Help a weakling achieve her first push-up!
April 27, 2008 8:25 AM   Subscribe

I'm a 35 yr old female, 5'6", 120lbs, in good general shape (walk loads, work out) who has never been able to achieve a single-push up. It's a key move to many of the workouts I want to do, but most strength-building programs assume that even the weakest can do at least one. What should I do?

I want to include yoga and pilates in my routine, but the yoga "chaturanga" pose escapes me, making it hard to do "sun salutations" which are the core of many routines. Part of my routine is the interactive game "Yourself Fitness" on the PS/2 - this features fitness tests every 10 workouts, which include pushups as a measure. I just sit them out and enter fake info, which is frustrating.

I am in good general health. I walk between 15 and 20 miles a week and do yoga/pilates/weight routines for 30 mins about 3 times a week (hoping to ramp up to more). In the past, I've devoted a lot of time to staying fit, and for several years worked out six days a week for at least 45 mins, once a week with a trainer for an hour. Even at my fittest, I was unable to do a single push-up. I could/can do chest presses, flys, etc. with lightish weights. I can hold the yoga "plank" position and "side plank" for a decent amount of time.

I am thinking of finding a yoga teacher and getting an individual lesson to see if that helps me finally get chaturanga, but I don't have a lot of time/money and I don't currently know of a teacher I trust. (Also, gym trainers and yoga/pilates class teachers in the past have not been able to teach me to do a push up or achieve chaturanga.)

Has anybody else out here had this problem? I feel like a freak. Has anyone been able to overcome it? How? Are there any "tricks" or tips that might help me to do my very first push up, and work up from there?
posted by geekgirl397 to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (32 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
Bench press -- start with the bar only and gradually add-on the weight. For the chest and arms it's exactly the same motion, just without the core benefits.

Trouble with push-ups is that they're an all or nothing excercise. You're either strong enough or not.
posted by randomstriker at 8:31 AM on April 27, 2008

I had this problem when I first started practicing yoga. It is ok to do chaturanga with your knees down. You will still get the benefits of the pose and will build strength while doing it. Can you hold plank pose properly, without sagging through the middle? That is also a good way to build strength. You will get it eventually.

If you haven't gone to a yoga class, I suggest going to one to make sure you're doing the poses correctly and to get adjustments from the teacher. I guarantee you'll see at least a couple of people in the class dong chaturanga with their knees down.
posted by smich at 8:35 AM on April 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

Can you do a push-up with your knees on the ground? It takes quite a bit less strength but uses the same muscles. If you can do at least one of these easier push-ups, you should be able to gradually increase the number that you can do until you find yourself strong enough to do regular push-ups.
posted by ssg at 8:35 AM on April 27, 2008

randomstriker has it right, but if you want a calisthenic exercise, you might start with a modified push-up. Hopefully you can already do a few of these which will at least give you some data for Yourself Fitness.
posted by grouse at 8:36 AM on April 27, 2008

An alternative to knee push-ups is to start by standing facing a wall, a foot or two away, and doing push-ups (or push-aways, more accurately) from that position. Gradually increase the distance from the wall. As you get stronger, start using sturdy and ever-lower pieces of furniture (back of a sofa, table, bench, etc.) Barring some kind of biomechanical problem, you should with time and patience be able to work up to doing full-body pushups.
posted by Kat Allison at 8:38 AM on April 27, 2008 [2 favorites]

The first thing you can do is stop skipping that section in your PS2 workout. Can you do a push-up with your knees on the ground? If not that, hold the plank pose as you describe, but don't lock your elbows. See if you can lower yourself from the plank position just a little bit, even if it's with your knees down, then push back up -- even an inch or two will begin to engage your muscles. Every little bit will help and if you do it regularly, you can build up to a full push-up, knees off the ground, gradually.
posted by Pantengliopoli at 8:39 AM on April 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

Yes, do kneelies instead of full push-ups. I've successfully worked up from knee pushups to full pushups in a fairly short amount of time. And even if you can do pushups, chaturanga may not necessarily follow right away. In my experience it requires a lot of triceps strength since your elbows are tucked back so full pushups don't quite work the same muscle groups.
posted by Bella Sebastian at 9:04 AM on April 27, 2008

As others have said, do modified (knee) push-ups. Really work at those, and then in a couple weeks just try to do a regular push-up and see what happens.

