Good upper body strength is one of the key signs of overall health, and nothing tests it quite like a push up. Push ups are the ultimate bodyweight exercise for women for strength.
There are some exercises you can’t escape from if you do fitness classes or set workouts. You’ll always have squats, there’ll always be a bit of stretching and, nine times out of 10, you’ll have to do push ups.
You might be asked to do 10 push ups on your knees during a warm-up, or have a variations in the main circuit – including diamond, hand-release and regular push ups –super-setted with other moves to give your shoulders a break.
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Push ups are hard, particularly if you have to do a number of them back-to-back. Quite often, you see even the strongest-looking people having to lean back into downward dog to give their upper body a break mid-set. One on its own is fine, but four? Five? 12? The burn is real.
But it’s also one of the easiest exercises to see significant improvements in. The problem with push ups is that quite often, we opt for the easier, modified version and because we know how painful they can be, we refuse to push through. How many of us immediately plump for knee push ups the moment the class instructor says that we can modify the move if we need to?
While modifications are brilliant for beginners, injuries and days when you don’t feel like going hard, they only get us so far. If you rely on the easier option, the harder move will remain out of reach. And that means that our upper body strength gains plateau.
Forget the extreme fitness promises and gym-based resolutions that usually define January; you’re far better off choosing something as simple as being able to do 10 full-body push ups in a row by the end of the month instead. That way, you can do it from the comfort of your own home (Omicron variant/isolation-proof) and be in a position to smash more extensive goals in February.
According to Top End Sports, the average woman aged between 20 and 39 should be able to do between nine and 12 full body push ups.
Benefits of push ups – why bother nailing full-body push ups?
Push ups build strength in multiple areas
Push ups are all about building upper body strength – something many women neglect, especially if they’ve not got access to weights. We often think of moves like the bicep curl, shoulder press and chest press as being classic upper body builders but they all require a set of dumbbells. Push ups, however, work the triceps, pec muscles and shoulders, as well as strengthening the lower back and core.
“Push ups combine upper body training with core development,” Matt Bevan, personal trainer at Bodyism previously told Stylist. “You’re using your pectoral muscles (chest), deltoids (shoulders), triceps (back of arms), abdominals and serratus anterior (the “wing” muscles).
“It’s difficult to go straight in and try to do push ups without a bit of training first. You need to support your chest, shoulders and arms with your core and engage the right muscles which will make the exercise easier to perform effectively.”
They’re perfect for small spaces
You need no equipment and very little space, making them perfect for tiny flats and bedrooms. And they’re the kind of move that you can do regularly; you might be a little sore but doing them every day is only going to make you stronger and more resilient (as opposed to, say, weight training, which tends to require days in between for recovery).
You can see progress quickly
While fitness and strength is a long-term commitment, push ups are one move that you can see returns on relatively quickly. Were you to start bicep curling, for example, it might take a few weeks (or months!) before you felt able to from using a 5kg dumbbell to 7.5kg. But with press-ups, you might find that you could go from one full-body rep to three in a day or two. Stick with it and you’ll be able to do 10 in a row within a month.
Push ups are better when done gradually
“The press-up is basically a moving plank so we need to master this isometrically before progressing to movement,” Bevan explains.
The key is in gradually building up the number of push ups you’re able to do in a row each week. There’s no point in going for gold in one day if you’re never managed more than two full-body versions before – all that’s going to do is put your shoulders and back under huge strain, which could lead to injury. Instead, you want to add variety to the types of push ups you do and build gradually; we’re training for longevity here, rather than instant strength.
How to do a full push up
We’re launching a four-week push up challenge on the Strong Women Training Club which will aim to boost your fitness enough to nail 10 consecutive push ups. See the programme through and you may find that you’ve built enough upper body strength to push into the ‘above average’ category.
Trainer Janine George will be sharing her tips for doing the perfect burpee (keep your eyes peeled on our Instagram page), but in the meantime, here’s how to do a push up correctly:
- Firstly, place your hands on the floor slightly wider than shoulder width with your arms straight and your toes touching the floor behind you (the top of a press-up).
- Draw your belly button in and squeeze your bum muscles.
- Build up to holding this position for two minutes. It’s a great regression from a press-up that also really works your abs.
- After mastering this, maintain the tension you created in the plank and start bending through the elbows as you lower your whole body towards the ground.
- Let your upper arms and elbows come out to 45 degrees as you lower.
- Stop when your elbows are level with your shoulders (about halfway).
- Maintaining the tension, push the ground away and come back to your high plank.
Starting with wall push ups is a great way to build strength and get your body used to the movement while dumbbell chest presses and flyes, front arm raises, triceps extensions and plank holds will build the right muscles in preparation for the full press-up (if you don’t have weights, you could do these moves with bottles of water).
“Once you’ve mastered the move you can start to bring your hands closer together for more emphasis on the triceps or elevate the feet using a step, table or couch to make it more difficult,” Bevan suggests.
Join the Strong Women Training Club now to take part in the four-week push up challenge.
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