I Love Push-Ups and So Should You. Part I

Remember how I love pull-ups? As it turns out, I also love to do push-ups. As with the pull-up, I would evaluate my ability as (well) above average and I’m willing to bet that you are pretty miserable at them. I’m going to follow the same general format as the pull-ups post, so let’s start with a definition of the standard push-up and then build a foundation. In addition to this foundation, I intend to question conventional wisdom surrounding the push-up.


NOTE: As with the pull-ups, this upper body strength work is NOT exclusively for men. EVERYBODY can benefit from being stronger. I have had several spectacular successes in the past training men AND women to be much stronger than they ever thought they could be. Again, I want to emphasize that becoming stronger does not lead to a “bulky” physique for women. Cupcakes do that.

On to the definition of the “standard push-up.” Put your hands on the floor, shoulder width apart, fingers pointing forward. Position your feet close together and get up into a plank with a flat back. This is the “up” position. Bend at the elbows and lower your chest to the ground (keep your back flat!). Some standards would like to see the elbows bend at least 90 degrees, but I think this is kind of hard to be honest about unless you have a spotter. I prefer to go low enough that my chest and chin brush the ground – that way I know for a fact that I have broken 90 degrees at the elbow. This is the “down” position. Simply alternate between up and down and you’re doing push-ups. Most all of us have experienced this at least a little bit in a PE class or something somewhere along the line.

That is the standard push-up. Going back to my previous assumption that you probably are not very good at push-ups, let’s dial it back a bit. The simplest way to accommodate a lack of strength here is to put the knees on the ground. There is nothing wrong with doing it this way; we all have to start somewhere. In fact, there is a great deal of honor and integrity involved when a person recognizes their weakness and insists on fixing them at the most basic level. Do not “add strength to dysfunction.” Learn to do it right, right now.


If what I have talked about so far is a significant challenge for you, stop here. Work on these basics until you get it right, then please come back and continue to advance. A solid foundation is absolutely essential to continuation training. I would say that being able to rep out 10 solid push-ups with a flat back and without significant shakiness is a bare minimum to continue.

If you can knock out more than 10 standard push-ups in a row, who cares? Seriously. The ability to do 100 push-ups in a minute has a certain cool factor, but ultimately lacks utility. There was a point in my life when I cared about being able to do such high reps, but that cool factor immediately fizzled when I simply asked “Why?” It is a useless skill. Let’s play a mental exercise: What is the push function of the human physique for? Does being able to move one’s body from the ground to slightly above the ground a whole bunch of times apply?

Let’s explore that push function. Why do we have it? Why would we want to improve it? As I have alluded to, there is little to no utility to being able to go from the down position to the up position over and over again. Why would you ever do that besides testing your ability to do that? Therefore, training to get better at standard push-ups only makes one better at push-ups. It becomes a self-licking ice cream cone. One with inherently limited use. So now what?

The push function of human strength has several uses:

–       To propel the body from one position to another

–       To arrest a face-forward fall

–       To throw an object

–       To punch

Arguably, there could be some use to lots of repetition when it comes to punching, but doing lots of push-ups trains the body for maximum efficiency. Punching needs power, not just efficiency. In fact, all four functions I mention require a great deal of power. Given how all real-world applications for the push function fall into the four abovementioned categories, and all four require power to be useful, let’s focus on power.

Starting with propulsion, you will never need to propel yourself arms length from the ground 100 times in a minute. So let’s just forget that standard opinion of push-ups as something to do over and over again in a short period of time. Can you push yourself from one precarious position to another? Probably not. Even the guy that can do triple digit push-ups will have trouble going from the prone position to standing or from a prone position in one spot to the prone position in another. Imagine having to reach across a ravine or something feet first, and then having to shove the rest of your body across to catch up. This will require a one-shot, powerful effort.