I haven't done push-ups in a while, but every time I get back into doing them, I start that way. Usually I can start with one or two good, regular push-ups, and then I drop my knees and do 15 or 20 of those (or whatever I can handle). Then I take a break and repeat. And then once more. (I'm into sets of threes.)

So basically every time I get down on the floor to do push-ups, I start with however many regular push-ups I can manage, and then finish the workout with knee push-ups. If you can start with zero regular push-ups, don't worry ... drop to the knees and start there for now. Every week or so, try a regular push-up first. You'll get there. :) Good luck!

(Now, I've never been able to do a single chin-up, which should probably be the topic of my next askme post....)
posted by iguanapolitico at 9:15 AM on April 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

For sun salutations, my teacher has a nice "knees, chest, chin to the floor" practice where you are basically lowering from the core instead of the arms. Hard to explain, exactly, but it makes sense. Also, when you are in downward dog, be conscious of your shoulders being very broad and not collapsing forward to the floor or down into the base of your skull. Remembering that strong foundation of a broad upper body will help in pushups or other poses requiring arm strength. It is also helpful to think of the movement as initiating from your core, lowering and lifting after first engaging the abs.
posted by judith at 9:20 AM on April 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

The advice to try a knee push-up or wall push-up is sound. Can you talk about what happens when you try and do the push-up. Where is the sticking point? I would venture to guess that if you can do a knee-push then you may need to work on your bridging muscles and strengthen your core. In this case I would say for you to practice planks, side planks and their variations regularly.
posted by pazoozoo at 9:30 AM on April 27, 2008

Do push-ups with your knees on the floor, as has been said.

iguanapolitico, try doing reverse push-ups - i.e. with a low hanging bar, facing upwards, with your feet touching the floor.
posted by djgh at 9:32 AM on April 27, 2008

It took years before someone told me how important the core muscles are to doing a good push-up. The advice to do modified knee/wall push-ups are good, but also recognize that it takes more core strength to hold your body straight (like you do in the plank) while your arms are pushing. If you've got a good pilates instructor, then you've probably got good core muscles, but it's worth noting.
posted by nadise at 9:42 AM on April 27, 2008

I'm with nadise -- I really struggled with push-ups until I started working on my core more.

Just curious -- why do you enter fake info for the push-ups on Yourself Fitness? Mia won't be mad if you can't do push-ups!
posted by amarynth at 9:56 AM on April 27, 2008

Oh, and when I was starting out, stability ball push-ups were pretty much the only kind that I was able to do.
posted by amarynth at 9:59 AM on April 27, 2008

Here's an article my wife wrote about push-ups and women.
posted by Echidna882003 at 10:08 AM on April 27, 2008 [2 favorites]

I have to disagree with the idea that it's all or nothing with CAN build up to it. I'm in the same boat at you, fit in many ways but unable to do a single boy pushup. Gender mechanics are against us but they can be overcome.

The reason they are harder for girls to do is because we have most of our strength in our legs and also most of our weight in our lower body. So you are trying to lift your body with the weakest part of your body, and the weight you are trying to lift is mostly your hips, which are a long way from the part of the body doing the lifting. Men are lifting the heaviest part of their bodies (torso, shoulders) with their arms/shoulders/chest....MUCH easier. I say that to convince you that it's okay that you can't do a pushup.

