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Zero to Push-up Hero: Tips on how to get your first strict push-up

Push-ups can be incredibly frustrating! Some of us may be able to bench press, deadlift, or squat 1-2 times our body weight, but still struggle with creating that beautiful, hollow-looking push up. Add to this the challenge of performing this motion rep after rep and we have a recipe for frustration and self-doubt. As a coach, I find myself being approached, especially by female athletes, about how to up their push-up game. Oftentimes, these athletes have tremendous strength or amazing endurance but completing a push-up still eludes them.

While both men and women struggle with pushups, athletes who are biologically female may find themselves struggling longer than people who are biologically male. Women tend to have less muscle mass per pound, with less muscle mass being distributed on the upper body.  Testosterone levels also impact muscle development, with higher testosterone typically leading to larger muscle mass. This doesn’t mean that if you are female-bodied or have low testosterone that you can never get a push-up. Have you seen female gymnasts or rock climbers? They are some of the best athletes at body-weight training ever. All this means is that you need to train intelligently and practice body-weight drills a little more frequently in order to achieve top-heavy body-weight movements like the push-up or pull-up.

“Many of these drills (especially negatives and super-slow drills) also apply to pull-ups, squats, deadlifts, and bench press.”

Below are some basic tools you can use to up your push-up game. I have presented them to you in order of difficulty. However,  feel free to try them all to see where you’re at. Many of these drills (especially the negatives and the super-slow movements) also apply to pull-ups, squats, deadlifts, and bench press.

Related: Zero to Hero: Drills for Your First Pull-Up

ECCENTRICS/NEGATIVES (can be done on the floor, box, rig, or wall)

For this specific exercise we are only looking at the lowering phase of the push up. The goal of this movement is to build up all of the muscles that you will need to help lower yourself in a diagonal line.

“1-3 sets of 3-5 repetitions at 3-5 second descents will build your strength pretty quickly.”

Begin from the plank position by actively pushing against the ground and flexing your quads and abs (top picture below). You should have a slightly hollowed out upper back like mine. Your goal is to be able to keep the hollow position as you start lowering yourself to the ground. As you come to the bottom of the push up, you should be hitting the floor with your chest and thighs first. Your goal is to get your shoulders below your elbows with your forearms as vertical as possible (bottom picture). Whether you are doing this on the wall, a box, a barbell, or on the floor, try to lower as slowly as possible. I recommend working your way up to a 5 second descent. Once you make it to the bottom, relax on the ground and when you are ready, get yourself back to plank position. 1-3 Sets of 3-5 repetitions at 3-5 second descents will build your strength pretty quickly.


Top of the Push Up

Bottom of the Push Up


Hands off ground or Hand release pushups (these are done on the floor)

This drill focuses on the concentric or “up” phase of the push-up. Begin with your stomach, chest and thighs on the ground. Lift your hands off the ground so that they are hovering above where you normally place them (again with the goal of creating a vertical forearm). When you are ready, dig your toes into the ground and slap your hands on the floor, attempting to lift yourself in one straight line. As best you can, avoid lifting the chest before the abdomen. 2-5 sets of 3-5 reps should help you get better at this part of the push-up movement.


Super Slow Pushups (can be done on the floor, box, rig, or wall)

You’re goal here is to learn how to stabilize in each part of the push-up. When you go “super-slow” you are provided with instant feedback. Are your hips sagging? Are your elbows flaring? Are you hunching your shoulders rather than getting into a more hollow-looking top position? To do these push-ups, start off in plank position and slowly lower for a set amount of seconds. Pause at the bottom (if you want to pause for the same amount of seconds—even better), and then slowly rise for the same duration. Work your way up to 5 seconds. 1-3 sets of 3-5 reps at 2-5 seconds will start getting you stronger and ready to handle higher volumes.

Related:The Mindfulness of Movement

Once you get your first five push-ups, you can start being creative with your hand and feet positions. Heck you can even attempt plyometric push-ups where, for a second, neither your feet nor your hands are on the ground!

If you have any questions, or want to schedule a one-on-one personal training session to practice these skills, feel free to reach out to me at jasmine@crossfitslipstream.com or John at John@crossfitslipstream.com.

Until next time, keep push-upping on!

Jasmine Gerritsen