Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth fitness and nutrition courses and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+.
The push-up is arguably the simplest exercise for developing the upper body and core, and because it uses a portion of your own bodyweight, it is quintessentially a functional training movement. The standard push-up can be overplayed, however, but infinite variations can be achieved simply by changing angles, increasing reps or adding power to keep it as fresh as it is functional. Here are four versions that level you up from beginner to super athletic.
Level 1: TRX Incline Push-Up
Because of the moveable straps, push-ups done on a TRX develop stability and control, teaching your rotator cuffs and core muscles to stabilize and align your trunk and shoulders. At an incline, the resistance and force demand are reduced, making it ideal for novice trainees. Put this move at the beginning of your session after a complete upper-body warm-up.
Adjust the TRX straps to an appropriate height — the higher the setting, the less the resistance and the easier the move. Grip the handles with your palms facing inward, arms straight. Walk your feet backward until your body is at an angle to the floor; the closer you come to parallel, the more challenging it becomes. Bend your elbows, keeping them in close to your sides, and lower your torso between the TRX straps. When your chest comes nearly level with your hands, press forcefully down into the handles and extend your arms to return to the start.
- Whatever your angle, keep the TRX straps in the same line throughout. If they migrate forward, it reduces your control and could cause a shoulder injury.
- If the straps chafe your arms, you are probably angled too far over your hands and/or are shrugging your shoulders. Get back into plank and anchor your shoulder blades into your back before beginning the move.
Level 2: Lateral Walking Push-Up
This move challenges your endurance, adding more time under tension as you walk laterally back and forth with your hands and feet between reps. This move will get your heart rate up, so position it at the beginning of your training session, or if you have solid core and shoulder stability, use it as a finisher for a chest/shoulder or upper-body day.
Start in plank with your hands underneath your shoulders and your head, hips and heels aligned, legs together. Brace your core and tuck your chin to keep your spine neutral. Bend your elbows, keeping them in close to your sides, and lower yourself down until your chest nearly touches the ground. Exhale and extend your arms forcefully to return to plank. Step to the left using your right hand and right foot simultaneously, then follow with your left hand/foot. Take two to three steps, do a push-up, then reverse direction and repeat.
- If you’re having issues coordinating a simultaneous hand/foot movement, break it up: Step out first with the hand, then with the foot.
- As you become more proficient, time the move so that as you step your hands and feet together, you lower right into a push-up without stopping.
Level 3: One-Sided Elevated Push-Up
One way to build strength is to work unilaterally. Elevating one hand in a push-up does this pretty effectively, reducing the range of motion (and force contribution) of one arm while putting more work on the other. Do this move anywhere in a training session for strength, or use it in a superset with a bilateral exercise like a chest press for endurance.
Find an elevated surface of about 4 to 8 inches such as an aerobic step, yoga block or small box. Get into a push-up position with one hand on top of the surface and the other hand on the floor, placed slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Your floor arm should be straight, and your elevated arm should be slightly bent with your elbow pointed rearward. Bend both elbows until your floor arm is bent 90 degrees at the elbow. (This requires greater flexibility in the elevated shoulder, as that arm will bend past 90 degrees.) Forcefully extend both arms to the start. Do all reps on one side, then switch.
- Keep your reps slow and controlled and avoid bouncing at the bottom. Your elevated shoulder is in a deep stretch, so abrupt movement could cause a strain or injury.
- The wrist of your elevated hand is super extended. If this is uncomfortable, either make a fist on top of the platform or use a dumbbell or push-up bar rather than a box as your surface.
Combine Level 2 and Level 3 into a lateral walking elevated push-up: Put the block or step in the middle and travel back and forth across it.
Level 4: Ladder Plyometric Push-Up Jack
If you’ve been training a while, push-ups might be a snore, but adding power will amp up excitement — and the gains. Do this move at the beginning of your workout after a thorough warm-up and before any heavy strength moves. Start with a few reps, adding on if your form remains pristine. If using as part of a metcon or finisher, keep the reps low to prevent fatigue and possibly injury.
Spread an agility ladder out on the floor. Get into plank at one end with your hands and feet placed wide and outside the ladder. Bend your elbows and lower into a push-up, then powerfully press the floor away with your hands and feet, exploding upward and slightly forward. Land with your hands and feet together inside the ladder boxes and drop immediately into the next push-up. Explode up and forward again and land with your hands and feet outside the ladder. Continue, moving in
and out as you travel.
- Having trouble with timing? Start with two push-up jacks in place, then walk your hands and feet forward to the next ladder squares.
- Because you are traveling forward, you might be tempted to reach your arms ahead of you in front of your shoulders to get to the next box; don’t: This places stress on your shoulders and lower back. Instead, cut your distance in half, doubling up your reps in each box in the ladder.
If you don’t have a ladder, draw one on the floor with chalk or mark it out with tape.