But you CAN. Any exercises that you can do to build up your chest muscles will help, and working on core muscles will help you to hold your body together while you lift it in your pushups. There are a lot of chest exercises you can do to build those muscles. Guess which one is the very best...the pushup. Build up to the full pushup by doing girl pushups, or by doing pushups with your hands resting on the back of the sofa, gradually resting your hands on lower surfaces until your hands are on the floor. Mistress Krista has great advice here.
posted by kenzi23 at 10:09 AM on April 27, 2008 [1 favorite]


I presume you've got no physical handicap that prevents you from the push-up? Some people do have shoulder-problems that makes pushups difficult.

You've got loads of good tips already, but may I volunteer a simple trainingplan going from 0 to 10 pushups in 3 weeks? (Note: I know nothing about your physical fitness level - this is merely intended as a rough sketch of a training programme.)

Week one:
Wallpushup - Stand a couple of feet from a wall, lean forward to the wall, hands at shoulderheight on the wall. Push away from the wall. You should be able to do at least 20 without difficulty before you can progress to the next level.

Chairpushup - Take a chair, place your hands on the seat and step away from the chair (it's like an elevated plank-position). Now, do pushups. You should be able to do 20 in a row without break before you can progress to the next level. This concludes week one.

Week two:
Pushups on your knees - as has been stated before. Knees on a folded towel to soften the floor-contact. You should be able to do 20 in a row before progressing.

Half-and-half - Do a pushup on your knees, straighten your legs and do the downward part as a real pushup. Repat. The trick is to do the hard part (rising) on your knees, and the easy part (going down) on you arms and toes. Let's make 20 before progressing. This concludes week two.

Week three:
For a lot of people the real problem with pushups is that they can't keep their body straight througout the movement. Since you can hold the plank, that won't be any problem for you. But I include an excersize for that also: Assume pushup-position. Arms straight, toes on the floor. Jump forward with your toes and try to get them as close to your hands as possible (this is what I think i called a burpee), jump back to straight body again. Repeat. When you're doing 20 in a row, you're ready to do straight pushups.

Straight pushups - some pointers. Hands just below your shoulders. Elbows close to body for extra stability in the movement. Keep tummy tight the whole time. Do not sag. Go down on breath in, go up on breath out. The slower you go - the harder it is. The trick is to find a tempo that's suitable for you. Now - do ten i a row.

Take care, and good luck.
posted by Rabarberofficer at 10:12 AM on April 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

Do just the downward part, very slowly and with very careful attention to form. Then "cheat" your way back up however you like (possibly just by putting your knees down). Back into the right form at the top and repeat. See how many of those you can do, see if you can work up to more over time. When those get easy (remember, very slow and very careful form), start trying to push up at the bottom however much you are capable of (don't mess up your form) before then "cheating" your way back up to repeat.
posted by madmethods at 10:50 AM on April 27, 2008

The key to doing them is to keep trying. Eventually your body will build up enough strength to be able to do one, then lots more than one. Techniques aside, the single biggest problem up to this point has likely been that you give up too easily. Rome wasn't built in a day. It felt like it took forever before I crossed the magical "pull-up" barrier, though once crossed, it didn't take long to get up to 10 or 15 in a row. That first one was a bitch, though.

(Now, I've never been able to do a single chin-up, which should probably be the topic of my next askme post....)

They have benches that slide back and forth like a rowing machine, but can be inclined to something like 60 degrees. When you first start out, you're almost horizontal... the only work your muscles have to do was overcome the force of friction. Over time, you raise the bench a few degrees--basically you're slowing adding gravity to the equation. When you can do a solid set of eight at the highest setting, you should be able to do at LEAST a single dead-hang pull-up (without kicking and squirming).
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 10:50 AM on April 27, 2008

Kensi: A push up is essentially lifting a lever (our body) with our arms, and the fulcrum is our feet/knees. Having the weight closer to the fulcrum means less effort is required. Men can do push-ups easier because of higher upper body strength; a higher center of gravity makes it harder, not easier.
posted by explosion at 10:52 AM on April 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Oh my goodness! What great advice - I wish I'd asked weeks ago now!

