Push-up Progressions: Seven Steps From Weak to Wicked

It’s amazing to watch someone progress through exercises.  I’ve had clients who at first struggle to do a basic push-up from their knees.  Soon they discover that these knee push-ups are no longer a challenge and then we move on to another variation.  This progression is essential as it forces the body to adapt.  If you aren’t always trying to improve your exercise program in some way, then you probably won’t reach your goals.

While progression is important, it needs to be done wisely.  The body needs to be challenged but it must be able to achieve success.  If you try to progress too fast or skip necessary steps, then you will probably not be able to perform the advanced exercises properly.  This will either limit their effectiveness or even worse, risk an injury!

When performing push-ups, maintain good form and strive for higher reps per set from workout to workout.  When you can perform 20 repetitions with good form of a push-up variation for two workouts in a row, then think about moving on to the next progression.  Bump your reps per set back down to a manageable number and work your way back up.  By the time you’ve worked your way towards the harder variations, you’ll be much stronger and you’ll have a much better sense of what your body is capable of.

Here’s my seven-step push-up progression:

1.  Push-up From the Knees
-This is the basic beginner’s push-up.  Begin in the good starting position I outlined in my push-up technique article.  Now lower your knees to the ground.  Maintaining straight hips and a straight back, perform your push-ups.  Don’t allow your hips to bend!  That’s where most people go wrong and they just end up bending their elbows.  You should be striving for a full, smooth range of motion.

2.  Incline Push-up
-Once you’ve mastered Knee Push-ups, then it’s time to move to a low incline.  Find a stable object about eight to ten inches tall that you can hold on to.  Placing your hands on this object, assume a good push-up starting position with your feet on the floor.  Using good form perform push-ups to the object.  Be sure that your shoulders are over your hands, rather than having your hands way out in front of you!

3.  Normal Push-up
-Now you’re ready for a full push-up!  Perform these just as I indicated in my push-up technique article.  Be sure to use a full range of motion and keep your body under control.

4.  One-legged Push-up
-Perform this exercise just as you would a normal push-up, but hold one leg off of the ground about a foot.  This will force more stabilization work into your push-up.  Perform an equal number of repetitions with each leg in the air to maintain stability.

5.  Decline Push-up
-Once your push-up stability has been built up it’s time to really start getting strong!  Using a twelve to twenty-four inch box we’re going to really load your upper body.  Place your feet on the box and perform push-ups with your hands on the ground.  The higher the box is, the more difficult the exercise will be.

6.  Spider Push-up
-Begin a Spider Push-up on the ground in the normal push-up position.  As you lower your upper body to the ground, lift one of your legs and attempt to put your knee into your armpit.  Do not allow your leg to hit the ground!  You’ll have to bring your knee out to the side rather than under you to do that.  As you push yourself back up return your leg (no touching the ground!) to the starting position.

7.  Clapping or Plyo Push-up
-This is a far more explosive version of the push-up than you’re used to doing.  With a clapping push-up begin in the normal push-up position.  Lower yourself as normal, and as you press up do so explosively to drive your hands off of the ground.  While in the air clap your hands and return your hands to the normal push-up position in time to not fall!

The Plyometric Push-up is similar except that you have two four to eight inch blocks just outside of your hands in the starting push-up position.  Perform the exercise just like the Clapping Push-up, but rather than clap your hands you want to move them out to catch yourself on the blocks.