Dream Big: 40 Pushups in 90 Seconds
Push-ups are a gold standard exercise. When done consistently, they're able to build both upper and core strength...and they do it relatively fast. But, why are they so dang hard? If you think about it, with a push-up you're lifting your body weight (60-70% of it, say experts). That's what makes them more difficult than dumbbells, but it's also what makes them awesome—the more you do, the more you want to do.
This 4-week plan will take you step by step through form, function and a few brilliant tricks, so that you can go from 0 to 40 push-ups in a week.
Week 1: Start With 10
Here’s the science: Pushups are easy, said no one ever. But mastering them doesn’t just give you water cooler bragging rights, it’s a veritable health boon, as well. A study of more than 1,100 people published in the Journal of the America Medical Association found that those who could perform 40 pushups in a row were an impressive 96% less likely to develop cardiovascular disease over a 10-year period than those who could do less than 10 in the same timeframe. Given that one in two Americans has some form of heart disease, this is one move you want to master. Plus, did we mention buff arms?
Move-the-Needle Monday: For our inaugural column kickoff, we went to the best of the best: our very own HealthCentral editor Danielle Gamiz, who also happens to be a certified group fitness instructor. (Holler!) “The great thing about pushups as a goal is that you’re not just getting stronger, you feel like a total badass when you do them,” she says. Here’s what you’ll be working on, courtesy of Coach Gamiz, this week.
The plan: “This week is all about your form,” says Gamiz. “To start, see how many pushups you can do in the traditional style (weight on your hands and toes).” Focus on keeping your back flat (no sagging in the middle!), hands directly below and slightly wider than your shoulders. As you bend your elbows, imagine your collarbone aiming for the floor; stop about two inches before your torso makes contact and straighten again. Maybe you can do 10… or one. Or none. It’s all good. If you find yourself struggling, either of these modifications can make it easier, but still count toward building the necessary strength:
Wall pushup: Stand two to three feet away from a wall, facing it. Stretch your arms out until they touch the wall, then back your feet away until your body forms a straight, diagonal line. Bend elbows until your chest nears the wall. Straighten. Repeat.
Bench pushup: Bend over and rest your hands on a bench or sturdy chair, arms straight. Back your feet away until your body forms a long straight line from head to toe. Bend elbows and lower as far as you can control. Straighten. Repeat.
Your goal this week is to complete 10 pushups in 90 seconds, in whatever form feels doable, every day. If you can do more than 10, great—keep going! “You’re figuring out where you’re at with your strength, so we can build on this going forward,” says Gamiz.
Top tip: Right before you do a pushup, breathe in deeply and exhale. “You’re preparing your body to do the work,” says Gamiz. “Pushups are hard!”
Week 2: Build Your Stamina
Here’s the science: It’s hard to think of a more complete way to build upper body strength than an old-fashioned pushup. In one movement, you’re developing shoulder stability, biceps and triceps strength, engaging your abdominal and back muscles, and getting a small dose of cardio to boot. If you need to perform a modified from-the-knees pushup, that’s totally fine: A study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that the modified version can work just as many muscles, while allowing you to control the level of difficulty.
Move-the-Needle Monday: HealthCentral’s editor and certified group fitness instructor Danielle Gamiz is back with more advice on working your way to 40 pushups in a row. “This week, we’re playing with stamina,” she says. To do that, you’ll dabble in what’s called Tabata—a high-intensity workout that lasts just four minutes (trust us, that’s long enough!)
The plan: “We’re increasing your pushup reps to 20,” says Gamiz. “You might not be ready to do 20 in a row, but with this week’s plan, you’ll do 20 in four minutes.” For this, you’ll need a timer. You’re going to be doing 20 seconds of work, followed by 10 seconds of rest, eight times. Ready? For 20 seconds, do as many pushups as you can. Rest 10 seconds. Go again for 20 seconds, trying to do the same number of pushups as you did the first time. Take another 10 seconds of rest. Repeat two more times. Each day, try to squeeze one more pushup into the 20 seconds of work—so if you started on Monday doing four pushups every 30 seconds, by Friday, you’re shooting for eight in a row. (Remember, it’s fine to do a modified version, especially as you get tired!)
Top tip: Don’t overthink things, says Gamiz—it’s just a pushup, after all. “Picture your body as a nice long plank,” she says. “Engage your abs, glutes, and quads so they support you, but don’t squeeze so hard you can’t move them!”
Week 3: Develop Your Strength
Here’s the science: Exercise scientists used to think that aerobic activity was the only real way to improve heart health and lose weight. Strength training was good for, well, strength, they postulated, but cardiovascular health required cardiovascular activity. But recent research in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sports has exploded that myth, showing that when performed consistently without lengthy rest periods, strength exercises can be just as great a boon to cardiovascular health and weight loss as an aerobic activity like cycling. So pushups, while clearly developing your muscle stability and strength, are also growing your heart and lungs and making you an overall healthier human being.
Move-the-Needle Monday: It’s all about getting stronger this week, and that means you might consider supplementing your pushups with a set of hand weights, says HealthCentral editor and certified group fitness instructor Danielle Gamiz. “If you have a set of dumbbells, add five minutes to your routine with a set of biceps curls, overhead press, and chest press (lie on your back and push weights toward the sky),” she suggests. “The greater your overall strength, the easier pushups become.”
The plan: “During week three, the focus is on longer periods of work with more reps,” says Gamiz. You’ll be working toward stringing together sets of 10 pushups until you hit (wait for it) 60 pushups a day. Don’t freak! You’re going to get ample rest between sets of 10. So even though you're exceeding your Dream Big goal by 50%, you'll also quadruple the amount of time you're allowed to do them in. Here’s how:
Monday: Get your timer, hit start, and do 10 pushups. When you’re done, rest until the top of the next minute—then go again. (Anyone familiar with CrossFit probably recognizes this fitness-building strategy: It works!) Do three minutes of this (30 pushups total with rest), then stop.
