How To Work Up To Full Push-Ups (Without Starting From Your Knees)

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Knee push-ups are a classic modification for anybody who can't do full push-ups, or can only do a few. But they don't work all of the same muscles, so they aren't your best bet if you're trying to move up in the push-up world. Here's what to do instead.

Photo by Marion Doss

The limitations of the knee push-up are explained here. Cassie Dionne takes a dim view of the exercise, claiming that it can't help you improve — which probably isn't totally true. But she's correct that the kneeling position asks less of your glutes and core, turning the move into more of an upper-body than a full-body exercise. Here are some other options:

Option 1: Full Push-Ups, But Fewer of Them

If you can do even a single full push-up (with good form — have a friend check), you can build a workout from single-rep sets. Do that single push-up, then move on to another exercise, and then come back for another single. Soon you'll be doing two or three at a time. Keep up the good work!

Option 2: Negative Push-Ups

A "negative" push-up starts at the top, and slowly lowers down. But instead of then pushing yourself back up, you can do an entire set of negatives — lower yourself down, slowly, with good form, as many times as you comfortably can. When you lose control and find yourself dropping down quickly, your set is over; take a break. Here's an example:

Negatives use eccentric contractions, which build muscle faster than their concentric, or positive, counterparts. You can use the same strategy to work up to other challenging exercises, like pull-ups. Beware — negatives are notorious for making you sore the next day.

Option 3: Staircase Progression

If those options are still too tough for you — or if you just want something more flexible — try a staircase progression. You can use an actual staircase, or pick surfaces at varying heights: a wall, a table, a chair, a stack of books.

Start with your hands on a high surface. This might be the wall, with your feet a few steps back, or a high countertop. Engage all the muscles in your core and legs, and keep the same good form as if you were doing a push-up from the floor. Do your set of push-ups this way. Here's an example:

When a countertop is too easy, drop your hands down to something lower, like a chair. (If you're using an actual staircase, just start with your feet on the floor and your hands on a high step; move your hands to the lower steps over time.) Eventually you'll be able to do full sets of push-ups from the floor. Then, reverse the progression: start putting your feet on higher and higher surfaces. Ultimate goal: handstand push-ups. Good luck and get moving!

Lifehacker's Vitals column offers health and fitness advice based on solid research and real-world experience.


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