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.
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.
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!