This same power harnessed in propulsion will be used to help you arrest a fall. Simply imagine running in compromised terrain and tripping. As you fall to the ground face first, you need to be able to put your arms out in front of you and slow your fall enough to not get a bloody nose. Again, efficiency is not the key to this maneuver, out right power is. If your arms are too weak to deal with your body weight falling at 9.8m/s/s, you’re going to have a bad time. You have to be able to channel all of your strength at one single moment and hopefully it is enough to preserve your beautiful mug.

1321_basketball-passingNext, consider the possibility that you will have to throw a large object. I’m not talking about throwing something overhand like a baseball, but let’s say a rock or a log of something of significant weight that will require a two-hand thrust from chest level – not unlike a pass in basketball. You may have to do something like this in order to get a heavy object across a gap, throw a large object off of yourself, or even throw an object offensively. Again, repetition is totally unnecessary and pure power will be more desirable.

Finally, punching. It is certainly possible that a confrontation that requires punching will require many punches, but again, unlike the standard, repeated push-up, each punch will require power and not just efficiency. If you are going to punch something, punch it like you mean it. I don’t know about you, but if I have decided that something is enough of a threat that I’m going to throw a fist, I want to disable it, not piss it off with quick, efficient thrusts. Punching is a whole different art in of itself that should be discussed elsewhere, but the point of the matter is that the standard push-up at high repetition simply does not apply.

Ok, enough rambling, let’s revisit the mental exercise from earlier. Why do we push?

outline700It’s not to do something useless like this.

This is a two-fold answer. First of all, we don’t push to get better at push-ups. Second, we do it do apply our strength and power to the four applications mentioned above. In either case, doing tons of the standard push-up – per typical misconceptions of how to train the human push function – simply has no utility. For now, dear reader, I want you to focus on gaining a strong foundation in the push-up. As I mentioned before, build that foundation and do a small amount with power and confidence. Once that foundation is built, we can move on to Part II and build some serious power.

5 Replies to “I Love Push-Ups and So Should You. Part I”

  1. I am loving your emphasis on PRACTICAL movement and fitness. That is the single most important reason why I hate “normal” workouts – especially in the gym. (Most important behind my self-loathing and general apathy of course). They get you to be fantastic at doing those exercises, but not so great at… well anything else. Keep these exercises, with important applications/contexts coming!

      1. It’s cultural habit. One negative thing about technological/cultural progress is that it has only enhanced the perception of our separation from nature rather than our integral part in it. I think this will change one day, but this is part of the reason why I believe that there is an increasing unwillingness to be outside in nature – it’s an “other” that inspires fear rather than wonder and appreciation.

  2. Love everything about this! I want to punch things and protect my face from concrete! However, I gotta disagree with the suggestion to do them on your knees as a beginner. In my opinion, that’s like having someone use the assisted pull-up machine to do pull-ups (ahhh the horror!). YES, you’ll get a bit stronger but it will take you forrreevveerr to progress and can just lead to frustration.

    I think it’s MUCH more effective to start with the initial plank, keeping the core and quads tight while you slowly lower. Start at an angle (pressing into a wall or desk) if you have to, then as you get stronger, do your push-ups on objects that are lower to the ground (progression could be: wall, dresser, couch arm, coffee table, step, floor etc…then BOOM, BAM you’ll be bustin’ em out in no time!

    I’m part of a group of over 5,000 women on the ol’ face place who like to lift smart and heavy, but many are brand spankin’ new beginners. I’ve seen these women progress ridiculously fast once they got off their knees and used a wall instead. I think working on core strength is imperative to rocking solid pushups, but it’s hard to maximize that strength when you’re on your knees. Starting from a plank position from day one also prepares you mentally and builds confidence. Just my experience!

    1. Lesley, that’s brilliant. I’m going to change my training progressions immediately as I completely agree with you, putting the hands above the feet in order to accommodate a lack of strength will yield much quicker and effective results than push-ups from the knees.

      Girl, you so smart.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *