Pushing up the daisies
November 21, 2012 7:31 PM   Subscribe

I am pretty fit but I SUCK SUCK SUCK at push-ups. Can you help me?

Here's the deal -- my cardio is excellent (resting heart rate of about 50, maybe a bit less) and my lower body is really strong from rowing and mountain biking. I don't know what my limit for squats is but it's a LOT. My core is OK -- I can do 150 situps or so if I can rest, and maybe 50 in a straight shot.

But pushups, no. I can do 10, absolute max 12, in one go. I am really limited in related weight work. For example, in chest flys or chest presses, I find even 15lbs challenging at the end of 3x8 reps. Scary, eh?

I've been trying to develop my pushups in tandem with my situps, but my situps just roared away while my pushups went nowhere.

Because of a wrist injury I have to do pushups using a dumbell as a hand grip, but it's comfortable and I don't think it makes that much difference.

I am 185lbs and 5'10, so a bit overweight but not grossly. I've lost about 15lbs in the last couple of months but it hasn't made much difference. I did go from not being able to do 1 real pushup about 2.5 months ago to where I am now, so there has been progress, but agonizingly slow.
posted by unSane to Health & Fitness (23 answers total) 42 users marked this as a favorite
Try the 100 pushups plan -- I have several friends who have completed it successfully.
posted by brainmouse at 7:33 PM on November 21, 2012

Response by poster: I'm already on that, but had to restart it because I couldn't keep up.
posted by unSane at 7:35 PM on November 21, 2012

How are you at planks, particularly planks that switch arms and such?
posted by two lights above the sea at 7:42 PM on November 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Hi! This is something my karate school teaches, so I Have Thoughts about it.

1. Start at a steeper angle and work your way down. This can be anywhere from leaning on the wall, to using a desk/barbell on a rack/railing, to a step/couple of books. Knee pushups are also an option, but they don't scale as smoothly and they do change the form enough that I find people have trouble making the jump.

2. Go slow and keep your form perfect. This means going as low as possible on every rep. If this means you can only do 2 to start, so be it. If you don't work the whole range of motion, you will never develop the whole range of motion. (This is usually where people realize that doing one of the higher-angle options is a good plan for them.)

3. If your only core work is situps, your core may not be all that great. Take a look at some more core exercises - planks are particularly helpful for pushups - and get some more variety in there. Also make sure you're doing some lower back work, too - I like deadlifts, but there are plenty of varieties of back extensions that are helpful too.

And... just checking, but you are using a dumbbell with both hands, right? You're not trying to do uneven pushups? Because that would be unnecessarily hard.
posted by restless_nomad at 7:42 PM on November 21, 2012 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Convict Conditioning. You can Google around to find the progression plan.
posted by Tanizaki at 7:48 PM on November 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Yeah, I'm using a dumbell with both hands.

My core work is situps + the Concept2 rower, which is my main thing. Push-ups definitely challenge my back and core but it's my arms/shoulder that give out first.
posted by unSane at 7:49 PM on November 21, 2012

Response by poster: OK, planks, I don't even know. I'll look into it.
posted by unSane at 7:49 PM on November 21, 2012

Do them on a raised platform for a while like a dresser or the arm of your couch. Gradually lower the platform. And do ladders, sorry can't link but you can Google it, I shoot for 7-10 minutes total (including rest time). Also do some targeted arm and core work to build the main muscle groups- tricep dips, planks, curls. This worked for me after a shoulder injury.
posted by fshgrl at 7:52 PM on November 21, 2012

Try doing pushups with your knees on the ground as a starting point.
posted by rmmcclay at 7:53 PM on November 21, 2012

Best answer: It sounds like you've already identified your own problem: The muscles needed for push ups aren't that great.

Tricep specific exercises
Shoulder specific exercises
Chest specific exercises
Back specific exercises

I honestly wouldn't even do push ups for a while. Build up these muscles first then get back to trying to do lots of push ups. You can throw in knee push ups every once in a while just for more work on all of these muscles.
posted by astapasta24 at 7:57 PM on November 21, 2012 [8 favorites]

You really need to work on the muscles that support pushups.

