The Pushup Progression Workout
The One Move to Master
Ah, the pushup. Love it or hate it, this total body exercise will never go out of style because of how effective and efficient it is. Tired of watching the guys knock out rounds of full pushups while you’re stuck on the bent-knee version? The good news is that there is no strong physiological evidence indicating it’s harder for women to master pushups. So if you’ve been struggling, stick with it—this plan can help! The best way to improve at pushups is to practice them, but it’s also important to develop the strength and stability needed in the shoulder girdle, chest, back, and abs in order to perform them properly, says Rick Richey, faculty instructor and owner of Independent Training Spot in New York City, who created this workout plan exclusively for Shape. Bottom line? If you train properly, there’s no reason you can’t be knocking out those full pushups too.
Warmup: Arms Out, Chest Out
This exercise helps warm up the rotator cuff muscles and stabilizers in the shoulder girdle.
A Stand with feet hip-width apart and elbows bent at 90 degrees by sides, holding a resistance band (or tubing) with hands shoulder-width apart, palms up.
B Rotate arms outward, slightly lifting chest up and keeping elbows in tight by sides. Slowly return to starting position.
Begin building the core strength necessary to keep your body in proper alignment during pushups with a forearm plank. As you hold the plank position, think of locking your body out in a straight line from heels to head, making it as solid as a wood board, and avoid letting hips sag to the floor, says Richey.
Lie facedown with elbows bent under shoulders, forearms on the floor, palms down, and legs extended with feet hip-width apart and balls of feet on the floor. Brace abs in tight and press through forearms and shoulders to lift hips in line with heels. Hold for 5 seconds. (Once this feels easy to hold with great form, progress to holding for 10 seconds and reduce reps to minimum.)
Reps: 10 to 15
This fun plank variation helps create the core and shoulder stability needed for a proper pushup. Richey recommends focusing on mastering your form first and then working on building up speed.
A Get in a full plank position with hands under shoulders and feet hip-width apart.
B Keeping abs braced in tight and maintaining a straight line from heels to head, tap one hand on the back of opposite hand without letting hips lift or shift. Repeat with opposite hand. Continue, alternating hands each rep, doing as many reps as possible (AMRAP) for 30 seconds.
Reps: AMRAP for 30 seconds
Forget those “girlie” pushups that have you on your knees – the incline pushup is the better way to build up the core strength you’ll need to keep your hips from sagging to the floor during full pushups, Richey says. As for proper hand positioning, the width of your hands is up to you; just avoid positioning them above your shoulders to prevent shoulder pinching and pain.
Get in a full plank position with hands on a bench or step, feet hip-width apart, and hands in line with chest. (Make it easier by using a wall or high step instead; make it harder with a lower step.) Bend elbows and lower body to step, keeping abs braced in tight and body in a straight line from heels to head. Extend arms to return to start.
Even though you’ll be utilizing your “pushing” muscles for pushups, Richey says, it’s important to stay balanced by training opposing muscles as well. This exercise helps develop both shoulder girdle stability as well as strength in the back of the shoulder.
A Stand with feet hip-width apart and knees slightly bent, hinging forward from hips about 45 degrees, keeping spine naturally straight, and looking at the floor to avoid neck strain. Raise arms overhead by ears forming a “Y” shape with body, with hands in a “thumbs up” position.
B Open arms out to sides forming a “T” shape with body.
C Reach arms back into an “A” shape, lining hands up with hips and keeping thumbs pointed up. Return arms to “Y” shape and repeat.
Focusing on the negative is one of the best ways to prep for pushup performance. “You get more strength gains by decelerating weight, so you’ll actually become stronger in your push upward by lowering yourself down than by pushing up,” Richey explains. This is also the perfect time to practice building your 1-rep max when it comes to doing a full pushup. Start this exercise by attempting a single full pushup with perfect form. Once you feel ready for more, continue doing a few in a row before moving into your negative pushups. While just doing the lowering half of a pushup without the actual push up may seem easier, this type of movement creates the most muscle soreness—so proceed with caution to avoid major pains afterward.
Get in a full plank position with feet hip-width apart and hands in line with chest. Slowly lower body all the way down to the floor, keeping abs braced in tight and body in a straight line from heels to head. Press hips back to heels into child’s pose then return to starting position. Repeat, gradually working up to more reps over time.
Reps: 5 to 10