How to Do Push-Ups: Proper Form, Variations, and Common Mistakes

Targets: Chest, arms, shoulders, and core

Level: Beginner

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

How to Do a Push-Up

Verywell / Ben Goldstein 

To do a push-up you are going to get on the floor on all fours, positioning your hands slightly wider than your shoulders. Don't lock out the elbows; keep them slightly bent. Extend your legs back so you are balanced on your hands and toes, your feet hip-width apart. Once in this position, here is how you will do a push-up.

  1. Contract your abs and tighten your core by pulling your belly button toward your spine. 
  2. Inhale as you slowly bend your elbows and lower yourself to the floor, until your elbows are at a 90-degree angle.
  3. Exhale while contracting your chest muscles and pushing back up through your hands, returning to the start position. 

Keep a tight core throughout the entire push-up. Also, keep your body in a straight line from head to toe without sagging in the middle or arching your back. 

Benefits of Push-Ups

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

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 gluteal or hip muscles, and the erector spinae of the back.

In daily life, you often need to push against objects, from doors to shopping carts. The functional fitness you develop with push-ups provides the strength needed to perform these movements. Working the stabilizer muscles around the shoulders can help protect you from rotator cuff injuries.

A 2019 study also found that people who can do 40 push-ups have fewer cardiovascular disease events than those who cannot complete 10 push-ups. Push-ups can be used as a measure of upper body fitness, allowing you to assess whether you need to be doing more to keep your upper body in good working condition.

Do Push-Ups Burn Fat?

Push-ups do not burn fat directly, but resistance training does burn calories which can help create a deficit needed for weight loss. As well, building muscle can increase your metabolism. However, you cannot spot reduce fat and push-ups will not burn fat off a particular body part.

Other Variations of a Push-Up

Whether you are a beginner and need to make this exercise easier, or you're advanced and want more of a challenge—or want to better target a specific muscle—there is a push-up variation for you.

Bent-Knee Push-Up

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.

Incline Push-Up

You can also do incline push-ups to make this exercise a bit easier. Stand several feet away from the table or bench. 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 throughout the movement.

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

Stability-Ball Push-Up

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.

Decline Push-Up

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.

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

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.

Diamond Push-Up

The diamond push-up variation targets the triceps brachii. It is done with your hands close together and the index fingers and thumbs of one hand touching the other hand, making a diamond shape on the floor. 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 With 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.

To do it, perform the push-up with hands holding dumbbells versus pushing against the floor. At the top of the movement, pull the weight up to the chest before lowering it back to the floor.

Push-up lat row

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

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. You can also do an alternating medicine-ball push-up by rolling the medicine ball between each hand after a rep, which can help improve your balance.

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 issues and switch to an easier variation if you can't maintain the best form.

Sagging in the Middle

One of the most common mistakes is sagging in the middle, caused by not properly bracing the core or keeping the torso stiff throughout the movement. 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.

Improper Neck Alignment

Your neck should be in neutral alignment, 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 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.

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 for your specific condition.

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.

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.

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 minute, 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 into one of these popular workouts:

8 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  3. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. Rotator cuff and shoulder conditioning program.

  4. Yang J, Christophi C, Farioli A, et al. Association between push-up exercise capacity and future cardiovascular events among active adult men. JAMA Netw Open. 2019:2(2):e188341. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2018.8341

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  7. McCall P. Perfecting the push-up for all levels. American Council on Exercise.

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

By Elizabeth Quinn, MS
Elizabeth Quinn is an exercise physiologist, sports medicine writer, and fitness consultant for corporate wellness and rehabilitation clinics.