The Ultimate Upper Body Exercise Is the Push Up

Push up
Ben Goldstein

The push up 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.

How to Do a Perfect Push Up

  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.

How to Do More Push Ups

You can use a few simple strategies to build your strength and endurance in order to do more push ups. This is useful for those who have to pass a fitness test (such as the Army Physical Fitness Test). It takes time, effort and a systematic approach, but doing more push ups is not impossible.

One strategy that is popular and that numerous online fitness challenges are based on 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.

Push Up Variations

One of the great things about the push-up is that by varying the exercise you can change the stimulus on your muscle. This is important because our body can get complacent and when that happens you don't get as much benefit from an exercise. Below are some variations to the push up (listed from easiest to hardest) that can make sure your body keeps reaping the benefits of this exercise.

  • Incline Push Ups: If a standard push up is too difficult, you can start by doing push ups against a wall, a table, or a sturdy chair. Stand several feet away from the object you are using and use the same push up technique as above to lower yourself until the elbows are 90 degrees and then raise back up. Keep your core tight the whole time.
  • Bent Knee Push Ups: 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; most people have a tendency to bend at the hips as though you are bowing, but this is incorrect technique.
  • Stability Ball Push UpsIf you are ready to move beyond the basic push and add some core stability work try stability ball push ups. This variation of the push up increases the difficulty and effectiveness of the standard push up. Adding the balance requirement takes some practice an good core strength, so make sure you can do about 20 basic push ups before trying these.
  • Push Up Lat RowThe push up is nearly perfect all by itself, but add a couple of dumbbells to the movement and you have a complete upper body workout. 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 one 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 UpsThis is 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.
  • Diamond Push Up: The diamond push up is done with your hands close together; with 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.
  • 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.
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