When lifting weights, it’s easy to devise a plan to work towards a specific lifting goal, because in order to get there all you have to do is use a lesser weight that you can handle and gradually increase the weight over time till you reach the goal weight. It’s a little more tricky when you are performing bodyweight exercises—you can’t exactly hack off some of your limbs to make yourself lighter, so you really don’t have anything to “work up from.” Thus, without the proper progression plan it can be impossible to meet certain goals. For instance, if you can’t perform a single push-up, how are you going to train yourself to reach a goal of say, 10 push-ups?
Most people would simply attempt to do the push-ups with horrible form. Unfortunately, this doesn’t lead to increased strength, nor an eventual ability to perform the exercise correctly; on the contrary, it tends to instill bad habits that have to be “unlearned” in the future before the proper form can be used.
The trick is to use gravity and leverage to reduce the intensity of the bodyweight exercise, allowing you to perform the regressions with proper form. This will allow you to work up to a true push-up and eventually to multiple push-ups. Below I have outlined the push-up regressions, from easiest to hardest.
Wall Push-Ups – Demonstration
To do a wall push-up, instead of pressing against the floor you will press against a wall. As such, your body will be in an upright position rather than a horizontal position, which will greatly reduce the difficulty of the exercise. To perform, simply stand facing a wall, with your feet approximately 2-3 feet away from the wall. Place your hands in front of you, slightly wider than shoulder-width and lower yourself towards the wall by bending your arms at the elbows, and then press yourself away from the wall by straightening your arms. If this is too easy, you can move your feet back further from the wall—but don’t move them back much further than 3 feet, because it will be hard for you to continue pressing towards the wall without slipping in the process. Perform this regression until you can do 20 repetitions in a row without resting.
Bench Push-Ups – Demonstration
The progression from wall push-ups are bench push-ups. Find a knee-high surface such as a weight-lifting flat bench, picnic bench, piano bench, etc or the 2nd-3rd step on a set of stairs. Place your hands on the surface of the platform and straighten your body out behind you, keeping your butt down and your abs tight, and balancing on your toes. Again, lower yourself to the surface by bending the elbows and press away by straightening the arms. Perform this regression until you can do 20 repetitions in a row without resting.
Knee Push-Ups – Demonstration
The final progression before full-on push-ups are knee push-ups (sometimes referred to as “sissy” or “girl” push-ups). These are performed identically to normal pushups, except that you drop to your knees instead of balancing on your toes. This takes much of the weight of your legs out of the exercise and moves the leverage point closer to your hands which decreases the movement’s difficulty. It is important to keep the back, butt and thighs inline just as you would with a normal push-up—I’ll often see a client raise their butt in the air so that their waist is bent at a 90° angle while performing knee push-ups—this is wrong!
Push-Ups – Demonstration
At this point, you should be able to perform one, legitimate push-up with proper form. From there it’s simply a matter of working with a combination of push-ups and regressions (for when your chest is too tired to continue doing regular push-ups), and before you know it, you will be performing sets of 20-30 true push-ups with ease!