Too Weak? Try These Beginner Push Up Variations
Start easy and focus on technique and form if you’re too weak to do a regular push up. You simply need to work on your overall upper body strength as well as your core (abs, lower back, glutes) strength. Here are some push up variations that will improve your upper body strength and get you ready for regular, unassisted push ups.
- Bent Knee Push Up. Space your hands just outside of shoulder width, with your arms extended. Get on your knees and cross your ankles in the air. Your body should be straight from head to knees. Your pivot point will be at your knees, rather than at your feet. Execute the push up motion by bending your arms to lower your chest to the floor. Then push yourself back up to the starting position.
- Incline Push Up. This is probably the easiest push up variations. Find a sturdy flat bench. Position your hands on the bench with arms extended so that you are holding yourself in an incline position. Your body should be straight from head to do. Bend your arms and bring your chest down the bench pad. Then extend your arms to push up until you’re back at the starting position.
- Isometric Hold at Top of Push Up. Assume the starting position a standard push up (i.e. body straight, arms extended). Try holding this position for 10 seconds to start. Progressively increase the time until you can hold it for 1 minute or longer.
- Isometric Hold at Bottom of Push Up. Assume the midpoint position of a standard push up (i.e. body straight, arms bent, chest at or just above the floor). Try holding this position for 10 seconds to start. Work your way up to 1 minute or longer.
- Plank. Lying prone (stomach down) on the floor, raise yourself up onto your forearms to support your body in a plank-like position. You should be straight from head to toe. To begin with, try holding this position for at least 20 seconds. Increase this over time to 2 minutes. This exercise focuses almost entirely on core strength, which is essential for performing a push up correctly.
Spend a few weeks working on some of these basic movements as a complementary part of your weight lifting routine. By then, you should be well prepared for the standard push up.
Too Strong? Try These Advanced Push Up Variations & Techniques
If you’ve already mastered the push up, you must give your body the challenge it needs to continue to grow and become stronger. Luckily, I’ve got plenty of advanced push up variations and techniques to do just that:
- Modify Tempo, Volume, Rest Between Sets. Changing the speed of your reps, number of reps, number of sets and rest between sets is a great start. As with all exercises, you can stimulate progress by manipulating repetitions, sets, and time between sets. Time is a critical factor that can allow for a much needed short recovery period. Or, when limited, it can push you right to the edge of your ability.
- Save It for Last. Do push ups after your other upper body push exercises (e.g. bench press, overhead press). This way you’ll be somewhat pre-fatigued, so the movement will be more difficult.
- Explosive Push Ups. Begin in the standard starting push up position. Slowly lower your chest to the floor. Then explode upward as quickly as possible. Your hands actually come off the floor. Put your hands back down to catch yourself in the starting position.
- Clapping Push Ups. This is the same as explosive push ups, with a slight twist. When your hands come off the ground, clap your hands one or more times before putting landing.
- Decline Push Ups. Begin in a standard starting push up position. Then elevate your feet onto a bench (or some other raised surface). This puts you in a decline position. Lower your chest to the floor by bending your arms. Then push back up until your arms are straight.
- Close Grip Push Ups. This is like a standard push up, but with a much narrower grip. Put your hands together so that the thumbs and pointer fingers form a triangle or diamond shape (your thumbs/forefingers don’t have to be so close that they actually touch). Bend your arms to lower yourself until your chest touches the floor. Straighten your arms to push back up, focusing on your triceps.
- Wide Hand Push Ups. Start with a standard push up starting position, but spread your hands a few inches further apart to put a greater emphasis on the chest. Execute the motion by bending your arms until your chest hits the floor, then return to the start.
- 1 Leg Push Ups. Do everything the same as a standard push up, but raise one leg in the air. (Or, you can put the ball of the raised foot on the heel.)
- 1 Arm Push Ups. This is another variation that requires a high skill level. Your legs must be apart in order to provide balance. Then you have to slightly tilt your torso so that you can balance you weight on to the one arm (otherwise you’ll fall on your face). Your arm should remain close to your body and your hand turned out. Lower your body by bending your arm and turning your shoulder down and toward the floor until your pec touches. Push your body up until your arm is straight.
- Weighted Vest Push Ups. Get a weighted vest, strap it on with the desired resistance and perform any of the push up variations. A cheaper alternative is to simply fill a backpack full of weight.
- Plate-Weighted Push Ups. Have someone stack and balance weight plates on your upper back. Then perform whichever push up variation you want.
- Chain-Weighted Push Ups. Here’s one way to add physical resistance that you won’t see in the average gym: drape some heavy-ass chains across your back and begin pumping out reps. You can position them so that they pile on the ground as you do the negative rep (this makes it easier at the bottom and more difficult at the top, which is great for lockout strength) or you can wrap them around your body to keep the resistance constant throughout the movement.
- Deep Push Ups. Get three steps (or sturdy chairs/boxes/etc): one for your left hand, one for your right hand and one for both feet. Assume the standard push up starting position. Bend your arms to lower your body, bringing your chest between and below the two steps that your hands are on. You can also use push up handles instead of steps for the same effect. Lastly, you can make this exercise harder by elevating your feet to put your body in a decline position; or make it easier by lowering your feet to put your body in an incline position.
- Resistance Band Push Ups. Get a strength band and stretch it across your back, holding the ends in your hands. Assume the standard push up starting position and perform the movement with the standard technique. The resistance band makes the push up most difficult at the top each repetition as you are extending your arms, making it great for triceps/lockout strength.
- Medicine Ball Push Ups. This can be done with one or two medicine balls. If you use one ball, then you’ve got two options: first, you can do something similar to a close grip push up where you put your hands on either side of the ball, balance your body and perform the movement; second, you can use a standard push up hand width, put one hand on the ball and the other hand on the floor, and the do the push up movement. If you use two balls, then you’ve just got one option: put a hand on each ball, making sure that the width is comfortable, before performing the movement.
- Stability Ball Push Up. Stability balls are those big bouncy balls that you’ll see rolling around in the aerobics area of any commercial gym. Get one and put it behind you. Place your hands on the floor (slightly wider than shoulder width) and elevate your feet onto the ball until you’re in the decline position. This is the same as a decline push up (see #10), except that it requires a lot more core strength and stability.
- Handstand Push Ups. Assume a handstand position against the wall for support (use a spotter), arch your back and place your hands outside of shoulder width. Slowly lower your body until your arms are about 90 degrees. Then extend your arms until they’re straight. Get good with decline push ups first before trying this. Even then, it’s a good idea to do progressions, like the ones shown in this video.