Push-ups: For some of us, they are part of our regular exercise routine. For others, we dread the thought of being forced to attempt them. We enter our group fitness class and stand in the back, ready to duck behind someone when the instructor yells, “Push-ups!” Worst-case scenario, we can always fake a bathroom break.

Fear not, fitness friends. I’m about to disclose a very important secret that will relieve push-up anxiety. Are you ready? It’s okay to use a variation. For those who are still learning, it’s encouraged. As a group fitness instructor, I am proud of participants who use push-up variations when needed. It shows that they are working at their own pace and listening to their bodies. After all, our full effort is the best we can give. If we give it our best, it is a job well done.

So, what are these fabulous variations I speak of? While many exist, today we will focus on three: the wall push-up, the kneeling push-up, and the knee push-up. Think of the wall push-up as level 1, the kneeling push-up is level 2, and the knee push-up level 3.

Level 1: Wall Push-Up


Start by standing arms’ distance from the wall. Position your hands against the wall, wider than your shoulders. Lower them around three inches below shoulder height. Your hands should lay flat on the wall with fingertips pointing up. Imagine you’re about to push the wall away from you, where would you put your hands to push?

Next, lift your heels off the ground so you’re standing on your toes. Lower yourself towards the wall by bending at your elbows. Go until your face almost touches the wall, then push the wall away so you’re back at the start position. Do this until it feels difficult, then do five more. If it is difficult right away, start with five and work up from there. To increase difficulty in the wall push-up, move your feet further back from the wall. By creating a larger angle between your body and the wall, you put more load on your chest and arms.

Level 2: Kneeling Push-Up


This variation is performed on the ground. Start by positioning yourself on all fours. Your knees are directly beneath your hips, and your hands are wider than your shoulders. Try placing your hands around five inches outside the shoulders on each side and make adjustments as needed. Fingertips point forward.

Bend your elbows to lower your upper body down. Stop when your shoulders reach elbow height. Then, return to start position by pushing against the floor. This is one. Do as many as you can. When they start to feel difficult, do five to ten more.

When you reach the point where kneeling push-ups feel simple, but knee push-ups are still a little too difficult, move your knees back an inch. The further back you move your knees from your core, the more challenging the move becomes. Make sure to keep your abs braced when you move your knees back. Bracing your abs helps protect your back throughout the movement.

Level 3: Knee Push-Up

In the knee push-up, your hands start in the same position as with the kneeling push-up: roughly five inches wider than your shoulder on each side, fingertips pointing forward. This time, to increase difficulty, we move the knees back, away from our core.

To find the proper knee placement, lay with your stomach down on the floor. Put your hands in push-up position and push your upper body away from the floor without lifting your knees. Now, you should be supporting your weight on the knees and palms. This is your starting position.

Keep your abs braced so your back stays flat during the push-ups. Lower your chest down to elbow height and push it back up. That’s one. Continue until it feels difficult, then do five more. If it feels challenging right away, it’s okay to stop at five. That’s a great place from which to grow. When you can do 20 knee push-ups with good form, go for a toe push-up. You don’t know until you try!


The great news about these push-ups is you can mix and match! Let’s say you’re in class and you start with the knee push-up. After five, you struggle to lower yourself down all the way. Go ahead and switch to the kneeling push-up. This way, you can continue exercising with safe and effective form. The same can be done from the kneeling push-up to the wall push-up.

Start with the variation that works best for you. When you can do 20 of those push-ups easily, move to the next variation. Whether you start with knee push-ups, or are fighting to do five wall push-ups, stay encouraged. If you keep working at it, progress will come.

Using Variations for Drop Sets

Push-Up Option

If you already do push-ups on your toes, and want to do more, variations can help with that. Next time you do push-ups, do as many as you can on your toes. When you cannot do any more with good form, drop down to your knees and keep going. When you reach your limit on those, bring your knees in to the kneeling position and keep going. Go until you cannot do any more, then rest.

Using the variations in this context is like lowering the weight on a gym machine. As your muscles get tired, you reduce the load on your chest by dropping to your knees, and so forth. This is building strength endurance. Keep doing this, and you should see improvement in the number of toe push-ups you can do.

No Shame

Remember, there is no shame in choosing a variation. If your goal is to do one full push-up, two, or 50, variations are a great starting place. They will help build strength in your chest, shoulders, and triceps to prepare you for the next level in your push-up journey.

Lift Smart. Love Hard. Stay Positive.


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