Push-ups are one of those exercises that are included in practically every workout because they are effective, don’t require any equipment, and can be done anywhere as long as you have a bit of floor space. That doesn’t mean that they’re easy though, and it may take some practice before you’re doing them effectively If you're a beginner, it may be daunting to know where to start. Here are some tips on how to do a pushup with proper form, as well as some variations on this versatile exercise.
Benefits of Push-Ups
If any time you're asked to do push-ups during a workout routine your strategy is to spend so long adjusting your hands and knees/feet that you avoid doing any before it’s time to get up and do another exercise, well.. that’s relatable. But also, you’re likely doing your body a disservice.
“The most important benefit and most unknown is that a push-up is a total body exercise,” says Arnie Gaither, CPT. “Many people think you are just working your chest, arms, and shoulders. Those, of course, are being activated, but to do a proper push-up, you must engage your core, back, and legs as well. Just like a plank, a push-up works the stabilizers and muscular slings. In all, the push-up does far more than toning and strengthening the upper body.”
They can also help you beyond the gym. “Push-ups target the muscles of the chest, shoulders and upper back, improving strength for everyday physical challenges like holding a grocery bag or baby,” says fitness expert Christine Bullock. Because your core is stabilizing your movement, abdominal strength is a bonus. So next time you find yourself effortlessly carrying all your groceries or endless delivery packages into your house, you can partly thank the push-ups.
Meet the Expert
Who Should and Shouldn’t Do Push-Ups?
Push-ups are equal-opportunity exercises, meaning almost everyone can do them. (Case in point: Actor Jack Palance did several one-armed push-ups on stage after winning an Oscar, at age 73). “Anyone without injuries can try a push-up,” says Bullock. If you have shoulder, chest, or core injuries, consult a physician or physical therapist first, but otherwise, there are variations and modifications you can do to make them easier or harder as needed.
Adds Gaither, “If you are physically able to get into a toe or kneeling plank position, then you should do them.”
How to Do a Proper Standard Push-Up
“Think of a push-up as a moving plank,” says Bullock. Here are her instructions to help nail down your form.
- Place your hands shoulder-width or slightly wider apart. If you draw a straight line from your chest/nipple down, it should be directly over your thumbnails. “Depending on your strength and experience, your hands should be angled in a way that feels comfortable for you. I prefer the middle finger pointing straight away from me,” says Bullock.
- Place your feet shoulder-width or slighter wider apart.
- With the body as a straight line from the top of your head to your heels, brace the core and glutes, then look a few inches in front of your fingers to lengthen the neck.
- Begin to bend the elbows to a 90-degree angle or less. Elbows should be a few inches from the body so your form looks like an arrow if looking top-down. Many people have their elbows flared in a “T” shape.
- Pause, then push into the floor, continuing to engage the core and glutes to press up to plank position again.
Now that you know how to do a proper push-up, there are some key guidelines to follow in practice to make sure you’re actually doing it right.
“The thing to look out for while performing a push-up properly is a straight line,” says Gaither. “This line should start at the back of the neck and all the way to the heels of your feet. Conversely, you are looking for dramatic curves in the neck, spine, and hips. If your hips reach the ground before your chest reaches four inches above, most likely, you are not performing the move properly.”
And if you feel any pain—immediate or resulting—in your lower back, core, shoulders, or chest, you should stop and check your form. “It could be based on not engaging all the muscles properly or an injury,” says Bullock.
There are different ways to change up your push-ups, whether you want to vary the difficulty level or simply try something new.
Triangle (or Diamond) Push-Ups
By changing your hand placements, you can activate different chest and arm muscles. Bullock suggests triangle push-ups, where your hands are in a triangle shape directly above the heart. Because your hands are in a more narrow position, you’re in a less stable position than standard push-ups. In addition to working all the other muscles, triangle push-ups also primarily strengthen the triceps.
Gaither says he personally only uses two different hand/elbow placements, elbow slightly bent and elbows straight back. For elbows-back push-ups, follow the instructions for standard push-ups, but keep your elbows straight back and close to the rib cage. This will target the triceps more, "but don't be mistaken, this is still a total body move,” he says.
Regardless of how many or what modifications you take, push-ups are a great way to build strength, and the more you do them, the easier they’ll be. “Push-up intensity is all about angles,” says Gaither. “A cool circle of progressing your push-ups would be to start with hands on a bench or couch. Once you are confident in performing five sets of ten reps, time to move on to kneeling push ups. Then toe push-ups. Finally, we make the complete circle to now having our feet on the couch or bench.”