Should You Be Doing Pushups Every Day? 5 Benefits Of This Underrated Exercise
When you think about pushups, what comes to mind? Maybe it's that challenging bootcamp class you barely survived. Or the drill-sergeant-like soccer coach you had in high school who frequently barked "Drop and give me 20!"
But despite the less-than-stellar feelings that pushups can evoke, they're actually good for us. There's a reason this total-body move is a staple in many workouts, from HIIT to yoga to pure strength training. Here, we set the record straight on pushups, explaining the legitimate health benefits you'll get from doing this move on the reg, how to actually do it correctly, tips for modifying the pushup to your fitness level, and more.
5 health benefits of pushups:
Here are five reasons you should be doing pushups regularly:
1. Improved upper-body strength
It's no shocker that pushups seriously challenge your upper half. You are, after all, bending your arms to lower and lift your entire body.
"Pushups are a great upper-body strengthener," says Stephanie Mansour, Chicago-based certified personal trainer. That's because they work essentially your entire upper half, including the front of your chest, both the front and back of your arms (aka biceps and triceps), shoulders, and upper back, she explains.
Building strength in these areas will make certain day-to-day activities—like carrying a hefty bag of groceries, or lifting a suitcase into an overhead bin—feel a little easier. Another perk: Compared to other upper-body moves that target just one specific muscle group—like bicep curls, for example, which home in on (surprise, surprise) your biceps—pushups hit many different muscle groups at once, making them an efficient, effective exercise for improving upper-body strength on the whole.
2. Improved core strength and stability
But pushups aren't just about upper-body strength. They "can be a full-body workout if done correctly," says Shaun Zetlin, Brooklyn, New York–based CSCS and author of the "Pushup Progression" series. He describes the pushup as a good "bang for your buck" move as it works many different joints and muscles simultaneously.
A big part of that total-body work includes core strength and stability. When performed correctly, pushups are a great way to stabilize and strengthen your core, says Zetlin, who defines "core" as essentially all parts of your body that aren't your heads, arms, or legs. That means the core isn't just about your rectus abdominis (aka "abs") but also includes many other muscles in your midsection.
And while certain core moves focus primarily on the abs (looking at you, crunches), a properly performed pushup targets some of the lesser-known muscles in your core, like transverse abdominis (the deepest core muscle that helps supports your spine), multifidus (a series of small muscles that run along the spine), and others.
By targeting these other core muscles, you're helping the entire unit of your core become stronger and more stable. Because the core is essentially the powerhouse of the body and a crucial component of the movements we do in so many different scenarios, a stronger core unit will essentially make everything in life easier. That includes activities both at the gym (whether you're squatting or running or lifting weights) and in day-to-day life (from walking or carrying groceries to picking up a child).
3. They can double as cardio
In certain scenarios, pushups can also double as cardio, says Zetlin. If you do enough pushups, your heart will likely start to pump faster, and you may feel out of breath. "It can be almost like HIIT," says Zetlin. Depending on your fitness level, you may not need to bust out a bunch of reps to get to this point. A set of 10 pushups, for example, may be enough. You can repeat sets of pushups, resting enough in between each set to catch your breath, for a cardio workout, says Zetlin.
Also on the topic of heart health: A 2019 study of 1,109 adult male firefighters found that baseline pushup ability may be associated with risk of cardiovascular problems. In the study, men who were able to bust out at least 40 pushups over 30 seconds had significantly lower risk of experiencing cardiovascular problems (think heart attack and heart failure) over the following decade compared with men who could do less than 10 pushups. Keep in mind that this study focused solely on male firefighters (a pretty niche population) and that the results don't mean that pushups are your surefire ticket to good ticker health. But the results do suggest that your pushup abilities might predict your risk of developing cardiovascular problems.
4. Supports strong bones
Pushups do more than strengthen your muscles and challenge your heart. Because they are a weight-bearing move, pushups can also promote good bone health—per the Mayo Clinic, weight-bearing exercises can help build strong bones and slow bone loss.
5. Improves posture
Thanks to today's tech-tethered world, many of us spend our days with hunched shoulders and a rounded spine, hallmarks of poor posture. Pushups, if done correctly, can help counteract this by teaching our bodies good positioning, says Zetlin.
A proper pushup, he explains, involves engaging the scapula and rhomboids (two mid-back muscles that are typically underworked) without relying as much on the muscles on top of your shoulders and neck (which many of us typically overuse in day-to-day life anyway, especially when we're stressed). Good posture also comes from quality core strength and stability, and as mentioned, pushups can definitely help with that.
