How One Simple Exercise Can Build Total-Body Strength

A back-to-basics approach to exercise that can take your fitness goals to the next level

With so many high-tech fitness gadgets and trendy boutique workouts available these days, it’s easy to lose track of how simple exercise can really be.

Sure, popular workouts like SoulCycle and CrossFit have their fair share of healthy benefits, but popularity isn’t everything. You don’t have to sign up for the newest or trendiest gym (and not to mention, shell out a ton of money) to get a great workout.

In fact, some would argue that in order to get fit and build total-body strength you don’t need a gym or any equipment at all.

Shaun Zetlin, founder of Zetlin Fitness and author of Push-up Progression Workout for a Stronger Core promotes a back-to-basics approach to fitness that uses classic exercises, like the push-up, to build total body strength.

While many think of the push-up as an upper-body focused exercise, Zetlin’s book explains in detail how the simple but powerful movement can be used to increase your overall fitness.

Zetlin touts the push-up as a near perfect exercise because its benefits include everything from core stabilization, improved posture, and increased power to improved endurance, stronger stability in your joints, more strength in the upper and lower body, increased muscle mass, and fat loss.

He explains, “While you discover how to improve your push-up technique, a main goal of my book is to inspire you to appreciate the benefits of how refining your push-up approach can progress your overall fitness training goals.”

Zetlin says that exercisers of all levels can use his Push-Up Progression regimen to reach their fitness goals.

“All you need to perform these push-ups is your own body and the will to continue on your push-up journey,” he said.

And even if you only have small windows of time that you can dedicate to exercise, Zeltin says there’s value in simply performing even just a few push-up exercises daily.

So how exactly can push-up and push-up progressions improve your fitness beyond building upper-body strength?

Zeltin says it has a lot to do with core stabilization.

“Push-ups challenge your core stability and core movement muscles more so than most exercises you might perform in a typical workout routine,” he said. “For example, beyond the common desire to have stronger arms and shoulders, most individuals need to improve their core stabilization muscles because you need optimal core stability before you can move efficiently. Core movement muscles are engaged during all movement and, therefore, these muscles need to be developed with stability to execute optimal strength.”

He explained that following a regimen that gradually progresses the classic push-up exercise in order to make it increasingly more challenging will help to improve your stability, strength, and power over time. 

But what if you can’t perform a proper push-up just yet? Where should you start?

If you don’t have enough upper-body strength to perform a full push-up, Zetlin suggests beginning with simple stabilization exercises like an isometric push-up or high plank (pictured below).

(image by Catarina Cowden)

“Stabilization exercises are the start of your push-up journey and the ‘building blocks’ to any proper strength and eventual power program,” he said. “Stabilization push-up exercises incorporate the core stabilization muscles and some of your core movement muscles as you advanced to more challenging push-ups.”

As your push-up journey moves forward and you continue to build strength, stabilization, and power, you can then move on to more challenging push-up progressions, like Spiderman push-ups, medicine ball push-ups, and dolphin push-ups.

Zetlin says that his favorite push-up progression is the jumping jack push-up (pictured below).

(image courtesy of Shaun Zetlin)

“It combines all of the prior teachings of stability, strength, and power in one exercise,” he said.

A few more benefits of the progression that he mentioned include:

  • Your shoulders, chest, back muscles, and core stabilization muscles all provide optimal stabilization in the beginning of this push-up and during the act of performing the jumping jack.
  • Next, the action of physically performing this push-up builds strength in your shoulders, chest, triceps, and core movement muscles.
  • Possessing unsurpassed leg power is required to perform the jumping jack portion of this push-up along with creating great height.
  • The exercise builds lean muscle in your anterior and medial shoulders, pectoralis major and minor muscles, triceps, and every muscle below your pelvis including all of your gluteal muscles.
  • The range of motion in your legs provided by this push-up movement provides an incredible stretch to your hips along with engaging your hip adductors and hip abductors muscles.

Zetlin also recommends the “staggered push-up”, one of the eight push-up exercises in his book that he included specifically for increasing total-body strength.

“This push-up is an advanced exercise since it incorporates more core, shoulder, and triceps stability than the traditional push-up, and therefore incorporates more strength in your rotator cuffs,” he said. “The ‘staggered’ position of your hands will help in creating more overall strength when performing other push-ups that otherwise start with your hands shoulder-width apart.”

Who knew push-ups could benefit so many different parts of the body?

But before you get down on all fours and start pumping out push-ups on the regular, make sure you can perform the exercise with correct form.

Below, Zetlin explains how to perform a push-up properly.

“To perform a traditional push-up you'll want to start by positioning yourself with your chest facing the floor with your hands a little more than shoulder-width apart. Your legs are locked, with knees and feet together to promote optimal core stability with your heels positioned slightly forward for added resistance to engage more of your upper body.

It's crucial to obtain and keep the neutral spinal position while performing a traditional push-up for correct core and muscle engagement. (The neutral spinal position can best be defined as when the top of your shoulders, middle of your back, and gluteus maximus muscle are all perfectly aligned.) Furthermore, you'll want to keep your neck and upper trapezius muscles relaxed and tucked downward throughout because you don't want to utilize these muscles for strength.

Next, lower yourself downward while bending your elbows at 90-degrees in a controlled fashion and pause briefly before raising yourself up back to the starting position. Remember to inhale as you lower your body downward and then exhale as you rise upward into the starting position. Do your best to eventually have your nose gently touch the floor for optimal range of motion."

In his book, Zetlin offers the following five simple tips you should remember when performing a push-up:

1. Maintain a neutral spinal position
2. Do not lean or hike your hips upwards
3. Engage your gluteus maximus
4. “Draw in” your abdominals
5. Utilize your downward inhaling / upward exhaling breath