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February 15, 2022 8 min read

Push-ups are one of the most well-known exercises in human history. But few recognize just how challenging it is to do them correctly.

If you aren’t fortunate enough to have naturally big shoulders and powerful pecs, achieving that first push-up may take some training. Use the progression plan in this guide to knock out that elusive first push-up and keep your count growing at a steady pace.

Why Can’t I Do A Push-Up?

Spend time around fitness nuts and gym rats and you’re bound to run across this conundrum: the lifter with bulging biceps, broad shoulders, and an impressive one-rep max on the bench press who’s beyond frustrated with a low push-up count. Core strength is usually at the heart of this mystery, with improper form also contributing to the lifter’s push-up dilemma. That’s almost always the cause of a low push-up count and it’s the same problem beginners encounter on the way to their first push-up.

Here’s the thing about push-ups that makes them so frustrating to discuss: some people naturally have the upper body strength to do a few push-ups right out of the gate. So when you start talking about ‘that first push-up,’ their eyes glaze over and they start thinking about something else, like what they’re going to look like once they’re totally jacked. Getting to that first push-up is the same problem as increasing your push-up count when you’ve plateaued. You have to build strength in your upper body and core whether it’s the first push-up giving you trouble or the fifteenth. 

Everyone needs to have a contingency plan for increasing their push-up count when it stalls out. Any lifter of any experience level can use the progression plan we lay out in this guide. A progression plan is a schedule of exercises that gets steadily more difficult, either building up to a specific goal, like doing a push-up, or soaring past it to keep your muscles from adapting to the exercise. 

Muscle adaptation is a good thing. It’s how  how muscles become more efficient.

But it can also be a speed bump in your fitness journey. 

Using A Progression Plan To Push Past Muscle Adaptation

If your brain and muscles never adapted to exercise, you wouldn’t put on new muscle mass or increase your strength and endurance. You have to outsmart your body’s adaptation response if you want to keep growing those muscles, though. Beginners face this hurdle more than seasoned lifters.

As your body gets used to regular exercise, it might plateau - meaning it stops growing muscle mass at a certain point - but that’s after the muscle is already there. As you begin your fitness journey, your body will create muscle very quickly, and then, once it can handle the weight, it may plateau. 

What’s the solution to this plateau?

More weight, resistance, or reps. If you want to build muscular endurance, you add more reps or sets with the same weight. Add more weight, use a stronger resistance band, or switch to a new exercise variation.  This is called  progressive overload.

Once you can comfortably do 2 or more repetitions above your target amount, you increase the weight by a small increment, say 5 pounds. For bodyweight exercises like the push-up, you can’t increase the weight unless you pack on some pounds or lay a weight plate on your back.

You can only carry so many weight plates, so a progression plan is vital if you want to keep seeing strength gains after you’ve achieved those first push-ups. Remember these principles as you run through our push-up progression plan. It will help you build core, shoulder, arm, and chest strength as well as condition your body for even harder calisthenics exercises so your muscles will be powerful and primed for further growth. 

The #1 Push-Up Progression Plan

Since we’re speaking to a fairly broad audience, we’re going to start at the beginning with this progression plan. If you find one stage is too easy - meaning you can readily do 2 or more reps above the recommended rep count - then move on to the next one. 

Stage 1: Reaching the First Push-Up

Even if you can do a full push-up, you can still use these exercises to continue building push-up strength and increase that count. You might need to make them more difficult by increasing the duration or weight of the exercise. 

1. High Plank Hold

If you hit a wall in your push-up development, break it down and practice in stages. Planking helps develop strength in your core and the lower body muscles that support it, in this case, the glutes, quads, and calves. 

Follow these steps to do a high plank hold or get into the starting position for a push-up with the proper form:

  • Start on your knees. Use an exercise mat if needed. 
  • Lean forward and place your palms on the floor shoulder-width apart. Make sure they run in a straight line from the shoulders and stack your wrists, which means get them right beneath your forearms and not scooted forward. 
  • Kick your feet back and support your lower body with your toes. 
  • Engage your core and glutes to stabilize your torso and prevent hip-sagging and lower back dipping.
  • This is the high plank position. Hold it for as long as possible, aiming for 30 seconds at the beginning and a minute when you’re more experienced. 3 - 4 sets total.

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2. Wall Push-Ups

Now that you can do the plank position, let’s target pushing power. Find a wall that’s large enough to place your hands shoulder-width apart on and then follow these steps to do wall push-ups. 

  • Stand about a foot away from the wall. You can adjust this distance with your hands on the wall, just don’t stand so far away that your back curves. 
  • Place your hands shoulder-width apart on the wall, stacking your wrists like we described in the high plank step-by-step above. 
  • Maintain a straight line from the top of your head to your heels by engaging your core and glutes. 
  • Now bend your elbows and bring your nose just shy of the wall. Push back to the starting position to complete one rep. Complete 8 - 12 reps in a set and do three sets. Increase the distance from the wall as you get stronger and eventually you’ll be doing regular push-ups with no problem at all. 