Smich - I've done many, many yoga classes and I'm pretty certain I have got plank down, with no sagging. My core's fairly strong from pilates. However, while I did get adjustments from teachers on other poses, the chaturanga only really ever came up as part of sun salutation, which "flows", so I guess they never caught me doing it wrong! It's encouraging to know it's OK to keep doing chaturanga with knees down, until I am strong enough to do it "properly'.

Judith - that's the kind of specific to yoga advice I was hoping for. I have a feeling that I'm somehow not getting my weight in the right place for chaturanga - something about kind of moving forward as well as down: like you say, leading from the chin, and then the chest ... but it's just not coming together for me. It's probably mostly to do with lack of strength, but I think after I've tried building my strength up for regular pushups, following everyone's good advice here, I do need to find a good yoga teacher to help me "find" the pose.

Amarynth - the reason I tell fibs to Mia in Yourself Fitness is that if I tell her I can't do a single pushup, she has me do pathetically easy upper body exercises and I'm forever having to adjust the difficulty upwards.

Echidna - your wife's article is absolutely awesome - very encouraging and totally informative.
posted by geekgirl397 at 11:23 AM on April 27, 2008

So, kind of a related question -- what do you do if you want to do push ups but it really freaking hurts your wrists?

I tried for a while, but all that ended up happening was nerve pain, like carpal tunnel, that extended from my hands & wrists clear back into my shoulder & it really sucked. Any time I try to do upper body stuff, even if I start out really slow, this happens & it's a real drag.
posted by susanbeeswax at 11:28 AM on April 27, 2008

Response by poster: Kenzi, Rabarberofficer and all those suggesting wall/back of sofa/chair pushups - I think this is what I'm going to do, using a combo of Rabarberofficer's 3 week training plan (although I'll be amazed if it only takes me 3 weeks) and the tips in Mistress Krista's article.

I'll do knee (girl) pushups in Yourself Fitness, and use my knees for Chaturanga, until my strength is such that I can do them "properly". But I take on board all the information about gender mechanics. I'll be really pleased if I can get to 5 repetitions, nevermind 10, but I won't beat myself up too much about it.

Thanks so much to everyone who took the time to give such detailed advice!
posted by geekgirl397 at 11:36 AM on April 27, 2008

Response by poster: I just had my husband "spot" me while I did plank: turns out that what I felt was straight, wasn't - so maybe I haven't got plank "down"! (It's been a while since I've been to class, been working out to videos).

When he adjusted me into correct form, it was much harder! So I'll be making sure to practice the "real" plank a lot alongside doing the progressive angled pushups. Noting this here just so that anyone else mystified by their inability to do pushups really does pay attention to the issue of core strength - I think I may have overestimated mine.
posted by geekgirl397 at 11:44 AM on April 27, 2008

Response by poster: pazoozoo - it's hard to tell what the sticking point is - I just all of a sudden "collapse" and it happens too fast for me to know which part of me is really "failing". I've tried positioning my hands/wrists in different ways, and concentrating on bringing my elbows close to my body, but none of it seems to make a significant difference.

I can - sort of - do knee pushups - and now having found out that I've been cheating at plank, I think you're probably right about a lot of it being a core issue.

But there's no doubt I have an exceptionally weak upper body. I'm a pear shape: my thighs and butt have always been above-averagely strong for a woman of my size/weight and my upper body has always been pathetically weak.
posted by geekgirl397 at 11:52 AM on April 27, 2008

A few more specifics for chaturanga in a sun salutation:
- Try it really slowly on your own outside of class and isolate the parts that are hardest for you. Look at your form at those moments - see if your arms are too wide/not wide enough, if your fingers are really spread out properly to distribute your weight through your palms instead of down into your wrists and make sure your elbows stay close to your sides and pointed backwards.
- Try also not to collapse into the ground - you might try a smooth descent into eight-limbed pose (step six here and also here) as part of your sun salutation rather than the more difficult chaturanga hold. Once that descent is smooth, you can work on pausing in chaturanga as you move through it, but mastering that descent will build the same muscles and flow through the sun salutation just as effectively.
posted by judith at 12:56 PM on April 27, 2008

