Push-Up Training for Women

Fit woman doing exercises in presence of a personal instructor

You've probably seen a few guys in the gym pump out innumerable push-ups, while you can barely eke out one. As a woman, you're not alone in your push-up struggle. Men typically have greater muscle mass and more overall strength, and the difference is even more pronounced in the upper body. That doesn't mean, however, you can't train yourself to be a push-up machine. Just follow a simple progression, and you'll be challenging your male friends to push-up contests in no time.

Begin at the Beginning

If you are a complete newbie to strength-training, start here. If you already have a solid base of strength, you can skip this section. Wall push-ups are the best place for novice strength trainers, if even just to get a sense of where you are, strength-wise, and to introduce your muscles gradually to exercise.

How to Do Wall Push-Ups

  1. Choose a sturdy wall with no obstructions, such as hanging pictures or bookshelves.
  2. Stand in front of the wall and place your palms flat on its surface at shoulder height. Begin with your feet aligned under your shoulders. 
  3. Walk your feet out away from the wall a few inches. Keep your body flat, like a board, not bending at the hips or knees.
  4. Begin to bend your elbows, bringing your chest closer to the wall. When your chest is almost touching, press into your palms to straighten your arms, coming back to your starting position.
  5. Do 12 to 15 reps. If this feels easy, continue to walk your feet away from the wall to a point where eight to 12 reps feels pretty challenging to complete. Here is where you'll want to work on progressing until it feels less challenging. 

Build Up to Bench Push-Ups

Once you've mastered wall push-ups, you're ready for the next level -- push-ups on a bench. You can use an exercise bench, a piano bench or a park bench; anything that elevates your upper body above your heels will work. With a bench push-up, you're coming closer to horizontal, but not so much that all the weight is in your upper body -- your legs are still supporting a fair amount of your body weight.

How to Do a Bench Push-Up

  1. Place your hands on the edge of the bench, about shoulder-width apart. Align your shoulders over your wrists.
  2. Walk your feet out so that your body comes into one straight line, with your heels, hips and shoulders aligned. Keeping your body in this line is one of the most important aspects of achieving the perfect push-up form.
  3. Contract your abs and begin to bend your elbows, lowering your chest down toward the edge of the bench. Keep your elbows close in to your sides -- don't let them flare out.
  4. Stop when your chest is an inch to several inches away from the bench. The stronger you get, the farther down you'll be able to go.
  5. Push the bench away from you, straightening your elbows and coming back to starting position.
  6. Do three sets of eight repetitions with perfect form.

Next Up: Knee Push-Ups

With each progression, you're removing a little bit of weight from your legs and transferring it to your upper body. With knee push-ups, you're coming closer to horizontal and to completing your first regular push-up.

How to Do Knee Push-Ups

  1. Begin on all fours on an exercise mat, with your wrists aligned under your shoulders.
  2. Walk your knees back so that your body, from your shoulders to knees, is in one straight line. Hold this shape as you complete the exercise.
  3. Contract your abdominal muscles and lift your feet and shins off the floor. You can cross one ankle over the other.
  4. Slowly bend your elbows as you lower your chest toward the floor. Bring your chest about an inch to several inches from the floor, then push through your palms to straighten your arms and return to your starting position. 
  5. Do three sets of eight reps with perfect form.
Sport woman training outside in city quay early morning

Keep your abs contracted and your neck long during push-ups.

You Have Arrived: Traditional Push-Up

Whatever step you started at, if you've been sticking with your training, you'll eventually come to a point where a push-up on your knees is easy after about eight reps. That's when you know you're ready to complete your first set of traditional push-ups. You already know proper form -- abs contracted, body in one straight, strong line, elbows pointing back. All you have to do now is lift your your knees off the floor, coming into a plank, and hold that line throughout the exercise. The most important thing is not to let your hips sag, and keep a slightly rounded upper back.

You may not be able to complete an entire set of perfect push-ups at first; do as many as you can with flawless form, then drop your knees to complete the set. Take a rest then start your next set, beginning with regular push-ups and dropping your knees whenever you need to. Complete three sets of eight repetitions in this way, and gradually build up to complete three sets of eight regular push-ups with your knees off the floor. Then, go have a party to celebrate your strong, awesome self!

Training Tips

You can easily work your push-up training into your total-body strength-training routine. Push-ups work several major muscle groups in the upper body and core region -- chest, arms, shoulders, back and abs -- so you really don't need much else to build a strong upper body. Combine push-ups with pull-ups, squats and lunges for a complete full-body routine.

To get stronger, you need to work your muscles, but you also need to allow them to rest. Especially when you're first starting out, leave a day or two in between your push-up training routine. As you get stronger, you can do push-ups every day if you want to. On the flip-side, training fewer than twice a week won't get you the results you want.

Explore In Depth

Time course for strength and muscle thickness changes following upper and lower body resistance training in men and women February 01, 2000
  • Takashi Abe
  • Diego V. DeHoyos
  • Michael L. Pollock
  • Linda Garzarella
The Effect of Combined Machine and Body Weight Circuit Training for Women on Muscle Strength and Body Composition September 01, 2015
  • Michal Lehnert
  • Petr Stastny
  • Martin Sigmund
  • Zuzana Xaverova
  • Blanka Hubnerova
Can hypopressive exercises provide additional benefits to pelvic floor muscle training in women with pelvic organ prolapse January 01, 2012
  • Ana Paula Magalhães Resende
  • Liliana Stüpp
  • Bruno Teixeira Bernardes
  • Emerson Oliveira
  • Rodrigo Aquino Castro
The effectiveness of traditional and sling exercise strength training in women. February 01, 2011
  • Bethany D. Dannelly
  • Sarah C. Otey
  • Ted Croy
  • Blain C. Harrison
  • Corey A. Rynders