Workouts for Wimps: Your First Real Pushup

The Art of the One-Handed Pushup by Andy Carvin

This baby can do a one-armed pushup - why can't you?

The pushup is one of the most timeless, absolutely essential bodyweight exercises there is. Along with squats and a few others, the pushup in some for or another is the foundation of every bodyweight strength training regimine out there – or at least every worthwhile one. If you want to get in shape, and you don’t have access to free weights, you better be able to do pushups.

So, what if you can’t?

What if you’re too weak or too overweight to do even a single standard pushup? No problem! There are lots of alternatives that you can use to work your way up to it. All of these have been tested and proven both by myself and Caroline. I was the kid that got laughed out of gym class for being too fat to do a single pushup, and Caroline was the yoga nut who weighed next to nothing but had never done a day of strength training in her life. Between the two of us, we know these should work for everybody.

Anyone can build the strength to do push ups if they follow the right progression. (Tweet this!)

The Staircase Progression

Staircase progressions are the method I used to get my 55 year-old mother, who I don’t think had even done one single pushup in her entire life, to get to the point where she was doing full sets of standard pushups on the ground. We’re not quite to one-armed pushups yet, but we’ll get there.

How it works:

All strength building works on the principle of progressively increasing resistance. Your body adapts, you up the resistance, it adapts again, etc. So if you’re not strong enough to do even one pushup, you need to start with something easier and work your way up to it progressively.

Making a pushup easier is all about physics. As excited as I get about physics, I’m not gonna go into details here – let’s just say the higher your head is in relation to your feet, the easier the pushup is and vice versa (this is also a handy way to increase the intensity, when you’re ready). A staircase provides a perfect platform to progressively increase the resistance on your pushups. You can find one just about anywhere, each step is equally spaced between the one above and below it, and you can easily measure your progress.

Start with your hands on the highest step you can reach with your arms straight out in front of you and your toes down on the floor touching the bottom step in a standard pushup position. Lower yourself to the stair as if it were the ground and you were doing a regular pushup. If the highest step you can reach is too easy, and chances are it will be even if you can’t do a single pushup on the floor, go down to the next step and repeat. When you finally hit a stair that’s low enough that you can’t do at least five pushups in a row, stop and take note of the stair one higher than that one.

That stair is where you’re going to start your actual workout. Now you may have an existing strength training routine, though if you can’t even do one pushup I’m guessing you don’t. If you do, you can work it around your pushup training routine which will be as follows – 3 days per week, with at least one rest day between each, you will do five sets of five pushups on the stairs. The first week you will start on the last stair that you were able to do five consecutive pushups on. The second week, you’ll move down one stair which you should then be able to do five consecutive pushups on. The following week you move down again. Eventually, you hit the floor – and I don’t mean from exhaustion – and can start doing pushups there.

Take a moment to congradulate yourself, and then get ready to start learning one-armed and handstand pushups…

Tips and Tricks

If you don’t have any other strength training routine, such as what might be included as part of a beginner’s fitness plan for example, then I would suggest taking around a 30 to 45 second rest between each set. That is, do five pushups, rest for 45 seconds or so, and then do another set of five. If you find that 45 seconds is too short, and you can’t do 5 full pushups with good form, then increase the rest time until you find your sweet spot.

If you find yourself requiring excessively long rest periods (2 minutes or more) then you may want to try an incidental training pattern. On your strength training days, everytime you go up or down the stairs stop and do one set of pushups. With the longer and more variable rest periods, you don’t have to worry about stopping at five total sets for a day, but do still give yourself the rest day. Then just bump down a step the following week like normal.

When doing the pushups, it helps the most if you lower yourself very slowly (count to 5 from top to bottom) and push back up very quickly (faster than you can count to 1). This will help build the necessary strength up as quickly as possible. Try not to rocket your upper body off the staircase. You can work your way up to plyometric and clapping pushups when you get to the ground.

Getting Negative

Don’t worry, I don’t mean mentally. In weight training, a negative is the part of the movement when gravity is doing most of the work – in our case, the part where you’re lowering yourself back toward the ground. Negatives are the way that I went from no pushups to handstand pushups.

How it works:

The negative is also called the eccentric contraction and, unlike eccentric relatives, is extremely beneficial and something you should get better acquainted with. A majority of the strength building activity in an exercise occurs during the eccentric phase of the movement. That means that if you just do that part, you can still get a majority of the benefits.

To do a negative pushup, you start at the top of the standard pushup position on the floor. Then, you lower yourself down as slowly as possible. Seriously, I want your arms shaking a little by the time you get to the bottom. Once you’re at the bottom, instead of struggle and fight and try to push your way back up with your arms, just get up. Yep, get back up on your hands and knees and put yourself in the top position and lower yourself down again. It’s that easy. If it seems like cheating, well, it kinda is – but it works.

Do five sets of five negatives three days a week with a day of rest between each training day and 30 to 45 seconds rest between sets. After one full week of training, try to work one single standard pushup into each set of negatives as the first rep. If you still can’t do it, increase each negative by five seconds, i.e., lower yourself five seconds more slowly with each rep, and try again for one pushup per set the following week.

Once you go a week of doing one full pushup in each set, go for two full pushups in each set for the next week. Keep increasing each week and before long, you’ll be doing five sets of five full pushups on the ground with no problem.

Tips and Tricks:

This method is pretty straightforward, so there aren’t really a lot of tips and tricks to it. If you’re concerned that you’re so weak you’ll get about halfway down the first negative and then plant your face into the floor like a scared ostrich, by all means put a pillow or rolled up towel between your face and the floor.