Tuesday: Same as Monday, but shoot for four minutes (10 pushups at the top of the minute, rest until the top of the next minute, then go again, four times).
Wednesday: Same as Tuesday, then grab a set of lightweight dumbbells (or gallon water jugs, if you don’t have weights) add in a circuit of 10 x biceps curls, 10 x overhead presses, and 10 x chest presses when you’re finished.
Thursday: Get your timer, hit start, and do 10 pushups. When you’re done, rest until the top of the next minute—then go again. Repeat five times.
Friday: Repeat Thursday, then grab your dumbbells and add two circuits of 10 x biceps curls, 10 x overhead presses, and 10 x chest presses when you’re finished.
Saturday: Get ready to go for the big 6-0. Hit 10 pushups every minute, on the minute, for six minutes, resting for the remainder of each minute.
Top tip: “Each round of pushups will get harder,” says Gamiz. “This is the moment—when you feel like you can’t do it anymore—when you find out what you’re made of.” Play the mental game of telling yourself when it starts to burn that you’ll do just one more. And when you do one more, convince yourself to try just one last time. And then squeeze out one more pushup after that. Mental toughness here will make next week’s goal achievable.
Week 4: Mix-and-Match Pushup Styles
Here’s the science: More muscle equals a faster metabolism, and a faster metabolism helps your body burn more calories at rest. While pushups primarily work your shoulders and triceps, a study in The Journal of Physical Therapy Science found that subtle changes in hand positioning develop different muscles—hence, more muscle mass (and quicker metabolism). Hands closer together strengthens the pectoralis minor (a triangular muscle between your shoulder and chest that makes you look extra-fit in a tank top), while wider apart works the pectoralis major and serratus anterior (the muscle that runs along the side of your rib cage). All of which is to say, with this one basic exercise, you can build a whole lot of metabolism-boosting muscle.
Move-the-Needle Monday: This is the week, folks! You’ve been putting in the work and now you’re going to put it all to the test. “Forty pushups in 90 seconds is a LOT,” says HealthCentral editor and certified group fitness instructor Danielle Gamiz. “You might feel discouraged because you’re not quite there yet, but it’s important to remember how much stronger and more stamina you have now than you did at the beginning of the month.” If you give the full 40 a go and come up short, don’t get down. Try again tomorrow, and the day after that. Forty is an impressive amount but it’s by no means insurmountable as long as you keep at it—remember, by this point you’ve done 40 or more already, just not strung together.
The plan: Doing 40 of anything in a row is monotonous, so this week instead of playing with the clock, you’re going to play with variations. Here’s the breakdown:
Monday: Start with a traditional set of 10 pushups. Switch immediately to 10 incline pushups using a chair, then transition right away to 10 staggered pushups (do one with your hands closer together, then one with your hands wider apart; repeat alternating pattern five times). Rest for 60 seconds, then finish with 10 traditional pushups.
Tuesday: Repeat this sequence above, shortening the rest period to 30 seconds. At the end, add three sets of 10-rep biceps curls with dumbbells or water jugs.
Wednesday: Do 10 traditional pushups, followed immediately by 10 staggered pushups, followed immediately by another 10 traditional pushups. Rest for 30 seconds, then finish with 10 more traditional pushups. (Getting close!)
Thursday: Do 10 incline pushups using a chair, then transition right away to 20 traditional pushups. Quickly stand up and do dumbbell biceps curls for 30 seconds. Return to the floor and finish with 10 traditional pushups.
Friday: Do 10 traditional pushups, rest 15 seconds, then do 20 more traditional pushups. Rest another 15 seconds, and finish with 10 traditional pushups.
Saturday: Today is the day! Stop, drop, and give us 40. Don’t worry about the clock: If you keep a steady rhythm—not too fast, not too slow—you will naturally come in under 90 seconds. If you need to take a break, that’s OK, too. Rest, reboot, and get after it again.
Sunday: If Saturday was a success, it’s a rest day! If you didn’t quite get there, this is your backup shot. Here’s the deal: Thanks to a little thing called muscle memory, every time you try to hit 40 in 90, it’s going to get easier. Your muscle fibers remember the drill, and today will feel (incrementally) easier than the day before. As long as you keep at it, you will get there.
Top tip: A week of attempting 40 pushups in a row is no joke. You can help your muscles recover after each session by doing two stretches:
Child’s Pose: Kneel, sit back on your heels, bend your chest to the floor and stretch your arms out in front of you.
Wall Shoulder Stretch: Stand with the right side of your body against the wall, right arm stretched out against the wall behind you, hand parallel to shoulder. Feel the stretch across your chest and through your arms.
Contributors: Julia Savacool, Beth Shapouri, Danielle Gamiz
- Pushups and Heart Disease: Journal of the America Medical Association. (2019). “Association Between Push-up Exercise Capacity and Future Cardiovascular Events Among Active Adult Men.” jamanetwork.com/journals/jamanetworkopen/fullarticle/2724778
- Modified Pushups vs. Traditional: Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. (2011). “The Effect of Position on the Percentage of Body Mass Supported During Traditional and Modified Push-Up Variants.” [pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20179649/]
- Cardio vs Strength Training Benefits: Journal of Science and Medicine in Sports. (2018.) “A Comparison of the Acute Physiological Responses to BodyPump vs Iso-Caloric and Iso-Time Steady State Cycling.” jsams.org/article/S1440-2440(18)30062-8/fulltext
- Pushup Variations and Muscle Development: The Journal of Physical Therapy Science. (2016.) “Effect of the Push-Up Exercise at Different Palmar Width on Muscle Activities.” ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4792988/