Master the push-up (Part 2)

I looked in the mirror today after teaching Spin class and was so impressed with my arms. I mean, hello shapely biceps! Where have you been hiding all winter?

Turns out that my quest for a stronger push-up is paying off in some sexy arms! And you know what? I kind of dig it. (Make sure you read Part 1 HERE)

A great-looking upper body is not the only reason to master the push-up. By strengthening the upper body in this way, you can go on to do pull-ups, develop a stronger back for deadlifts, attack your full body anytime, anywhere and with zero equipment. As far as bodyweight exercises go, the push-up offers tons of versatility and flexibility.

Plus, it makes us look good. Win-win!

Women vs. Men

Historically, men have been a lot better at push-ups than women. For some reason, women accept this fact and continue with [poorly executed] “girly” push-ups. Heck, I was one of those women. I didn’t know I could do a chin-up a few years ago, let alone a proper push-up, but can you blame me? Consider the push-up history between men and women:

Boys have practiced the push-up since grade school and were encouraged to perform them on their toes in fitness tests, at recess, the cafeteria, Little League practice, etc. Girls on the other hand, were coddled and given a pass for doing “girly” knee push-ups. Fast forward to puberty and boys were busy strengthening the upper body with a million bicep curls, chest presses, and more push-ups at their local gym in order to attract girls. Meanwhile, girls are picking up magazines that scream ‘Lose this’, ‘Make this smaller’, ‘Look sexy in 4 weeks!’ at them. With that, we begin our quest for smallness rather than strength. During the bro years, guys learn about protein powders which they consume at the same volume as hot pockets and ramen noodles while doing a million more push-ups, bicep curls and half rep chest presses. Around this time, the ladies discover the elliptical and Zumba which require zero upper body muscle recruitment and zero push-ups.

Society has done women a disservice by coddling us with bad push-ups and never encouraging upper body strength. Granted, knee push-ups have a time and place, but if you want a stronger upper body and to get better at push-ups, then we need a smarter approach.

Progressions that make you strong, hot and better at push-ups


Standing wall push-up

Depending on where you are fitness wise, you can probably skip this progression but I like to use it to teach deconditioned or overweight clients proper set up and to start building a base of strength. Using the same setup tips from PART 1, you want to set your hands on the wall and step back so your body is at a diagonal. From here, focus on maintaining that abdominal, glute and thigh engagement throughout the movement.


A strong push-up starts with a strong plank, and for most people, this is where we begin. Not only does the same set-up and position apply (again, read Part 1), but it’s an important part of building up abdominal stability for the push-up. When our trunk is stable, we prevent that dreaded hip sag that tends to happen when someone is trying to push away. Aim for 3-4 sets and work your way up to a 30 second hold.

Incline push-up

This is the key progression for anyone who wants to master a true push-up. Start with your hands on a bench, step or elevated surface (i.e. stairs, coffee table, chair), step back into your push-up position and go. Progress by lowering that incline a few inches each time. For instance, I might start with a box or bench and then use one of those step benches to adjust the height of the step lower and lower.

Note: I surprisingly didn’t have a picture or video of this. Muchas gracias Internet for this video instead

The reason “girly” push-ups don’t work as well (again, there’s a time and place for them) is because they fail to build up the appropriate trunk and upper body strength necessary for a full push-up. Plus, they’re done so shitty that it ends up being a waste of time anyway. With hands elevated on a box, chair or bench, you can work on going into a full ROM without the added stress of gravity on the way up. After all, the hardest part of the push-up is in the pushing phase, and where most of us tend to lose it.

Decline push-up

This advanced variation puts a greater emphasis on the shoulder and upper region of the pecs (chest muscles) so I only recommend it for more intermediate folks who have nailed the push-up or need a little extra help to perfect it. For someone that wants to build strength in those regions a bit further, this is an excellent variation, assuming you can do a few regular push-ups on the floor with proper form. The higher the bench or step, the more difficult the exercise so consider starting off with the feet elevated just a few inches off the floor and gradually work your way up higher. For anyone with achy, troublesome shoulders, I would skip this version as the stress on the shoulder joint far outweighs the pro of this exercise




Mastering one push-up means you can start dabbling with more challenging variations like these bad boys:

One-arm push-up, TRX or ring push-ups, Spiderman push-up, Clapping push-up, Diamond push-up, Pike push-up, Handstand push-ups, Traveling push-ups, Band-resisted pushups, Weighted pushup (with chains, vest, plate, etc.), One-arm elevated (on med ball) push-up, Push-ups with rotation or twist, Stability ball push-ups, Stability ball push-ups with knee tucks…..

Bear in mind that as cool as some of these exercises look or sound, you must still earn the right to do them. Skipping on the basics means you’re more likely to set yourself up for failure or injury, and that’s just not worth it at all.

Give it go! Let’s get strong y’all!

Want to learn more about strengthening your body and mind? Sign up for my email list on the home page to get exclusive details about the upcoming Women’s Strength Summit (March 1-9, 2016). Plus, get motivational emails and blogs delivered right to your inbox!

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