Most of us weren’t born with superhuman strength, so we have to gradually progress to reach our training goals. This often means starting from the ground up, even with pushups, among the most basic exercises ever created.
There is such a thing, however, as making an exercise too easy to be effective, even with a move as simple as the pushup. When beginner trainees are working their way up to the full version of the pushup or pumping through reps beyond failure, the first adjustment many trainers recommend is working with your knees on the floor. This is a bad call, according to Men’s Health fitness director Ebenezer Samuel, C.S.C.S., and Mathew Forzaglia, N.F.P.T., C.P.T., founder of Forzag Fitness.
When performed properly, pushups are a great foundational bodyweight exercise that utilizes more muscle groups than you realized when you were doing them in gym class—from the chest, shoulders, triceps, even your core. That’s not the case with kneeling pushups. Here’s why.
Why You Need to Quit Doing Kneeling Pushups
Kneeling Pushups Are Not a Full-Body Move
Pushups don’t just work your upper body muscles. The exercise’s most basic form—from a strong plank position setup, with the shoulders and hips aligned and stable—requires core responsibility as well. Once you drop down for a kneeling pushup, you immediately eliminate any work from your lower body by disengaging your hips from the movement. This doesn’t just cut your movement in half—it can lead to poor upper body mechanics as well.
“The pushup is meant to be a full body move,” Samuel says. “That means abs are tight, mid back is tight, glutes are tight, quads and hamstrings are tight as well. And once we’re down on our knees, our quads literally can’t be a part of the movement. That’s not preparing you for the pushup the way you need to. So it’s just not going to get you to your goal.”
Kneeling Pushups Are Just Too Easy
Once again, by eliminating any core and lower body engagement, kneeling pushups eliminate half the challenge. And because the difficulty level becomes significantly reduced, you’ll be able to perform multiple reps in a back and forth in a seesaw-like manner without placing adequate strength-building stress on your muscles. Worse yet, because of its simplicity, the kneeling pushup allows you to get away with sloppy mechanics—like bad hand, wrist, and shoulder alignment—which will come back to haunt you when you try and progress to a full pushup.
Kneeling Pushups Force You Into a Two-step Progression
As Forzaglia says, no one walks into a gym, lifts 50 pounds one day, then immediately doubles their max the next day. The same philosophy applies with the kneeling pushup. You’ll likely find it difficult to immediately progress from a bunch of simplified half reps right up into a standard pushup. Unfortunately, it’s never that easy for us mere mortals, and like any other exercise, you’ll more likely need a gradual progression to advance to full pushup form.
“What we want to do with the pushup is we want to find a couple of progressions that will give us multiple steps so that we don’t have to go from our knees straight to a full pushup,” Samuel says.
3 Kneeling Pushup Alternatives to Scale Your Workouts
3 sets of 10 reps
This variation requires placing your hands on a stable elevated surface—a Smith machine or even a box or your couch if you’re at home. Although you’re starting from a higher point, which makes the exercise less difficult, the elevated pushup—unlike the kneeling variation—allows you to maintain shoulder to feet tension, which is the foundation for a solid pushup.
“We’re still moving a little bit less load because our hands wind up higher,” Samuel says. As you do this, you can just decrease the height of your elevation. As you lower the elevation you get closer and closer to your standard pushup.”
3 sets of 4 to 6 reps
When we think pushups, we think triceps and chest and oftentimes forget the importance of core responsibility—that includes body control from the top position down to the floor. Negative pushups reinforce this core foundation by forcing you descend to the bottom of the movement in a slow and controlled manner, maintaining body control and tension throughout the entire movement.
“One thing we have to really focus on no matter what exercise we’re doing is just slowing it down … and be able to focus on that position,” Forzaglia says. “Again, it may take you longer, it may be a little bit more grueling, but you’re gonna get so much more out of that five to 10, 15 to 20 seconds you’re in it versus ripping through it and getting only half the benefit.”
As many reps as possible, then rest, then get back to reps
If you’re able to knock out a few full-fledged pushup reps but you’re not quite at the point that you can string together a full set, the rest-pause method may be your best option. Start with what you can do—if two to three reps are you max, work with that—then come out of the position for a few breaths before returning and pushing through another couple of reps. Continue till you reach the desired number of reps per set. This will help you work on not only building strength, but also getting comfortable in that full pushup position.
Jeff Tomko is a freelance fitness writer who has written for Muscle and Fitness, Men’s Fitness, and Men’s Health.