7 Core-Strengthening Push Up Progressions for Female Athletes

Sophia McDermott Drysdale


Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, Bodybuilding, Nutrition, Women's Fitness


Many women participate in sport, but not all have had an active childhood that has given them the fundamental strength and stability necessary to support their adult training. I have found this to be especially true for women starting Brazilian Jiu JItsu. So many women who take up the sport don't have the strength in their core and upper body to frame and brace, and so end up getting hurt. Women who take a lot of time off with pregnancies or are recovering from a serious injury also find they have to go back to the basics to redevelop their strength in this area.


Pushing strength is essential to create a strong frame.

Many female athletes don't have the strength in their core and upper body to frame and brace as they need to.



Movement Starts at the Core

To begin building this strength, you have to start at the core. Your core muscles connect your upper body and lower body, and all movement patterns originate at the core or move through it. The core dictates how well your arms and legs function and is essential for the balance and stability that prevents falls and injuries. I believe it is essential for all female athletes to incorporate some fundamental strengthening exercises for the core into their training program.


This article is the first in a series will give you progressive exercises for each muscle group to do just that. We’ll begin with a focus on the push up. Core-focused pushing movements are essential to create a strong frame. This strong pushing frame is needed in every sport, from grappling in BJJ, to effective bracing in weight training, or ball sports such as volleyball or tennis. For example, a forehand swing requires an enormous amount of stability. This involves framing through the core while you hit the ball with maximum force using the pushing muscles we are working here.


The seven exercises that follow are a step-by-step guide to increase your pushing strength by working the chest, deltoids, and triceps whilst keeping the core engaged and active. The more advanced exercises incorporate the lats and the rhomboids as well.


7 Core-Strengthening Push Up Progressions

For each exercise, aim to do a total of 20 full repetitions with correct posture, keeping the body straight from head to toe (or head to knees). Remember to activate the abdominals and glutes to keep your spine supported. Perform each push up to the full range of motion, with the chest near to the floor, before progressing to the next exercise.


1. Push Up On Knees

Provided there is a straight line from the head to the knees and the core is activated, this is a great place to start developing upper body strength. The pushing motion activates the pectoralis major, minor, triceps, and anterior deltoids. Your transverse abdominis and erector spinae also stabilise your body weight.





  • Lower yourself down so your chest nearly touches the floor and push back up again.
  • Once you can perform 20 smooth, steady repetitions from your knees, you can safely progress onto the next exercise.


2. Push Up on Bench/Chair with Single Leg Raise

This movement can be progressed by lowering the level on the bench or chair you are using. As the level lowers, more weight is shifted to the upper body, making the movement more difficult. Raising one leg forces the core to work harder to stabilise and keep symmetrical. The quadriceps, the iliopsoas, erector spinae, and transverse abs also switch on to stabilise the spine. By bending the raised leg at the knee, we also engage the gluteus maximus.




  • Aim to do 10 repetitions with one leg raised and 10 with the other raised.
  • Ensure that you lower your chest to the chair or bench before pushing back up.
  • Engage your abs and glutes to make sure your spine is supported.


3. Standard Push Up

A sign of a weak core is a 'banana back', where the back arches and the shoulders sag. This means that the abdominal muscles are not being engaged and the spine is not sufficiently supported. Keep the core activated and strong by ensuring there is a straight line from the head to the feet.



  • Make sure you can do at least 20 push ups with good form and a straight shape before progressing to the push up movements on unstable surfaces.


Continue to Page 2 for Advanced Push-Up Progressions >>


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