Illustration by Lindsay Hattrick

How To (Finally) Do A Push-up

Get off those knees

by Molly Hurford

Are you in the habit of doing knee push-ups? You know, the ones your bored gym teacher made you do if you couldn’t do a standard push-up? The ones where your knees stay on the ground as you push up? You're not alone! But, there’s no reason you can’t do a proper push-up, whether your goal is to boost your upper body muscle, crush a push-up contest at a party, have more confidence in CrossFit, or even simply prove to yourself (and said lame gym teacher) that you can, in fact, do a real push-up.

Before you panic that your life doing kneeling push-ups has been a lie, don’t freak. Kneeling push-ups are okay, but they leave you with nowhere to go. You can’t really build on a kneeling push-up or use it to work your way to a proper one.

If you do want to stick to the kneeling version after you give a standard one a try, at least do them with good form: Focus on the pushing motion and keeping your body in a firm line, engaging your core in the process. But if you do want to perfect the military push-up, you—yes, even you!—can do it with under a minute of work per day. All you have to do is alternate this three-day progression, cycling through and working on adding reps, time, or difficulty each time you restart the cycle. It may take a couple weeks to hit push-up perfection, it may take a couple months, but doing just three minutes of this each day will get you there (almost) painlessly.

Day One—Raised Push-ups

The first few times you do this, it might feel too easy. That’s a good thing: The easier it feels, the better your form will be as you add difficulty. Start with your hands on a wall in front of you, almost fully straightened and at shoulder height. Keeping your core tight and engaged, do 10 “push-ups,” focusing on keeping your body straight as you bend your elbows and bring your upper body closer to the wall. After a few cycles of this, move to setting your hands on your kitchen counter to do your reps. When that’s easy—and again, you must be able to do 10 maintaining a straight line through your body and keeping your core engaged—move to resting your hands on the back of a sofa. A few more days and you can move to a chair, then a stool. The last stage, of course, is to remove props and do a push-up on the floor!

Day Two—Pushing

Because the trickiest part of a push-up is the actual pushing, on day two, that’s where to focus. Do two sets of 10 overhead presses with 10lb dumbbells (or a weight that feels challenging but not impossible). Stand straight, engage your core, and bring the dumbbells from resting in your hands at shoulder height with your arms bent to your arms being fully straightened overhead. Alternately, you can lie on your back and press the dumbbells into the air at chest level. Build to more reps, like four sets of 10 reps, or add a few pounds once it starts feeling easy.

Day Three—High Planks

Hold a high plank (arms straight, body in a firm line with your core, glutes, and leg muscles engaged) for as long as you can while maintaining good form. This might only mean a few seconds at first, but slowly work your way up to a minute. A stopwatch can add a bit of gamification to this, if you aim for a second or two longer each time you plank. The real kicker, though, is the way you come out of this plank. Rather than collapsing dramatically to the ground, do a "slow race" to get to the floor, lowering your body—still keeping that core engaged—to the floor, like you would while doing a standard push-up. 

Keep rotating through days one to three for a month, and by the end, you’ll likely have graduated to doing push-ups on the floor with great form. A word about arm position: Keeping your elbows wide is fine to start with, though, eventually, a proper military push-up will keep your elbows tight to your body. But do whatever feels most comfortable to start.

Not making it yet? Some people take longer than others—as women, many of us grew up not being pushed to develop any type of upper body strength, so it doesn’t come as naturally as you might hope. But you’ll be busting out perfect push-ups if you keep slowly building toward them, and your biceps will thank you the next time you have to carry your groceries up a few flights of steps.