How to become a push-up badass if you can't do any yet

Push-ups are awesome. But you already know that, because you’re reading this.

So I won’t belabor too much about how push-ups are a killer exercise for boosting core strength, upper body strength, total body mechanics, hair sexiness, shoulder health, back health, lumbo-pelvic hip function, and giving you arms and shoulders that “pop”. Yeah, I won’t belabor that point toooo much…

Ok anyway, you probz want to be able to bust out push-ups with your hands on the floor like a f%$#ing champ. You want to do real push-ups, not the one’s from your knees. FYI can we stop calling those “girl push-ups” because that implies women can’t be strong, which is complete and utter bullshit.

I can't remember who I'm quoting here but, “Any push-up a girl does is a ‘girl push-up’”.

I’ve helped countless women (and men) to crank out proper push-ups with textbook form. And I’m going to show you exactly how they did it.

The progression for doing push-ups on the ground is relatively straightforward and actually not the most important component of badass push-ups. So I’ll show the exercises you need later in the post.

First, you need know how important it is to put a premium on ALWAYS using picture perfect form. Otherwise, you won’t get strong in the way you need to for proper push-ups. Consequently you won't get all those awesome benefits I listed above.

Naturally, you need to know what picture perfect form looks like.

Let’s go over the key points for what a badass push-up looks and feels like, regardless of where you are in your journey to push-up domination.

So how do you define a full, proper, push-up exactly?

In a full push-up you start in a plank position with your elbows straight. You then lower your body as a unit until your chest gets about 2-3 inches from the floor at the bottom. There should only be movement at the shoulders, elbows, and wrists. Everything else should be a statue. Then, you push-up until you’re back in the plank position with your elbows completely straight.

That’s 1 full rep. Anything less doesn’t count.

Constructing the perfect push-up

Priority number 1 is core position. This is hands down (Get it? Hands down! Like in a push-up?!...ok fine...I’ll just be going I guess...) the most important aspect of the push-up. This is also where most people struggle because it’s the hardest part.

A push-up is essentially a moving plank. And keeping your spine in good alignment is hard enough in a plank! Add in a bunch of moving parts and things get tricky.

Core strength is often the limiting factor in push-ups. So your posture will most likely deteriorate before your arms, shoulders, and chesticles get tired.

This is also why you sometimes see really REALLY jacked dudes with god awful push-ups. And not like just regular bad push-ups, like Raiders of the Lost Ark face melting bad.

Their arms, shoulders, and chests are definitely strong enough. However, they haven’t strengthened their core in the optimal position. Consequently, their back sags to the floor looking like cow pose in yoga, and it sort of looks like their trying to make sweet sweet love to their yoga mat.

When your back arches excessively in a push-up/plank your abs don’t get stronger. Instead, your low back and hip flexors learn to take over for the lack of ab engagement. You don’t build any functional core strength because you teach your core to default to a poor position. This puts unnecessary stress on the low back, especially when this postural reflex carries over to squats and deadlifts.

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This means the low back is more likely to work harder than it should in other exercises. This can cause problems down the line and make your training suboptimal. I.e. maintaining your plank throughout the push-up is super duper important for making push-ups a useful exercise.

If you can’t plank, you can’t push-up.

Let’s talk about what makes an effective core strengthening plank.

You want your hips, shoulders, and ears to be in one straight line. It might look like my back is arching more than it is. That’s just because my badonk is creating a sort of optical illusion. Don’t be fooled! You only want a slight arch in the low back, just like if you’re standing up tall, thinking of a string pulling the top of your skull towards the ceiling.

To find your proper spinal alignment, start off on all fours with your hands directly under your shoulders.

Have a friend place a broomstick along your spine. The stick should only touch 3 points: Your tailbone, upper spine, and head. If any of those points isn’t touching the stick, you need to adjust.

This video below is about maintaining these 3 points of contact in the squat, but it’s the same concept. Plus, this further demonstrates how the ability to maintain proper position in push-ups in important for other exercises.

Once you’ve found that sweet spot, stiffen your abs like you’re about to take a soccer ball to the tummy.

