If, like me, you’re all about Netflix’s Cobra Kai, you’ve probably ooh-ed and ahh-ed at the martial artists churning out pushups on their knuckles in various scenes of the show. But are there real perks of this cool-looking spin on the classic bodyweight strength move? Turns out, there’s a reason why fighters—and even people with certain ailments—are fans of this type of pushup.
Why Martial Artists Prefer Knuckle Pushups
According to Brazilian jiu-jitsu trainer Michael LaBorde, there’s one very specific reason fighters do knuckle pushups: The positioning of your hands (picture two fists pressed straight into the floor) prevents you from bending your wrists improperly as you warm up before martial arts training. Conventional or open-hand pushups require you to bend your wrists to plant your hands on the floor, which can cause issues in martial artists who depend on their fists to practice their craft, he explains.
Basically, since martial artists make a fist in order to strike their opponents, they need to build strength in their fists in order to master their moves. “Hands change over time,” adds Dr. Ujjwal Shakya, P.T., D.P.T. owner of MMA & Sports Rehab. “If you make a fist for five years, the fist will be different from when you first started.” And, according to Shakya, knuckle pushups equal a tighter fist.
Many mixed martial arts (MMA) athletes also do knuckle pushups because they already have gloves on before they get in the ring, Shakya notes. So, sometimes, it’s just more practical.
Should You Try Knuckle Pushups?
Martial artists aren’t the only ones who can benefit from banging out pushups on their knuckles. In fact, knuckle pushups are great for people with wrist extension injuries, who might experience wrist pain with conventional pushups.
That said, knuckle pushups are plenty challenging. Because fists are smaller than open hands, your base of support becomes narrower, which means that your forearms and shoulders have to work extra hard to hold your weight, explains Shakya. This means they’re also a good option for strength trainers looking to switch up their routine.
Tips For Nailing Knuckle Pushups
Want to give this pushup variation a shot? Keep a few things in mind as you get started.
1. Choose the right surface
This probably goes without saying, but if you want to avoid tearing up your knuckles, you’ll need to do knuckle pushups on an appropriate surface, like a yoga mat, grass, or even a rolled-up towel. This way, you can reap the benefits of knuckle pushups without causing extra, unnecessary pain. “Don’t pick a surface like bare concrete,” says LaBorde. Ouch.
2. Modify, modify, modify
If you’re new to knuckle pushups (or pushups in general), begin by mastering a modified form of the movement. “Start on your knees so that you’re only loading up your upper body, which carries about 40 percent of your body weight,” says LaBorde. You might also try starting with a smaller range of motion, Shakya adds. Instead of trying to lower your chest all the way to the floor right off the bat, go just halfway before pushing back up.
Shakya also recommends swapping your usual planks for knuckle planks. If that’s too challenging, try knuckle planks from your knees.
3. Know when to enlist a pro
As with any new exercise, it’s never a bad idea to have a fitness professional like a certified trainer or physical therapist observe your form as you get started with knuckle pushups. They’ll be able to point out any issues and recommend modifications or adjustments that can prevent injury, if necessary.
Experiencing any pain during or after knuckle pushups is another reason to seek the help of a pro. “If you feel pain, something is wrong,” says LaBorde. In the meantime, give this masterful martial arts-inspired move a break to avoid getting hurt.
The Bottom Line
Whether you’re interested in martial arts, experience wrist pain, or want to nail a cool new strength exercise, knuckle pushups can be a great alternative to conventional pushups. Of course, just make sure to progress the exercise appropriately for your fitness level to reap the results you’re after.