Push-ups, or press-ups as the Brits call them, should be at the top of every exerciser’s to-do list. Working your chest, shoulders, and triceps, push-ups are more joint-friendly than bench presses, require no equipment, so they’re the perfect excuse-free exercise and can be modified to suit all fitness and experience levels.
Being able to do push-ups is a sign that you are fit and healthy. In fact, in studies, people who could do an above-average number of reps had a lower risk of heart disease, diabetes, and all-cause mortality (1).
Unfortunately, a lot of people are bad at push-ups. Either their form needs work, or they can’t do many reps. Needless to say, you can’t wish yourself to get better at push-ups – it takes time and effort!
However, that work will pay off. With dedication, perspiration, and time, you’ll soon be banging out push-ups like a pro.
We reveal the best strategies for becoming a certified push-up master!
- How to Perform the Perfect Push-Up
How to Get Better at Push-Ups
- 1. Grease the groove
- 2. Train using a more challenging push-up variation
- 3. Train your push-ups like you mean it!
- 4. Strengthen your core
- 5. Pump up the volume with some easier push-up variations
- 6. Strengthen your triceps
- 7. Beef up your upper back
- 8. Be consistent
- 9. Eat for success
- 10. Have a plan
- Get Better at Push-Ups – FAQs
- Closing Thoughts
How to Perform the Perfect Push-Up
Before we reveal the best methods for getting better at push-ups, it’s worth spending a moment to check that you know how to do this classic exercise correctly. Poor form wastes energy, making push-ups less effective, and could even lead to injury.
So, revise your push-up technique and make sure that each and every rep will make your inner drill instructor proud!
- Kneel down and place your hands on the floor so your fingers point forward and are about shoulder-width apart.
- Brace your core, pull your shoulders down and back, and rotate your elbows in towards your sides to engage your lats.
- Contract your glutes and quadriceps to increase full-body rigidity.
- Walk your feet out and back until your body and legs are perfectly straight. Lengthen your neck and tuck your chin in.
- Keeping your body straight, bend your arms and lower your chest to within an inch of the floor. Pause for one second.
- Drive your hands into the floor and push yourself back up to full arm extension.
- Pause for a second and then descend into another rep.
- Inhale as you bend your arms, and exhale as you straighten them.
Looking good, bro! Now you’ve got your technique dialed in, it’s time to look at the strategies and methods you can use to boost your push-up numbers.
How to Get Better at Push-Ups
Whether you are a beginner or an experienced expert, these methods will help reinforce your technique and improve your push-up numbers:
1. Grease the groove
To get better at push-ups, you need to practice doing push-ups. This is the heart of training specificity, one of the most important fitness principles. Grease the Groove (GTG) is a training method popularized by strength specialist and former Soviet special forces instructor Pavel Tsatsouline.
With the GTG method, you do multiple low-rep sets of your chosen exercise spread throughout the day. You avoid training to failure, which causes fatigue. Instead, each set is only about 50% of your maximum and ideally separated by an hour or more.
So, for example, if you can do a maximum of ten push-ups, to grease the groove you do multiple sets of 4-6 reps, focusing on making each push-up as technically perfect as possible. Remember, this is meant to be push-up practice and not a fatiguing workout.
Aim to clock up 6-10 GTG sets per day for the next 21-28 days. Then, when you retest your maximum, you should find that you can do more reps despite not having done any max-rep sets.
2. Train using a more challenging push-up variation
If you want to get better at bench presses or squats, you don’t just load up the bar with the same old weight and use that load for every workout. As every lifter knows, that’s a great way to go nowhere fast.
Instead, you gradually put more plates on the bar, forcing your muscles to adapt and get stronger. This is called progressive overload and another critical fitness principle.
While you could wear a weighted vest to make push-ups harder, it’s usually more convenient to overload your muscles with more demanding push-up variations. For example, putting your feet on a raised box shifts more weight onto your arms, and using push-up handles increases your range of motion. Both make your reps harder.
So, spend the next few weeks focusing almost entirely on a more demanding push-up variation. Then, when you return to standard push-ups, they’ll feel more manageable, and you’ll be able to crank out more reps.
3. Train your push-ups like you mean it!
Wanting to get better at push-ups is not the same as training to get better at push-ups! So, if you want to become a push-up pro, you must make them the cornerstone of your workouts.
Ideally, you should do a push-up workout three times a week, working a little harder each time you train. So, for example, you could do 3-5 straight sets per workout, pushing each one to failure, or follow one of the push-up workouts in this article.
Either way, if you want to get better at push-ups, you must prioritize them.
4. Strengthen your core
While push-ups are undeniably a chest, shoulders, and triceps exercise, they also require plenty of core strength. If your core is weak, your midsection will sag and collapse, and some of the force generated by your arms will be lost.
Think about a sportscar spinning its wheels – all that smoke and rubber looks impressive, but until the car starts going forward, all that energy is wasted.
