Push-ups like most any skill can be mastered with the right instruction and practice. Unfortunately, most people have a pretty rough and inappropriate introduction to this exercise. No one--most especially fitness professionals--should ask a beginner to attempt a full horizontal bodyweight version of a push-up.
It’s an unreasonable expectation.
Yet, I see countless exercise videos, bootcamps, and (this one really irritates me) middle school pe classes where participants are asked to do multiple repetitions and usually quickly (so much yikes!). This is like asking someone to write an essay without first learning how to construct a sentence. The solution isn’t to avoid pushups; the solution is to find the version of the push-up that suits your current ability. Fortunately, there’s a version suitable for every skill level.
Performing a push-up demands a high level of stability throughout the entire body and correct mechanics at the shoulders to do them safely and effectively (push-ups, or any exercise, should never cause pain during or after executing them--if anyone tells you to work through the pain, run away).
You’re ready to attempt a full bodyweight push-up when:
1) you can hold yourself up in a front plank for at least 30 seconds without letting your body sag in the middle (not letting the hips drop, or letting the low back arch) and
2) you can lower and raise yourself with your elbows at a 45 degree angle (or less) to your body while holding your plank without sagging in the middle and you can do this without experiencing any pain in your shoulders.
If you are not able to do these 2 things yet, that’s ok! There is a version of this exercise for you. First, you will want to work on your core strength and you can do this while also training your push-up (note: if you experience pain while performing any of these exercises, have your health care provider check it out before proceeding).
Start your push-up vertically and gradually work your way to horizontal.
For the plank you can watch this video tutorial created for my program Ease Into Movement & Strength at Home . You will learn how to perform a solid beginner level plank and progress from there to keep challenging your core strength while maintaining the integrity of form.
Here’s my video tutorial for a beginner’s pushup and how to progress it as well.
I don’t generally teach pushups from the knees because it’s difficult to get the body in the ideal plank position and easy to lose core engagement. However, this doesn’t mean doing them this way is incorrect, there are circumstances when push-ups from the knees may be the best version for someone. With a few exceptions, there aren’t really any bad exercises, but rather bad applications of those exercises (like expecting someone who is yet unable to perform a front plank to do a full horizontal push-up--great exercise, bad exercise choice in this situation).
To start training for push-up proficiency, incorporate these exercises into your fitness program at least 2 times a week (3 times is ideal):
Wall plank - start with 1-2 30 second holds and increase the challenge by moving closer to floor as you gain stability and strength until you are doing 2 full horizontal planks on the floor for 30 seconds.
Wall push-ups - start with 1-2 sets of 15 repetitions. You can increase the challenge by narrowing your stance and/or moving your feet further from the wall and closer to the floor as you get stronger. (Tip: your pushups should never be positioned lower than your plank--your plank will likely progress quicker than your pushup)
When learning this or any exercise, find the version that meets you where you are but challenges you just enough so that you are making progress. Think quality over quantity--don’t sacrifice form for more repetitions or a more challenging version before you’re body is ready. Stay consistent and be patient with yourself, learning a a new skill takes time and practice. You’ll get there!
Interested in starting a structured strength training program for beginners that won’t shame, overwhelm or deplete you? Ease Into Movement & Strength at Home is an 8-week program that builds you up without breaking you down. It's available instantly via digital download. You can learn more here.