Upper-body strength training: how to do a full press-up

Posted by for Strong Women

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 and Chippendales to prove their prowess and strength, it became the poster activity for vitality and health while women were lumbered with ‘the girl press-up’ – an easier alternative performed on the knees. Until now. 

Widely considered a muscle-toning heavyweight, the humble press-up can lead to a whole host of benefits including toned shoulders, a strong core and sculpted upper arms. So why is it so damn difficult to do one? The good news is, it’s not you. 

According to research published in 2014 in the International Journal Of Exercise Science, women have 50% less natural upper-body strength than men because they have smaller muscle fibres and less of their musculature is distributed in the upper body. “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 more 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.” 

Photo by Ayo Ogunseinde on Unsplash
How to achieve a full push-up

From weak wrists to aching shoulders, there seems to be a whole host of reasons (not excuses) that stop us from performing the entire move. “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. Where 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.”

Mobility movements: scapula press-up

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.

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).

Draw your belly button in and squeeze your bum muscles.

Build up to holding this position for two minutes. It’s a great regression from a press-up that also really works your abs.

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.

Let your upper arms and elbows come out to 45 degrees as you lower.

Stop when your elbows are level with your shoulders (about halfway).

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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