Chaturanga is a bit different from your standard push up, even though it is called the "yoga pushup". Because the arms are held closer to the body, it involves more tricep strength and less pectoral strength than the standard push up. Even so, most the previous advice is good. For push ups, start with push ups on the knees, and for chaturanga, start with the modified knees, chest, chin. I would echo all that has been said before about the importance of core strength in doing chaturanga.
posted by noether at 1:24 PM on April 27, 2008

I tried for a while, but all that ended up happening was nerve pain, like carpal tunnel, that extended from my hands & wrists clear back into my shoulder & it really sucked. Any time I try to do upper body stuff, even if I start out really slow, this happens & it's a real drag.

I suppose you could try by resting on your knuckles, rather then your palms, like how a gorilla walks.
posted by delmoi at 1:58 PM on April 27, 2008

Pushups training program. Two weeks ago, I could do 0 pushups. Now, I can do 6. I'm on my way!
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 2:12 PM on April 27, 2008 [2 favorites]

susanbeeswax what do you do if you want to do push ups but it really freaking hurts your wrists?

This happens to me, but it comes from the right angle that's made between armbone and hand if you splay your fingers out, palm flat on floor.

I can only do them (or any of the similar yoga poses, even downward dog) if I do them on my fists. like this. This way that right angle doesn't happen, and I don't get the pain.
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:28 PM on April 27, 2008

So, you are in good cardiovascular shape. But running a lot is going to do shit-all for your actual muscular abilities, especially your upper body. You need to develop your strength.

If push-ups are your goal, you should try push-up progressions. Do push-ups against a wall. Then with your hands on a counter. Then with your hands on stairs. Keep putting your hands on lower and lower surfaces until you are able to do a push-up on the floor. See the video "Developing Pushups" on this page.

Knee push-ups are NOT the way to go. Part of a good push-up is keeping your core tight and maintaining the "plank" position (like you do in Pilates or yoga). Doing knee push-ups hinders the core stabilization development.

Anyway, a pretty common method of developing your ability to improve the length of time you can do an exercise, whether it be pull-ups, sit-ups, push-ups, dips, whatever, is called "greasing the groove", or GTG. Here's an article that explains the method. The idea is that multiple times throughout the day you do 60-80% of the maximum amount of whatever the exercise you can do. This way, you develop your muscles and technique without burning your muscles out, as going to failure every time can actually limit your improvement. That is, if you can only do 10 push-ups, and you want to improve, then three, four, six times a day do a set of 6-8 push-ups. Within a couple of weeks, you'll be able to increase your total number.

If I were you, I would mix up a GTG method with a push-up progression method. Pick the hardest push-up progression where you can do at least three. Let's say you can do plenty of wall push-ups, only 3 counter push-ups, but no stair push-ups. Then start training your numbers on counter push-ups. Throughout the day, do three to six sets of about 2 counter push-ups. As you are able to increase your number of maximum counter push-ups, increase the number of reps you do each set. Do this until you are able to do at least three stair push-ups, and then drop the counter push-ups and do stair push-ups.

The important thing is that you DO NOT max out every set! Again, do NOT try to reach your maximum with every attempt! You'll burn yourself out!
posted by Anonymous at 2:34 PM on April 27, 2008

I could never move up from modified push-ups to regular push-ups no matter how hard I tried. The only thing that helped me do my first push up and helped me increase the number (to 20 currently yay!) was the bench press. It will take time to build up the muscles enough so that you can do push ups, but compared to doing knee/wall pushups, you should be able to move up to them pretty quickly.

Good luck!
posted by cyanide at 12:12 AM on June 18, 2008

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