Abstract In steel–concrete composite structures the transfer of longitudinal shear forces at the interface between steel and concrete is mostly realized by headed shear studs. Especially in bridges due to traffic loads these shear connectors are subjected to high-cycle loading and the fatigue resistance governs the design. In this first part of two companion papers a series of experimental work with standard EC4 push-out specimens is presented. The main purpose of these tests was to determine the fatigue life and a possible reduction of the static strength of the headed shear studs subjected to unidirectional cyclic loading. A further aspect was to examine the effects of the loading sequence and damage accumulation on the fatigue life. The results of the experimental investigations show that due to a crack initiation at the stud foot at 10%–15% of the fatigue life, an early reduction of the static strength is caused. Furthermore tests to examine the effects of the loading sequence on the fatigue life revealed that the linear damage accumulation hypothesis according to Palmgren and Miner on which the present design codes are based do not describe the real behaviour.