How to Master the Push-Up (And Why Runners Should Want To)
Push-ups for women runners can seem elusive. Here's how to master the OG strength-training move.
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There are certain fitness milestones or athletic feats that constantly rank highly on almost every runner’s goal list: Finishing a marathon, setting a new PR, and running a race in all 50 states are popular bucket list goals when it comes to running itself. And as the awareness of the importance of strength training for injury prevention and overall running performance has increased, so too has the popularity of runners setting strength training goals.
Among the most common strength training or general fitness goals of female runners is conquering a “real” push-up for women: both feet on the ground—no knees. A push-up is a challenging bodyweight exercise, which is part of its allure; it’s also highly effective for strengthening your entire upper body and core. If you’ve never been able to complete a single push-up, or it’s been years since you’ve even gotten down on the ground to try, you’re not alone. It’s a feat that eludes a lot of runners who take a stab at it, as it requires a significant amount of upper body strength. However, with dedicated training and the proper technique, it should be possible for you to learn how to do regular push-ups, and with some practice, actually master them once and for all.
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Benefits of Push-Ups for Women Runners
Push-ups have earned their well-deserved seal of approval from nearly every trainer, running coach, and strength and conditioning specialist due to the array of benefits they provide. They strengthen your triceps, shoulders, chest, traps, and core. Runners often focus on squats and lunges, or other leg-strengthening exercises, but it’s equally important to strengthen your upper body and core. A strong chest and upper body will help facilitate your arm swing, which ultimately contributes to propelling your body forward as you run. This can lead to better running form, a more efficient stride, and the ability to handle faster paces with the same effort.
Push-ups target your entire core—the superficial and deep abdominal muscles, obliques, glutes, back, and hips. The function of the core is to stabilize the body, such that the upper and lower body have a stable anchor from which to move. The core links the upper and lower body, and helps coordinate and orchestrate efficient, safe, and powerful movements. Therefore, having a strong core is critical for injury prevention and optimal physical performance, whether running a race, lifting weights in the gym, doing yard work, fixing things around the house, or carrying your kids.
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How to Perform a Push-Up
The key to reaping the benefits of any exercise is performing it correctly. Here is how to do a perfect push-up:
- Get into the starting position by placing your hands on the floor slightly wider than shoulder-width apart and your feet on the floor with your toes curled under contacting the ground behind you. Your elbows should line up directly underneath your shoulders and toes stay on the ground. Engage your glutes and draw your belly button up to your spine while keeping a neutral spine and neck for the duration of the exercise. Your body should be in a straight line from your head to your feet.
- To perform the push-up, bend your elbows and lower your chest to just above the ground and then push through your palms to lift your body back up until your elbows are extended but not locked out.
- Be sure to breathe throughout the exercise and don’t let your hips sag. Actively push your heels away from you to promote good form.
Start with 1 rep, and gradually work your way up to 20-25 or more, stopping if your form starts to break down.
What If I’m Not Strong Enough to Do a Push-Up?
Mastering push-ups for many women takes practice and strength development. Don’t feel discouraged if you can’t yet do one. Take on wall push-ups first. After you can do those, progress to placing your hands on lower surfaces like the edge of a counter, bench, chair, bed, or couch. Then, progress to kneeling push-ups, and finally, full push-ups.
You can accelerate your progression by developing your upper body and chest strength with other exercises such as triceps dips, chest press, and the overhead press. Stay patient and diligent. If you work on your push-up technique and upper body strength three to five days a week, you’ll be banging out sets of full push-ups before you know it. Perhaps most importantly, you don’t have to do a regular push-up to reap benefits from the exercise for your running and overall fitness and strength. Whether on your knees or feet, as long as you’re using proper form and challenging your muscles, your body is gleaning benefits and that is something to feel good about.
Building Up to a “Real” Push-Up
Here are four steps to follow to work your way up to a standard push-up (and, eventually, one of the more intense modifications below.)
