Here's How to Do Push-Ups at Any Level—Even if You’re Starting From Scratch

Think you can't do push-ups? Think again. This push-up progression guide will help you reap all the benefits of this exercise.

Young fit Black woman doing full push-ups exercise outside

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When it comes to push-ups, there’s no gray area: You either love ’em or hate ’em. No matter which camp you’re in, though, push-ups are one of the most effective bodyweight exercises you can do and work tons of different muscles in one efficient move. 

But a 2021 survey by Gymless of 1,403 adults 18 and older sheds some light on most Americans’ ability to do a push-up (a difficult exercise to be very fair)—and the news probably isn’t that surprising. The majority of individuals, about 36 percent of participants, reported they could do less than five push-ups in a row. Only about 17 percent said they can do six to 10 pushups in a row. Any more push-ups than that, and the number of respondents who can do them shrinks even more.

Of course, this might make you ask the obvious: Does it really matter if you can’t do more than five push-ups, let alone even one, in a row? They are hard! But the truth is that they’re so great for your whole body—for aerobic exercise, strength/resistance, isometrics, and balance—that yes, it’s definitely worth learning how to do a proper, safe, effective set of push-ups—or progressing your current push-up routine. Here are all the beneficial reasons to do more push-ups, how to do them correctly, and how to start from scratch with push-up progressions and modifications if you’re new to them.

Push-up health benefits make them worth the hard work.

It’s a multifunctional exercise that works several muscle groups at once.

Push-ups are often referred to as a chest exercise, and while they do build strength in your chest and pec muscles, they also strengthen numerous other muscles. That includes your shoulders, back, triceps (back of your arms), core stabilizers (like your transverse abdominis), and glutes, says Susane Pata, NASM-certified trainer in Miami, Fla. This matters because having solid strength and activation in all of these areas can help improve performance in activities you love and feel better in day-to-day life. “If you enjoy racquet sports like pickleball, for instance, you may be able to improve your game with increased upper body strength and core stability,” she says. Even everyday activities that involve pushing or lifting can get easier with this type of strength.   

They help support and maintain muscle mass, bone density, and heart health as you age.

Doing strength training in general can help you combat age-related losses of muscle mass and improve bone density to stave off osteoporosis, according to the American College of Sports Medicine. Markers like blood pressure and cholesterol, even body fat, often improve when you strength train, and it’s possible you can lower the risk of developing conditions like heart disease. 

What’s more, how many push-ups you can do in a minute might predict your heart disease risk. In a study from JAMA Network, the more push-ups men could do, the lower their risk of heart disease was. In fact, although doing at least 11 push-ups lowered risk, completing 40 or more came with a 96 percent lower risk.

Push-Up Progression Tips for Beginners

Let’s not sugarcoat things: Push-ups are hard and seem complicated (form is so important), which is why many people don’t like them. In fact, it’s important to note that doing a full push-up (where you’re on the floor supported by your hands and feet) is not recommended for push-up beginners who are doing them for the first time. 

Instead, think about bringing the floor up closer to you. “Performing push-ups with straight legs, feet on the ground, and hands on an elevated platform (like a sturdy bench or stable countertop) is the best option for people who are new to push-ups,” Pata says.

When you can do 10 to 20 push-ups using good form in whatever position you’re currently using, that’s a sign you’re ready to move on to the next progression.

Start on the wall with standing push-ups.

woman doing push-ups using the wall

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Essentially, the higher the platform or placement of your hands, the easier the exercise will be, which is why it’s often best to start with a wall. 

Stand with your feet a few feet away from the wall with toes facing the wall—you should be far enough away that you can place your hands on the wall and straighten your arms. Place your hands on the wall at shoulder height with arms straight. From this position, bend your elbows and “lower” yourself toward the wall, then press back out to straighten your arms.

Next, progress to a high counter or sturdy chair back.

Woman doing push-ups on high wall outdoors

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When you’re comfortable enough and have built up strength doing wall push-ups, try a surface that’s slightly lower and, therefore, more challenging. Head to a counter, or use a sturdy chair back, and assume a similar starting position, with your feet several feet away from the counter, and your hands on the edge of the counter. Bend your arms and lower your chest and torso together toward the counter (or other surface you’re using) as far as you can go without breaking form, then push yourself back up to straight-arm starting position.

Then try an even lower surface: a sturdy bench, chair, box step, or stair.

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Move down to the floor, using your hands and knees.

Woman doing push-ups on her knees and exercising at home

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The last progression is on the floor on your knees and hands. In this position, you keep your knees on the floor (rather than your toes) and place your hands several feet forward on the floor (or even an elevated surface like a step bench) so that your body forms one long line from your knees to your head. 

How to Do a Full Push-Up With Proper Form

The last step is to learn how to execute a full push-up, and you can even check yourself here to see if you’re ready. The test? Pata says you’re ready if you can hold a straight-arm plank—on the floor supported only by your hands and feet—for 30 to 60 seconds. 

She adds that if you have any injury in your shoulders, elbows, or wrists, avoid attempting full push-ups until you have clearance from your healthcare provider.

Follow the instructions below to learn how to do push-ups correctly and safely. If you’re using one of the modifications from above, start at step two.

Illustration of woman doing push-ups

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  1. Start in a high plank position, with your hands on the floor (or other surface), your wrists slightly wider than shoulder width. Extend your legs behind you, feet hip-width apart and parallel to each other, so that your body forms one line from your feet to your head.
  2. Bend your elbows to lower your chest, hips, and head all at once toward the floor. Keep your hands and fingers engaged with the floor and your head and neck aligned (your chin and head should not droop down or look upward). As you lower, engage your core muscles to prevent your hips from sagging. Lower down as far as you can without breaking neutral spinal form.
  3. Imagine that you’re pushing the floor (or wall or counter) away from you as you press up to return to the starting position. Repeat.
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