Woman performing a press up

Strength training: how to do a press-up for a strong upper body

Posted by for Strength

There is so much more to the humble press-up than meets the eye. Read our expert guide on how mastering your form and improving overall core strength will help you build a good foundation for your press-up strength training

There’s nothing quite like the words “drop and give me 10” to spark fear in even the most hardy gym-goers. Along with the burpee, a full press-up is one of the most dreaded exercises among women so it’s not surprising that we do fewer press-ups than men. Historically regarded as a macho move, the simple exercise has long held a strangely masculine mystique. As the go-to exercise for bodybuilders, it became the poster activity for building muscle. 

But press-ups are a fast and effective exercise for building strength, with the added benefit that they can be done from virtually anywhere and don’t require any equipment.

Which muscles to press-ups work?

“Press-ups combine upper body training with core development,” says Matt Bevan, personal trainer at Bodyism. “You’re using your pectoral muscles (chest), deltoids (shoulders), triceps (back of arms), abdominals and serratus anterior (the “wing” muscles).

“It’s difficult to go straight in and try and do press-ups without a bit of training first. You need to support your chest, shoulders and arms with your core and engage the right muscles which will make the exercise easier to perform effectively.” 

Push up
Strength training: supporting your chest, shoulders and arms with your core will make the exercise easier to perform.

From weak wrists to aching shoulders, there is a lot of reasons why so many of us struggle with a full press-up. “In my experience if you can hold a high plank for two minutes, it will strengthen the wrists enough to be able to do a press-up,” Matt tells us. “To work the wrists more, try a high bird dog plank. You raise one arm and the opposite leg from the plank position for five seconds, return them to the floor and then raise the other arm and opposite leg. Keep repeating this for 20 reps (10 each side).”

Not only will nailing a full press-up give you a stronger body and a real sense of achievement, it can be done anywhere, at any time and be a great add-on to your regular workout. “Try to aim to do a set of press-ups twice a week to really see the benefits,” Matt advises. “They can also be added into a circuit alongside other exercises such as lunges and squats or do them alone and build up the amount you can perform.”

Strength training: press-ups are one of the best ways to strengthen your chest muscles.

How to do a full press-up

“The press-up is basically a moving plank so we need to master this isometrically before progressing to movement,” Matt says.

  1. Firstly, place your hands on the floor slightly wider than shoulder width with your arms straight and your toes touching the floor behind you (the top of a press-up).
  2. Draw your belly button in and squeeze your bum muscles.
  3. Build up to holding this position for two minutes. It’s a great regression from a press-up that also really works your abs.
  4. After mastering this, maintain the tension you created in the plank and start bending through the elbows as you lower your whole body towards the ground.
  5. Let your upper arms and elbows come out to 45 degrees as you lower.
  6. Stop when your elbows are level with your shoulders (about halfway).
  7. Maintaining the tension, push the ground away and come back to your high plank.

Start practicing these press-ups on an incline surface, like a table or bench and slowly work your way to the floor as you improve.

Starting with wall press-ups is a great way to build strength and get your body used to the movement while dumbbell chest presses and flyes, front arm raises, triceps extensions and plank holds will build the right muscles in preparation for the full press-up. “Once you’ve mastered the move you can start to bring your hands closer together for more emphasis on the triceps or elevate the feet using a step, table or couch to make it more difficult,” Matt suggests. 

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Images: Getty, Unsplash

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