I did 20 push-ups a day for 14 days — here’s what happened to my upper body

a photo of a woman doing a push-up
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Push-ups are undoubtedly one of the first exercises that spring to mind when you think of upper-body exercises. This seemingly simple bodyweight exercise is an absolute must in any arm or chest workout. 

That said, even in my day job as a personal trainer, I have always struggled with push-ups. In my quest to get better at them, I decided to do 20 push-ups every day for two weeks. Read on to find out what happened, and what I learned along the way about this killer upper-body move. 

The benefits of push-ups 

Fancy strengthening your upper body and back? Add push-ups to your workout routine. This exercise requires your upper body muscles including your shoulders, biceps, and triceps as well as the muscles in your back, to lower your body weight down to the ground and then push the same weight back up off the ground. Push-ups are also a great exercise for your pectoral muscles, which lie across your chest.

What’s more, push-ups can also work the core as your abs need to remain engaged throughout the exercise. There’s also been a link made between push-ups and heart health — a study done in 2019, published in JAMA Network Open, found that men who could complete at least 40 push-ups over 30 seconds had a lower risk of heart attack or other cardiovascular problems compared to the men who were able to complete less than 10.

How to do a push-up

Before we begin the challenge, a quick recap on how exactly a push-up should be performed…

an illo of a woman doing push-ups

(Image credit: Shutterstock)
  • To start, get into a high plank position with palms directly under your shoulders and body in a straight line, core engaged.
  • Bend your elbows, keeping your upper arms close to your body as you lower your chest down to the ground. Your palms should still be under your shoulders.
  • Pause when your chest is just above the ground. Then, push up through the palms of your hands back into a plank.
  • To make this easier, drop down onto your knees and do a push-up from this position. You’re dealing with less weight this way as the weight of your lower body is resting on the ground.

Fancy making your push-ups harder? Add a clap. As you push yourself up, clap your hands together quickly before placing them back on the ground and lowering yourself back down immediately. This is a quick move, and it’s hard! You could also add weight to your push-ups to increase the resistance; this can be done by adding a weight plate to your back, but you might want someone to pop this on your back for you as it can be tricky alone. 

I did 20 push-ups a day for two weeks and this happened 

Push-ups are HARD

I’m still surprised at how difficult I find push-ups. I lift weights most days, I can do a pull-up, and I’m fairly strong, yet I still can’t do a solid set of push-ups where my chest goes down low enough to hover just above the floor. 

Whoever said bodyweight exercises are easy, is wrong! Even two weeks later, I still find this bodyweight exercise harder than many weighted exercises.

I could have done more…

...but my form would have been appalling. For the 20 I did do, I focused on getting my chest as low to the ground as possible rather than doing half reps. Half reps involve the arms only bending slightly and often, the hips can sink. When I noticed my form was starting to suffer, I modified the move by lowering down onto my knees — this ensured I was still working my upper body, without putting any pressure on my spine due to bad form.  

I took a break

I was humbled by this challenge because 20 straight push-ups for me is a no-go. I had to take three breaks during my 20 push-up challenge to shake my arms out and reset. However, I will add that over the space of my two-week challenge, I began to take just two breaks, which just goes to show that my strength and endurance for push-ups increased over time. 

It was my shoulders that felt the burn

Several muscles are involved in a push up but it was my shoulder muscles that took the brunt of the pain. Push-ups also work the triceps, biceps, and pecs but I didn’t feel these working as much as my shoulders.

Push-ups can be varied

Different types of push-ups target different muscles, so if you’re looking to mix things up, simply changing your hand positioning will do the trick. Widening the hands places a greater emphasis on the pectoral muscles, whilst placing the hands together, directly underneath your face, places more emphasis on the triceps. Staggering your hand placement (one hand slightly in front of the body and another a little further down) means your core has to work harder.

For me, a normal push-up is hard enough without adding in variations, but I’ll certainly be mixing things up as soon as I feel strong enough. 

I did 20 push-ups a day for two weeks — here’s my verdict 

If it’s your upper body strength you want to improve, then you need to get some push-ups into your regime. This 20-a-day challenge reminded me just how tough push-ups are, especially considering that this is a body-weight exercise. I am determined to get better, however, and in just two weeks I noticed a difference in my push-up strength. 

Should you do this challenge? It’s a yes from me, however, I would recommend adding push-ups to your workouts in general, rather than sticking to 20 a day. If you want to incorporate them into upper body workouts you could superset them (two moves back to back) with a banded pull-up, to counteract the press movement of the push-up with the pull action of a pull-up. 

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Lucy Gornall

Lucy is a freelance health and fitness journalist as well as a pre and post-natal personal trainer. Although a sweaty gym session (skipping rope is a must) is her favorite way to ‘relax’, she’s also a fan of bingeing on The Office, snacking on chocolate-coated raisins, and fizz-filled brunches with friends.