Pushups are one of the most classic workout moves you can do—and though they rely heavily on a solid upper body, they’re really the ultimate test of total-body strength.
“Pushups require a good balance of deltoid, pectoralis, triceps, and serratus anterior muscle strength,” says Dr. Anh Bui, P.T., D.P.T., C.S.C.S., physical therapist at EXOS in California. “Compared to many other upper-body exercises, pushups offer increased benefit because you’re simultaneously engaging your core and glute muscles.”
That said, if you don’t have well-developed upper-body strength, pushups can feel incredibly challenging. They’re often more difficult for women, too. “Women tend to have a more challenging time perfecting pushup technique due to anatomical differences, Bui says.
In addition to broader shoulders, men also have more upper-body muscle. “Different studies have shown that males have an average of between 40 to 70 percent more muscle mass in the upper body than females,” says Dr. Jeremy James, D.C., C.S.C.S., founder of digital fitness platform FITFOREVER.
That said, most people can nail pushups with the right plan, James says. Here are six ways to level-up your pushup game.
1. Improve your plank
“In essence, pushups are just planks in which your arms move. Being able to keep your body in a good plank position during a pushup prevents energy leaks and protects your back,” says James.
How to implement it: James recommends planking for as long as you can two to four times in a few of your weekly workouts. You’ll be surprised at how quickly your muscles feel stronger during pushups.
2. Add more presses to your workouts
In some cases, you need to build up your upper-body strength through easier exercises before moving onto pushups. That’s where presses come in, James says. You can start with a much lighter weight than your full body weight and slowly build upper-body strength by increasing weight.
How to implement it: If you have dumbbells and a place to lie down (like a bench or even the floor) start with one-arm presses. Perform two to three sets of 10 to 12 reps (on each side) a few times per week. Pick a weight that makes the last rep or two pretty challenging and increase by a few pounds every week or two.
Read More: How To Set The Right Muscle-Building Goals
If you don’t have dumbbells, use a resistance band to perform standing single-arm presses. To do this, stand with the anchor behind you, brace your core, and push the handle of the band away from you, without bending or twisting. Increase the resistance each week or so by moving farther away from the anchor point or by using a heavier band.
3. Start with incline pushups
If full pushups on the floor aren’t happening yet, start with incline pushups on a bench or wall. “When you increase the incline of your pushups, the muscles involved are offloaded against gravity, therefore it is easier to focus on good form,” says Bui.
How to implement them: To do incline pushups, place your hands on a bench, spaced shoulder-width apart. Your body should form a straight line and your feet should be together. Engage your core and glutes, then bend elbows (keeping them close to your sides) to lower your chest towards the bench. If needed, modify to a higher incline or try wall pushups. Do three sets of 10 to 15 reps, three times a week.
4. Work On hand-release pushups
“When I coach my crew or clients through pushups, I always have them start with hand release pushups, which allows the body to move slowly while gaining the real-feel of a pushup,” says Bethany Stillwaggon, C.P.T., Raleigh Row House Master Coach. “The more we can practice this, the better equipped the body will be to add strength and complete one or many pushups!”
How to implement them: Start in a plank position. Bend at the elbows, resisting gravity, and lower your chest slowly until it rests on the floor. Release your hands up off the floor, then replace them and push back up into plank position, dropping knees, if needed. Start with three sets of five to 10 reps, two or three days a week. Then, level up your efforts to three sets of 15 to 20 reps, two to four days a week.
5. Try serratus pushups
“Serratus pushups promote scapular stability and strengthen the serratus anterior muscle, which controls shoulder protraction (motion required for pushups),” says Bui.
How to implement them: Start in a forearm plank position with your legs straight and your spine in a neutral position. Inhale and slide your shoulder blades together to lower chest. Exhale to pull shoulder blades apart and lift the chest back up. Do three sets of 20 reps, three times a week.
6. Incorporate bench tricep dips
“This exercise helps strengthen triceps, biceps, deltoids, and upper traps, all of which are required during pushups,” says Bui.
How to implement them: Start by sitting on the bench with hands slightly behind your hips. Keeping your trunk upright and elbows slightly bent, lower your hips off the bench. Legs can extend out straight or be slightly bent, if needed. Inhale and bend elbows to 90 degrees to lower hips. (Keep elbows close to your body.) Exhale and extend arms to press hips back up. Do three sets of 10 to 15 reps, three times a week.