It’s natural to think that bodyweight exercises are relatively easy since you aren’t using any additional weight. However, even well-trained individuals are often unable to do numerous reps of push-ups with their feet on the floor rather than their knees.
This isn’t to say that everyday athletes will not be able to perform numerous push-up reps with some training.
There are certainly some effective beginner push-up modifications and supplementary strength training exercises for the muscles worked by push-ups to help you develop the strength necessary to do them.
That said, you may wonder: how many push-ups should I do to strengthen my upper body? How many push-ups should I do for mass or hypertrophy? How many push-ups should I do if I’m a beginner?
In this workout guide, we will cover how to do push-ups, how to modify push-ups based on your fitness level and training goals, and ultimately answer your question: how many push-ups should I do in my workouts?
Let’s jump in!
How Do You Do Push-Ups?
The basic push-up exercise involves getting on your feet and hands on the floor with your feet extended straight out behind your body.
Then, you bend your elbows to lower your chest towards the floor and then press back up to straighten your arms to the starting position.
This upper-body exercise strengthens the pectoralis major and minor muscles in the chest, the serratus anterior, the traps and rhomboids in the upper back, the deltoids and rotator cuff muscles of the shoulders, and the triceps in the back of the upper arm.
Push-ups also require an isometric contraction of the abdominal muscles and lower back extensors, making push-ups a great functional core exercise for building course stability.
You should also contract your glutes and quads to help maintain a neutral spine while performing push-ups.
Here are the steps for how to do a push-up properly:
- Kneel down and place your hands on the floor with your wrists, elbows, and shoulders stacked in a line and perpendicular to the floor. Angling your hands too far forward relative to your shoulder joint will put excess torque on your shoulders and wrists and reduce your core muscles’ mechanical efficiency. You can spread your fingers out slightly to add stability.
- Step your feet back so that you’re weight-bearing on your toes/balls of your feet. Your feet should be on the floor with your toes curled under, contacting the ground behind you. Your elbows should line up directly underneath your shoulders.
- Keep your body in a straight line from your head to your heels without your butt sagging down and creating a sway back or hiked up into the air. Imagine that your body is a straight board.
- Brace your core by drawing your belly button in towards your spine and squeezing your glutes tightly.
- Lower your chest toward the ground by bending your elbows until they are flexed to a 90° angle. Your elbows should bend towards your feet and not flare out to the sides away from your body. Aim to have your elbows angled back towards your hip bones. Your shoulders should drop down and meet your hands in the lowered position. Your hands should be pointing forward rather than inward towards one another.
- Pause briefly in the lowered position, hovering above the floor.
- Press through your palms to engage your triceps and pecs as you straighten your elbows and lift your body back up to the starting position.
How Many Push-Ups Should I Do? Is More Better?
While doing more push-ups can certainly improve your muscular strength and endurance, when you try to do too many push-up reps in a row without stopping before you have sufficient strength in the muscles worked by push-ups,1Kotarsky, Christopher, J., Christensen, Bryan, K., Miller, Jason, S., Hackney, & Kyle, J. (2017). Effect of Progressive Calisthenic Push-Up Training On Muscle Strength and Thickness. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 32(3), 1. https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0000000000002345 your technique and form start to break down.
This can decrease the effectiveness of the exercise and potentially increase the risk of injuries to your shoulders, elbows, wrists, or lower back.
For example, as a Certified Personal Trainer, when I am working with clients, I often find that competitive individuals are all about achieving higher push-up counts or banging out many push-ups in a row as fast as possible.
This tends to cause the athlete to unintentionally “cheat“ by not going deep enough with the push-up.
To truly strengthen the push-up muscle groups, you have to use the full range of motion.
You should be bending your elbows to at least 90° when you lower your chest towards the floor. When you press back up, extend your elbows fully.
