If you have decided to work out your arms, shoulders, back, chest, and even your abdomen, push-ups are one of the most simple and effective exercises you can perform.
But if you are new to push-ups, you may be wondering how to structure your workouts. Should you do push-ups every day, or should you take breaks? How many push-ups should you do in a set? How many sets should you do in a day?
It Depends on Your Goals
If you research this question, you will discover that there is no one correct answer—simply recommendations.
For example, certified personal trainer Derrick Fenlon says, “If you are aiming to do press ups every day then do not go beyond 60 to 70% of your maximum count. If you wish to go to maximum count then you will require a couple of days rest and recovery time in between.”
But high intensity training expert Drew Baye says, “If your goal is to become skilled at performing push ups for the sake of being able to do a lot of push ups the more frequent the practice the better. You should perform as many as you can without breaking form, as frequently as you can without causing continuous soreness or joint pain.”
But Baye then also goes on to say, “Oh the other hand, if your goal is to exercise effectively – to stimulate improvements in strength and conditioning – you should not perform them daily.”
And that leads us to our first question. Should you be doing daily push-ups?
Should You Do Push-Ups Daily, or Should You Skip Days?
You are probably aware that conventional thinking is that you should give muscle groups rest between workouts, alternating between different exercises on different days.
Going by that standard recommendation, you would not perform daily push-ups.
But the matter of push-ups seems to be a bit more complicated than that. Military trainer Stew Smith, author of The Grinder PT – Key to Mental Toughness, explains that he noticed that push-ups are performed daily in Boot Camp.
On that basis, he decided to test out an exercise routine which included 200 push-ups every day over the course of 10 days, with 3 days off afterward. According to him, people who have used it have managed to increase their push-ups from around 50 to 80 within just that timeframe (as demonstrated during a test on day 14).
He also says, however, that you shouldn’t put your body through this routine (which you can read about in detail at the link) more than once every six months.
So, if your goal is to pass a fitness test, it seems that daily push-ups may be the way to go, based both on what Baye and Smith have said.
Otherwise, you may still want to give your muscles regular rest days interspersed between the days you do push-ups.
How Many Push-Ups Should You Be Able to Do?
Should you actually be able to manage 200 push-ups per day? What is a reasonable number of daily push-ups—or push-ups in a set—to shoot for?
There is really no hard “rule” here. You might want to set a goal based on push-up standards set for professional fitness tests.
For example, if you were trying to join the Coast Guard, you would need to be able to perform 29 push-ups in 1 minute if you are male, and 15 push-ups in 1 minute if you are female. There are different requirements for joining the Army or the Navy.
What Is a Reasonable Starting Number of Push-Ups for a Beginner?
Whatever standard you use to set your goals, obviously as a complete beginner, you may be nowhere near being able to pass a fitness test for entrance to a military branch.
So, that still leaves you with the question, “How many push-ups a day should I be doing now?”
Personal trainer Nick Gee says, “I would recommend starting off with 2–3 sets w/60 seconds rest in between, doing them every two days, and then adding an additional set every few weeks until you’re up to 10 sets.”
He doesn’t recommend a specific number of reps in a set, but does say that you should “aim for one more on each set than the previous workout” each day.
Drew Baye, meanwhile, writes, “You should be more concerned with how well you do the push ups than how many you do, while also keeping in mind that time under tension – the duration of the exercise – is more important than the total mechanical work performed. Ten very slow repetitions that take you over a minute to complete are more effective (and easier on your joints) then fifty fast, sloppy ones.”
Correct Push-Up Form
So, we can say that even one very slow, very good push-up is likely a superior exercise than any number of poorly executed push-ups.
Here are some tips for performing a proper push-up:
- Your feet should be separated by no more than 12 inches. You can put them together if you want.
- You should be in a plank pose, with your body in an angled straight line all the way from your shoulders to your feet. This is where most people mess up their positioning by raising or lowering their hips, which disrupts the straight line.
- Your hands should not be forward or backward from your shoulders. By default, they should be just a little more than shoulder-width apart. Do not flare your shoulders.
- Need to go easy on your wrists? Consider doing your push-ups on your knuckles. If you can’t manage that, use push-up handles.
- Look ahead when you do your push-ups. Don’t stare at the floor with your face completely down.
You should definitely look at pictures and watch some videos if you are unsure what you are doing.
This is important not just for improving your push-ups and making them more effective, but also for avoiding injury.
What If You Cannot Do a Single Proper Push-Up?
Hopefully, you find you are able to do at least one correct push-up. But what if you cannot?
That is pretty common, especially if you do not do any sort of regular upper body workouts.
If that is your situation, there are a few simple modifications you can try which will maintain correct form but make push-ups easier:
- You can do push-ups against a wall instead of on the floor. This is the easiest way to do a push-up. Even if you have very little upper body strength, you can probably manage a number of these.
- If you have an inclined plane, you can try doing a push-up on that if you feel that you are not quite ready to progress to the floor, but are ready to move on from the wall.
- You can do push-ups on the floor on both your knees if necessary. Once you become adept at those, you can switch to just one knee. Eventually, you should be able to take both knees off the ground and do correct regular push-ups.
These modifications allow you to do full sets of reps even if you cannot do a single proper full push-up yet.
Structure Your Workouts So You Can Be Consistent
Given that you can perform modified push-ups if necessary, you have quite a bit of flexibility even as a complete beginner when it comes to how many sets you are going to perform and how many reps you will do in each set.
Starting out with just a couple of sets as Nick Gee recommends is probably a good way to begin since it will not seem too intimidating or time-consuming.
As you improve at push-ups and build a habit of exercise, you can begin increasing your number of sets or reps per set.
The main thing to keep in mind is that if you are inconsistent with your workout routines, you will have a hard time achieving your goals.
So, while you might be tempted to push yourself very hard each time even from the beginning, doing so is not necessarily wise if it is going to fatigue you into burnout on a regular basis. You must be able to stay the course.
The Right Amount of Daily Push-Ups is Based on Individual Needs and Goals.
With all of the considerations we have discussed in mind, the right amount of push-ups per day should be based on:
- How many push-ups (modified or otherwise) you can effectively do while maintaining the proper posture.
- How many push-ups you can commit to doing consistently each day over an extended time period.
For one person, that could mean doing 50 push-ups per day. For another, it could mean doing 100. For a third, it might mean doing 10 to start.
As long as you are meeting your goals and avoiding injury, the number of push-ups you are doing per day is the right amount for you.