How to Do Push-Ups

Proper Form, Variations, and Common Mistakes

Targets: Chest, arms, shoulders, core

Level: Beginner

The push-up may just be the perfect exercise that builds both upper-body and core strength. It has many modifications; beginners can start with easier versions and work up to the standard push-up, while more advanced exercisers can find a challenging variation. You can do the push-up as part of a bodyweight exercise session, a circuit training workout, or a strength workout.

Benefits

The upper body muscles that come into play in the push-up are the deltoids of the shoulders, the pectoral muscles of the chest, the triceps and biceps of the upper arm, and the erector spinae of the back.

The abdominal muscles used to hold the body rigid during the push-up are the rectus abdominis and the transversus abdominis. As the push-up involves multiple joints, it is a compound exercise.

In daily life, you will often need to push against objects, from doors to shopping carts. The functional fitness you develop with push-ups will serve you well. Working the stabilizer muscles around the shoulders can help protect you from rotator cuff injuries.

Push-ups are also a measure of overall fitness, allowing you to assess whether you need to be doing more to keep your body in good working condition.

Step-by-Step Instructions

Basic push up

Verywell / Ben Goldstein 

  1. Get on the floor on all fours, positioning your hands slightly wider than your shoulders.
  2. Extend your legs back so that you are balanced on your hands and toes. Keep your body in a straight line from head to toe without sagging in the middle or arching your back. You can position your feet to be close together or a bit wider, depending on what is most comfortable for you.
  3. Before you begin any movement, contract your abs and tighten your core by pulling your belly button toward your spine. Keep a tight core throughout the entire push-up.
  4. Inhale as you slowly bend your elbows and lower yourself until your elbows are at a 90-degree angle.
  5. Exhale as you begin contracting your chest muscles and pushing back up through your hands to the start position. Don't lock out the elbows; keep them slightly bent.

Repeat for as many repetitions as your workout routine requires. If you have to pass a fitness test (such as the Army Physical Fitness Test), you can use a few simple strategies to build your strength and endurance in order to do more push-ups.

A popular push-up strategy is the "one more push-up a day" approach. This is when on day one you do one push-up, then on day two you do two push-ups, and so on.

Common Mistakes

It is easy to start making errors with push-ups if you are fatiguing or if you haven't built enough core strength. Look for these and switch to an easier variation if you can't maintain the best form.

Sagging in the Middle

The most common problem is sagging in the middle, caused by not properly bracing the core or keeping the torso stiff throughout the movement. This is not only bad form, but it can also cause back pain. You can practice with a modified plank exercise to build your core strength. Once you master that, try doing a push-up on your knees, practicing keeping your torso stable.

Neck Alignment

Your neck should be in neutral alignment with the head in a straight line with the spine, eyes to the floor, and the top of your head pointed away from your feet. If you point your chin up or drop your head so you much that you can see your toes, you are out of alignment.

Locked Elbows

Locking your elbows at the top of the movement is a mistake you might make as you fatigue and want a little rest. But this places too much stress on the joints and can lead to strain or injury. Always keep a slight bend in the elbows. If you are fatigued, it's time to take a rest before doing another set.

Hands Too Far Forward

If your hands are farther out from your body than your shoulders you are placing more strain on your shoulders. While you can vary how close your hands are together to get different effects, they should still be under your shoulders.

Limited Range of Motion

If you are only going down partially with most of your push-ups, you aren't getting the full benefit. It is better to switch to an easier modification (such as knee or incline push-ups) that you can do with the full range of motion.

Modifications and Variations

Whether you are a beginner or you need more challenges, there is a push-up for you. One of the great things about the push-up is that by varying the exercise you can change the stimulus on your muscle. Beginners can build the strength they need to work up to standard push-ups while advanced exercisers can work their muscles in new ways.

Need a Modification?

Try these variations if you need less difficulty:

Incline Push-Ups

Incline push-ups

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

If a standard push-up is too difficult, you can start by doing incline push-ups against a table or bench. Stand several feet away from the object. Use the same push-up technique as above to lower yourself until the elbows are at 90 degrees, then raise back up. Keep your core engaged the whole time.

Bent-Knee Push-Ups

Modified push-ups

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

This is a modified version of the standard push-up performed on the knees rather than on the toes. Be sure to keep the knees, hips, and shoulders all in a straight line. Do not allow yourself to bend at the hips.

Up for a Challenge?

Try these push-up variations for increased difficulty and to work your muscles in different ways.

Stability-Ball Push-Ups

Stability ball push-ups

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

Add core stability work for increased difficulty and effectiveness. Make sure you can do about 20 basic push-ups before trying stability ball push-ups.

Diamond Push-Up

The diamond push-up is done with your hands close together and the index fingers and thumbs of one hand touching the other hand and making a diamond shape. You then do push-ups with your hands touching the center of your chest and elbows close to your sides during each rep.

Push-Up Lat Row

Push-up lat row

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

This variation adds alternating dumbbell lat rows to the top of each rep. This modification increases the intensity of the exercise, activates the core stabilizers, and engages the latissimus dorsi (back) muscles.

Medicine-Ball Push-Up

Perform a standard push-up with one hand on top of a medicine ball. This works the shoulder in a slightly different range of motion which increases shoulder stability.

Alternating Medicine-Ball Push-Up

This variation adds core stability as well as a modified range of motion during the basic push-up movement. Roll the medicine ball between each hand after a rep and add a new balance challenge.

Decline Push-Ups

Decline push-ups

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

Decline push-ups are a more difficult push-up, performed with the feet raised up on a box or bench. You can adjust the box height to increase or decrease the resistance using just your body weight.

Clapping Push-Up

This is a plyometric exercise in which you push yourself up with enough power so that your hands come off the floor and you clap in midair. This exercise is not for novice exercisers. You can get injured very easily if you haven't worked up to these one at a time.

Safety and Precautions

You should not do push-ups if you have a shoulder, wrist, or elbow injury. Talk to your doctor or physical therapist to see if this is an appropriate exercise. If you want to protect your wrists, you can place your hands on dumbbells or push-up bars to keep them in a neutral position. If you feel shoulder pain during the push-up or hear a clicking noise in your shoulder, end the exercise.

Frequently Asked Questions

What muscles do push-ups work?

Done properly, the push-up is a compound exercise that uses muscles in the chest, shoulders, triceps, back, abs, and even the legs.

How many calories do push-ups burn?

If performed for one minutes, push-ups can burn around seven calories, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM).

How many push-ups should I do each day?

The number of push-ups you should do each day will vary based on your current level of fitness and other factors such as age, sex, and weight. Fitness trainers advise performing push-ups in three sets. To figure out how many reps you should do per set, perform as many push-ups as you can in two minutes and then divide that number by three.

While some people try to perform as many push-ups as they can within a certain time frame until they tire out, this is not a recommended strategy for daily exercise as it could lead to burnout or injury.

Try It Out

Incorporate this move and similar ones into one of these popular workouts:

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Article Sources
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  1. American Council on Exercise. 5 compound exercises you should add to your workout. February 2015.

  2. American Council on Exercise. Push-up.

  3. National Academy of Sports Medicine. Push the push-up.

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. General physical activities defined by level of intensity.