Getting your first push up can be a very challenging task for beginners. Especially when using exercise variations which are too challenging. Here we provide a description of why proper exercise selection is important, and a series of push up exercises you can use to ensure progression over time.
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Performing exercises that are of the correct difficulty is extremely important to build enough volume for the creation of new muscle. If you are constantly perform 1-3 repetitions of exercises that are very challenging for you, you will only be working the strength of your muscles and not inducing muscle mass gains. This is why performing beginner variations that allow you to accumulate a great deal of repetitions is really important if you would like to see long term progress.
Performing exercises that are either maximal or near maximal on a consistent basis can be extremely frustrating. You will have off days in the gym, and if on your off days you cannot perform one repetition on the exercise you are trying to improve it can be extremely frustrating. This is another reason why performing beginner exercises that are much more approachable for your ability can be a great way to consistently move forward.
When doing exercises that are maximal or too challenging for your current ability, it can be very detrimental for developing good technique over time. Often times in the gym it can be too easy to pick intensity and challenge over technique. This is negative for your long term movement practice, you should put emphasis on building great technique over time whilst developing strength in conjunction with that.
This is the most challenging step for push ups but also more generally in the gym. This is especially true with push ups as the journey can be very, very long especially for females who find it more challenging to develop the required muscle mass. If you are unable to perform a press up, and you have no too little upper body muscle mass, it can take over a year to get your first push up. Mentally it is important to know where you started, this means performing tests like how many High Barbell Press Ups can you perform and focusing on setting records on this movement, not constantly testing to see if you can do a push up. Rather than thinking of your progress in terms of No Push Up to Push Up because this will be a long time and create too much frustration during the goal pursuit.
Technique will be an important factor for success when building towards your first push ups. The push up requires the creation of an arrow head with the head and the elbows and remaining in the position throughout the movement. This means that the elbows are neither touching the body, nor are they flaring aggressively outward. Thinking of the push up as a moving plank motion can be a great way to visualise the importance of keeping the core tight and not dropping the hips, which can be very challenging for a great deal of individuals.
All the exercises in this list are push up variations, but building towards your first push up with require you perform a large variety of horizontal pressing movements, including using all sorts of free weights to eventually be able to build enough strength to perform a push up. Weights are extremely effective at helping you build strength and muscle mass and therefore should not be overlooked.
Weights can be used to perform both strength training and hypertrophy training (muscle gain), I advice you do blocks of both styles of training. Although this is a very reductionist description, strength training is where you lift heavy objects for minimal repetition (1-5) and hypertrophy is where you lift moderate weights for high repetitions (8-20) to a point of near failure.
The top of press up hold is one of the first exercises I perform with my clients, to see how developed their core and upper body strength is. For some this can be a challenging exercises. If this is challenging for you, just performing this hold for a couple weeks and making it slightly longer over time can be a brilliant starting point.
The high barbell eccentric press up is the easiest version of the push ups, this can be performed in practically a standing position with a wall if required, it will enable you to get used to taking some of your bodyweight in your upper body. Once you find this very easy, you can add a tempo onto the eccentric movement, making the exercise slightly more challenging.
The high barbell press up is a perfect progression from the high barbell eccentric and will allow you to perform your first concentric push up. If this is the first time you’re performing the concentric part of the movement it is essential that you put emphasis on technique.
The medium height barbell push is where we start to build some real strength in the horizontal press movement pattern. This progression can be done very incrementally as the rack will allow you to make the exercises more difficult notch by notch, this is a great representation of how progressive overload works over time.
The movement from the medium barbell to the box again lowers the position of the hands closer to the floor. This not only makes the exercise more difficult, but the change of equipment can help with the mundanity of what can be a very long and slow progression over time.
Finally in our list we see the bench press up. For females I would no longer consider this a beginner exercise as it can take a good deal of structured training to arrive at this point. The hands are now relatively close to the floor and the core will need to be held in a tight position throughout. Once you have built to 10+ repetitions on this movement, consider moving to Eccentric Press Ups , by this point you are for sure not a beginner, but still may be a while away from performing a full push up.
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This resource was written by Sean Klein. Sean Richard Klein has thousands of hours of coaching experience and a BSc in Sports Science with Management from Loughborough University. He owns a gym in Bayonne France, CrossFit Essor, which runs group classes and a Personal training studio.