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.