If you are finding that even when you slow down your push-up execution and try to deliberately go as deep as possible and use the full range of motion you can’t go deep enough, you might lack sufficient strength for for push-ups, or you might have some mobility issues in your shoulders, elbows, or wrists.
If you are experiencing any joint pain or pinching that seems to be limiting your push-up range of motion, you should work with a physical therapist to identify and correct any underlying issues.
If you lack the strength to support your body weight through the full range of motion, try modifying the push-up by starting on your knees or putting your hands on an elevated surface such as a weight bench, table, or wall.
Starting with these beginner push-ups will reduce the relative percentage of your body weight that you have to work with while still giving you the opportunity to start developing more strength in the muscles worked by push-ups.
Modifying Push-Ups For Different Fitness Levels
There are various ways to modify push-ups for beginners and progress push-ups for advanced athletes.
Some of the best push-up variations also target other muscle groups or different fibers of the same muscles worked by push-ups.
Therefore, incorporating some of the different types of push-ups into your upper body workouts can help you develop more well-rounded strength in the muscles of your chest, upper back, shoulders, abdominals, and triceps.
Here are some ways to make push-ups more challenging:
Wear a Weighted Vest
With any bodyweight strengthening exercise like push-ups, wearing a weighted vest will increase the resistance and make the exercise more challenging.
The weighted vest essentially acts like additional body weight.
In general, it is better to add a weighted vest to push-ups if your goal is to increase strength and build muscle (once you are able to do all of the recommended reps for hypertrophy or reps for strength increases) rather than do more reps of bodyweight push-ups.
This is because the weighted vest will help you achieve progressive overload by increasing the relative load that you are lifting in a push-up workout.
Therefore, you can stay within the guidelines for building muscle and increasing strength once your own body weight provides an insufficient load for your fitness level.
Another way to make push-ups more challenging is to slow down as much as possible as you descend and bend your elbows for the lowering portion.
Try to count to 4 to 5 seconds on the lowering portion to really work your triceps, pecs, and shoulders through the eccentric (lengthening) contraction.2Schoenfeld, B. J., Ogborn, D. I., Vigotsky, A. D., Franchi, M. V., & Krieger, J. W. (2017). Hypertrophic Effects of Concentric vs. Eccentric Muscle Actions. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 31(9), 2599–2608. https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0000000000001983
This will put the muscles worked by push-ups under tension for a longer period of time, particularly during the most effective part of the exercise for stimulating muscle protein synthesis (the eccentric phase).
How Many Push-Ups Should I Do Based On My Fitness Goals?
It may take some time to build up to being able to do full push-ups if you are a beginner.
Start with kneeling push-ups or incline push-ups as described. Build up to 2-3 sets of 10-12 reps.
Then, when you can progress to push-ups on your feet, aim for 2 to 3 sets of 10 to 15 reps of push-ups in a row.
Advanced athletes can do three sets of 15 to 25 push-ups for general strength training workouts.
As you get stronger, you can first add more sets of push-ups per workout and then try incorporating more challenging types of push-ups.
If you are doing push-ups to increase strength, once you can do several sets of at least 15 reps of regular push-ups in a row, increase the resistance with a weighted vest or try decline push-ups.
For muscular endurance, build up to longer sets of push-ups in a row. Try doing 3 x 1 minute of push-ups, aiming for 30 push-ups per minute.
To learn more about how to strengthen your push-up workouts, check out our guide to the best upper-body workouts here.
- 1Kotarsky, Christopher, J., Christensen, Bryan, K., Miller, Jason, S., Hackney, & Kyle, J. (2017). Effect of Progressive Calisthenic Push-Up Training On Muscle Strength and Thickness. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 32(3), 1. https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0000000000002345
- 2Schoenfeld, B. J., Ogborn, D. I., Vigotsky, A. D., Franchi, M. V., & Krieger, J. W. (2017). Hypertrophic Effects of Concentric vs. Eccentric Muscle Actions. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 31(9), 2599–2608. https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0000000000001983