Then go into your plank with the aim of keeping your spine in EXACTLY the same posture. Using a mirror or a camera to analyze the transition from all fours to plank is invaluable because you often won’t notice the subtle alterations that ruin your picturesque spinal position otherwise.

This position is what you want to maintain throughout the entirety of your push-up. Again, this is priority number one regardless of where you are in your push-up journey.

With time and practice you’ll be able to do rock solid push-ups when you’re exhausted and out of breath. However, that’s only when your core strength and technique have caught up with your pushing strength. So for now...

Be conservative. The goal is to get better at push-ups, not to tire yourself out.

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Because at this point you just need to instill really good mechanics. You need to really ingrain proper push-up technique from day 1. I know I sound like a broken record, but I cannot stress this enough.

Just this once, if you send me a video of your push-ups and I'll give you FREE feedback on your technique. Just use your phone to film a set of push-ups and send it to jeff@mortontrainingsystems.com.

It’s actually way easier to get a client to bust out quality push-ups if they’ve never been able to do them before than someone who’s been doing push-ups incorrectly since high school.

Put in the time early on and it makes things easier in the future. The best way to fix shitty push-ups is to do them correctly from the beginning.

Next up in the pecking order is elbow position.

When doing pushups, your elbows should point out to the side at about a 45 degree angle. What this means is if you took a top down view, you’d make the shape of an arrow, not a T (elbows flared out) or an I (elbows tucked all the way in).

So the mechanics of a push-up should look the same regardless of variation you’re doing.

Now you know what your push-ups should look like, here’s how to put it into practice. Here’s the path to becoming a push-up machine.

Smith machine push-ups

It’s not super sexy advice, but to do push-ups you have to do push-ups.

The way to train push-ups when you can’t do them on the ground yet is with a smith machine or a squat rack.

The more horizontal your body is, the more advanced the push-up variation.

With that in mind, work your way down the smith machine doing hands elevated push-ups.

Stay in the 8-12 rep range for 3 to 4 sets, occasionally doing 15 or so. Start with 8 reps and increase them over time. Once you can get 12 solid reps for at least 3 sets, move the bar 1 pin closer to the ground.

For example, say you start off doing 3 sets of 8 on the 8th pin from the floor. Once you can do 3 sets of 12, move the bar to the 7th pin and go back to doing 3 sets of 8. Then work your way up to 3 sets of 12 again. Repeat the process.

Once you can bust out 12 on the lowest pin, you can probably get 1 push-up on the ground. That’s what I’ve noticed with most of my clients at least, but everybody is different.

If at this point you’re still having trouble, find something even lower to put your hands on, like a bench, aerobic stepper, or curb.

Leave your ego at the door. Think of this as push-up practice. Stay fresh and keep the reps smooth and easy as you work your way down the ladder.

Patience and humility are the keys to push-up mastery.

Now, if you stick with this progression, slowly working your way closer to the floor you’ll break through that first push-up barrier like a champ. It’s only a matter of time. I’ve never met anyone who could do 3 sets of 12 push-ups on a curb who couldn’t do solid push-ups on the floor.

That said, sometimes you want to change it up a little bit. I get that. So here are some other exercises you can use to build up your strength and confidence.

These are also useful to have in your back pocket if the equipment you need is being used. Because for these variations all you need is some floor space. That said, I wouldn’t recommend trying these until you can crank out some quality push-ups on the bottom pin of a smith machine.

Negative push-ups

Get into a push-up position and lower your chest to the floor as slowly as you can.

Pretend their is a squirrel 1 foot away from your face. My client named him Steven, but you can name your squirrel something else of course. Anyway, as you lower yourself, your goal is to go so slowly you don’t scare Steven.

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I think he looks like a Steven, don't you?

Anyway, once you’re at the bottom of the push-up relax and lay on your tummy. Then reset and return to your plank position. You’re only doing the first half of the push-up. The goal is to control every inch of the move as much as possible.

How many reps you do will be determined by how slow you go. And if you’re really going as slow as possible, you shouldn’t be able to go equally as slow with each passing rep. The first rep is the slowest. You should still have control on every single rep though.

Doing “negative” exercises like this will help you build strength and muscle that, with enough practice, will transfer to your normal push-ups.

