Push-ups are one of those exercises that most of us have a love/hate relationship with. We love how effectively they can strengthen numerous muscle groups simultaneously without requiring any equipment. Yet they’re far from easy—and they often elicit groans or dread when we see them on our workout plan for the day.
But, how many push-ups should you be able to do? And what does it mean if you’re unable to do a single push-up from your feet? The push-up test is a way to test yourself in just 60 seconds to see how you fare against others—and past versions of yourself.
What is the push-up test?
The push-up test measures your muscular endurance by challenging you to perform as many reps (from your feet) as possible in 60 seconds, explains Robin Barrett, Pharm D., an NASM certified personal trainer and pharmacist. You can compare that number to the average.
Muscular endurance is one of the five components of health-related physical fitness. The push-up test can give you an understanding of how yours fares compared to your peers. More importantly, you can use the push-up test as a benchmark to return to periodically to assess whether your workouts are increasing your endurance, at least in terms of the upper-body muscles worked by push-ups.
For many people, even trying to do one or two full push-ups from your feet can be nearly impossible, which can indicate a need to improve your upper body strength.
How to do the push-up test
- Start in a high plank position with your hands shoulder-width apart with your elbows and knees fully extended and spine in a neutral position.
- Lower your chest towards the floor by bending your elbows to 90 degrees before returning to the starting position.
- Repeat this movement pattern as many times as possible using proper form for 60 seconds.
Note: All reps must lower your body to at least 90 degrees of elbow flexion in order to be counted.
Once you’ve got your number, check out how it fares against the norms for your age and biological sex at birth (according to the Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology).
Tips to get better at push-ups
If your score falls below average, don’t fret. You can absolutely get better at push-ups with the right training.
The primary muscles worked by push-ups are the pecs in the chest, the deltoids and rotator cuff muscles in the shoulders, the triceps in the back of the upper arm, and the muscles in the upper back such as the trapezius and rhomboids. Push-ups also require core strength, so strengthening your abdominal muscles and lower back will make it easier for you to stabilize your spine and maintain the proper position without letting your hips sag.
Performing exercises like forearm planks and high planks (push-up position with your hands under your shoulders) can be a great place to start.
Once you’re ready to begin moving, Dr. Barrett says the best way to get stronger for push-ups is to focus on the eccentric (lowering) portion of the movement. “The tempo of your movement in the lowering phase is super important in obtaining hypertrophy, or muscle growth,” she explains. “Try to lower yourself slowly for two to four seconds before pushing back up.” That pace may feel painfully slow, but deliberately slowing the movement down on the lowering phase forces your muscles to oppose gravity, which ultimately builds more strength.
Using proper form is also key. “To achieve the best push-up form, try to retract your shoulder blades and squeeze your glutes,” says Dr. Barrett. “This will keep your body and neck in line with your spine and avoid injuries.”
For many people, however, beginning with a push-up with your feet on the ground is simply too challenging. Modifying push-ups is a completely acceptable (and normal!) way to get started. “It’s okay to start in a modified position with your knees on the ground,” says Dr. Barrett. “Lower your body for two seconds until your chest nearly touches the floor. Pause briefly, then push yourself back up for two seconds and repeat.”
If this is still too difficult, begin with incline push-ups with your hands against a wall or on a desk or table with your feet stepped back behind you. Make sure that your body is in a straight line from the top of your head to your heels. The inclined position will reduce the force of gravity acting on your body, making it easier to perform the full movement.
“Be kind to yourself when learning push-ups. They can be very hard at first, mainly due to a lack of core and upper-body strength,” says Dr. Barrett. “Keep training in those areas and your push-ups will get better!”