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Press-ups For Women: Don’t Be a Girl

So if that title hasn’t already caused some outburst of rage then don’t panic you are probably not alone… If you’re here then I’m 99% sure you are a ‘girl’ and you are probably fed up of being a ‘girl’ doing ‘girlie’ press ups… I’m not really sure when being a ‘girl’ became something negative but somehow, somewhere it did, it happened. If you’re not a girl, well I’m glad that you are taking the time to gain a female perspective on the matter, and please don’t think that you won’t learn something from this, because really this is a beginners guide so it is suitable for anyone! In fact I have many a time seen a man do a press-up with poor form, often or not trying to knock out reps fast to look impressive but in reality they don’t even get their chests to the floor, their backs are curved, and they look like a fish out of water.

Firstly, I would just like to get the serious bit out of the way, (a disclaimer so to speak) and tell you that I am in no way a qualified PT of any sort, no qualifications, nada.  Everything I know has been taught to me by others or self taught and the content within this article is based upon my own personal experiences. Before you embark upon any sort of new training programme I advise that you consult a health care professional and trainer. Just sayin’.

Secondly, I am incredibly happy that you want to take the steps to modify what your body is capable of and increase your strength.

Don’t you just hate hearing ‘do those girlie ones’ or ‘don’t be a girl’? We are ‘girls’ yes but that certainly doesn’t mean that we aren’t capable of obtaining high levels of upper body strength that would take on our male counterparts no problem, it’s just a little harder.

In my household the ‘girls’ are strong. We have skipping contests, arm wrestles, and press-up and pull-up competitions. In fact it all gets a little silly. My daughter who is 10 years old can do more full press-ups than my 11 year old son. Why? Because she actually has dedicated a lot of her time into making herself strong, my son hasn’t. My daughter is constantly surrounded by fitness – she watches me kettlebell, olympic lift, do pull-ups, do press-ups, she even used to watch me roll with 6’0″ burly men on the mats. For my daughter being a ‘girl’ is being strong and physically capable, and she never once loses her femininity in the process. She is in fact far more feminine than I am and spends hours doing her hair in the morning much to my dismay!

So enough about myself, what about you?

You want to do these man press-ups right? But you don’t know where to start?!

Well, you’re here so that’s a start already. I would say that press-ups are 50% mentally challenging and 50% strength dependent. You have to be in the right frame of mind to dedicate yourself to it. No excuses. The only person that can get you there is yourself. Once you’ve gotten over that mental battle and are willing to dedicate some time towards your goals you will be off. But be warned this may be a slow process.

What muscles will press-ups use?

Fantastic question – pretty much your whole body! But it’s obviously not as simple as that.

You will use ‘target’ muscles, ‘synergist’ muscles, and ‘stabiliser’ muscles:

  • The target muscles are exactly what you would imagine, the main muscle that is targeted whilst doing the exercise. These are your pectorals – the muscles in your chest or better known as your ‘pecs’.
  • The synergist muscles are the muscles that work together with other muscles to allow you to achieve the full movement i.e. the pectorals, deltoids (shoulder muscles), rhomboids (upper back muscles), trapezius (upper back muscles), and triceps (back of your upper arms). When you push away from the floor you will use all of these muscles, especially your triceps.
  • The stabiliser muscles are the ones that contract to keep you stabilised i.e. keep your back in a straight line to prevent injury. The muscles used are your abs and obliques (core muscles), your quadriceps (the front of your thighs), and your gluteal muscles (your butt muscles!).

So as you can see press-ups are more of a full body workout than you probably thought! And as you can now probably see the reason why it is harder for women to achieve is that we do not tend to have particularly pronounced chest or back muscles like men.

So now that you know what muscles you use let’s take a look at what you can do next!

Pick Your Battle

Figure out which category you fall into below and pick a workout! Please click on the links provided to see video demonstrations of the correct form for each individual exercise.

