The rise of push-ups: A classic exercise that can help you get stronger

Matthew Solan
Matthew Solan, Executive Editor, Harvard Men's Health Watch

The morning of my 50th birthday in May I did something I had not tried in a long time. I dropped to the floor and did 50 push-ups, one for each year. I had to break it up into sets and the last few where shaky, but I did it.

And it felt great.

As a new member to the 50-plus club I realized this bread-and-butter exercise still works wonders as a snapshot of your fitness. “How many you can do at one time offers a real-time measurement of your strength and muscular endurance and is an easy tool to help you improve,” says Dr. Edward Phillips assistant professor of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at Harvard Medical School. “You can do them anywhere and at any time. All you need is your bodyweight and a few minutes.”

The perfect exercise

The push-up engages your body from top to bottom. It works several muscle groups at once: the arms, chest, abdomen (core), hips, and legs. Push-ups also can be modified as needed. “By adjusting the speed you perform a push-up, the angle of your body, and even hand placement, you can add more or less intensity, or focus on specific muscles,” says Dr. Phillips.

A study published in the February 2016 issue of the Journal of Physical Therapy Science found that the chest muscle activity was greater when push-ups were performed with the hands placed halfway inward from their normal position. Hands placed outward work the triceps more.

The perfect form

To maximize what push-ups can offer you should perform them correctly.

  • Begin in a full plank position with your arms extended, palms flat and just below shoulder level, feet together or about 12 inches of apart, resting on the balls of your feet.
  • Keep your back straight and your weight evenly distributed.
  • Look down and lower your body until your elbows are at 90 degrees (or go to the floor to rest, if needed) and then push back up to complete one rep. Try to take two seconds to go down and one second to go up.

If this is too difficult, perform from a hands and knees position. You can also do inclined push-ups where you place your hands on a counter or wall and lean forward at a 45-degree angle. “You can still engage the core and work your arms and chest, while you place less weight on the wrists and shoulders,” says Dr. Phillips.

With a regular push-up, you lift about 50% to 75% of your body weight. (The actual percentage varies depending on the person’s body shape and weight.) Modifications like knee and inclined push-ups use about 36% to 45% of your body weight.

Establish a foundation

To find your starting point, perform as many push-ups as you can while keeping good form. It could be 10, five, or even two. Focus on hitting this number at first with a rest day between sessions. As your strength improves, add more reps, or move up to a full push-up position (if you’ve been bending at the knees or doing push-ups against a wall) or build up to doing two to three sets.

Because they provide instant feedback, push-ups can be a great motivator. Push-up challenges are trendy. Can you do a certain number in a week, or in 30 days? Can you perform 15 to 20 nonstop?

“Challenges are a fun way to set up mini, short-term goals, which many men need to stay focused,” says. Dr. Phillips. Create your own push-up challenge and see if you can reach it. Begin small and once you achieve it, set the bar higher.

My challenge is to do 50 push-ups every day for the entire year. So far, so good. I knock them out before I brush my teeth in the morning, and can now do 30 nonstop. Push-ups have taught me that when it comes to improving my fitness, I can still rise to the occasion.

Comments:

  1. Ricardo Martinez

    I had my two hips replaced 11 years ago. I was told to stay away from push-ups and planks. Is that still valid? If yes, what about knee or standing push-ups?

    Thanks.

  2. Bruce Hurley

    An easy way to ensure a straight back is to touch nose and crotch simultaneously, if fitness level permits. The mention of speed variation as a way to manage intensity is a beneficial addition to the subject.

  3. Anna

    At one point I’d gotten quite good at push-ups – started with knee push-ups and went from there – so I assume they’re not expressly contraindicated for women. My problem today, however, is osteoarthritis and related degeneration in my wrist/thumb area. Not sure if push-ups are recommended for someone with this condition, male or female.

    Any comments from the cognoscenti?

