How to Do Pushups

Proper Form, Variations, and Common Mistakes

Push up

 Verywell / Ben Goldstein 

Targets: Chest, arms, shoulders, core

Level: Beginner

The pushup may just be the perfect exercise that builds both upper-body and core strength. Done properly, it is a compound exercise that uses muscles in the chest, shoulders, triceps, back, abs, and even the legs.

It has many modifications so beginners can start with easier versions and work up to the standard pushup, while you can find a challenging variation if you are advanced. You can do the pushup as part of a bodyweight exercise session, a circuit training workout, or a strength workout.


The upper body muscles that come into play in the pushup 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 pushup are the rectus abdominis and the transversus abdominis. As the pushup 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 pushups will serve you well. Working the stabilizer muscles around the shoulders can help protect you from rotator cuff injuries. Pushups 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

  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 pushup.
  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 pushups. One popular strategy is the "one more pushup 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 pushups 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 and 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 pushup on your knees, practicing keeping your torso stiff.

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 at the opposite wall. 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 be under your shoulders.

Limited Range of Motion

If you are only going down partially with most of your pushups, you aren't getting the full benefit. It is better to switch to an easier modification (such as knee or incline pushups) 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 pushup for you. One of the great things about the pushup 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 pushups while advanced exercisers can work their muscles in new ways.

Need a Modification?

Try these variations if you need less difficulty:

  • Incline PushupsIf a standard pushup is too difficult, you can start by doing pushups against a table or bench. Stand several feet away from the object. Use the same pushup technique as above to lower yourself until the elbows are 90 degrees, then raise back up. Keep your core tight the whole time.
  • Bent-Knee Pushups: This is a modified version of the standard pushup 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 pushup variations for increased difficulty and to work your muscles in different ways.

  • Stability-Ball PushupsAdd core stability work for increased difficulty and effectiveness. Make sure you can do about 20 basic pushups before trying these.
  • Pushup Lat Row: 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 Pushup: Perform a standard pushup 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 Pushup: This variation adds core stability as well as a modified range of motion during the basic pushup movement. Roll the medicine ball between each hand after a rep and add a new balance challenge.
  • Decline PushupsThis is a more difficult pushup, 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.
  • Diamond Pushup: 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 pushups with your hands touching the center of your chest and elbows close to your sides during each rep.
  • Clapping Pushup: 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 pushups 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 pushup bars to keep them in a neutral position. If you feel shoulder pain during the pushup or hear a clicking noise in your shoulder, end the exercise.

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.