From knees to toes | tips for progressing your pushups

Pushup_ProgressionsMany newcomers to strength training find it difficult to progress their pushups.

After weeks of performing longer and longer sets of knee pushups, they’re often disappointed when they finally attempt and are unable to perform even a single pushup on their toes. (Of course, sometimes progress takes longer than we think it should; make sure your expectations are reasonable… ).

This isn’t surprising, given that a standard toe pushup requires you to be able to press approximately 65% of your body weight; more than double the 30% required by a knee pushup.

When we progress our squats and shoulder presses, we rarely increase the load by more than 10% at a time. How then does one get from knee pushups to toe pushups? Below, I share my tips for progressing your pushups.

Tips for progressing your pushups

  • work on depth (or range of motion) before increasing the difficulty. I’d rather my clients be able to perform 5, chest to the floor toe pushups than 15 shallow, elbow bends.
  • add one or two reps of a more challenging version to the beginning of each and every set. If you can perform 10 or 12 deep, chest-to-the-floor knee pushups, try beginning each set with one or two toe pushups, then dropping back to your knees to complete the remainder of your reps. Increase the number of toe pushups gradually over time, until your entire set can be performed on your toes.
  • use ‘negatives’ to increase strength and endurance. Starting on hands and toes, bend your elbows to slowly lower your body to the floor. As you do so, you’ll reach a ‘sticking’ point; the point at which your muscles are no longer strong enough to support your weight. Let yourself collapse to the ground from this point, rest and try again. With negatives, the slower you go, the more challenging the exercise. Try adding one or two ‘negative’ pushups to the beginning of your regular set.
  • vary the position of your hands to challenge different aspects of the muscle. A wider hand placement will emphasize the medial chest (as well as the front of your shoulders). A narrowed hand placement will emphasize the triceps. Staggering your hands (one slightly forward of the other) will force the top-most portion of the chest muscles to work a little harder on one side than the other.
  • elevate your toes to increase the load you’re pressing and encourage greater participation of the upper pectorals. Toes can be placed on a phone book, low step, or even a weight bench. The higher they’re elevated, the more challenging the pushup.
  • add some extra core involvement by performing your pushups on an unstable surface. For example, place your feet on a Bosu or stability ball. Or in the handles of a TRX suspension trainer. Ensure that you keep your core and gluteals muscles contracted throughout to protect the lower back.
  • rest adequately between pushups workouts. Practicing your pushups daily is counterproductive. Like any other muscle, the pectorals need time to repair and recover before they’re challenged again. Try waiting 48 to 72 hours between pushups workouts; use those days to train the opposing back muscles for improved posture, muscular balance and functionality!

Watch the video below for an explanation of three techniques that I use with my clients to get them from knees to toes!

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Disclaimer: Although I am a registered Personal Trainer, I am not YOUR Personal Trainer. Always adapt workouts to suit your body and fitness level. Always consult your doctor before beginning a new exercise program.





  1. I love push-ups more than you can imagine. And I did not know the stat about 65% of your body weight. I’ll share that with my students right after forcing them to do push-ups!!
    AlexandraFunFit recently posted…Ease Out of StressMy Profile

  2. Always great videos & tips Tamara – step by step – perfect! 🙂
    Jody – Fit at 56 recently posted…Taking a Few Days Away; Happy EasterMy Profile

  3. How about finding a bench or low table where you can do toe push-ups, but at an angle that creates a level halfway between and knee and a toe push-up? Lots of good ideas in here for people!
    KymberlyFunFit recently posted…Ease Out of StressMy Profile

  4. I didn’t realize there’s a name for what I’ve been doing along with planks–negative push-ups. After I’ve held the plank position, I gradually bend my elbows to hold the position using different arm muscles.
    Suzanne Fluhr recently posted…The Bernice Pauhi Bishop Museum — Honolulu, HawaiiMy Profile

    • I love it when people happen upon the solution to their own challenges!
      High plank to low plank is just a negative pushup. 🙂

  5. I love your ideas about the one toe pushup before the knee pushups and progressing from there… AND the negative pushup and building from there.

    I used to be able to do about 10 toe pushups but for some reason I am really struggling with them these days. I do pushups as a finisher after my strength workouts 3 times a week. And I usually can do three sets reducing in number that goes 20-25, 15-18, 10-12. I will try adding the negative pushups before each set now.

    Maybe I am doing them too often? M, W, F? I may need more time between for recovery.
    Elle recently posted…Good Friday Faves and RavesMy Profile

    • Elle, I think that three times a week is about right; certainly no more often though.

      I’d recommend that you do them at the beginning of your program. Because they’re an exercise that uses many muscle groups, waiting until after you’ve already worked triceps, pecs and lower back may mean that you’ve already pre-fatigued these muscles.

      Prioritizing the exercise/muscle group that you most want to work on by placing it at the beginning of your program is a great way to see results quickly!

      • Why limit..? Just keep adding. I am up to 25-30 and do three four sets. Daily.

        • No need to limit, depending on what your goals are! I find that once I’ve mastered a movement (3-4 sets, 15 reps), I like to increase the challenge by adding something extra to it, rather than just doing more of the same. 🙂

  6. I love facts like this “toe pushup requires you to be able to press approximately 65% of your body weight; more than double the 30% required by a knee pushup.” It really helps to put things into perspective. Great post!!
    Heather @ Better With Veggies recently posted…Vanilla Frosted Protein Donuts {MMAZ #66}My Profile

  7. Head up and looking forward….
    I do 50-100 a day. Never started on my knees tho…girly stuff.

    • That’s great for you! Many women don’t have the strength when they start out; I try not to minimize their effort by using terms like ‘girl pushups’

  8. Closer hands make it more challenging…

  9. Oooo I LIKE this! I’m saving this link for future reference. I LOVE group classes, and one of the instructors always has us change the position of our hands from time to time and WOW! I had never done that before, and it really makes a difference!!!


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