STEP 1: Wall Push-ups
- (a) Start with standing push-ups on the wall. Stand an arm’s length away from the wall with feet shoulder-width apart and hands flat on the wall.
- (b) Keeping a flat back, slowly lean in until your chest is almost touching the wall, bending and tucking the elbows close to the body. Perform three sets of 5 to 15 reps with enough rest between each set to keep good form.
STEP 2: Incline Push-Ups
- Once you can easily perform three sets of 15 wall push-ups, move to incline push-ups on a bench.
- (a) With your hands on a bench and feet straight behind the body,
- (b) perform a normal push-up, keeping elbows close to the body. Complete three sets of 5 to 15 reps.
STEP 3: Kneeling Push-Ups
- When you can easily perform three sets of 15 incline push-ups, move to a modified push-up with bent knees.
- (a) Lie on the floor and place your hands wider than shoulder-width apart, weight resting on your knees and ankles crossed.
- (b) Press your chest off the floor with elbows close to your side and then slowly lower. Perform three sets of 5 to 15 reps.
STEP 4: Standard Push-Ups
- When you can easily perform three sets of 15 push-ups on your knees, you are ready to do the standard push-up. Take as much time as you need to perform 5 push-ups in one session (resting in between). At your next session, try to perform 2 or 3 continuous push-ups and work your way up to 5 push-ups without stopping.
Push-Up Exercises and Modifications
There are a variety of ways to regress, progress, and vary push-ups to meet your fitness goals and abilities. Here are some of our favorite push-up exercises:
These are used in step 1, above. For an easier modification, perform a normal push-up, but place your hands on a wall rather than the floor. Step your feet back a few feet from the wall and lean into the wall. Bend your elbows to bring your chest towards the wall, keeling your body in a straight line. Push back away from the wall and repeat.
These are considered step 3, above. Perform a regular push-up but drop down so that your knees are on the ground. Keep your back straight and your hips in line with the rest of your body.
Push-Ups with Forward Raises
This advanced push-up helps your entire core develop the strength to stabilize your body during movement.
- Get into a push-up position, maintaining a straight line from your feet to the top of your head.
- Perform one full push-up.
- Before bending your elbows to drop down into the next push-up, lift one hand off the ground and extend it forward in front of you, overhead, straightening it out so that it is parallel to your face. Be sure to keep your hips in line with your body.
- Hold for one second, and then return to the starting position. Keep your legs locked and don’t allow any swaying side to side as you switch arms.
- Alternate arms, and then do the next push-up.
- Aim for 12 push-ups and arm lifts.
Stability Ball Push-Ups
By placing your feet up on a stability ball in this push-up progression, you’ll not only have to engage your abs to stabilize and balance your body to prevent yourself from falling off the ball, but you’ll also drastically increase the challenge for your upper body because your feet are elevated above your hands, forcing your body into the decline push-up position where you have significantly more gravity to contend with. To make the exercise easier, keep your ankles and lower shins on the ball as well, and if you’re a push-up beast, walk your hands all the way forward so that just your toes are pressing into the ball and the rest of your body is suspended in front of the stability ball.
- Get in a push-up position with your arms slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
- One leg at a time, lift each foot and place it laces down on a large stability ball behind you. You should now be in a standard push-up position with your feet on a stability ball.
- Keep your glutes and abs engaged while performing your push-ups, using good form and bringing your chest as low as you can go without touching the floor.
This push-up exercise intensifies the involvement of your obliques—and core in general—especially if you move as slowly as possible and concentrate on engaging your core. It’s an advanced move, so give yourself time to master it.
- Get in a push-up position with your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
- Instead of bending your elbows straight out to the side, angle your arms so that your elbows bend about halfway between out to the side and straight back (picture 4 and 8 on a clock).
- As you lower your chest to the ground, lift your right leg off the ground, bending the knee and drawing your leg forward so that the right knee comes up to the right elbow.
- Hover in the lowered position, holding your leg up by your elbow, for a full breath.
- Press back up, returning your leg to the starting position.
- Alternate legs and complete 10-20 reps total.