How to do a proper pushup
Get on all fours with your shoulders over your wrists and your knees underneath your hips. Make sure your knees are open as wide as your hips.
Walk your hands forward several inches, and then shift your body forward so that your shoulders are over your wrists again. Your hips will now be in front of your knees. Keep your fingers together and extend them forward as you press down through your palms.
From here, pull your bellybutton in toward your spine and tuck your toes under to lift your knees up off the ground and come into a high plank position. (Note: To better engage your deep core stabilization muscles, Zetlin suggests moving your heels together).
Make sure your heels are directly over your toes and your wrists are still underneath your shoulders. Your neck should be in line with your spine (don't tuck your chin or crane your head up), and your shoulders should be pulled back and down away from the ears. Make sure your upper back and glutes are aligned. Squeeze your quads and glutes. This is the starting position.
Breathe in as you bend your elbows at a 45-degree angle to your sides, and lower yourself down toward the ground, squeezing your shoulder blades together and keeping your core and quads braced.
Lower yourself as far down as you can (even if it's just a few inches) for two to three counts while still maintaining good form—don't let your hips sag or your butt hike up. Your body should be in one long straight line from the crown of your head to your heels.
At the bottom of the movement, push down through your palms and breathe out as you push yourself back up over one count to the starting position. This is one rep.
Tip: If you're new to pushups, try to perform them next to a mirror, says Mansour, or record yourself on your phone, adds Zetlin. That way you can monitor your form and make sure you're properly aligned.
Pushups are a challenging move, and it's totally OK if you're not yet able to do them as described above. A popular regression is to simply drop to your knees and perform pushups from there. Mansour says this modification significantly reduces the strength demands on your body while still engaging the same muscles.
Zetlin, however, isn't a fan of pushups on your knees as he says it can stress the lower back, increase your likelihood of rounding your spine, and reduce the core challenge. As an alternative, he suggests simply holding the pushup starting position (aka a high plank) for 20 to 30 seconds at a time, keeping your heels together for added core challenge. Or, if you have limited mobility, joint issues, or otherwise aren't ready for a high plank, you could try standing pushups performed against the wall, he adds.
On the flip side, if you want to up the ante, there are many ways to make the move more difficult. One suggestion: Place your toes atop an approximately 18-inch bench or a box so that your feet are higher than your hips, suggests Mansour. By performing pushups at this diagonal angle, you'll increase the strength demands on your upper body and core.
How many pushups does it take?
There's no one magic number of pushups that will give you the benefits we mentioned above. Instead, simply try challenging yourself. Zetlin suggests starting with eight reps, and then adjusting that number depending on how difficult the set feels. The goal, he says, is for the last two reps to feel challenging enough that you're struggling to complete them, though not too challenging that you aren't able to keep good form.
In terms of frequency, Zetlin suggests doing pushups one to three times a week. Though daily pushup challenges are popular, both he and Mansour aren't big fans of doing pushups every day as that frequency likely won't give your body the time it needs to properly rest and recover. Mansour suggests simply listening to your body to determine how often to do pushups—if yesterday's set left you feeling sore, wait until that fatigue subsides before you get back at it. You can tackle pushups before a cardio workout or do them after weight lifting, says Zetlin. Or you can bust out sets of pushups as their own mini workout.
How to avoid plateauing
As you progress with your pushups, know that you'll likely plateau at some point. If that happens, don't get discouraged, says Zetlin. "Remember that you will overcome this and it's part of the journey," he says.
Here's how to do that: Say, for instance, you've worked your way up to 30 consecutive pushups, and no matter how hard you try, you can't seem to make it to 31. The next time you get to 30 pushups, lower yourself down and simply hold your form at the bottom of the movement for as long as possible without worrying about pushing yourself back up. This will help you build stability in your muscles and challenge your body in a new way so that you'll ultimately be able to break through to the next level.
"Stay with it," says Zetlin. "You will continue to get better."
Potential risks to keep in mind
If you're recovering from a major injury, talk to a physical therapist first before attempting pushups, says Zetlin. And if you have joint issues around the wrists, elbows, or shoulders, start with the modifications described above, says Mansour. Also, if doing pushups causes any sharp pain, or if you hear a popping sound that's accompanied by pain, stop immediately, she advises.
The bottom line
When performed with proper form, pushups are a great way to strengthen your upper body and both strengthen and stabilize your core. They can also provide a solid cardio challenge, promote good posture, and support healthy bones density.
But if you can't yet do a proper pushup, don't stress. There are several simple ways you can build up your strength—no middle school gym class or tear-inducing bootcamp workouts required.
Want your passion for wellness to change the world? Become A Functional Nutrition Coach! Enroll today to join live July office hours.