Getting strong is about a lot more than how much weight you can move at the squat rack. In fact, building stellar strength can be done without any of those weights. Body-weight exercises — like push-ups, squats and sit-ups — can lead to some serious gains. Bonus: You don't have to pack your gym bag.
But just because you're not reaching for the barbell doesn't mean body-weight movements are a total breeze. Take the push-up, for example. Push-ups are one of the most dependable tests of relative body strength around.
However, it takes time to build up to multiples. Here, experts weigh in on proper push-up technique and a slew of essential exercises to help you develop necessary push-up strength.
Start With Incline Push-Ups
If you're not doing push-ups correctly, you won't be reaping the muscle-building benefits. It may sound fundamental, and that's because it is — your form is the foundation on which your results lie.
To get started, ease into things with an incline push-up, says Barry's Bootcamp instructor Chris Lewarne. "The added height to your push-up takes some of the weight out of the upper body," he says. The higher the surface you place your hands on, the easier the push-up will be to perform.
- Place your hands shoulder-distance apart on an elevated surface like a chair, box or countertop with your feet on the floor.
- Bend your elbows and lower your chest, keeping your body in a straight line from head to toe.
- Press back to the start.
Practice Proper Push-Up Form
Once you've mastered incline push-ups on lower and lower surfaces, you're ready to progress to the real deal. For a basic push-up, keep your hands slightly wider than shoulder width, and pay special attention to keeping your back and neck straight (so your head isn't hanging down) with your hips and torso in-line.
Saggy form is one of the most common push-up pitfalls, and it reduces the engagement of stabilizing muscles like the abs and obliques. "With the proper core engagement your life gets easier and your rep count gets higher," Lewarne says.
As you lift your body, focus on putting the weight on the outside of your hands rather than your palms, a habit that can lead to wrist injury. Keep your abs tight as you breathe regularly. To take advantage of the push-up's full range of motion, your chest should graze the floor or come within about an inch of it.
If you have trouble keeping proper form, start with a modified bent-knee push-up, keeping your tail bone tucked until you can comfortably progress.
Read more: How to Fix the Worst Push-Up Mistakes
6 Exercises to Build Strength for Push-Ups
To improve your push-ups over time, you need solid upper-body strength, endurance and body control. And to get that, you need to incorporate the right exercises into your regimen.
To help bolster your push-up technique, remember the two Rs: rows and resistance. Dumbbell, cable and barbell rows, for instance, work the spinal muscles that stabilize your push-up. Other types of resistance training, whether you prefer free weights or medicine balls, help hone your flexibility, stamina and balance — three keys to better push-ups.
Here, Lewarne offers up six different exercises to help strengthen the chest, core and arm muscles activated during the movement
Move 1: Barbell Row
- Grip a barbell with palms facing down so that your wrists, elbows and shoulders are in a straight line.
- Lift the bar from the rack or floor, bend forward at the hips and keep your back straight with a slight bend in your knees.
- Lower the bar toward the floor until your elbows are completely straight, then pull it toward your sternum while keeping a flat back.
- Slowly lower the bar to the starting position.
Move 2: Bicycle Crunch
- Lie on your back and lift your knees up to form a 90-degree angle at your hip and knee joints. Cradle the back of your head and upper neck with your hands.
- Lift your right shoulder toward your left knee. Simultaneously extend the right leg.
- Repeat on the opposite side. Move slowly and methodically to get the most muscle activation out of the exercise.
Move 3: Glute Bridge
- Lie on your back with your knees bent. Your feet should be flat on the ground with your heels a foot away from your butt.
- Drive your hips up while keeping your upper back, head and arms on the ground. The higher you can press your hips up, the harder your glutes work and the more your hip flexors will stretch.
- Slowly lower back down to the ground.
Move 4: Superman Plank
- Start in a high plank. Walk your hands forward as far as they can possibly go without letting your chest, hips or knees touch the ground.
- Hold the plank as long as you can, engaging the chest, lats and core.
- Hold for 20 to 30 seconds.
Reps: 3, with a 30-second rest in between
Move 5: Triceps Dip
- Sit on a bench or chair. Place your hands behind you so that your fingers face forward. Place your heels on another bench or on the floor.
- Raise yourself up so that your arms are straight and this is the starting position. Then lower yourself until your arms are at a 90-degree angle.
- Press back up to the starting position.
Move 6: Commandos
- Start in a forearm plank.
- Engaging the core, press your right palm on the ground and push up to high plank, bringing your left palm to the ground as well. Hold for 2 seconds.
- Lower back down to start, first with the right elbow, then the left. Do your best to minimize rocking and keep the hips square.
Reps: 14, alternating between which arm leads each time.
How to Increase the Number of Push-Ups You Can Do
Lewarne suggests seeing how many you can do before you are face down on the floor. "From there, aim to perform 80 percent of your max rep count for 3 to 4 sets (even if that is one, for now)," he says. "On a daily bases track to see if you have a bit more in the tank to add a rep to each set and track how many full push ups, eccentric push ups, and knee push ups you can do. "
Make Push-Ups More Challenging
If you've already mastered proper form and are pumping out push-ups at a smooth, even tempo with a full range of motion, you're ready to move on to more challenging variations.
Elevate your feet on a bar, bench, step or chair for a decline push-up. The higher the elevation, the greater the challenge and muscle engagement (though lower elevations do a better job working the upper pecs, while higher ones emphasize the fronts of the shoulders).
Read more: 10 Push-up Variations for a Stronger Body