Why There’s No Such Thing As "Girl Push-ups"

Photographed by Molly Cranna.
There's a good chance that you've heard the phrase, "girl push-up" before. Maybe a mean gym teacher, rude teenager, or insensitive trainer said it, and it gave you pause. Or maybe you've never heard it at all. For the uninformed, "girl push-up" is usually used to describe a modified push-up. And perhaps because it's assumed women have weaker upper bodies than men, this particular exercise modification became synonymous with "girls."
In reality, a modified push-up is a "bent-knee push-up," and to do one, you start kneeling, then place your hands shoulder-width apart on the floor. Keeping your core engaged, you bend your arms, lowering your upper body until your chest touches the floor. Then, you slowly push your body up, extending your arms.
When you break it down, this simple tweak makes the exercise feel easier, because with your knees down, you're pushing less of your body weight, explains Ashley Fluger, CSCS, CPT, exercise physiologist and sports performance specialist at the Hospital for Special Surgery. Additionally, you don't have to engage your core or lower body as much as you would in a full plank position. For this reason, some trainers believe bent-knee push-ups aren't an effective modification. Instead, they prefer elevating the hands on a bench or step, because it engages your full body in ways similar to performing a push-up on the ground. "The more parallel your body is to the floor, the more challenging the movement will be," she says.
Regardless of which type of push-up you perform, a modified push-up is still a good exercise. "Performing a modification of an exercise is definitely not cheating or less effective," Fluger says. Exercise modifications serve an important purpose: to help you gradually increase your strength, she says. If you're someone with injuries that limit your ability to control a full push-up, then a modification could help you build strength without sacrificing your alignment, or causing further pain, she says. "For some people, the modified version will be more effective," she says.

Performing a modification of an exercise is definitely not cheating or less effective.

Ashley Fluger, CSCS, CPT, exercise physiologist and sports performance specialist
Obviously, a person's gender has absolutely nothing to do with their ability to do a push-up. "An exercise modification is more dependent on your fitness level and health and injury history," Fluger says. So, if you usually do modified push-ups and feel like it's a challenge, keep on doing you. But if you want to test your abilities and try to progress to a full push-up, then you might want to also work on strengthening your core. "Core strength is also key for push-ups," just like your chest and arms, she says. "Increasing the strength of your trunk muscles will help your ability to maintain proper alignment." Exercises like planks, side planks, and cable Pallof presses are great to start.
If you're ready to try a full push-up, first try holding a tall plank, and focus on feeling your shoulders stable and core engaged, Fluger suggests. Be sure to engage your quadriceps, keep your legs straight, and knees extended. And if you find that you need more time to perfect the modification, that is totally fine and you're not "weak" or "lazy." Another thing to keep in mind is that the push-up isn't the only exercise that strengthens your chest and arms. Some people might prefer doing a bench press, TRX push-up, or medicine ball chest pass instead, for example, she says.
TL;DR Modified bent-knee push-ups are a stepping stone to building up to a full push-up, but they are still effective. And, for the record, "girls" are really strong.

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