I’ve always looked at the cute chicks in my CrossFit box banging out 10-15 push ups, “chest to deck,” and felt two warring emotions: cheerleader-esque support (YOU GO, GIRL!) and total jealousy. They make it look SO EASY. And they aren’t easy. I ask to myself, “Why can’t I do a push up, female?” Push Ups are HARD. Well, they’re supposed to be. And they’re especially hard for women. But, as many women, these push-up princesses of the fitness-sphere, are proving – they can be done.
Push ups are a spicy bodyweight workout for the entire upper body – just a simple up-down works your chest, triceps, deltoids and core. They don’t require fancy equipment or even a lot of gym space. This also makes push ups the perfect exercise for us gals who don’t have a lot of time and need to make the workouts worth it.
But unfortunately, biology works against females when it comes to push ups. Women have less upper body muscles mass (read: less strength) than men. They also have a smaller amount of testosterone (but it’s important to note – women do have testosterone in their ovaries and adrenal glands), the hormone more prevalently found in men and responsible for the development of typical masculine physical characteristics, such as the growth of facial and body hair, and the building of, yes, muscles mass and strength. It’s just science. With less upper body strength and less of the hormone to make us stronger naturally – push ups are just going to be harder for women to master.
Harder, but not impossible. So, what can we do to master this “macho” move?
Perfect Push Up Position
If your form fails you, any personal trainer will tell you that mastering a set of perfect push ups will remain as difficult today as it was the first day you started building upper body strength. So, begin with the basics of proper form.
– Your starting position is in a high plank. Keep your hands roughly shoulder width apart, your feet together with the heels straight up. Keep your back in a straight line.
– Don’t let your hips sag or push your hips (and butt) high into the air, creating a U-shape. Both make your standard push ups less effective.
– Engage your core. Losing control of your core will load your lower back and compromise the strength building in your upper body.
– Pressing through your hands, bend the elbows and, in one fluid movement, lower your upper body slowly down to the ground. Tuck your elbows in toward your torso. Don’t flare your arms, this will strain your shoulders.
– Control your descent.
– In one, fluid movement, straighten your elbows to come back up to the high plank position.
Find Variations That Work
Push up progression doesn’t mean being able to do higher reps of strict push ups. It might be working first on the slow, control of the descent or the explosive “push” and ascent or having the upper body strength to string a few together perfectly. To sum it all up – get the strong foundation first. I hate the term “girl push ups” when it comes to these modifications (and yes, I’ve heard it in the gym) because really, if your form sucks, you should be starting with these modifications, male or female. So rock them, get better and watch the push up progression just happen.
Wall Push Ups
If full push ups just aren’t there yet, start with wall push ups. You still get the benefits of working your arm strength and chest muscles without putting the strain on your shoulders. Stand facing the wall, your feet shoulder width apart. Keep your arms straight, with your hands flat against the wall. Slowly bend your elbows and lower your chest toward the wall. Keep your core engaged, even though you won’t be supporting your body weight from plank position like in regular push ups. It’s just good practice. Try 10-15 reps.
Table Top Push Ups
Push up progressions can be effective in getting to a regular push up, even if you’re concerned about loading your upper body and straining it. So, concentrate on this variation that helps you master the push and the strength development before going to your toes. Begin in the table top position (hands and knees). This one might be good to have a mat beneath you to reduce the strain on your knees. Keep your hands forward and directly under your shoulders. Slowly lower your chest and head to the floor, press upwards to return to the starting position.Try 10-12 reps.
Modified Push Ups (or Knee Pushups)
This one gets you on the ground for a great bodyweight exercise, but with less weight to control because your knees absorb some of the tension. Begin in a modified plank position, with your hands flat on the ground shoulder width apart. Instead of being on your toes, keep your knees bent down to the floor together. Engage your core as you bend your elbows, lowering your upper body to the ground. Do not collapse into the floor; keep your triceps engaged. Push back up to the neutral position. Aim for 8-10 reps.
Plank to Knee Push Ups
Use this variation to progress from modified push ups toward progressing to standard push ups in plank position. Your starting position is plank position. Complete a standard descent, tucking in your elbows and lowering your upper body at once. At the bottom of the push up, lower your knees to the ground. Push back up on your knees, like a modified push up. At the top of the push up, raise your knees back up into a high plank. Aim for 8-10 reps.
Incline Push Ups
If you’re struggling to get depth on your descent, bring the floor up to you by using an elevated surface. This will effectively develop arm strength and core strength, and it’s the same plank position as a standard push up. Rest your hands on a weight bench, sturdy box or even the steps in your home. Your lower body should be perpendicular to the floor, your feet straight toward the incline. Bend your elbows and lower your upper body to the incline, Keep your core engaged as you push back up your neutral position. Go for 8-10 reps.
As you progress with your incline push up, you can challenge your core by picking a less stable incline, like a medicine ball or Bosu ball. And when you’ve really mastered incline push ups, turn your inclines into declines – keep your feet suspended on a box or weight bench and your hands on the floor as you start push ups.
Other Exercises To Build Push Up Strength
As your’re mastering push ups, consider adding some other strength training exercises for building upper body strength and targeting your core, shoulders and chest. Try:
- Bench press (either with dumbbells or a barbell)
- Skull crushers (FIRE those triceps!)
- Pull ups
Perfect push ups won’t happen overnight. They take proper technique, strength development and frankly, practice. But don’t give up. And the next time you hear some jerk in the gym go, “Girls can’t do push ups,” you can tell him just where to go.
Kendra Whittle is a writer, novice CrossFitter, marathon runner and triathlete. She lives in St. Louis with her husband, three kids and two dogs.