Can’t do a push-up on your toes?

New research spells out exactly why you shouldn’t give up.

By Emma Hogan for Fit Planet

For many of us, push-ups conjure up a sense of dread, which is no surprise given they have long-been associated with intimidating fitness drills or physical punishment for wrongdoing. However, despite their cringe-worthy past, push-ups have secured their place as an exercise staple, and are now adored by fitness gurus across the globe.

But the easier to manage push-up on your knees variation doesn’t always get the same adoration. In fact, these modified push-ups often cop a fair bit of flack, with some labelling them as an ineffective exercise that won’t get you any stronger.

Now, a new study published in the Journal of Applied Biomechanics clears up the conflict, showing that both the toe and knee variations of the push-up are worthwhile. The findings are very encouraging, explains Jinger Gottschall, Associate Professor at Penn State University and lead researcher of the study. “We were able to demonstrate that the overall ratio of muscle activation in the upper body when you do a push-up on your knees or toes is actually the same. It shows that knee push-ups are a surprisingly valuable alternative if you cannot perform a push-up on your toes with proper technique.”

So whether you can smash sets on your toes or stick to your knees, push-ups are a move you need to love!

What makes push-ups so good?

Push-ups are much more than just an upper-body exercise. They work the pecs, deltoids, and triceps while strengthening the muscles of the core. On top of improved upper body definition push-ups build muscular endurance and create lean muscle mass that improves overall fitness and good health.

When compared to the bench press, another popular chest exercise, push-ups provide more effective functional training. The Penn State University study participants generated 50 percent more activation in the abdominals during push-ups compared to bench press repetitions with parallel weight.

The best push-up technique


 There’s no dispute that the most effective push-ups are push-ups on your toes, as they engage a greater amount of activation in the muscles of the upper body and core – demanding whole-body integration. However, push-ups on your toes can be pretty challenging and many people, especially older adults or individuals new to exercise, cannot safely complete multiple push-ups on their toes. All too often the hips and neck are not aligned properly and consequently, the risk of injury outweighs the rewards. “When people are struggling to lower themselves towards the ground in a toe push-up position, they shouldn’t give up or feel discouraged, says Gottschall. “We can now be confident that push-ups on your knees are an effective modification.”


girl doing push up on knees

How to progress from knee push-ups to toe push-ups

The good news is that if you do enough push-ups on your knees you’ll be up on your toes in no time. Gottschall explains that, as the muscle activation in knee and toe push-ups is the same, if you consistently perform enough push-ups on your knees to reach a point of fatigue you will soon become strong enough to do push-ups on your toes.

Bryce Hastings, Les Mills’ Head of Research and Technical Advisor agrees with Gottschall’s advice, saying once you are confident doing 16 push-ups on the knees, then you are ready to try push-ups on your toes.

“If you feel confident doing 16 knee push-ups, you can just start to try some on your toes and see how you feel. If you need to, you can revert back to the other style until you gradually build up your strength over time to be able to do more on your toes than your knees,” he says

girl doing push up on toes

Once you’ve mastered the toe push-up the sky’s the limit. The Guinness world record for most push-ups in one hour is held by David Escojido who did 2,298 push-ups in 60 minutes. Charles Servizio holds the current world record for most push-ups in 24 hours. He ticked off a whopping 46,001 push-ups in just 21 hours, 6 minutes.

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