The push-up is my favorite bodyweight exercise.
Although I personally love training with free weights in gym, a big portion of my workout revolves around bodyweight exercises- and that means lots of push-ups.
In fact, I once spent a year exercising around the world and did so without setting foot in a gym – it gave me a chance to really focus on bodyweight exercises as the only way to get fit, and changed my perspective on working out.
Today I’m going to share with you some of my favorite variations of the push-up that show you just how versatile and fun they can be. With this one movement and its variations, you’ll never have an excuse for not getting stronger again 🙂
Let’s crush push-ups!
Push-ups: Basic Scaling Variations!
I’ve already written a whole article on how to do a proper push-up years ago, but here’s a quick refresher! First, ZERO equipment is needed. This means you have no excuse not to do them. Second, they are an all-star compound movement: they work all of the muscles in your chest, shoulders, and arms, and even help strengthen your core (it’s practically a moving plank!).
If you are doing a proper push-up, your elbows should be tight at your side, not flared way out. Keep your arms at your side, and your core and butt tight so your body forms a straight line from head to toe.
One of the best things about push-ups is that it doesn’t matter whether you’re 200 pounds overweight or built like King Leonidas; there’s a type of push-up you can do TODAY. You can make them easier or harder, depending on your skill and your needs.
Let’s look at a basic level and work our way up:
Level 1: The wall push-up: Stand facing the wall, a few feet from the wall. Think of this like a vertical push-up. The further away from the wall your feet are, the more challenging it is! Too hard? Get closer!
Level 2: If you can complete wall push-ups with ease, level up to a lower surface. Place your hands on an elevated surface like stairs or the back of a bench, and complete a push-up with your arms close by your side. The higher the platform, the less difficult the exercise will be. The best part about the elevated push-up is that you can do it anywhere: use a kitchen counter top, a couch, or whatever floats your boat!
And here’s Staci with a more elevated platform:
Here’s me, with a lower platform: Level 3: Now, if you don’t have access to a wall or elevated platform, or you’re ready to start working towards a classic push-up, consider the next step up: the knee push-up. Make sure you keep your body tight: from the top of your head to your knees should form a straight line. Depending on your current level, any of the above variations can get you started. The goal is to continue to progress the difficult as you gain strength, and then you can move up to the classic push-up! Dominated the classic push-up? move on to elevated push-ups!
Level 4: Elevated Push-Ups
Elevating your feet puts an increased amount of emphasis on your upper chest, shoulders, and triceps. Now, make sure you continue to keep your body tight and in a straight line – don’t let your butt sag! The higher your feet, the more of an emphasis on your shoulders and triceps, and less on your chest (thus the greater difficulty). Once you’ve mastered the classic push-up and started elevating your feet, you can mix in some challenging variations to keep things interesting!
The diamond push-up
When people think of building bigger arms, they probably think of doing more bicep curls. Actually, because the tricep is a bigger muscle, you’ll get bigger arms faster with a greater emphasis on building your triceps. And there’s no better way to do that than with a diamond push-up (or a triangle push-up, as pictured below):
Really focus on solid form here – diamond push-ups challenge your triceps and even your wrist tendons and flexibility. You can also do these on your knees if you’re looking to isolate your triceps more:
The Side-to-Side Push-up
If you are trying to work your way up to a one-handed push-up, a great place to start is by building up your shoulder/chest/and tricep to collectively support more and more of your body weight. Here’s what I mean:
Get into the classic push-up position and move your hands farther apart. Now, lower yourself down towards one arm only – you should feel like you’re supporting a lot of your weight. To complete the rep, slide horizontally over to the other arm, and push up. The farther apart your hands, the higher percentage of your bodyweight will be supported by that side of your chest/shoulder and arm (thus getting harder)! Think of this like a Level 3 movement on the way up to Level 10: one-handed push-ups.
The Plyometric Push-up
An explosive and powerful body is a healthy body. And building explosive strength (power) helps with every other kind of strength! A plyometric movement recruits muscles to fire very quickly and rapidly, creating a ton of force in a little bit of time. Thus, power! Get into a classic push-up position, lower yourself to the bottom of the movement, and then EXPLODE up by forcefully pushing your hands off the ground. If you push hard enough, you should launch yourself up in the air. Boom. See here: Most people can’t start off doing regular plyometric push-ups. A great variation is to do them on your knees. You can even elevate your hands if necessary to make the exercise a level easier.
The Divebomber Push-up
A fun push-up name for an incredibly challenging push-up variation. If you’re working your way up to handstand push-ups (see the next variation!), this is a great place to start. Be warned: these are brutally difficult 🙂
Get yourself into a downward dog (shameless Nerd Fitness Yoga plug here!), and then move your head towards your hands. The rest of your body should follow. As you finish descending, push up through to a cobra yoga pose. You’ll REALLY feel these in your shoulders and triceps, as your head moves towards your hands.
To complete the rep, reverse the process back to the start.
As you develop strength here in your shoulders and triceps (which are emphasized more than your chest in this movement), you’ll get closer and closer to being able to pull off the mother of all push-ups: the handstand push up.
The Handstand Push-up
Oof. That’s the sound of me falling on my head as I tried to learn how to do a proper handstand push over the past few years! Here on Nerd Fitness we’ve already written an extensive article on how to do a handstand, and we’ve covered push-ups, so we might as well combine the two, right? Before you work on handstand push-ups, you can start by working your way up by doing Pike Push-Ups, which turns a push-up into a pretty difficult shoulder and tricep exercise! Once you’ve mastered that movement, you can work your way up to the handstand push-up.
Kick up against a wall, and without flailing your elbows way out to the side (which can wreak havoc on your shoulders and elbow joints), slowly lower yourself down until your head touches the ground softly. Then raise yourself back up.
If this is too challenging for you, consider just working on the negative portion: lowering yourself as slowly as possible, and then kicking back up into another handstand and repeat the process.
The Nerd Fitness push-up Challenge
The most important part of using bodyweight exercises for strength training: consistently and progressively increasing the difficulty.
Not only that, but on days when you are training your upper body (or any day when you are doing a full bodyweight routine, mixing in push-ups at the end of a workout is a a challenging way to close things out.
Remember – we all have to start somewhere, but we have to start. Doing a crappy push-up is better than doing no push-up.
So I challenge you:
Complete 30 push-ups TODAY.
I don’t care which variation you do. I don’t care if you do one every 30 minutes for the next 15 hours, or if you do all 30 at once.
But I want you to do 30 push-ups today.
And then leave a comment letting us know which type you did and how it went.
If you’re looking for more specific instruction, check out the Nerd Fitness Academy, where most of the videos in today’s article came from. The Academy has workout plans, diet advice, and a leveling system where you earn experience points when you complete quests.
So, drop and give me 30!
photo source: themofojt: Stormtrooper Pushups