If you have no experience of doing any form of press-up i.e. you know that you can’t do knee press-ups (or less than 20)…

See if you can do 20+ press-ups against a wall, if you can then skip this and graduate to angled/elevated press-ups. If not you will need to practice every other day until you can get to 20 press-ups before you can move on.

The best thing to do is to break the 20 press-ups down into sets and rest for 1 – 1.5 minutes inbetween. Break the 20 into either 3 sets with the largest set in the middle i.e. 6-8-6. If this is too hard break the 20 down into 5 sets something like 3-4-5-5-3. As you get going you can change these around so they get harder if you’d like. i.e do more than the full 20 reps! add an extra press-up in there somewhere.

So you know you can definitely do wall press-ups but not sure if you are quite ready for knee press-ups…

See if you can do 20+ angled press-ups. Angled/elevated press-ups are where you do press-ups at, um, well… an angle. Find an object that is at a height somewhere between your knees and waist and get going. The higher up the object is the easier it is so find a height that is right for you. Again if you find that you can’t do the 20 press-ups then follow the set structure above every other day until you can.

If you can do 20+ angled press-ups it’s time to move on.

So you know you can do angled press-ups but you’re not sure if you can definitely move on to those big scary full ones yet…

It’s time to see how many knee press-ups you can do. If you can do more than 20 knee press-ups in a row move on to the full ones and disregard this section. If you can’t do 20 comfortably then carry on using the set structure above and practice every other day.

So you’re here, at the big scary ‘man’ press-up stage. What now?

Right you can’t quite do a full one yet, but don’t worry this is 100% normal!!!

Your next port of call is to do press-ups on your feet but place your hands on a step. This will give you less distance to get your chest down but you will be working all of the muscles and helping your body to learn the motions. Do this until you can complete a full press-up.

Can you do 1 full press-up? Yes then just get practicing. Download a press-up app on your phone. There are hundreds of free ones that give a little bleep when your chest hits the phone so it really helps you to stay focussed and it works out the sets for you. I personally like to use the Runtastic Push-up App on my iPhone.

Tips for form

  • Always keep your body in a straight line keeping your head in line with your body, looking forward at all times.
  • Keep your hands in line with your shoulders and chest, too far in front and you will be finding yourself in a whole world of pain, too low and you might just fall on your face. Be sure to spread the weight evenly and stretch out all of your fingers.
  • If you find your wrists getting sore you might want to invest in some press-up hand bars/grips to keep your wrists straight.
  • Keep your feet together. That means your toes and your heels.
  • Keep your elbows tight and into your side to keep pressure off your shoulders to prevent injury. Your arms don’t want to be too much more than a little bit out from the width of your shoulders.
  • Keep your butt tight, like super tight, squeeze your quads (the muscles in your thighs), and keep your core contracted. You want to be absolutely solid. Once your form becomes great you will start to notice that you are literally shifting your weight forward until you are on your tiptoes.
  • Control your breathing, inhale as you go down and exhale as you go up.
  • Keep your rhythm steady and try to go slowly on the way down and faster on the way up.
  • Remember to stay focused and remember this isn’t torture and it shouldn’t feel like it either! If you feel any sharp pains stop immediately as this is a sign of impending injury! Yes really!

All of this sounds rather simple but are there any exercises I can do to strengthen the muscles used for press-ups?

In a nutshell, yes. Yes there are plenty of exercises that you can do that will compliment your press-up journey and help to get you there faster.

Go back to the section where I explained which muscles you use to do a press-up and you’ll probably think of some exercises that can help.

Personally for me I think having a strong core is beneficial. I spent every day of my last pregnancy doing 1 press up to out of the fear that I would lose my ability to do so later. It wasn’t until right at the end that could barely do one. Even after I had my last baby and my stomach muscles had completely split apart – and I mean I was left with a 2-3″ gaping hole between my abdominals (which I had to train through breathing exercises that I could only do sat in a chair) the midwife said that they were still really really strong despite the gap. But I still managed to get one full press-up out quite swiftly after that period. I really do think this shows how important core strength is.

