From miles of cardio to hours spent in the weight room, we’ll do just about anything to get in tip-top shape … everything, that is, except the much-reviled pushup. It’s become the dreaded of all workouts, primarily because, if we’re being honest, we rarely do it correctly, which means it just feels wrong. And yet! Irony would have it that the quick exercise is one of the easiest ways for the average too-busy-to-work-out individual to get fit fast, which is terrible news for all of us who’ve spent most of our adult lives avoiding it.
“The pushup is one of those exercises that, though simple, is very effective,” says Tom Holland, a celebrity trainer and Bowflex Fitness Advisor. “It’s also universal, because whether you are a beginner or advanced exerciser, you can do it. You can also modify the pushup to work best for you.” We’re listening.
Furthermore, Holland says that the exercise brings speedy and noticeable results. “Everyone is looking for the greatest results in the shortest amount of time, and the pushup is one of the few exercises that delivers on both of these counts. You can make significant changes to your strength and lean muscle in just a few short weeks of doing pushups. The pushup is a compound exercise, which means it works more than one muscle group at a time,” which means that “instead of doing three or more different exercises to target certain muscles, you can hit them at all once by doing a pushup. Your chest, shoulders, triceps, and core muscles are all active when doing a pushup. You can vary the relative activation of each of these muscles by simple modifications to the movement as well.”
The best part, of course, is that you can do it anywhere, but technique is key. It should come as no surprise that most people—just like us!—are doing pushups incorrectly. Holland says that these all-too-common mistakes include pulsing up and down too quickly, not completing the full range of motion, and worrying too much about the number of repetitions. The most effective fix is to make the movement your own. “Put your hands where they are natural to you, then slowly drop, bending your elbows. Hold at the bottom and then slowly push back up.” It’s called a pushup—emphasis on up—so make sure that you push your body up slowly to get the full range of motion. “Don’t worry about the number of repetitions,” Holland says. “Go slowly and do as many as you can in 30 or 60 seconds.”
You might have noticed that this expert doesn’t mention the knee pushup as a mistake. That’s because modification of the pushup is one of the exercise’s perks. “No matter where you are in your level of fitness, a true beginner or advanced, young or old, you can modify the pushup to challenge your current level,” Holland assured us. Below, he offers five different options that correspond with any fitness level.
This one is great for beginners and older exercisers. Holland’s instructions: “Perform a traditional pushup, but do it against the wall instead of on the floor. You can increase the difficulty by moving your feet farther away from the wall.”
This modification is, of course, the precursor to a traditional pushup. “Once you can do 10 of these, it’s time to graduate to doing sets of several ‘real’ ones on your toes,” Holland says.
“By placing your hands together to form a diamond the floor, you increase the relative difficulty of the pushup. The closer your hands are together, the more your body will rely on the smaller muscles rather than the large chest muscles to raise your body off the floor.”
“[This is] a great way to increase the intensity while activating your core muscles even more. It entails bringing your knees to your elbow as you lower yourself down to the floor, alternating legs with each repetition.”
“Plyometrics involve rapid contractions of the muscles through explosive movements. There are numerous simple ways to make the pushup plyometric, including adding claps at the top of each repetition.”