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Nothing worth doing comes easy and the notorious push-up is no exception. We’ve all been there: You’re in the middle of a workout and all of a sudden the instructor pops down into a plank and announces it’s time for push-ups. You’re only two reps in and can already feel your arms shaking. Four reps in, your back begins to ache and your wrists are on fire.

Push-ups require an immense amount of strength and incorporate a lot of different muscle groups including your triceps, pecs and shoulders as well as your lower back, hips and core (it is a mobile plank after all). “When you do a push-up off the floor, you’re moving about 65 percent of your body weight,” Jeff Halevy, former Today Show correspondent and founder of Apex Human Performance explains. “This is a considerable amount of weight to be bench pressing.” If you weigh 150 pounds that means you’re working with almost 100 pounds every time you lower and lift. And push-ups are all about stability. If your abdominals aren’t engaged, you won’t be able to maintain proper form. Your back will arch, your hips will dip and you’ll never get past those first few reps.

The best way to improve your push-up is by gradually building up strength. Let your muscles get used to the movement until it begins to feel familiar. You don’t need a personal trainer or even a gym to get good at push-ups. All you need is a set of stairs and a few minutes each day.

To begin your push-up journey, you’ll first need to find your benchmark. “Your benchmark will tell you where you’re at, strength-wise,” Halevy tells us. Practice doing a push-up on a few different stair levels with your hands shoulder-width apart on the edge of the step. Come up on your toes as needed and keep your head, back and legs in a straight line. The higher the step, the easier it’ll be since the angle between your body and the ground is larger (meaning you’re moving less of your own weight). Find the level where you can perform seven push-ups. It might not be easy, but it should be doable. This seven-rep max is your ideal starting height. Each week, you’ll slowly progress, first by increasing the amount of reps and then by lowering your step height.

how to do stair push ups
Digital Art by Sofia Kraushaar

How you progress through this system will depend on your current fitness level, but for total push-up newbies we asked Halevy to share his preferred progression plan. “In week one, do five reps every day at your predetermined height. In week two, do two sets of five reps each day. In week three, do three sets of five reps each day. As you go into week four, lower down one step and repeat this same weekly rep progression. Continue lowering until you reach the ground. At this point, you’ll be able to do one set of five push-ups on your own, no sweat.” It’s a daily commitment, but it won’t take much time and it’s something you can easily do between Zoom meetings or carpool pickups without breaking a sweat.

When exercises are out of our range of motion, modifying is a great way to reap similar benefits without the strain. For push-ups, we’re often told to modify by coming down on our knees. Though you won’t hurt yourself with this approach, doing it actually changes the leverage of the movement, which then changes the muscles you’re targeting. “Yes, it becomes easier on the upper body,” Halevy explains, “but it also changes your center of mass.” This means the muscles in your core—specifically your lower abdominals—are no longer engaged. Rather than baring a lighter load, they’re being completely left out. “To really build up to a true push-up, progressing from the stairs will be more beneficial because you’re training the muscles in your core and hips to be incorporated into the movement from day one.” The more you know.

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