Plug your energy leaks by strengthening your core. That way, your whole body will move as one solid unit, and all of your efforts will go into pumping out push-ups.
The best core strengtheners for better push-ups mirror the demands of the exercise you’re training for. Planks are a great choice, as are Pallof presses, hollow body holds, body saws, pot stirrers, and ab wheel rollouts.
These are anti-core exercises, meaning they prevent rather than promote movement, so your core muscles work the same way they do during push-ups, i.e., as stabilizers.
5. Pump up the volume with some easier push-up variations
How do you train to do more push-ups when you can’t do very many push-ups yet? Short of moving to Mercury, where gravity is about two-thirds of Earth, the most obvious way is to regress your push-ups and perform a less demanding variation.
Making push-ups easier means you’ll be able to do more reps, developing your muscular endurance and work capacity simultaneously.
Ways to make push-ups easier include:
- Three-quarter or kneeling push-ups
- Incline push-ups (hands on a bench or similar)
- Wall push-ups
- Band-assisted push-ups
Do a few sets of regular push-ups, and then, as fatigue sets in, switch to a less challenging variation so you can do more sets. This extra volume will lead to greater and more rapid increases in push-up performance.
6. Strengthen your triceps
Lots of muscles are involved in push-ups, but the most common “weak link” is the triceps. This is hardly surprising, given the size of the triceps compared to the chest. As such, a lot of people find that their arms fail before their pecs, bringing their sets to a premature end.
Avoid this trap by working on triceps strength and training them separately. Good exercises for this purpose include:
- Skull crushers
- Triceps pushdowns
- Parallel bar and bench dips
- Close grip bench presses
- Diamond push-ups
- Floor presses
Spending extra time on your triceps will turn what is usually a push-up weak link into a much stronger one.
7. Beef up your upper back
Believe it or not, your upper back plays a crucial role during push-ups. Muscles like your lats, traps, and rhomboids must work hard to stabilize your shoulders and prevent unwanted movement. A weak upper back can undermine your push-up performance, like doing chest presses on a wobbly bench.
So, for every set of push-ups you do, make sure you also perform at least one set of upper back training.
Good upper back exercises include:
- Lat pulldowns
- Inverted rows/ring rows
- Face pulls
- Band pull-aparts
- Single-arm dumbbell rows
- Seated rows
- T-bar rows
- Bent-over rows
In addition, complementing your push-up training with upper back exercises will prevent any muscle imbalances and keep your shoulders healthy.
8. Be consistent
Getting better at push-ups will take time. You must train hard and often to develop the muscles that drive your body up and away from the floor against the pull of gravity. Not only do these adaptations take time, but they’re also quickly lost if you fail to keep up your training.
In other words, consistency matters.
So, don’t expect any quick fixes; you’re not going to become a push-up stud overnight. However, if you keep pumping out the push-ups 3-4 times a week for the next few months, your performance will improve, and your hard work will pay off.
Set yourself some targets, e.g., doing 10, 30, or 50 perfect push-ups, to help keep you motivated and to remind yourself what you’re trying to achieve.
9. Eat for success
Good nutrition goes hand in hand with better push-up performance – or it should do! You are what you eat, and if your diet consists mainly of junk food, your muscles will probably perform like junk, too.
Eating healthily ensures your body gets all the nutrients it needs to power your muscles and recover from your workouts. Of course, food is also one of life’s pleasures, so you should enjoy what you eat, too.
This all means you need to adopt a balanced, mostly healthy diet, with a little wiggle room left for the occasional unhealthy snack. Make sure that you consume enough protein for muscle repair and growth, adequate carbohydrates for energy, and sufficient healthy fats. You’ll also need vitamins, minerals, and fiber, all of which are easily sourced from vegetables, fruits, and whole grains.
There is no need to adopt a strict diet. Rather, it’s best to create your own eating plan based on your grocery budget, likes and dislikes, and your cooking ability.
10. Have a plan
You now have all the information you need to become a fully qualified push-up ninja! However, it would be a mistake to try and use all these tips and strategies at once. That will probably cause a “system overload,” and you’ll end up making no progress at all.
Instead, you need a plan!
A plan will help you focus on what’s important while ignoring what is not. It’ll provide you with a path to follow, taking you gradually closer toward your goal. Training without a plan is like going on a journey without a map; you might end up in the right place, but if you do, it’ll be more by accident than design.
So, grab a sheet of paper and start planning your future push-up workouts, starting with some goals. Then, decide on how many push-up workouts you will do per week and what training methods you will use.
Example goal – 50 straight push-ups
- Monday – three max rep sets, two minutes rest between each one
- Wednesday – 100 push-ups in as few sets as possible
- Friday – 10 push-ups every minute, on the minute (EMOM)
- Grease the groove push-up workouts twice a week (Tuesday and Saturday)
Don’t worry if your plan isn’t quite right – you can finetune it as you go. Just make sure it’s progressive, i.e., you do a few more reps each week.
