Right Link/Wrong Link: Pushup Progressions

rocky pushups

I like to keep things simple. Pushups are simple, so I like them. One of the most common exercise questions I hear people ask (right next to “how much ya bench?” and “are squats bad for your knees?” [answers: “Not enough” and “Shut up and go squat”]) is “how can I do more pushups?

There are lots of fancy tests and screening tools out there to measure strength, flexibility, stability, etc. But if you want to learn a lot about a person’s upper body function really quickly, have them do a pushup. The pushup is an upper body tell-all, illuminating the strengths and weaknesses of the shoulder, back, chest, arms and even your abs.

As simple as a pushup may seem, not everyone can do a pushup on day one. Females especially (but plenty of guys, too) tend to lack upper body strength when they’re new to exercising, so we as trainers need a way to get them from zero to hero in the pushup department.

The pushup should accomplish a handful of things:

  • Strengthen the muscles of the chest, shoulders and arms
  • Demonstrate adequate core control (by keeping the abs tight and back straight)
  • Demonstrate adequate shoulder stability (by keeping the upper arm in a safe and strong position)

If someone performs a pushup and can’t accomplish any one of these three things, we know we need either a:

  • Regression (make the exercise easier until the exercise matches the person’s strength levels, core control and shoulder stability) OR
  • Progression (make the exercise harder so it challenges the exerciser’s strength, core control and shoulder stability)

There are plenty of pushup progressions and regressions to choose from, but some are certainly better than others. Today, we’ll look at the kneeling pushup, a common regression, and explain why it’s not a great choice for most people trying to progress to a standard pushup.


When someone can’t do pushups on the floor, one of the first exercises trainers go to is the kneeling pushup. It reduces the load placed on the upper body significantly, making it easier to perform than a standard pushup. This is great, because it allows the person to build strength and muscle in a rep range that wouldn’t be possible with a regular pushup.

The problem is that a standard pushup requires a lot more than just upper body strength. Like we said before, a quality pushup demands exceptional core control and shoulder stability, neither of which are challenged properly with the kneeling pushup.

Almost everyone fatigues in the core and lower back first before the arms, chest and shoulders give out, which becomes apparent as the exerciser quickly resembles a saggy hammock on a lazy Sunday. But kneeling pushups don’t allow the exerciser to properly engage the glutes and abdominal muscles to keep the spine in a straight line. Kneeling pushups forget this essential aspect of the exercise.

An effective pushup regression needs to reduce the load on the upper body while still forcing the exerciser to organize the spine into a straight position.


Incline pushups are the answer for the struggling pusher-upper. By elevating the hands and angling the upper body above the lower body, the load on the chest, shoulders and triceps is reduced while still forcing the exerciser to keep the core tight.

You can see that the angled position takes some stress off the upper body but still stresses core control. As soon as the hips sag and the low back forms a big “C” shape, you know your abs and glutes have gone out to lunch. You’ll end up looking like this:

bad pushups

Incline pushups can be done just about anyWHERE with anyTHING that sets your hands above your hips. You can use a:

  • Wall
  • Bar in a rack
  • Smith machine
  • Bench
  • Railing
  • TRX
  • Gymnastics rings
  • Blast straps
  • Hex-sided dumbbells

The list goes on. Just run through the following checklist as you perform incline pushups:

  • Place your hands directly in line with your shoulders.
  • While keeping your fingers pointed straight ahead, “corkscrew” your hands into the surface as if you were trying to get your pinkies to 10 o’clock (left hand) and 2 o’clock (right hand). This will stabilize your shoulders.
  • Walk your feet out to get your torso in position. This could be anywhere from standing straight up to nearly parallel to the floor, depending on the height of your hands.
  • Get your abs tight (as if someone was going to punch you in the gut) and glutes tight (pinch your cheeks and squeeze your feet together).
  • Make a double-chin to keep your neck in proper position.
  • Lower yourself down chest first. The hips should never lead the movement.
  • Keep the elbows tight to the sides. Don’t let the elbows flare out – they should form somewhere between a 30-45 degree angle with your torso.
  • Drive the shoulder blades together as you descend.
  • Push yourself back up while keeping abs/glutes tight and hands screwed into place.
  • At the top, allow the shoulder blades to glide along the ribcage back to a neutral position. Don’t stop the lockout short by keeping your shoulder blades pinched.


If pushups on the floor give you fits, try the incline pushup. Start as easy as you need, even if that’s standing straight up against a wall.

Start with an incline that allows you to do 6 to 8 perfect reps. Each workout, try to do more sets and reps at the same height. Once you can do 2 or 3 sets of 10-12 reps at a given height, lower your hands and start over. Before you know it, you’ll be crushing pushups on the floor with ease.

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Posted in Right Link/Wrong Link, Tips and Tricks

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