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.
5 Exercises to Build Push-Up Strength
To improve your push-ups over time, you need solid upper-body strength, endurance and body control. To get that, you need to incorporate the right exercises into your regimen.
To 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, Chris Lewarne, chief instructor at Barry's in Toronto, offers up six different exercises to help strengthen the chest, core and arm muscles activated during the movement.
1. Bent-Over Dumbbell Row
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart, holding a dumbbell in each hand by your sides, palms facing toward your body.
- Push your hips back and lean forward with a flat back and soft knees.
- Leading with your elbows, pull the dumbbells up toward your ribcage, bending your elbows to 90 degrees.
- Squeeze your shoulder blades together and pause at the top of the movement.
- Keep your core and spine stable as you extend your arms and lower the dumbbells so that they hang by your knees.
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 during the bicycle crunch to get the most muscle activation out of the exercise.
3. Glute Bridge
- Lie on your back with your arms resting by your sides, knees bent and feet flat on the ground at hip-width distance.
- Squeeze your glutes and core, and press your heels into the ground, driving your hips up toward the ceiling until you form a diagonal line from knees to hips to chest. Keep your spine in a neutral position.
- Pause at the top, then slowly lower your hips back down to the ground.
4. Triceps Dip
- Sit on a bench or couch. Place your hands on either side of your hips, fingers facing forward. Place your feet on the floor, heels down and toes facing the ceiling.
- Raise yourself up so that your arms are straight — this is the starting position.
- Lower your body toward the ground until your arms are at a 90-degree angle.
- Press back up to the starting position.
5. Walking Plank
- Start in a high plank, body in a straight line from head to hips to heels.
- Bring your right forearm down to the ground, followed by the left, coming down into a forearm plank.
- Engage your core, press your right palm on the ground and push back up to high plank, bringing your left palm to the ground as well.
- Hold for 2 seconds.
- Alternate leading arms with each rep.
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."
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, Lewarne says. "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, bench 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're able to do 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.
- Kneel on your hands and your knees.
- Step your feet back and straighten your legs so that you're balanced on your palms and toes.
- Your body should make a straight line from head to hips to heels.
- Align your hands directly under your shoulders.
- Bend your elbows at a 45-degree angle to your body and lower your body to the floor, keeping a straight line between your neck, hips and heels.
- Press into your palms and push the floor away from you to come back up to a high plank, keeping your body in one straight line.