hit your sticking point in the push up is key. From the onset, think about pressing your thighs together, flexing the quads and glutes, and bracing your core.
2. Take a breath and begin by bending the elbows to lower the body towards the ground. The hands should be in line with the sternum at the bottom of the push-up, and the elbows should be at a 45-degree angle. You don’t want to have your elbows too tucked, or too flared. Also, keep your chin tucked, don’t look ahead of yourself, look down.
3. The tempo on the way down should be controlled, but you don’t want to go slower than you need to. The slower the descent, the harder it will be to push your body up. Think about pulling yourself towards the floor, as if you were performing a bent over row. You should feel the upper back engage.
4. Push firmly against the ground thinking about accelerating through the range of motion until you’re at the top. Make sure to not let the hips drop, too. The key with this is to make sure that your hips and shoulders rise together, rather than having your hips sagging down or shoot up in the air. If you struggle with this, think about maintaining a rigid plank as you press away from the ground.
5. Exhale upon returning to the start position, keeping your elbows straight, before repeating using the same positioning. This is also a great time to reset yourself if needed and run through the entire checklist above to ensure your core is contracted, your legs are pressed together, and you are properly preparing your upper back to support you as you go into your next rep.
How To Get Better At Push-Ups
Below are ten tips to help you get better at push-ups.
Note: The first five tips will help you get your first push-up. If you can already do your first push-up, then the other five tips will help you do more push-ups than you currently can do.
1. Attempt One Rep Daily
To nail your first push-up, you need to practice the skill of doing a push-up regularly.
Seeing that both skill (proper form, body control, and coordination) and strength are needed to do a push-up, you need to practice push-ups often.
This may mean you do a few incline push-ups (hands elevated on a bench) or kneeling reps (performing push-ups on your hands and knees vs hands and feet) to get going.
2. Train the Floor Presses and Bench Press
As discussed, you need to be able to bench press 50-60% of your body weight for multiple reps if you want to have enough basic strength to do a push-up.
If you cannot do this, then you need to train the bench press and other upper body pressing exercises, like the floor press, a few times a week.
3. Get Better At Planks
You may already have the strength in the chest and triceps to move 50-60% of your bodyweight for reps, but if your core strength and coordination is lacking, you won’t be able to do push-ups properly.
If you find your hips drop during a push-up, then start doing bodyweight planks as this will help you engage the core and back muscles the same way you would in a push-up.
Better yet, do these planks with additional weight on your back for greater benefits.
4. Strengthen Your Upper Back
A strong upper back is a key to increasing upper body pressing strength.
The stronger your upper back is, the better your chest and triceps can exert force without losing the position of your shoulder blade.
Movements like bent-over rows, inverted rows, and pull-ups are all good places to stay if trying to build upper back strength.
5. Master Incline Push Ups
The incline push-up is a great way to train the push-up in a regressed form, and build a lot of the same movement skills and strength necessary to nail a proper push-up.
When doing incline push-ups, you still need to keep the core tight, however, the upper body strength demands are roughly 10-20% less than what is needed when doing a standard push-up.
6. Test Your Max Rep Push Ups Weekly
Once you can do a proper push-up, you need to track your progress every week.
I recommend you attempt one, all-out set of push-ups with the proper form once per week, and use this as a way to measure your progress week after week.
This will also help you determine how many sets and reps of push-ups you should do on other days of the week (see routine below).
7. Train Push Ups 3 Times Per Week
Training the push-up 3 times a week allows you to have a test day (above), a day where you accumulate volume (a high number of sets and reps), and a day where you do several push-up variations.
By training push-ups like this, you will be sure to cover all your bases for strength and muscle development, and still improve your technique.
8. Do Partial Push-Ups After You Fail Regular Reps
If you can already do a few proper push-ups, then adding in some partial push-ups (incline push-ups or push-ups on knees) immediately after you hit failure on regular push-ups are a great training stimulus.
By adding partial reps to your push-up training, you can enhance muscle growth by increasing volume and muscle endurance.
9. Get Stronger Triceps
If you struggle at the top half of the push-up, chances are your triceps are the issue.
10. Increase Your Chest Strength
Building a stronger chest will 100% make moving your bodyweight easier, this is especially the case if you struggle in the button-end of the push-up (i.e. off the floor).
Training with weights can help you bridge the gap between not being able to do any push ups (or very few) to doing higher rep sets.
Try adding dumbbell bench presses and going as low as you can to get a huge stretch on the chest muscles. The barbell bench press (touch the chest) with a 3-second pause at the bottom is also a great movement to add to boost strength in your chest.
Sample Routine to Improve Push-Ups
Below are two sample routines to help you improve your push-ups.
Note: The first routine is to help you get your first full push-up, and the second routine is to help you get MORE push-ups once you have nailed your first one.
Sample Routine for Getting Your First Push-Up
- Once you have warmed up, perform as many incline push-ups as you can in one set. The height of the incline should allow you to get at least 5 reps. Once you fail (with proper form), stop, and perform 2-3 more sets getting as many reps as you can.
- Perform 3 sets of 45-60 seconds of planks, with your elbows extended (top of the push-up position).
- Perform 3-4 sets of as many reps as you can of the push-up on knees. This should allow you to do a fairly high amount of reps each set. The goal here is to accumulate a ton of triceps and chest volume to build muscle and endurance.
- Perform 4-5 sets of bench presses (either with a barbell or dumbbells), with a total weight that is roughly 50-60% of your body weight. For each set, try to get as many good reps as you can. If you cannot get at least 8 reps, then use less weight until you can get 8 reps for every set.
- Perform 3 sets of 30 seconds of side planks, with your elbows down on the ground or elbows fully extended.
Sample Routine for Getting More Push Ups
- Once you have warmed up, perform one all-out set of push-ups with proper form. Track this number, as this will be needed for day 2.
- Perform 4-5 sets of push-ups. The number of reps you perform in a set should be about 70-80% of your max number of push-ups you did in Day 1. For example, let’s say on Day 1 you did 10 push-ups. On Day 2, perform 4-5 sets of 7-8 push-ups.
- Perform 4-5 sets of bench presses (either with a barbell or dumbbells), with a total weight that is roughly 50-60% of your body weight. For each set, try to get as many good reps as you can. If you can do more than 20 reps with that weight, then increase the weight the next time.
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About The Author
Mike holds a Master’s in Exercise Physiology and a Bachelor’s in Exercise Science. He’s a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), USA Weightlifting Advanced Coach, and has over 10+ years of experience working with collegiate athletes, national level lifters, and beginners alike. Mike is Founder of J2FIT Strength and Conditioning, a growing global training company with gyms in New York City, Cincinnati, and online offering personal training, online custom coaching programs.