ONE OF THE SIMPLEST, most common daily exercise habits guys use to add more activity into their days is to hop out of bed and crank out some pushups every morning. This classic bodyweight move has probably been one of your fitness go-tos since, well, as long as you can remember. And rightfully so: the humble push-up—when performed correctly—is a quintessential upper body exercise that activates multiple key muscle groups.
“I think, in general, push-ups are underrated,” says trainer Kurt Ellis, owner and coach at Beyond Numbers Performance. “It’s an important bodyweight movement we all should be able to do. When we look at basic human functions, a push-up is one of them.”
Eventually, you might feel the need to build your push-up strength and see just how many consecutive reps you can power through. That urge begs the question—whether you’re including the exercise in your upper body training or simply trying to incorporate more movement into your regular routine—how many push-ups should you do per day? Is there a limit to how many you should be able to do, and is it safe to max out your reps
Like the exercise itself, the answer isn’t quite as simple as it may seem. Below, learn more about how many pushups you ideally can (and should) perform daily.
How many push-ups you should be able to do
The answer will ultimately vary based on goals and experience. That said, “big picture, everybody should at some point, be able to get to 20 to 25 consecutive pushups,” says Men’s Health US fitness director Ebenezer Samuel. While that may not sound like a lot, it’s actually more challenging than people realise, he adds—so don’t expect to crank out that many reps at your first attempt. That’s because you shouldn’t settle for anything but perfect form.
“A proper pushup is not just going down halfway and coming up a little bit—it’s fully lowering your chest to an inch from the ground, and then being able to drive all the way up.”
Another push-up error Ellis sees all the time: rushing through sloppy reps, which could put unnecessary stress on your joints and potentially lead to injury. Ellis fixes this habit in his training practice. “When I test people to see exactly what their upper body strength is and their capacity to do pushups, I have them do so within a strict tempo,” he says. That might look like: going down for two seconds, pausing for about a second, then pushing up. “That really challenged the push-up itself, so you might see someone go from banging out 20 quick reps to much fewer at a slower tempo.”
While this technique is all about prioritizing quality over quantity, it can ultimately help anyone who’s interested in increasing their pushup capacity. By slowing it down and really homing in on form, you’ll build strength and functional muscle.
Patience and persistence is the name of the game. “Do as many push-up reps as you can cleanly to when you can’t do any more, rest for about five seconds,” Samuel suggests. “Over time, you’ll find that you’re able to string together more consecutive pushups and you need less rest.”
Keeping all those factors in mind, Samuel says you should be able to work up to three sets of 20 to 25 push-ups a day, if you really want to. Sure, you might hear from guys who double or even triple that number—but their reps aren’t going to be as effective as yours in the long run.
Benefits of push-ups
The push-up is a training staple for a number of reasons. It’s super versatile with plenty of variations, it don’t require equipment so you can do the exercise just about anywhere, and this one movement activates all kinds of important muscle groups.
For a classic push-up, “if you’re looking at the anatomy of the actual chest itself, we have the pectorals as the main driver, then the deltoids and anterior deltoids are involved as well,” says Ellis, adding that the triceps is an important secondary muscle group that helps control the movement. What’s more, since push-ups are essentially a moving plank, “being able to maintain a nice, sturdy, rigid trunk is going to help with the movement,” says Ellis, which means the push-up reinforces proper core engagement.
Plus, different push-up variations can help target specific areas of the body. For instance, a close-grip push-up (where your hands are slightly narrower than shoulder-width) can increase triceps recruitment beyond the standard variation.
Beyond the specific muscles the push-up targets, Ellis says push-ups can help support your other strength training goals, too. “I look at the push-up as a precursor for any loaded, pressing movement,” he says, noting you should be able to push your bodyweight before jumping into a loaded barbell or dumbbell bench press.
“I’ve seen strong guys that can bench press 300 pounds (136 kg), but can’t crank out a few push-up reps, and that doesn’t make sense to me,” he says. “So I think just in general, as humans being able to manipulate and control your own bodyweight should just be a great starting point, regardless of where you are in your workout journey.”
How to do push-ups
Proper form is essential if you want all those push-up reps to amount to any strength and size gains. Follow these cues for perfect reps.
- Start in a high plank position, with your palms flat on the floor, stacked directly below your shoulders.
- Squeeze your shoulders, glutes, and core to create full-body tension. Your spine should form a straight line, with a neutral spine. Keep your gaze on the floor instead of looking up to do this.
- Bend your elbows to descend to the floor, stopping with your chest just above the ground. Your elbows should be at a 45 degree angle relative to the torso.
- Press back up off the floor, raising up to the top position with your elbows fully extended.
Is it safe to do push-ups every day?
Technically, yes, it’s okay to do pushups every single day. There are a few caveats if you want your practice to be safe and effective, however.
First and foremost, you shouldn’t just stop your workouts with your reps. “You should not train push-ups in vacuum every day,” says Samuel. “This is the trap that a lot of people fall into, they think it’s an easy upper body exercise you can do daily, and all of the sudden you’re going to see gains.” Rather, it’s important to be intentional with your workouts to avoid muscle and postural imbalances. That means balancing pushups with moves that target the back, along with pulling exercises (essentially, the opposite of a pushing motion).
Samuel suggests grabbing weights (dumbbell, kettlebell, or even a heavy backpack) then completing some form of row to give some attention to your back muscles.
For well-rounded programming, Ellis also recommends including pressing and pulling variations in different planes of motion. This might include an overhead press, along with pull-ups or chin-ups. “Essentially, targeting the musculature around the chest to balance things out would be ideal,” he says.
And, of course, in order to safely do push-ups daily, it’s crucial to focus on form. In particular, Ellis notes that trunk stiffness and rigidity is key—so no sagging, wobbly midsection or extending in the lower back. “We want to try to have everything move as one unit,” he says.
For beginners, in order to maintain that proper form and stability, Ellis recommends starting with an incline push-up (placing your hands on an elevated surface like a bench), and working up (well, down) to a standard push-up. You might have seen trainers in group fitness classes suggest dropping to your knees as a scaling technique, but you should avoid this approach. You want to work with the same level of core engagement by adjusting the angle of your lever, not shortening it.
As you get stronger, Ellis suggests changing up the pace of your movement to add to the challenge. “If you’re able to control your tempo throughout a certain amount of time, that’s a great way to either improve your frequency or your form,” he says. To really level-up, you could try an advanced pushup variation or adding more to resist than just your bodyweight, such as loading up with a weighted vest or placing a plate on your back.
As for the actual number of daily reps, Ellis recommends switching up. For instance, if you do 75 reps one day, maybe only do 20 the next, then back to 75, and so on. If you feel pain beyond just the typical muscle soreness that follows exercise, stop.
Ultimately, Ellis says your total number of push-ups depends on the volume (how much you’re doing in a given day) and the intensity (whether you’re adding an external load). But, if you don’t overdo it, take time to recover, and keep your training nice and balanced, your daily push-up habit can be a key to a healthy fitness plan.
This story first appeared on menshealth.com