Can’t Do a Push-Up? Here’s Where to Start

Can't Do a Push-Up? Here's Where to Start

Photo: Twenty20

Avoiding push-ups like they’re the plague? We don’t blame you — the bodyweight exercise is daunting if you’re new to fitness. But if you’re reaching for any crazy excuse to skip this bootcamp favorite, you might be cheating yourself out of a seriously effective workout. 

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The push-up is actually an ideal movement for beginners, says Michelle Hobgood, MS, Daily Burn Fitness/Nutrition coach. “It targets your chest, shoulders, triceps, core and legs,” she says. Translation: No muscle group goes untouched!

And truth is, there are plenty of ways to modify the movement to your skill level. You’re much better off completing a few sets of modified push-ups with proper technique than struggling through regular push-ups with incorrect form. By placing your hands on a wall or bench or bringing your knees to the floor, you’ll reduce the amount of bodyweight you’re pushing, making the movement the right amount of challenging. Everyone has to start somewhere, and we’ve got just the moves to help you work your way up to the standard push-up. Our motto: Stronger every day.

3 Beginner-Friendly Push-Up Modifications

If you can’t bust out perfect push-ups, one of these three modifications might be your best starting point, Hobgood says. Listed from easiest to hardest, it’s up to you which path you take!

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1. Push-Up in Table Top

Not everyone can support their full body weight at first, and that’s OK. This variation will help lighten your load so you can effectively develop your upper body strength.

How to: Start on your hands and knees in table top position. With your arms straight, your shoulders should be over your wrists and your hips should be over your knees (a). Bend your elbows and lower your upper body slowly to the ground (b). When your nose reaches the floor, press up with your arms and return to the starting position (c). Perform three sets of 8-10 reps.

Coach says: You should start to feel the burn midway through the second set. If you are still struggling, Hobgood recommends performing the incline push-up (third option) on a wall. Breezing through your sets? Try the push-up on knees variation below.

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2. Push-Up on Knees

By putting some of your weight on your knees, you’ll be able to safely and effectively perform this beginner-friendly modification.

How to: Begin on your hands and knees in a modified plank position. Your arms should be straight, with your shoulders above your wrists. Rest your knees on the ground (preferably with a towel or mat beneath them), legs together, with your feet suspended in the air (a). Slowly bend your elbows and lower your chest to the floor, while maintaining a straight line from the crown of your head to your knees (b). Next, press upwards, engaging your chest and core (c). Complete three sets of 8-10 reps.

Coach says: You should feel challenged midway through set number two. If you’re hardly breaking a sweat, try the incline push-ups below.

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3. Incline Push-Up

Look ma, no knees! Find a sturdy box, chair or other elevated surface to perform this modification — the taller it is, the easier the movement will be (and vice versa).

How to: Start by placing your hands roughly shoulder-width apart on the box or elevated surface. Engage your core so your body forms a straight line from head to toe, and keep your legs together. Your arms should be straight but not locked (a). Slowly bend your elbows and lower your chest to the box (b). Next, press upwards and engage your chest and core (c). Complete three sets of 8-10 reps.

Coach says: Not feeling the burn midway through the second set? If you’re breezing through but still can’t perform standard push-ups, increase to 15 reps per set or find a lower, more challenging surface for your incline push-ups.

Push-Ups: Assessing Your Progress

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Standard Push-Up

Mastered the exercises above? It’s time to try the real deal.

How to: Begin in a plank position with your arms straight. Your shoulders should be over your wrists and your body should form a straight line from head to toe. Keep your core engaged and don’t let your hips sag (a). Next, slowly bend your elbows and lower your chest towards the floor (b). Then, press upwards back to plank position (c). Complete three sets of 8-10 push-ups.

Coach says: If you’re struggling before the end of your second set, make note of how many push-ups you completed with solid form (so you have a number to beat next time!). Then, drop to your knees or do another modification above to finish off your reps.

Want more beginner-friendly workouts? To try True Beginner free for 30 days, head to DailyBurn.com/truebeginner.

Note to reader: The content in this article relates to the core service offered by Daily Burn. In the interest of editorial disclosure and integrity, the reader should know that this site is owned and operated by Daily Burn.

Originally published August 2015. Updated October 2016. 

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