3. Incline Push-Ups

If you’re trying to get past those wall push-ups, this incline variation is a great exercise to practice moving through the full range of motion without getting down into a fully horizontal push-up position. Find an elevated surface or countertop and follow these steps to do this elevated push-up variation.

  • Stand a foot or two away from your elevated surface and lean forward until your palms are on it in a shoulder-width stance. 
  • Keep your arms straight and engage your glutes and core. 
  • Bend your elbows and get down to where you’re almost touching the countertop or raised surface. 
  • Push through your palms to get back to the starting position. 8 - 12 reps, 3 - 4 sets.

Stage 2: Building Push-Up Strength

Once you can run through about 5 standard push-ups, add some of these  variations to your training program to get that push-up count even higher. 

1. Decline Push-Up

If you were using a slightly elevated surface like a bench rather than a countertop for the elevated push-ups in the last section, you can just turn around to do this variation. It will work your upper pectorals and anterior deltoids better than the incline version. 

  • Get on your knees in front of your chosen platform, then put your hands out on the floor and walk your feet up the side of the platform until your toes are resting on top of it. 
  • Place your hands in the shoulder-width stance you’re familiar with from the other exercises in this progression plan. 
  • Make sure your body makes a straight line, engage the core and glutes, then sink down and complete a push-up. Aim for 12 - 15 reps and 4 sets. 

2. Wide Stance Push-Up

There’s not much to this wide push-up beyond the change in hand placement, but it will bring your triceps and  serratus anterior into the mix more than a regular push-up. 

  • On your knees, lean forward and place your hands on the floor wider than shoulder-width apart. Kick your feet back and get into a full high plank position, engaging your glutes and core to keep your hips and back from sagging. 
  • Now continue through your push-ups as normal, aiming for 15 reps and 4 sets.

One note about the wide push-up: don’t get out wider than you can handle.

Progress to wider stances to get your triceps burning, but start right outside of shoulder width so you don’t injure your wrists or shoulders.

3. Resistance Band Push-Up

Wrapping a band around each arm and across your shoulder blades will make all the muscles and muscle groups involved in a push-up work harder. If you find this banded variation is getting too easy, then advance to a more resistant band.

  • Take a large loop band and wrap it around your hands so that it crosses the middle of each palm. Pass it over your head and move it down over your shoulder blades.
  • Now lean forward and get into the push-up position, making sure the band is under each hand and secure. 
  • Continue through your set, aiming for 8 - 15 depending on how resistant the band is. 3 - 4 sets is plenty. 

4. Plyo Push-Up

  • In the normal push-up position, bend your elbows to sink your chest almost all the way down to the ground. 
  • Rather than pushing yourself back into the starting position gradually, you’re going to push with some additional force so that your upper body and hands rise off the ground. If you want, you can add a clap. Just make sure your hands are in place to catch your fall.
  • When you land, do a full reset so you can go through the entire push-up motion again. You’ll generally do fewer reps with this plyometric variation, so aim for 10 and do 3 sets with minimal rest periods in between, about 30 seconds. 

Stage 3: Advanced Push-Up Progressions

Keep at the progressions we’ve already gone through and eventually you’ll be ready for the most complicated push-up variations, which we’ll explain in this section.

1. Planche Push-Up

Calisthenics experts do planche push-ups in all sorts of ways: with a pull-up bar, on rings, on parallel bars, the list is nearly endless. Follow these steps to dip your toe into the vast waters of planche push-ups. We’ll start you out on the floor, where you go from there is up to you.

  • From a kneeling position, lean forward and place your hands just outside of the torso about halfway down rather than directly under your shoulders like you normally would. Engage the core and glutes, business as usual there.
  • Now lean into your arms and lift your legs off the ground. Your body should be in a straight line, balanced only on your hands. Pay attention to pain signals from your wrists that could be signaling a strain or sprain.
  • Lower yourself by bending the elbows and then push back up into the starting position. If you can knock out 5 reps the first time you try these, you’re killing the game. Aim for 3 sets of 8 before progressing. 

2. One-Arm Push-Ups

You might need a dedicated progression program to do this single-arm push-up. A great and easy progression is to move side to side during your normal push-ups to build more single-arm strength before attempting this variation.

  • Lean forward from a kneeling position and place either your left or right hand on the floor. It will need to be more toward your body’s midline for balancing. 
  • Most people place the other arm behind their back to keep it out of the way during the exercise. 
  • Splay your legs a little wider than you would to help your body stay in position. Then lower yourself by bending the active elbow and push back up to complete one rep. Aim for 8 reps in each of 3 sets.

Push-Up Progressions Provide Lifetime Fitness

Push-ups are everywhere in the fitness world. When people first start working out, the push-up is typically one of the only exercises they already know. Beginners can use the progression plan in this workout guide to achieve their first push-up and continue building the strength necessary to  increase your push-up count throughout your fitness journey.