Start off with 3 sets of 2-3 reps 3 times a week. This exercise is sort of tricky because of the nature of “as slow as possible”. Because you’re giving each rep as much strength as you possess, you won’t necessarily add reps as you get stronger, you’ll just lower yourself more slowly. This is a sign you’re getting stronger.

Guage how you feel at the bottom of the push-up. If it feels like you can pop back up to starting plank position. Go for it.

Just remember, it takes time.

You shouldn’t be attempting a full push-up every day you train these. Maybe once a month. Otherwise you’ll just be instilling bad form. Remember you want your first push-up to be a no brainer.

Warning: this type or training can leave you pretty sore, so just be ready.

Half push-ups

As the name implies, you only bring your chest halfway to the ground then push yourself back up.

Once you can bust out sets of 10 half push-ups start inching yourself closer to the ground, little by little. So maybe for 1 month you do half push-ups, then you do ¾ push-ups the next month, then the next month you can do full push-ups. BOOM!

Same logic as before. Build up your reps over time and focus on good technique. Don’t let your ambition stifle your progress by getting overzealous.

Wide stance push-ups

The wider your stance, the easier the push-up because it effectively shortens the lever arm. In English this means you don’t have to push-up with as much force because you’ve made your body “shorter” by widening your stance.

It’s the same physics for knee push-ups but while still allowing proper core alignment. Build up your reps then gradually bring your feet in closer together.

Common mistakes

Back arching too much AKA stop flaunting that booty of yours!

You already know it’s no bueno when your back arches too much. Here’s how you you can fix it:

If you’re having a hard time keeping your back flat during push-ups imagine you had a tail. Then tuck your tail in between your legs. Voila! Your low back is all sorted.

Head shooting forward

Your neck is part of your spine. So when we’re talking about getting the spine in proper alignment, we still have to invite the neck to the party.

How to fix it:

Typically this happens when people do push-ups that are too advanced for them and/or their grip is too wide. Try elevating your hands on a higher pin first and taking a shoulder width grip.

If that doesn't work, make a double chin (I know it’s not flattering, but don’t worry having rad push-ups brings all the boys to the yard) like you’re holding a copy of Catch 22 with your chin.

Why Catch 22? Because, like push-ups, Catch 22 takes many attempts to really get into a groove, but it’s totally worth the effort in the end.

Next, whilst not letting Catch 22 fall to the floor, think of pulling the floor to your chest on the way down, rather than lowering yourself to the floor.

Lead with the chest -- your head should not stick out like a galapagos tortoise on the way down.

Hands too wide

Wide grip push-ups can be a thing, but I rarely recommend them. I don’t think they’re terribly useful for chest development and tend to reinforce faulty shoulder mechanics. People who go too wide also tend to stick their head forward too much (see above). Plus, it’s very rare you see somebody put their hands out really wide and actually achieve full range of motion, getting their chest a baseball’s distance from the floor.

Especially in the beginner phase, put your hands under your shoulders to avoid this mistake.

Doing the worm

Especially when clients get tired, their shoulders will pop up before the rest of their torso, like that dance move from the 90’s or 80’s or whenever that was a thing.

As opposed to doing the actual worm, this will gain you zero street credits. Only pain and suffering.

The worm is a sign of either inadequate core strength, endurance, or control. Maybe all of the above. Luckily the answer for all of these problems is the same.

How to fix it:

Avoid this mistake by keeping yourself fresh when training your push-ups. Don’t go too crazy. The set ends 2 reps before you can no longer do any more picture perfect reps.

Basically you don’t want it to get to the point where you even think about worming, otherwise you just get strong at doing worm push-ups. Not ideal. Your set should end well before this happens.

Another cue that can help is gripping the floor/bar HARD and imagining your pushing the entire earth/bar away from you. This will help with the core control/coordination problem.

It takes patience, humility, and consistency.

This is how you get all the benefits of the push-up (core strength, upper body muscle tone, sexy hair), by using full range of motion, and using proper neck, core, and hip position and controlling the movement.

If you’ve done it right, if you’ve laid the groundwork and not been overeager to push-up on the floor, your first proper push-up should be a breeze because you put in the reps to really earn the right to push-up.