  4. Joshua Klein

    Article has a blatant wrong idea about targeting triceps more versus chest. If you wanna hit chest more place your hands somewhere from 6-12 inches away from your shoulders out to each respective side. Drive straight through the palms do not drive out of your fingers whatsoever. A good way to practice this is lightly curl your fingers under so the tops of your top knuckles are hitting the ground and focus on driving from the palm. This is where your strength comes from. If you wanna target triceps, place your palms approximately at your nipples BUT place your palms directly touching your sides. Again, driving from the palms only, you will feel the drastic difference when you drive up through the palms when comparing the two positions I have described. – ISSA Fitness Trainer Joshua Klein. Instagram: yEaRiGhTiSSiK – follow me for fitness, nutrition, fat loss, bodybuilding, and last but certainly not least video games.

    • Joshua Klein

      Note concerning the triceps push up, your elbows will begin down below your palms directly at your sides. Contrary to the chest push up, where your elbows are going out to each respective side.

  5. David Birch

    I do a set of 60 and a second set of 50 pushups during my weight workouts (twice a week). I do one set before I begin my weights routine and then the second after the entire weights routine. I have always waited at least 48 hours between weight workouts – my understanding was that muscles need that to build back up – is this not the case with the muscles used in pushups? The author indicated that he does them every day.

  6. Thomas Flanagan

    Tired of seeing articles written solely for men.

    • Gil Ramos

      Some people tire of seeing materials focused solely on women. Fortunately, Matthew Sloan has not left you guessing. As the executive editor of the publication Harvard Men’s Health Watch, we can consistently expect him to write about — you guessed it — men’s health. Just as fortunate, however, if women’s health is what you seek to read or just want a change. Harvard has a complementary publication just for women, unambiguously titled, Women’s Health Watch.

  7. Larry A. Chrispyn

    I have been exercising an hour or more daily for 31 years. I used to do 500 to 600 pushups in a day. I would do some 40 at a time, adding up to 500 + in a day. I did this at least a dozen times. It was not practical to lift weights while on vacation, so that is when I did the push ups. I ride my exercise bike and stretch every day.
    I also do planks for 2 minutes and up to 32 dips. Which do you think is better, planks, push ups or dips?

  8. Richard

    Are push-ups contraindicated when dealing with diastasis recti ?

  9. Maria

    Is this a good exercise for women, too?

  10. fsteph

    They’re great exercise, but can be devastating to shoulder joints. Any recommendations as to avoiding shoulder pain?

  11. Dan Bender

    I do these on the side of a swimming pool, in 3 ft. of water after some laps.
    Aloha, dan

    • Jan

      I also do pushups in the pool ( in 4 foot depth) but have wondered if it benefits the core like those face down over the earth, Have wondered if there are changes that need to be made for pool,
      I need to work on my bones as well.

  12. friv

    It requires connecting with your entire body muscles. Handles up to your toes, you need to download to remove your entire body. weight and your arms sagging arms because the body is used as push-ups active in this way can be easily resolved. You may also need to have some arm strength to start this movement of arms and strengthen the kaslandır. Due to some arm weakness that they can not move for a long time. But it should not be given up. A genius can only take 3 times in one push-up, then a 3 push-ups push-ups every day the number of days that you check regularly followed by two increases will see that you can.
    Besides push-ups pull handle allows the development of your chest and back muscles. Especially noticeable tightening of the chest is a movement in the figure.
    While it may seem focused only handle a motion effect for tightening the abdomen and buttocks it is very high.
    Generally increases the body’s balance and resistance. The push-up plus a resistance to even just want to stand in the position of push-ups. When you shoot continuously push-ups you will feel generally stronger.

  13. friv

    Face down on the ground, extending beyond are based on place showdown shoulder width, waist and knees are lifted up and down on your toes without bending elbows emphasis. This action is useful when you take into account the recommendations as follows: Push-up often when taking your butt and you drew your stomach. This is both to see positive movement and exercise will allow you to benefit from easier. Do not take your breath after downloading the chest up and down on a regular basis will give you your heart yormama. Narrowing or expanding your openness arm push-ups with one hand, with different knee position, pulling the technique can make your work more different regions.