If you are having that much trouble with the negatives, you an also try the old fashioned knee pushups, where you use your knees as the fulcrum for the pushup instead of your toes. In my experiences, however, it’s hard to make the jump from knee pushups to standard pushups. What I did, back in my whale days, was to do negatives with my hands on a slightly elevated platform. In my case it was an office chair jammed up against the wall so it wouldn’t roll out from under me. A set of stairs, as mentioned above, makes a nice choice too. Anything stable that gets your hands a little higher than your toes will work.

There you have it – you now have no excuses for not being able to do pushups. Once you master this movement, you’ll be well underway to having the basics of bodyweight exercises under your belt. At least, until you decide your ready to go one-armed…

Anyone else have any helpful tips or tricks to add, or some other method they used to build up to standard pushups? We’d love to hear it!

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Adam is a linguist and personal trainer living in Cincinnati with his wife Caroline and dog Bailey. He's addicted to all things related to language, parkour, fitness and martial arts. You can contact Adam at Adam@RoadToEpic.com, on Twitter or on Google Plus.

  • http://twitter.com/FitnessReloaded Maria

    HI Adam!

    Great push-up tips! I am going to try “going negative”, and see how that works!

  • Ayesha

    I have a question. When you do the stair progression, are your arms supposed to be at a more-or-less 90 degree angle from your body and then reaching for the highest stair?

    • http://www.RoadToEpic.com Adam Wik

      Yep. You want to have your arms in a straight line from shoulder to stair at a 90 degree angle to your body. You should use whatever stair is the appropriate difficulty for you – so your body angle will change depending on which stair you pick & how high it is.

      Hope that helps! If not let me know and I’ll get some pictures.

      • Ayesha

        Yeah… a picture would be helpful. Thanks. :)

        • http://www.RoadToEpic.com Adam Wik

          Sorry about the delay, had a really crazy week. Here’s a sketch I did. Hopefully (despite my lack of artistic ability) it helps explain better!

          http://www.roadtoepic.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/Stair-push-up-sketch.jpg

          You should try to keep your arms at 90 degrees in relation to your body and as you get stronger start moving your feet farther away from the bottom step and putting your hands on one step lower than the previous workout.

          Keep at it and you’ll be doing push ups on the floor in no time!

  • Ric

    Sorry for asking what might be really obvious.. But how many are or should be in a set?
    Thank you kindly!

    • http://www.RoadToEpic.com Adam Wik

      If you’re working your way down the steps to increase the difficulty I would do one short of failure / form breakdown up to five in each set. So that means if you can tell that you’re going to collapse on your next push up or that it’ll have bad form (arching back, flaring elbows out, etc.) stop there.

      Once you can do 5 reps on that step with good form move down to the next one. Stay on that step until you can do 5 good reps on it for the number of sets you’re doing then move down again and so on until you hit the floor. Once you’re down there you can start adding a rep or two each workout. Once you can do sets of twenty or so on the floor you’re working more on endurance than strength, so you can start working your feet back up the steps with your hands on the floor to make them harder if you want to keep building strength.

      If you’re doing the negatives I’d start with 5 reps as well but try to replace one more negative push up with a standard push up every workout. Once you hit several sets of 5 good push ups on the floor with no negatives you can follow what I said above about working up to sets of 20.

      Thanks for the comment! Hope that helps.

  • Erika Ayala

    Thanks for the advice!

    • http://www.RoadToEpic.com Adam Wik

      No problem! Let me know how you progress!

  • BigHog

    I’m so far gone, I had to start on the fourth step. By the 4th and 5th rep of the 5th set, I was doen. Now my arms feel like rubber, and still do from yesterday. How depressing.

    • http://www.RoadToEpic.com Adam Wik

      That’s no problem, no matter how high on the stairs you start the important thing is you keep progressing down them. You’ll be at the bottom before you know it! After the first couple workouts that rubber feeling and any DOMS (soreness after exercise) will lessen – your body just needs some time to adjust. Get lots of protein and good sleep in the meantime and your arms will feel better soon. Keep at it!

      • BigHog

        Since my first post, I have worked my way down from the fourth step up, to the first step. I don’t move down a step until my form is perfect and I can do all five rep/sets perfectly. Next week, I am hoping to be down on the floor. Your method is working for me. Thanks!

        • http://www.RoadToEpic.com Adam Wik

          Excellent! I’m glad to hear it helped!

  • BillNTed

    I am curious how you feel about this plan of attack, I want to be able to perform 50 pushups. My plan was to find the stair I can perform 50 on and go one lower, once I can perform 50 there, one lower, etc… with the end game hopefully being able to go to the floor with 50. How would you see this vs doing 5 and trying to work up to 50 from 5 once the floor is reached?

    • http://www.RoadToEpic.com Adam Wik

      Personally, I tend to favor building max strength up before strength endurance because in my experience there’s a better crossover from max strength to strength endurance but not necessarily from strength endurance to max strength.

      In other words, someone who can do a one arm push up on the floor is more likely to be able to do 50 push ups on a stair than someone who can easily do 50 push ups (or even 100) on a stair is to be able to do a one armed push up.

      I’d work my way up to doing push ups on the floor first, and then start building up your strength endurance by increasing your reps slowly. Once you can do sets of 10 or so floor push ups you can supplement this with further max strength training if you’d like by occasionally doing workouts with decline push ups (with your hands on the floor and feet elevated on the stairs).

      Hope that helps! Let me know if you hit any snags or have any other questions!

  • Bilal

    Hi Adam i just started doing stair push ups i am doing 12 reps for each set 3 sets a day-rest period is 30 secs. I want to know what should be my next step. Also which muscle group does this work out target.