If you want to be fit, you don’t need to start with free weights or fancy machines. The foundation of fitness is movement. And the movements you need to master for any exercise start with your bodyweight.
If you can’t do a pushup (or many of them), you’re likely wasting your time (or setting yourself up for injury) by trying to bench press your way to a better body.
Pushups aren’t sexy or impressive. But, when you spend a lot of time with some incredibly fit people and you discover something very quickly: You don’t have to lift a ton of weight to be considered strong.
Some of the most incredible feats of strength don’t even include any weight at all. (Whereas others certainly do; no matter what you think of powerlifting, watching someone move 700 or 800 pounds is simply amazing.)
If you can perform a lot of pushups and all of their different variations, then you can go a long way towards building upper body strength, muscle, and definition.
Why Pushups Are So Good For You
Years ago, I worked with Martin Rooney on a pushup test. If you don’t know Martin, he’s one of the best coaches in the world and has worked with endless pro athletes and Olympians. Every time I train with Martin, it feels like I would hit a new PR.
In addition to being a great coach, Martin would create challenges designed to make you stronger and fitter. One of those was a 3-minute pushup challenge.
The challenge was built to help you do more pushups, but there was one flaw: It required a level of strength and endurance that limited who could use the challenge as a way to get better.
Most people I know can’t do pushups for more than a minute, let alone 3 minutes.
The challenge was still brilliant because it opened your eyes to the importance of relative body strength.
All too often we base strength on an arbitrary amount of weight you can move, when — in reality — how well you can move your own body is one of the best ways to assess fitness levels and build strength. Not to mention, bodyweight tests can help clean up issues with your form that can cause injuries once you add additional weight.
All too often we base strength on an arbitrary amount of weight you can move, when — in reality — how well you can move your own body is one of the best ways to assess fitness levels and build strength.
When you have relative body strength, you are in control of your body and can move well, whether you’re pushing, pulling, squatting, or picking something up off the ground. It’s why bodyweight movements like pushups and pullups can be a great initial test of strength, and even challenging for those who have been training for many years.
Doing more pushups has lots of upsides. But, figuring out the right program to build strength and endurance is where most people struggle. It’s time to change that.
How To Do More Pushups: The Assessment
As the saying goes, “What gets measured gets managed.”
If you want to do more pushups, you need to figure out if you need to build strength, endurance, or both. Your path to more pushups starts with a simple 1-minute assessment and then includes a program to help guide your improvement.
The test below is one I’ve done for years with clients, and it works incredibly well for helping you become better with bodyweight exercises. (You can do similar variations with other exercises.) I’ve used different variations of this test as an assessment to determine baseline strength.
Step 1: Set a timer for 1-minute and then start performing pushups until the time is up.
Step 2: Record the number of reps you performed.
Pushup Rule #1
For a rep to count, you must go all the way down (chest 2 inches above the floor), pause, and you must lock out your elbows at the top.
Also, you can’t let your hips sag or allow your knees to touch the floor. [In other words, your body should form a straight line from your ankles to your shoulders.]
Pushup Rule #2:
You can rest whenever you want, but the clock must keep running
Before You Begin: Pushup Test Tips
You have 2 options that will help you perform your best on the pushup test:
Option 1: Perform pushups at a rapid pace and do as many as you can until you hit failure and can’t do more.
Option 2: Pace yourself and take mini breaks every 10-15 seconds, doing what you can to avoid failure and complete as many as possible.
In the initial test, Rooney recommended a 15-second break once you started to slow down. This was necessary with a 3-minute running clock. But with only one-minute, this assessment is a little different.
If you’re a beginner and not as strong, resting every 10-15 seconds will be beneficial to you because fatigue will catch up quickly.
If you’ve been training, you might be able to maintain a consistent pace for 30 to 45 seconds. In that case, stop 1 to 2 reps shy of failure, rest 5-10 seconds, and then do as many as possible until the time is up.
Grading Your Pushup Performance
The following scores are based on the averages of my online coaching clients. [Note: women tend to have scores that are 5-10 pushups less than the scores shown below.]
Below average: less than 15 pushups (Remember the rules above, for a legit rep it’s impossible to go any faster than 1 rep per second with the pause at the bottom and lockout at the top.)
Average: 20 pushups
Good: 30 to 35 pushups
Excellent: 40-45 pushups
Extraordinary: 45-50 pushups. If you’ve completed more than 50 pushups, you cheated. You need to pause at the bottom and top of the movement, so every rep should take a minimum of 1-2 seconds.
How to Become Better at Pushups
If your pushup score is lower than you’d like, there’s a quick fix that will help make your upper body more powerful and explosive.
Follow this pushup protocol, trying to perform each rep as fast as possible, and after 8 workouts take the test again and see how you improved.
Week 1 (two workouts): Perform 10 sets of 8 repetitions of pushups. Rest two minutes between sets. If you can’t do 8 pushups, rest as needed following the same strategy used in the test.
Week 2 (two workouts): Complete 8 sets of 10 repetitions with 1 minute of rest between sets.
Week 3 (two workouts): Perform 6 sets of 15 repetitions with 1 minute of rest between sets.
Week 4 (two workouts): Do 4 sets of 20 repetitions with two minutes of rest between sets.
Take 5 days off from pushups, and then take the test again and see how you did.
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Adam Bornstein is a New York Times bestselling author and, according to The Huffington Post, “one of the most inspiring sources in all of health and fitness.” An award-winning writer and editor, Bornstein was the Fitness and Nutrition editor for Men’s Health, Editorial Director at LIVESTRONG.com, and a columnist for SHAPE, Men’s Fitness, and Muscle & Fitness. He’s also a nutrition and fitness advisor for LeBron James, Cindy Crawford, Lindsey Vonn, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. His work has been featured in dozens of publications, including The New York Times, Fast Company, ESPN, and GQ, and he’s appeared on Good Morning America, The Today Show, E! News, and The Cheddar.