If it’s a struggle, you need to put in more work building a foundation of core and upper body strength.

In which case, go back and put in more reps until you’re strong enough.

Ok! I did it! What now?! How do I get to 20 push-ups, because right now I can only do 1?

Once you get that first push-up, you might only be able to do 1. And let's be honest, that's awesome. You worked really hard to be able to do that.

However, since 3 sets of 1 only totals to 3 reps, at this point it’s better to employ a tactic call greasing the groove to increase your push-up prowess. All this means is that you practice push-ups every day, throughout the day, never tiring yourself out. This way you build up your total reps. And get tons of quality practice in.

So if you do 1 push-up every hour, that’s 12 total push-ups in a day. And if you do that everyday, that’s 84 freakin’ push-ups a week! Compare that with 9 total reps if you do 3 sets of 1 three times a week. You’ll find pretty soon you can do sets of 2 push-ups every hour, then 3, and so on and so forth.

No matter how many push-ups you can do this is a great tactic. However, once you can get 5-8 push-ups you can get away with doing standard workout sets.

Then it’s just a matter of including them in your workouts.

Advanced push-up variations

There will come a time (it might not seem like it now, but trust me) where regular push-ups don't cut it anymore, where doing more standard push-ups won't continue to build strength. Luckily, there are TONS of crazy push-up variations that will make you even more of a push-up badass.

Here are some of my favorites in no particular order. There are plenty more advanced variations, but these will keep you busy for a while :)

Tricep push-ups

As the name implies, this takes the chest muscles out of the equation to really blast your triceps. Simply, put your hands together and do push-ups like you normally would.

Here's my online client Chris busting out some solid reps.

Banded/weighted push-ups

Just like any exercise, you can make it more advanced by adding more weight. You can either have a friend place a plate or chains on your upper back, or if, like me, you have no friends, you can use a band like I demonstrate below.

The band is cool because it shifts the force curve. What this means is that the "weight" you lift changes depending on where you are in the exercise.

So typically, the top of the push-up is the easiest. With the band though, at the top, the band is the most stretched out, which makes the top position harder. This can be a great way to bust through strength plateaus and prevent stagnation.

Incline push-ups

Simply put your feet up on something and proceed with your push-ups as usual. This one has a bit more shoulder emphasis than traditional push-ups.

So I’m sure you’ve already thought about this but it’s still worth mentioning. The heavier you are, the more work you have to do on body weight exercises like push-ups and pull-ups.

If you’re reading this you probably already want to lose fat. So I mainly mention this point to talk about something called complementary goals.

Complementary goals, as I’m sure you guessed because you’re a smart cookie, are goals that complement each other. The opposite being conflicting goals.

An example of conflicting goals is wanting to simultaneously lose fat and maximize strength. You can get stronger as you lose fat, but you can’t simultaneously attack both of those goals and get optimal results because maximizing strength requires eating a lot for recovery. So when you work towards conflicting goals, you don't really acheive anything. It gets frustrating because your hard work isn't going anywhere because you don't have a focus.

Now, push-ups and fat loss are complementary goals, because the more fat you lose the better you get at push-ups.

This is awesome. Why? Because judging the progress of push-ups is simple. You can see progress on a weekly basis, which is really motivating.

Wanting to get that first push-up adds a whole new motivational element to your fat loss journey which can lighten a lot of the stifling pressure of feeling uncomfortable in your body. It becomes about more than just how you look. It becomes about what you can achieve, what mental and physical barriers you can bust through.

I tend to encourage my clients to pursue performance goals that complement their fat loss goals because realizing what your body can do with hard work and consistency is empowering. Which, again, leads to faster fat loss.

Plus, seeing performance increases aren’t nebulous like physique goals that are more subjective. Either you lifted more weight or you didn’t. Either you pulled your chin over the bar or you didn’t.

Empowerment equals motivation which helps them see their body in a different way and keeps them excited to hit the gym.

Your goals are your own of course -- having only physique goals isn’t a bad goal to have if that’s what you want.

That said, setting a complementary performance goal can help you stay excited and motivated to eat for fat loss because once that light bulb goes off in your brain when you get that first push-up or pull-up, it’s pretty magical.

Posted on Sep 13, 2017