The best exercise for your core is the dreaded plank. Start out holding for 15 seconds, work to 30 seconds until you get to 1 minute. Always keep your core tight and your back straight, I always find it helpful to pretend that I have a metal rod in my body and make sure I squeeze everything tightly, including my buttocks, and draw my belly button inward toward my spine. Once you can plank for 1 minute start to take alternate arms and legs off of the floor to help work that core even more! Another fun thing to do is to place your hands on something that will defy the laws of friction (such as an empty crisp packet) and plank but slide your hands forwards and backwards. This is killer! Another great abdominal exercise to do is hanging leg raises – hang from a bar and slowly raise your knees to your chest, keep your shoulder blades pulled down and activated and your back straight to prevent injury. Skinning the cat can be fun too!

Bench press helps to work those crucial chest muscles like nothing else, personally I do not own a bench so sometimes I will do kettlebell bench presses whilst lying on the floor, either alternating or doubles. You can also use dumbbells for this.

Dips are brilliant for building strong triceps, I won’t expect you to be able to do bar or ring dips so start by doing them from a chair. You will need to sit on the edge of a sturdy chair (try not to use the sofa as the soft upholstery will put strain on your wrists), place your feet together and flat on the floor, place your hands either side of your thighs and slowly lower yourself keeping your shoulders and elbows in line. You should bend your elbows to a 90 degree angle and slowly push back up to the starting position.

Strict press and push press with an olympic bar help to work the shoulders, any sort of overhead press will help to strengthen this area. I also like to do overhead/shoulder presses with kettlebells, opting for doubles is also a great way to learn how to stabilise your core muscles. Again dumbbells can be used for this exercise.

Ever thought about working your hands? Not an obvious one to think of at first but your hands and wrists both take a great amount of strain whilst doing press-ups. To start out with buy a cheap pair of grip strengtheners and get squeezing until your hands go numb, ok not quite numb but you get the idea. Do this every now and then daily and you will start to see huge benefits whilst doing any form of weight bearing exercise that involves you using your hands, wrists, and forearms. Best of all you can do this whilst chilling out on the sofa watching some telly.

Pull-ups. Yes you heard me right – pull-ups! These strengthen your traps, rhomboids, and deltoids, not to mention your core, forearms and who knows what else. Now I don’t expect you to be doing full ones, and yes I will be writing a post about how to get to full ones too, because it really isn’t as hard as you think. But take a few notes from pull-ups and maybe just dead hang from a bar, if you can do assisted view website ones at a gym then go for it, if you can get around to doing some ring rows, or have a TRX type trainer, do those too because you will find them so beneficial in the long run.

Ok I am like a press-up pro now, are there any other press-up variations I can advance to?

Oh hell yeah!!!

If you are hitting 20+ press-ups then you are ready to try out some different variations! I have only just got back to my 20 in a row without stopping and it is certainly the best feeling ever.

Diamond press-ups also known as tricep press-ups work your triceps funnily enough, and you may want to start out on your knees until you are familiar with the motion. These will also work your chest super hard!!! Press-ups with your feet elevated are a great step to take next along with press-ups with one leg elevated etc.

Watch this awesome video of 25 different variations of press-ups and be super inspired!!! Tricep extension, Hindu, and Spiderman press-ups are three of my favourite press-up variations to do at the moment!

My ultimate press-up goal would be to be able to do a one-armed press-up or a planche press-up. Do I think that these are unachievable goals? No, I think that I have only just started my journey toward my goals and I am the only person that can get myself there!

Are you new to press-ups? Want to share your journey or ask any questions? Or maybe you’re a ‘girl’ that has already gotten there to your first full press-up. Share your experiences below by leaving a little comment!
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  • Reply
    20th July 2015 at 2:42 am

    I am a girl who recently succeeded to do a couple pushups in a row! I haven’t practiced much, but you’ve inspired me to get back to it!

    • Reply
      20th July 2015 at 9:12 pm

      Oh Meg you must! The more you do it the easier it gets and the better it gets! Well done! I know so many women that struggle just to get their first one so I hope that you are super proud of yourself xx

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