What can you bench press? What about one dumbbell behind the head tricep extensions (from neck up to arm extended and back down)? Dumbbell shoulder press? Do these three exercises and you will see improvement.

Then again, if you said you couldn't do those exercises, I would advocate doing bodyweight exercises so... you can at least start at a much lower weight and work up. Improving your triceps and chest will just take time.

I started working out after a decade off 1.5 months ago and went from nearly nothing to benching 200+ lbs so it hopefully will just take dedication and working out 2-3 times a week for each muscle group. I'm 6 feet 195 so we likely have a similar body structure.

Best Tricep exercises
Best shoulders
Chest Exercises
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 8:10 PM on November 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Also, try doing variations on pushups, such as wide armed, diamond (thumbs and pointer fingers touching to form diamonds), and any other variations that get your arms moving at slightly different angles.

When you do pushups, try doing a set of as many as you can on your toes, and as soon as you can't do anymore, move to your knees and get out as many as you can that way immediately afterwards. Do this for several sets, and then take a few days off. This will help to really work those muscles, but you need to make sure you have enough recovery time in order to improve.

The dumbbells are a good idea, those will give you a more full range of motion, which makes them harder (which is good!). Try going down really slowly, and then exploding up quickly.

Basically, just mix it up a bunch, and make sure you have enough recovery time, and you should see steady improvement.
posted by markblasco at 8:11 PM on November 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Just putting this out there: you're not the only one having trouble with 100 Pushups. My "initial assessment" propelled me to week 3. I couldn't even hack the first workout. I then went back to week 1, progressed up to week 2, and remain firmly plateaued there.
posted by Nomyte at 8:11 PM on November 21, 2012

Totally possible that is just me being a snowflake, but for some reason I find doing push ups to failure to be extremely difficult. More so than any other exercise.
Something in my brain/body says 'ok stop now THX' and then I have to work extremely hard to fight through that and keep going. Inevitably I find I have more reps in me.

So, uh, watch out for sabotaging brains/false ceilings, I guess.
posted by Sleddog_Afterburn at 8:18 PM on November 21, 2012

Used to have the same problem. Started at "2 pushups, rest, 4 pushups, rest, 6 pushups, rest". Did that twice each in wide position, normal position, and hands together. Then moved on to 4, 6, 8 when that was too easy. Then to 10, 10, 10. Then 10, 10, 10 with feet on a chair during the second round.

Now I can do 30, 30, 30, twice then 50, 50, 50 with feet on the chair (sometimes I have to rest around 40). Granted, they aren't with perfect form...but I do go down and up.

Takes time.

Pull-ups help a lot, too. Same basic strategy, here.
posted by 3FLryan at 9:13 PM on November 21, 2012

Best answer: So, you're making progress, which is good. How many sets do you do in a workout?

I'm no fitness expert, by any account, but I'll relate my personal experience, as someone who's started in roughly the same boat as you (minus the wrist injury). I do a core workout that consists of alternating sets of push-ups, pull-ups, and sit-ups. When I first started, I could barely eke out 7 push-ups in the first set (of 4x15), and it quickly went downhill in the remaining sets. However, I'd say that, after three to four months, I was able to get to 5x25 on the push-ups. Mind you, this was "week three" of my training regimen, on paper.

I think the key, for me, is the multiple sets, and always making sure I attempt each set, even if that last set is for 1 measly push-up. That, and being content with the journey. I've tried to make fitness a mindset, rather than a series of time/results-based goals. I've learned to trust that I will put in the work, make progress, and improve my overall fitness over time. And that's worked out well for me.