Get Better at Push-Ups – FAQs
Do you have a question about getting better at push-ups or push-ups in general? No sweat because we’ve got the answers!
1. What muscles do push-ups work?
Push-ups are a compound exercise, meaning they involve multiple muscles and joints working together. As such, they use a comprehensive list of muscles.
Because you must work hard to keep your body straight and stable, push-ups work virtually every muscle on the front of your body, including your legs and abs. However, the load on these muscles is relatively small. Instead, the push-up mainly works your upper body pushing muscles.
These muscles are:
- Pectoralis major – located on the front of your chest and known as your pecs for short, these muscles are the agonist or primary mover during push-ups. In other words, they’re the muscle doing most of the work.
- Anterior deltoids – the deltoids are your shoulder muscles. There are three groups of fibers or heads: anterior (front), medial (middle), and posterior (rear). All three are involved in push-ups, but the anterior deltoids are the most active.
- Triceps – located on the back of your upper arm, the triceps are responsible for extending your elbows during push-ups. The triceps are often the first muscle to fatigue when you do a high-rep set of push-ups.
- Serratus anterior – so called because it looks a little like the edge of a serrated blade, the serratus anterior is located to the side of your chest and helps keep your scapulae or shoulder blades flat against your ribs. Well-developed serratus anterior muscles look super cool!
- Rotator cuff – the rotator cuff is the collective name for the four small muscles that control and stabilize your shoulder joint. They are the supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor, and subscapularis. With no bench to support your shoulders, you’ll need to use these muscles to prevent unwanted shoulder joint movements.
Other push-up muscles include your rectus abdominis, hip flexors, quadriceps, and tibialis anterior.
2. Aren’t push-ups a beginner exercise?
While many exercisers do push-ups when starting out, they usually progress to bench presses as they get stronger and more experienced. This suggests that push-ups are only useful for novices.
This is not the case!
While you can bench press more weight, push-ups teach you to use your entire body, making them much more functional. With no bench to support you, you’ll need to stabilize yourself, just like in “real life” outside of the gym.
Plus, there are many ways to make push-ups more demanding and as effective as bench presses for increasing strength and muscle mass.
The bench press is arguably the most popular gym exercise. Still, in terms of bang for your buck, push-ups could be better and are the most widely performed exercise on the planet. Push-ups are definitely not a beginner’s exercise, and everyone who works out should do them.
3. I can’t do a single push-up – what can I do?
Plenty of people can’t do a single push-up. However, almost everyone can learn and train to do this awesome exercise.
Your first step is to regress the push-up until you find a variation you CAN do. For example, you can do kneeling push-ups, countertop push-ups, or wall push-ups. Work on mastering that variation and then progress to a more difficult one when you feel ready. Continue in this way until you can do regular push-ups.
You can also supplement your push-up training with strength exercises such as chest presses, bench presses, machine dips, and triceps pushdowns. All of these exercises can be scaled and progressed to match your current strength level.
The other thing to consider is your body weight. If you are very overweight, push-ups are bound to be challenging. Start trying to lose a few pounds, and you should find push-ups begin to feel easier.
4. Push-ups hurt my wrists – what can I do?
Many people suffer from tight forearms and wrists, especially those who spend a lot of time using a keyboard, performing repetitive manual tasks, or otherwise keeping their hands and fingers clenched.
Doing push-ups takes your wrists into extension, which means those tight muscles are strongly stretched, and can be uncomfortable or even painful.
Ideally, you should work on your forearm flexibility to alleviate this problem with targeted stretching. The prayer and kneeling forearms stretches are ideal for this purpose:
In the short term, using push-up handles allow you keep your wrists straight, which should take pressure off your joints so you can do push-ups without the pain.
5. How many push-ups should I be able to do?
The number of push-ups you can do will depend on your age, gender, weight, fitness, and experience level. That said, there are norm tables that indicate how many push-ups the average person should be able to do.
For example, men in their 30s should be able to do 41 push-ups, while women should be able to do 19.
Push-ups are a fantastic exercise! You can do them anywhere and anytime, and you don’t need any equipment, so they won’t cost you a dime. Regular push-up workouts will develop a stronger, more muscular upper body, pumping up your pecs, delts, and triceps. They’re even good for your health, and people who can do a lot of push-ups generally live longer (1) and suffer fewer cardiovascular events.
There are lots of different push-up variations to try, from beginner to ultra-advanced. There are also several ways to organize your push-up workouts, from straight sets to ladders to pyramids.
Push-ups need never be boring!
That said, you CAN have too much of a good thing, and it’s probably a bad idea to do push-ups every day. In fact, you should be good results from 3-4 push-up workouts per week.
Use the strategies and tips in this article to master the push-up and become a certified push-up master. Your efforts will be rewarded!
- Yang J, Christophi CA, Farioli A, et al. Association Between Push-up Exercise Capacity and Future Cardiovascular Events Among Active Adult Men. JAMA Netw Open. 2019;2(2):e188341. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2018.8341 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30768197/