A goal of many people starting a fitness program is to do a pushup. The pushup is a great measure of upper body and core strength. Google “pushup” and you will find many articles and videos showing you how to do wall pushups, bar pushups or pushups from your knees as a way of progressing to your first pushup.
There is a quicker way to accomplishing your first pushup from the floor. If you cannot do a complete pushup, you are probably lacking core strength or do not have enough strength in your chest, upper back, triceps or shoulder muscles. Working on improving the strength in these muscle groups will accelerate your progress.
Why doing wall pushups, bar pushups and pushups from your knees is not always enough
Let’s look at the pushup and the skills needed to do a proper floor pushup.
First, you need enough core and shoulder strength to maintain a good plank position during the entire pushup movement.
Next, you will need enough strength in your chest and back to push about 75% of your body weight off the floor. If you weigh 150 pounds, that means you should be able to bench press about 110 pounds. This is just an estimate and you may be able to do a pushup benching less weight. The bench press and variations of the bench press work the same muscle groups that are used in the pushup.
So, in addition to practicing easier forms of the pushup like the wall pushup, staircase or bar pushup, work on building strength in your core, chest back, triceps and shoulders to accelerate your progress.
When we teach the pushup at Strength for Life, we work on form first, then range of motion. At the same time, we work on developing strength in the muscle groups used in the pushup. Poor form leads to poor movement patterns and will limit your success and may even cause an injury.
Good form allows your muscles to work together the way they are supposed to in order to produce maximal force. The better your form, the less strength you will need to do a pushup.
Range of motion is the range a muscle should move through to get the proper benefits from an exercise. In the pushup, a person should be able to lower themselves to the floor until the arms are bent at a 90-degree angle at the elbow or until the chest touches the floor.
Exercises to Improve Strength Needed for a Pushup
There are four exercises that we use to develop pushup strength. Start with 1 set of each exercise and progress to 3 sets as your body adapts. The plank should be held for time, while the remaining exercises are done for repetitions. Aim for 10 good repetitions on each exercise and a hold of 30 seconds on the plank.
Each exercise should be performed for a maximum of 2-3 times per week. The body needs rest time for the muscles to recover and become stronger.
The pushup is basically a moving plank. The pushup starts from a high plank position. Planks develop the core strength and stability needed to do a proper floor pushup. Start facedown on the floor with your arms under you shoulders and your arms straight.
Maintain a straight line from your head through the midline of your body to your toes. Flex you abdominal and glute muscles to keep your body straight Do not bend at the hips. Hold this position.
Dumbbell Floor Press
The DB floor press is a pushup that has been flipped on it’s back. Instead of pushing your bodyweight against the floor, you use dumbells as resistance.
Your upper arm should be at about a 45-degree angle to the body during the DB floor press. Start with a DB in each hand and press the weight up until your arms are straight. Return to the starting position by bending the arms at the elbow. Maintain control throughout the entire movement.
DB and Barbell Bench Press
The DB and barbell bench press are done in the same manner as the DB floor press, except that they are done on a bench. The DB bench allows for the greatest range of motion of the three exercises. Be careful of your shoulders when performing the DB bench press.
The more you lower the weights, the more stress is placed on the shoulder. The shoulder is a vulnerable joint and is prone to injury when the normal range of motion is exceeded. Lower the weights to a comfortable position, but not any lower that the top of the chest.
Dumbbell and Cable Rows
DB or cable rows work the muscles of the middle and upper back. The muscles in the back allow you to lower yourself with control while performing a pushup. Cable rows can be performed in a standing or seated position. Pinch the shoulder blades and keep the chest high while performing the row. Brace your abdominal muscles to provide stability.
Start the movement by retracting the shoulder as though you were trying to squeeze a pencil in the middle of your back. Let the arms follow the movement of the back to draw the cable towards your chest. Aim for a spot right near the sternum at the bottom of your chest. Return the cable to the starting position.
The cable triceps pushdown is performed from a standing position. Start with the arms at a 90- degree angle at the elbow and straighten the arms out by pulling on the cable rope attachment. Return to the starting position by bending the arms at the elbows.
If you do not have access to a cable machine, you can use a band attached to a pole.
Working on these exercises will develop the strength and stability needed to perform your first successful floor pushup.
Here are some additional resources and videos to help you conquer your first pushup:
- How to learn the Pushup
- Pushup Benefits and Form
- The Perfect Pushup Checklist
- Common Pushup Mistakes
- Mobility Exercises to Help Your Pushup
Jim Gallagher is the owner of Strength for Life, a personal training studio in Springfield, PA. He has over 35 years experience in the fitness industry and holds a Masters degree in Exercise Physiology from Temple University.