“Girl Push-ups” Aren’t a Thing

People, there’s no such thing as a “Girl Push-up” and if you’re doing push-ups on your knees, it’s time to stop! As of now, you are no longer allowed to say “Girl Push-up” or anything tangentially related. I make it no secret to every person who comes in my gym that I dislike the term “Girl Push-up” and the idea behind them. We do push-ups, negatives, and scales…we don’t do “Girl Push-ups” and we don’t use our knees.

“But why?” I hear you exclaim. Lets chat.

Note: I get tired of typing Girl Push-up over and over, so I’m going to call them GPU’s from now on. Saavy?

GPU’s are a Crutch for Lazy Trainers

As a trainer it’s my job to make you stronger, faster, more confident, and better able to meet whatever challenge comes your way. Basically I want to turn you into a complete Bad Ass MoFo (BAMF, for short). This means that I need to challenge you every day, and really make you work for it. Here’s the thing, though: GPU’s don’t make you work for it! Sure, it looks like you’re doing a push-up, and it feels good to bang out 20 reps in a row for that first week or two, but what then?

Search the internet and one thing you’ll see repeat over and over is the idea of going from GPU’s to full push-ups. If they were so analogous, wouldn’t it be simple to jump from one to the other after a few weeks or months? And if that’s true, why do so many people – women especially, it seems – get stuck on GPU’s when they could (should!) be progressing past them?

Answer: Lazy Trainers and Bad Information

The Lazy Trainer with Bad Information says: “Go do GPU’s until you can do a real push-up. They’re the same movement and you’ll move up when you’re ready.” Except you probably won’t because that’s not nearly enough information! The Lazy Trainer clicks the “set it, and forget it” button and just expects you to progress without more training, kind of like a crockpot. This isn’t going to help you progress, which brings us to…

GPU’s Are Not Push-ups

Many people don’t realize that the push-up requires more than just the chest and arms. It also activates the shoulders, upper back, abdominals, lower back, quadriceps, and hamstrings. Your body needs to maintain a plank position throughout the movement, requiring a straight and tightened core from neck to toes. Push-ups are awesome for full-body development and everyone who has the right moving parts should do them.

(I’ve met a woman with one arm who could knock out 25 push-ups in a row. You probably have no excuse not to be doing these.)

By dropping to the knees, you cut out the legs almost entirely, the core is no longer challenged more than it would be standing up, and the angle greatly reduces the amount of resistance on the remaining muscles. You lose 60-100% of the benefit of doing a push-up for each muscle group normally involved. You may say that this is kind of the point: reduce the resistance to complete more reps. The problem is, you lose so much of the exercise with GPU’s that you’re not building sufficient strength to jump to the next level. The movements are so different that the loss literally outweighs the gain.

To train for push-ups, you need to do push-ups or a movement so truly analogous that there is no practical, functional difference other than the resistance experienced by your body. This means that you need to force your core into a tight, steady plank while experiencing resistance on your chest/arms and moving between contracted/extended arm positions.

We can’t remove the plank or change the movement without also losing the push-up itself. What we can change, however are the Angle at which we perform the movement and the Pieces of the movement we perform.

Here are some practical examples:

Decline Push-ups

A normal push-up has the body as close to parallel to the floor as you can get. With decline push-ups, your body is angled away from parallel by raising the shoulders/head to a higher height while keeping your feet on the floor.

A great option would be to place your hands on the top of a bench or chair, hold your core tight, and perform a push-up. The movement is functionally unchanged, but the resistance is lowered because of the angle. This is easy to modify by using objects that progressively get lower to the ground.

Example: Start with a chair about 25 inches tall, place your hands on the chair and do a push-up (arms must go from straight to at least a 90 degree bend). Once you can do 3 sets of 10 reps on the 25 inch chair without trouble, find a chair about 4-5 inches lower, and repeat. Scale like this until you have your hands on the floor and BAM! you’re doing full push-ups.

Negatives

You can also develop your push-up by doing Negative reps, which involve focusing on the Lowering part and cutting out the Pushing part (i.e. extending the eccentric phase and removing the concentric phase). As with push-ups, you need to keep a tight core throughout the movement. You start at the top position with arms locked, and slowly lower yourself to the bottom position over 4-5 seconds. You skip the push to top completely, and repeat the lowering motion for each rep. Your body is stronger in the eccentric phase than the concentric, so even if you can’t do a full push-up, you can almost certainly do a controlled negative. Just try not to flop.

Progression:

  • Every other day do 3 sets of 10 negatives. At the start of each set, try to do a full push-up (it may take a few weeks to get one).
  • Once you can do one push-up, start replacing negatives with full push-ups. For every set, do as many push-ups as you can, and then finish the set with negatives (i.e. if you can do 2 push-ups, you would then do 8 negatives to finish that set).
  • Work up to 3 sets of 10 push-ups as a good baseline to progress even further.

Note: A normal push-up takes about 2 seconds to complete, whereas a negative should take 4-5 seconds to complete. This means your muscles spend about twice as much time in a working state while doing negatives, and over-training becomes much easier. In any given workout where you substitute negatives for push-ups, cut the reps in half to prevent issues.

That’s the basics. We did a whole article about negatives, because they’re awesome. Go have a look!

Plank Hold to Negatives

To strengthen your core, hold the top position of a push-up for 30 seconds, keeping focus on a tight core. At the 30 second mark, perform a negative (as above), rest for 10 seconds, and then repeat. Do this 10 times to help build strength in the entire movement, with focus on the core muscles. You can add this to the Negatives progression or Decline Push-up progression.

GPU’s Are Freakin’ Insulting

This is the last, but certainly not least, point I want to make. I know women (and younger girls) who can knock out more push-ups in a single set than many, if not most, guys. The name “Girl Push-up” shows a particular view of women in fitness that I do my best to expel whenever possible. It makes the assumption that women, simply because they are women, shouldn’t be driven to the same fitness achievements as men. It assumes women can’t do real push-ups. I disagree with this completely, vehemently, and as often as possible.

It’s true that you have to make allowances for the ability of every athlete, but this is true regardless of gender. Women typically have a lower starting point with movements that require more upper body strength because men are more genetically predisposed to upper body strength. That does not mean that women can’t train those movements in the same way men do, get stronger, and kick ass in a WOD! Just because it’s typical, doesn’t make it always true, either.

It should also be noted that women often have an equal or higher starting point with movements requiring leg strength and movements requiring flexibility. Most men have to work hard just to develop the mobility women start with!

Genetic predisposition also does not mean that any given guy is going to come in and be able to knock out all the upper body stuff just because he’s a guy. Plenty of men come in without being to do a single pull-up, just like their female counterparts, and I’ve seen plenty of women progress faster at developing the pull-up than the guys!

Gender will always play a role in how we need to scale a workout, but the fitness community should not create or promote ideas that are essentially just a slap in the face to one gender. Telling a woman to do a “Girl Push-up” that removes 75% of the work because you assume she can’t do a true scaled version, is akin to telling a man to do a “Boy Squat” that only goes half way down because you assume he’ll never be flexible enough to go further.

It’s insulting and basically says to the athlete: “your gender prevents you from training the real movement, so we’ve made up this B.S. version to make you feel better about how much you suck. Run along and play.”

Don’t do that. 🙂