Tactical Fitness: Starting at Zero Pushups and Building Up


Beginners to fitness often have an issue with upper body strength when first starting and cannot do a single pushup. Here is a question from a woman who uses fitness as stress relief from the highly stressful profession of Emergency Room Nurse. She asks:

Stew, I have been progressing nicely with my cardio and it has helped me tremendously for being more resilient in the ER, but I need to work on my upper body strength now. I am not overweight, but lack the ability to do a single pushup. Where do I start? Thanks in advance.

Pushups – Starting at zero is where most people start, so don’t let the lack of a pushup stress you out.  You need to focus on two things. Core strength (planks, lower back, abs) and of course upper body strength – specifically the three major muscle groups of the pushup: pectoralis major and minor, deltoids, triceps.

Stew Smith, pushup pose

First let's mimic the exercise you want to do then burn out all the auxiliary muscles.

  • Repeat 10 Times:
  • Jumping Jacks – 10 (Fullbody movements, working fullbody, lungs)
  • Knee Pushups – 5-10 (Use knee version which is about 50% less bodyweight than regular pushups) Work your chest, shoulders, and triceps.
    • Always start each set testing if you can do a regular pushup, then resort to knee pushups.
      Stew Smith bench press

Lightweight Shoulders – Works rotator cuff muscles to build stronger shoulder stability when in the pushup position.Repeat 3 times:

  • Bench Press – 10-15 reps (Light weight, more reps if you desire, working chest, shoulders, and triceps.)
  • Rest with plank pose for 1 minute (Works core: abs, lower back to keep back straight during pushup movement.)
  • DB Military press – 10-15 reps (Light weight, working shoulders and triceps.)
  • Rest with reverse pushups – 20-30 (No weight: Works upper back and rear deltoids.)
  • Bench Dips – 15-20 (No weight: Works shoulder, triceps.)
  • Rest with crunches or ab workout of choice (40-50 reps or 1 minute.)
    • You can also use TRX chest press for bench press. Use dumbbells for military press (heavier than lightweight shoulders though – 10-15lbs).

Stew Smith bench dips

Lightweight Shoulders – Works rotator cuff muscles to build stronger shoulder stability when in the pushup position.

Do this upper body push workout three days a week (every other day) and see how your pushing skills improve. Do not forget your other workouts that include the pulling muscles, legs, and cardio during the week as well. This is just a supplement workout until you master your first 5-10 pushups.

Stew Smith works as a presenter / editorial board with the Tactical Strength and Conditioning program of the National Strength and Conditioning Association and is Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS).  There are also over 800 articles on Military.com Fitness Forum focusing on a variety of fitness, nutritional, and tactical issues military members face throughout their career.

Latest Fitness Books: Navy SEAL Weight Training and Tactical Fitness

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