Anyway, the fitness philosophy part may not be what you're looking for. I just thought it might be helpful as a way to relate the fact that, as someone who's struggled with push-ups progress too, time and effort have eventually paid off in gains, for me. It sounds like, on your body clock, it's working for you too. Though as others have suggested, there are probably ways you can make it go faster. Good luck!
posted by Brak at 9:14 PM on November 21, 2012

Don't focus only on your chest and arm and back muscles during push-ups! Engage your abs, engage your glutes, engage your quads. This will help maintain the core stability you need so you don't start going floppy, which will just get you hurt, and will lessen the responsibility of those chest/arm muscles so you can get more reps out.
posted by so_gracefully at 9:17 PM on November 21, 2012 [3 favorites]

Well, sit-ups and push-ups work very different muscle groups. One thing you might want to do is see a personal trainer to design a workout for you that will build your arm/chest muscles. Building muscle strength is really quite different from cardio where you're just aiming for endurance. I've also found that keeping up cardio AND building muscle is really hard, because your cardio will tend to "eat" your muscle gains if you're already at your ideal weight. Again, I would just refer you to a personal trainer – they're usually not too expensive for a few sessions.
posted by deathpanels at 9:23 PM on November 21, 2012

Completely anecdotal, but when I was doing yoga regularly I could do pushups like a champ. I think downward dog and plank build essentially the same muscle groups but more gradually. We used the dumbbell modification for wrist injuries too, so hopefully it'll work for you. Good luck!
posted by Space Kitty at 9:24 PM on November 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

Increase the weight. Don't go for 100 push-ups. Go for 3 sets of 5 with a rest in between. Rest a day.

Next time, do the same thing with a weight on your back. Just a little weight. Rest a day. Time after that, a little more. It doesn't have to be a lot of weight in absolute terms, it just has to be a little more each time.

In a month, see how many you can do with no weight. I bet it's quite a bit more than 10-12.
posted by ctmf at 9:39 PM on November 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: If your goal is specifically to get better at pushups (as opposed to just training your upper body, with pushups being a means to that end), training pushups directly is going to be much more effective than trying to improve them indirectly with other exercises for e.g. your chest and triceps. Those things will help, too, but pushups should be your priority.

Since you can already do 10 in a set -- assuming they're being done legitimately* -- there's no need to work on easier variations, like incline pushups. What you should do is increase the frequency of your pushup training, but stay away from failure. That is, if you currently fail at 12 reps, you might start by trying to do a set of 7 or 8 many times throughout the day. Over time you will gradually increase the number of daily sets you perform and/or the number of reps per set, never going all the way to failure. This approach is referred to as "greasing the groove" by Pavel and "the frequency method" in the Greyskull LP program. You can find further elaboration about it here which uses chinups as an example, but the approach is the same.

*Apart from cutting the range of motion short e.g. by not going all the way down, letting the head jut forward, or letting the hips sag, a common pushup form error I see is flaring the elbows out too much to the sides, i.e. internally rotating the shoulders. You want to keep your upper arms tucked against the side of your body more. Here's a video on this issue from 70sbig.com.
posted by ludwig_van at 6:00 AM on November 22, 2012 [3 favorites]

I have had the same issue. Tried to do the 100 pushups program twice, both times had to regress back a couple weeks and finally gave up.

Basically I gave up and stopped trying, but kept working out, and the number of pushups I can do is increasing slowly and steadily just from general all-around fitness work (including burpees with pushups which, phew, that's a work out!) I also lost some weight so I have less to push up, as it were.

At this point I've maxed out at 20 in one go, but I'm really not trying to focus on it anymore. It was too annoying and frustrating. For me I decided, who fucking cares how many push ups I can do?
posted by latkes at 10:01 AM on November 22, 2012

Best answer: If you can do 10 push ups, then use that. Do 10 pushups, but do it 10 times over the course of a day, so 100 per day. After a week of that you should have no problem bumping that up to 15 or even 20 per set (150-200 per day). Repeat until you reach your desired set amount. The sets don't need to be right after one another, that's often where the most difficulty lies. This method obviously takes longer then the "100 push up plan" but it might be more successful.

The beautiful thing about push ups is that you can do them just about anywhere (although in your case you will need that dumbell). Rest a day here and there if necessary, too many push ups can aggravate your wrists and shoulders.

I also find it really helps motivate and keep me on track to write down how many you've done each day. I used this method and I am now up to 400 a day (usually 75 per set).
posted by alhadro at 6:10 PM on November 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

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