As far as body-weight exercises go, it's tough to beat the strength- and muscle-building benefits of push-ups. After all, they hit an impressive number of muscles, including your chest, triceps, shoulders, core and even parts of your back.
The trouble is, many of us subscribe to the "more is better" philosophy of fitness. We think that if a day of push-ups is good for building strength and muscle, doing push-ups every day must be even better. But if you want to see maximum benefits, doing push-ups every day isn't the answer.
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"Just like with any form of exercise, it's prudent to begin slowly and build gradually," says William Kelley, DPT, CSCS, co-owner of Aries Physical Therapy in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Here's more on why you shouldn't try to knock out a bunch of push-ups every day and what to do instead.
Why Your Body Needs a Break From Push-Ups
Cranking out push-ups every day may seem like a great way to fast-track your fitness gains, but chances are, you're only slowing your progress. If you want to see actual benefits from all those push-ups, you have to give your body a chance to rest in between bouts, because that's when the magic actually happens.
When your muscles are exposed to enough resistance — like lifting your own body weight during a push-up — they sustain micro tears, according to the National Academy of Sports Medicine. But during rest days, your body repairs the damage to your muscle fibers, which results in larger and stronger muscles.
Additionally, doing daily push-ups can also put you at risk of pain or injury if your form isn't up to par. And according to Tom Biggart, DPT, CSCS, owner of EBM Fitness Solutions, that's most people.
"Most people tend to be rounded forward at the shoulders with more of a forward head posture," he says. "Without proper coaching, daily push-ups can exacerbate this and accelerate pain or dysfunction of the shoulder and neck." It may also increase your risk of biceps tendonitis, a condition where your biceps tendon gets inflamed.
Allowing your lower back to collapse is another common push-up mistake. "Repeating this on a daily basis can irritate the spine and the musculature in the low back," Biggart says. And that can lead to back pain.
Another common issue is wrist pain. If your wrists can't handle the fully extended position, forcing them to support your body weight on a daily basis is an easy way to develop wrist issues you could have easily avoided, Biggart says.
What if You Do Different Push-Up Variations?
It is possible to do push-ups daily by altering the type of push-ups you do, according to Biggart. Swapping out standard push-ups for decline push-ups, close-grip (triceps) push-ups, Spiderman push-ups or plyo push-ups can help you target other muscle groups and give your body a break from floor push-ups.
However, this is largely dependent on your ability to perform good push-ups. "If you can't perform multiple sets of 12 or more floor push-ups, many other variations are going to be too difficult," Biggart says.
And if other variations are too difficult, doing them daily will create the same issues as before: discomfort, pain and injury.
What if You’re a Beginner?
Whether you can do a handful of regular push-ups or zero, a daily push-up routine isn't the way to up your number. As previously mentioned, most people don't do push-ups correctly. Thus, performing them every day only increases the risk of pain and injury.
"Throwing yourself too quickly into a high-volume push-up routine would be like deciding to become a runner and going straight for marathon distances right out of the gate," Kelley says.
If you're a beginner, a better plan is to start by working on push-ups on two nonconsecutive days per week. "Once that becomes easy, you can progress to three, then four, then five days per week as desired," Kelley says.
When you do work on your push-ups, start with a regression like scapular push-ups, knee push-ups, incline push-ups or commandos.
Move 1: Scapular Push-Up
- Start in a high plank with your hands and feet shoulder-width apart and your wrists stacked underneath shoulders, core tight.
- Keeping your arms straight, drop your ribs and chest toward the ground, pinching your shoulder blades together at the top.
- Draw your spine toward the ceiling and allow the space between your shoulder blades to widen.
Move 2: Knee Push-Up
- Start in a plank position on your knees.
- Bend your elbows and lower your chest all the way to the floor (or as far as you can go).
- Push back up, keeping your back straight and your hips level the entire time.
Move 3: Incline Push-Up
- Stand facing a chair or bench with your hands flat on the chair
- Walk your feet back until your body is at about a 45-degree angle and in one long line. Your shoulders should be stacked over your wrists.
- Tightening your glutes and quads and bracing your core, bend your arms and lower yourself as close to the chair as possible.
- Press your hands firmly on the chair and push yourself back up to the starting position.
Move 4: Commando
- Start in a high plank with your hands and feet shoulder-width apart and wrists stacked underneath your shoulders, core tight.
- Keeping your body in a straight line, lift your right hand and bring your elbow to the ground. Immediately follow it with your left elbow, coming into a forearm plank. Avoid rocking your hips side to side as you lower your body.
- Pressing your left forearm into the ground, place your right hand on the ground directly beneath the right shoulder. Follow it with the left hand, coming back to a high plank.
What if You’re Advanced?
Advanced exercisers might get the all-clear for daily push-ups. But how do you know if you're "advanced"?
"I would consider someone who is advanced to be someone who can do advanced push-up variations," Kelley says. Think: handstand push-ups, plyometric push-ups (from the ground) and Spiderman push-ups.
Also, you're probably advanced if you can consistently pump out solid sets greater than 50 reps for guys and 30 reps for females. "These people are free to do pretty much however many push-ups they want," Kelley says.
Keep in mind, though, that it's always important to listen to your body. Give daily push-ups a rest if you feel especially fatigued, notice your form breaking down and/or experience any pain or discomfort.
So, How Bad Is It Really to Do Push-Ups Every Day?
Most of us don't have the strength or skill to pull off daily push-ups. Unless you're an advanced exerciser, forcing the issue will only delay progress and increase the chances of pain and injury.
Plus, while push-ups are a stellar exercise for building chest, triceps and core strength, they can't give you everything you need to be strong and fit. Strive for balance by also incorporating upper-body pulling exercises (pull-ups, rows) and lower-body exercises (squats, deadlifts) into your workout routine.
While you may love push-ups, remember: Absence makes the heart (and body) grow fonder.