The Surprising Benefits of Doing Push-Ups In the Sand

A little instability goes a long way.

This summer, you might find yourself on beach vacation with only a sketchy motel gym to keep your lifting program alive. Or, you might be heading out for a day with family and friends and want to get a quick pump in to maximize enjoyment and muscle buildup. And trust me, there’s a lot of upper body strength to maximize with all that sand around.

Why sand? The unstable surface will leave your fingers and hands grasping for purpose. The extra (and likely unexpected, to your muscles) activation in your forearms will encourage increased activation in important places like your shoulder stabilizers and pecs. And this increased activation is exactly why you won’t find a better place to get your push-ups in.

[Read more: 6 elite athletes share their favorite hotel workouts.]

Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.

Push-Up Workout for the Beach

Getting creative with a lack of solid surface underneath your hands will rock your fingers and forearms into action. And you’ll probably find that your body can do things to maximum benefit on the sand that rough gym floors can make overly difficult with no added benefit. Designed to be quick (the sooner to get back to relaxing: the beach can be a great place to maximize muscle recovery, too!) and intense, your upper body will thank you later. Just make sure to keep extra hydrated the whole time.

Start with a warmup of shoulder rolls, full jumping jacks, and regular push-ups before diving in to the first movement: alphabet push-ups.

 pushup
Puhha/Shutterstock

1. Alphabet Push-ups

  • Duration: 26 reps

The directions are as easy as they sound, but the motion is brutal. And this one will challenge your mental focus, too, so get ready.

Start with the letter a and a regular push-up position (maybe spread your feet a little wide: you might find you need the extra support). Grind your toes into the sand, tighten your quads, and fire up your core like the sand is about to come alive The Mummy-style and punch you, hard. Then, at the top of your push-up, use one hand to trace a lower case letter a in the sand.

Drop down into a push-up, push back up, and start tracing b with the other hand. To make things harder, you can trace each letter with both hands, first the left and then the right.

If that gets you nothing but a mouthful of sand, try again! And if the third time isn’t the charm, try one hand at a time.

Do push-ups through as many letters as you can: though if you’re working one arm at a time, make sure you do each letter with each arm.

[Learn more: 5 types of push-ups for every fitness goal.]

archer push
De Repente/Shutterstock

2. Archer Push-ups

  • Duration: 5 sets of 10 to failure

The sand isn’t done with your push-ups yet. This time, reset yourself (and the sand: you might have some smoothing out to do!) into push-up position, your feet planted slightly wider than your hips. Extend one arm out to your side, straightening the elbow and leaning your body away from the straight arm: imagine an archer drawing a bow, and that’s about what your body should be doing.

Except you’re driving your hand through sand, and you’re about to drop into a nearly one-armed push-up. Let your extended arm offer stabilization and support while your bent arm brings you down into your push-up. Keep your core, quads, and glutes solid, and remember to lower and raise your body as a single unit.

Can’t quite straighten that extended arm with confidence or good form? That’s alright! Keep your extended arm closer to you and the elbow slightly bent so you can get more support from both sides of your push-up. And remember, if you do belly flop, it’s only sand! And it’ll be fun washing it away in the ocean later.

Try for 5 sets to failure, remembering to keep your reps evened out on both sides.

beach push up
EpicStockMedia/Shutterstock

Lizard Crawl

  • Duration: 6 sets of 30 seconds 

But wait: a crawl isn’t a push! It’s a horizontal thing! Well, sure. But you’ll be primed in push-up position the whole time: much like pause squats and deficit deadlifts will pump up your squat and dead numbers, keeping your body at the bottom of the push-up will give your push-ups a real boost. Because the closer to the bottom of the push-up you are, the more time under (extreme) tension your muscles are going to spend. And, as we know, more time under tension yields greater muscle activation and ultimately, greater gains.

Perhaps optimally designed for having kids in tow, this fun-looking crawl variation will finish off your workout (I promised it would be quick) and leave you ready to cool off in the ocean. Get into a push-up position and lower yourself near to the ground, just like you would with a regular push-up: then the fun begins.

Still with your chest and chin just above the ground, elbow bent, start… well, walking. Lizard walking. Keep your core tight as you bring first one knee, then the other, close to your elbows. Creep your hands forward to continue your forward crawl. If you’re getting tired but want to continue, you can raise your body a little farther from the sand: but remember, the closer you are to the sand, the harder your body (chest, shoulders, forearms, and core alike) will be working to keep you crawling.

Try to count to a slow 30 in your head for each crawl. Rinse (this can be as literal as you want it to be: the ocean’s right there) and repeat 6 times.

[Looking for more? Check out 3 push-up challenges to test your fitness.]

Wrapping Up

If these moves seem on the silly side (your ABCs, pretending you’re Oliver Queen, and crawling across the beach like a lizard), then, good! You’re on vacation and deserve a little silly. But there’s nothing silly about the results: a little play will go far in making your push-ups look and feel all kinds of easy when you get back onto your gym floor.

Featured image via Puhha/Shutterstock

Jay Polish

Jay Polish

Dr. Jay Polish is an American Council on Exercise certified personal trainer, and holds an additional certification in Kettlebell Athletics. A competitive powerlifter, their personal training practice focuses on empowering both new and experienced lifters with body positive training methods of strength and circuit training.

They teach Theater and English in the CUNY system, where they received their PhD in English. They live in California with their wife and their fantasies of having multiple puppies. Their website is here. You can train with them through Trainerize.

When they're not in the gym, they moonlight as the author of two young adult books, LUNAV and LOST BOY, FOUND BOY (March 2018, NineStar Press).

Their debut novel, LUNAV, a lesbian enemies-to-lovers faerie tale, features dragons that grow on trees and friendship amongst rebellion. Their debut novella, LOST BOY, FOUND BOY, is a scifi re-telling of Peter Pan in which Neverland is a holomatrix, Hook is a bisexual cyborg, and Tink is an asexual lesbian computer interface.

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