Ah, the push-up — a movement of pride for some and terror for others. If you're in the camp that flinches at the idea of dropping and cranking out 10, 15 or even 20 pushups, take heart: You can use modified push-ups for beginners to build the strength and confidence you need to conquer the real thing.
If you can't do full pushups just yet, you can build up your strength using knee push-ups, wall push-ups and other beginner variations.
Wall or Counter Push-Ups
One of the most accessible types of push-ups for beginners is the wall push-up, which you might also hear called a counter push-up or even a bench push-up. Here's how it works, assuming you're using a wall for support:
- Place both palms flat against the wall, a little lower and a little wider apart than your shoulders.
- Walk your feet back one or two short steps. Squeeze your abs to keep your body straight from head to heels, so that you're leaning against the wall a bit, supported by your hands.
- Check your body and hand positions: Now that your body is tilted toward the wall, your hands should be at about shoulder level.
- Bend your arms, lowering yourself toward the wall. Note: Stop before your face or head hit the wall! Squeeze your abs to keep your body straight — it should move as one unit.
As you get stronger, you can walk your feet further back from the wall, which makes the exercise more challenging. However, there's a point at which you step so far back that you can no longer trust the friction of your hands on the wall to keep you stable.
So before you hit that point of no return and find yourself face-planting beside your push-up wall, switch your hands to the edge of your kitchen counter, a dresser, a weight bench, a properly racked barbell, even a sturdy chair or your bed. Any stable, elevated horizontal surface will do, and as you progressively work your feet farther back and your hands onto lower surfaces, you'll find that you are naturally transitioning into full pushups.
Modified Knee Push-Ups
Position yourself on your hands and knees on the floor, using a yoga mat or towel as extra padding for your knees if you like. Then walk your hands forward until your body is in a straight line from your head to your knees. Your hands should be positioned beneath, and slightly wider than, your shoulders.
Once you've hit that position, squeeze your body to keep your torso straight as you bend your arms, lowering yourself toward the floor. Straighten your arms to press back up to the starting position.
For a conservative range of motion, stop just after your shoulders break the plane of your arms. Some people like to do deeper push-ups to build strength through a longer range of motion. If you do this, make sure you limit yourself to a comfortable range of motion and keep your movements controlled.
Going too deep into a push-up puts your shoulders into extreme external rotation, a very unstable position. If you have shoulder problems, talk to a medical professional about what range of motion is appropriate for you when doing push-ups.
The Full Push-Up Position
If you're new to the push-up scene or just getting back into it, you don't need to start with full push-ups. But you should have a picture of the proper technique in your head, both to understand your ultimate goal and see how you'll be mimicking many of the same mechanics in beginner variations.
Start with the basic push-up position: balanced on the palms of your hands and your toes, body straight from head to heels. Your hands should be under the line of your shoulders but slightly wider apart than your shoulders. If having your palms flat on the ground bothers your wrists, you can use push-up handles or even do push-ups on your closed fists — although that is a whole other type of discomfort for most people.
It helps to have a mirror nearby to troubleshoot your technique, or you could recruit a workout buddy. Check to make sure your body really is flat from head to heels.
If your hips sag down below the line of your body, think of contracting your abs like a corset or pulling your belly button up to your spine, and adjust until you're straight. If your hips are piking up, move them back down so they're in line with the rest of your body. That'll make the exercise a lot harder, but also more rewarding, because it'll build strength faster.
The starting position for push-ups is essentially an elevated plank, and holding it takes quite a lot of core strength. So simply holding this position is a great core workout and something you can do in between sets of whatever beginner push-up variation you choose. Start with whatever hold time you can manage, and try to add another five or 10 seconds every time you do the exercise.
Don't have push-up handles? You can use hexagonal dumbbells — or any other sort that won't roll out from under you — as makeshift push-up handles. Just place them where your hands will be positioned and hold onto the handles instead of placing your hands on the floor.
Full Push-Up Technique
Once you've built up enough strength to do full push-ups, squeeze your core to keep your body straight as you bend your arms, lowering your body down toward the floor. Next, straighten your arms to complete that first repetition.
The same guidelines for range of motion apply here as for knee push-ups. If you're being conservative, stop when your shoulders break the plane of your elbows. If you're going for a longer movement, make sure you stick to a comfortable range of motion.
Here's something else to check: Look in a mirror or have a friend check to make sure your hips track along with the rest of your body throughout the entire exercise. If they bounce up and down, doing extra core exercises, such as crunches, front planks and bicycle crunches, can help you develop the strength and stamina you need to hold your whole body steady.
Got it? Great. Now do another one. Your initial goal should be at least one solid set of eight to 12 push-ups in whatever variation you choose — so if you can't do a complete set of full push-ups yet, don't worry — this is just your eventual goal.
Do as many full push-ups as you can and then finish out your set with any of the variations on push-ups for beginners already described. With consistent practice, the number of full push-ups you can do will increase, and before you know it, you'll be ready to do complete sets.