Push-ups are one of the best exercises you can do to strengthen your arms, shoulders, chest, back and abs, according to Harvard Health Publishing, but a lot of people struggle to complete even one rep with proper form.
You have to be able to lift your body weight off the ground, but if that's too difficult, doing push-ups against a wall will help you build the strength you need to eventually get horizontal.
"Wall push-ups make the exercise easier, while still training the movement and muscles needed for a [traditional] push-up," says Rick Richey, CPT, NASM master instructor. "The mechanics of the body are similar, but the load is different. "
Building strength in your upper body doesn't happen overnight, but your efforts will pay off in increased muscle and improved posture. "The strength needed for push-ups will translate into other more complex movements," says Lizzie May, personal trainer and fitness consultant.
Plus, a February 2019 study in JAMA Network Open found that men who could perform at least 40 traditional push-ups in 30 seconds had a much lower risk of cardiovascular issues, including heart attack and heart failure. And those who could do at least 11 push-ups in 30 seconds also had a "significantly reduced risk" of cardiovascular disease.
Here are five things you need to know about wall push-ups to get you started.
1. Master Proper Wall Push-Up Form
Before anything else, you should master proper wall push-up form in order to progress to the floor push-up. Follow these steps for the proper form:
How to Do a Wall Push-Up
- Stand arm's distance from a sturdy wall with your feet under your hips.
- Place your palms on the wall, shoulder-width apart at shoulder height. This is the starting position.
- Bend your elbows and bring your chest toward the wall. Keep your elbows pointing away from your body at a 45-degree angle, rather than out to the side.
- Press back to the starting position.
"Keep your body in a straight line from your head, shoulders, back, hips, knees and feet,” Richey says. “It’s also important to move slowly so you can check your form before progressing."
You can also try this wall push-up variation often taught in yoga classes: Start out with your hands on the wall and your fingers pointing toward each other. Keep your heels on the floor throughout the entire movement.
2. Engage Your Core Muscles
In addition to arm and shoulder strength, you won't be able to do a standard push-up unless you also have sufficient core strength to provide the stability for the movement. While performing a wall push-up, keep your core muscles engaged the entire time to strengthen your abdominal muscles.
"Your body should hold tension through the entire movement," May says. "Tuck your tailbone, squeeze your glutes and pull your shoulders away from your ears."
To further strengthen your core, the American Council on Exercise recommends starting by holding a forearm plank for 20 seconds and working your way up to 45 seconds. Progress to holding a high plank, in which you are in the top of the push-up position, for 20 seconds and performing 3 to 4 sets. As your core gets stronger, try holding it for 45 seconds.
3. Control Your Breathing
As you increase the number of reps you do and your muscles become fatigued, controlled breathing helps deliver oxygen to your muscles and improve your stamina. Your inhalations and exhalations also act as a type of metronome, keeping you at a steady rate of push-ups. Be aware of your breathing and make sure you aren't holding your breath.
"The rule of thumb is that on challenging exercises we breathe out on the effort and in on the return," Richey says. "In this case, breathe out as you push up and breathe in while lowering down."
4. Perform Wall Push-Ups Regularly
To build strength, you have to exert force on your muscles regularly. And if you want to eventually work your way to floor push-ups, you need to stay consistent with your wall push-ups.
"You will want to push yourself close to failure with each set to ensure you are promoting muscle growth," May says. "Start with 3 sets of as many repetitions as possible, until you lose good form. Once you have a number, continue with this until you begin to feel comfortable and then increase that number each week."
For those who like to have a specific goal number in mind, the U.S. Air Force physical fitness test requires a one-minute floor push-up test.
- Men under the age of 30 must be able to do at least 33 push-ups.
- Women under 30 must be able to do 18 push-ups.
- Women between the ages of 30 and 39 must be able to do 14 push-ups.
- Men between 30 and 39 must be able to do 27 push-ups.
Once you can perform this same number as a wall push-up, you have built up enough strength to move to a regular floor push-up.
5. Increase the Level of Difficulty
If you can do 3 sets of 15 wall push-ups, but still can't quite master the floor push-up, then its time to up the ante. Making a wall push-up harder is as simple as walking your feet farther away from the wall. The further your feet are from the wall, the more horizontal your body is. Stop when you're no longer able to keep your heels on the floor.
May also offers these suggestions to increase the level of difficulty of a wall push-up:
- Lift one leg off the floor. By decreasing your stability on the floor, your core and upper body will need to work harder to remain stable.
- Slow down. Making your muscles work for a longer period is known as increasing your time under tension. Count for 3 to 4 seconds as you descend into the push-up, and hold for 2 to 3 seconds at the bottom of the push-up, before returning to the starting position.
- Try a plyo push-up. As you press back up the the top, see if you can get your hands to leave the wall or even add a clap at the top. This not only increases your strength but also your power.
After that, you're ready for incline push-ups using a box, step or bench. Keep lowering the support you use until you're horizontal in a regular floor push-up position.
Additional reporting from Kim Grundy
- Harvard Health Publishing: The rise of push-ups: A classic exercise that can help you get stronger
- JAMA Network Open: "Association Between Push-up Exercise Capacity and Future Cardiovascular Events Among Active Adult Men"
- American Council on Exercise: "Perfecting the Push-up for All Levels"
- U.S. Air Force: "Are You Ready for Basic Training?"