Push up progressions

Push up progressions

This post comes via reader request but I know it will be popular as many females struggle with push ups. Women naturally have very weak chests (both in comparison to men and relative to the rest of their body) so performing an exercise which shifts the majority of your bodyweight into your chest will certainly be a struggle.

Luckily, like any muscle, the chest responds well to strength training. When I started lifting, I couldn’t complete a single push up with good form. Now I can hit about 20 consecutively, but I’ve hit 30 with more frequent training (and even beat a man during a push up competition!). So how did I get from my embarrassing efforts to where I am today?

1. Practice, practice, practice

Like with chin-ups, I am a big supporter of the grease the groove method when it comes to push ups. The more you practice, the better you will become. Doing a couple of sets of push ups once per week is not enough – include push ups in at least two of your weekly workouts. Better yet, wake up every morning and bust out a set of push ups before you start your day!

2. Employ progressions and regressions as necessary

Whatever you do, do not do push ups on your knees. Erase the phrase ‘girly push up’ from your vocabulary. I don’t expect untrained individuals to immediately be able to perform strict push ups on their toes – that is where hand-elevated push ups come in. Unlike performing push ups from the knees, which only trains you to become better at performing push ups from the knees (!), elevated push ups mimic the movement of a regular push up. However, because your hands are on an elevated surface, more of your weight is distributed into your legs – thereby making the push up easier.
push up bench

Every single one of my clients starts off with elevated push ups. For the very weak, this could mean against a wall but most will be fine starting with their hands on a bench or racked barbell. Gradually lower the height of the bench until you feel confident to try a push up with your hands on the floor. At this point I will usually ask my client to lower their chest to a certain object. For example, we have various sizes of boxing gloves at work – I gradually reduce the size of the glove until the client is able to go to the floor.

Also keep in mind that the wider your feet, the easier the push up will be. Your chest should lower all the way to the floor/bench with every rep – instead of cheating your range of motion, try widening your stance instead.

Do not be afraid to regress the movement if necessary. There is no shame in taking a step back if it means your form will be spectacular in a few months’ time. Master each step before reducing the height of the bench or object beneath your chest.

3. Train for time

Most people simply try to increase the number of push ups they can complete consecutively. Although that’s a good approach initially, your progress will eventually plateau. Much in the same way you vary sets, reps, tempo and weight to achieve a training effect, you must change the way you perform push ups to continue to see progress.

Instead of performing a maximum number of push ups consecutively, I often ask my clients to perform as many push ups as possible within a certain time frame – usually 45-60 seconds. Perform as many as you can with good form, have a short 5-10 second rest, and repeat as many times as possible within the time period. This number will be easier to beat next time than a regular consecutive set.

4. Hit your chest from all angles

You well get better at push ups faster if you train your chest in multiple ways. By increasing your chest strength through bench pressing (I wrote a post about increasing pressing strength here), cable flyes and dumbbell flyes, your push ups will naturally improve. These exercises should never replace push ups, however – you should be able to master your bodyweight before you worry about how big your bench is.

I recently cut push ups out of my training for a few months, and was humbled when I reintroduced them. Although I could bench 50kg, hitting 10 push ups was a real struggle. I learned my lesson and will not shy away from push ups ever again!

5. Stick with it

There are times when I will tell you that exercise should be fun and you should not do anything you don’t enjoy. This is not one of them. Most people – women especially – hate doing push ups, purely because they suck at them. I am so thankful I had a trainer in my early lifting days, as I would have happily skipped over push ups in favour of presses. I promise that they do get easier with time!
Bad form!

Bad form!

Now that you know how to increase the number of push ups you can perform, let’s take a quick moment to discuss good form. Your body should be in a straight line from the top of your head to your feet. Do not drop your neck or retract your shoulders like most people do. If you cannot perform a single push up on the floor without committing these two offences, drop back to elevated push ups.

Finally, do not allow your elbows to flare out to the side as you lower yourself to the floor. Keep your elbows tucked in close to your sides and lower your chest as much as possible.

Do you enjoy doing push ups? How many can you perform consecutively?

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