Push-ups might be one of the few exercises that most people on the planet have performed (or attempted to perform). Whether it’s as part of physical education in school, in a fitness test, or as a quick and simple way to get into better shape, many people are familiar with hitting the deck and pressing away.
The push-up is one of the most fundamental bodyweight exercises, accessible to anyone, anywhere. Its usefulness as a test of upper body strength and core stability make it a mainstay for physical fitness assessments. Unfortunately, lifters sometimes regard the exercise as being “too basic” and not challenging enough.
Here’s a refresher on why the classic push-up should be part of your training plan, whether you’re new to fitness or a lifelong lifter.
The goal of a push-up is to lower yourself down towards the floor, graze the ground, and then push back up. Keep in mind the phrase “light as a feather, stiff as a board,” from the levitating game from classic kids’ sleepovers or classic ’90s teenage witch movies.
For an efficient push-up, your whole body has to work together. It’s not just “a chest exercise.” All of the muscles — from your head to your toes — are going to work to keep your body in a powerful and stable position. When all of your muscles are working together, you’ll be at your strongest and the movement will be at its most efficient.
Step 1 — Begin in a Tall Plank Position
Get on the ground and support your body with your hands and the balls of your feet. Keep your arms and legs straight. Set your hands directly under your shoulders, just about shoulder-width apart. You may need to be a little wider depending on your frame and arm length.
Squeeze your glutes and tuck your hips toward your belly button. This will help keep your core from sagging. Keep your ribs and hips in alignment. It’s okay if your back ends up slightly rounded, because that’s more stable than having a sagging core.
Form Tip: For increased upper back stability and a stronger shoulder position, pull your shoulders toward your feet, away from your ears. For so many exercises, it’s important to lock your shoulders into place. Drilling this habit with the push-up is one effective way to learn a strong pressing posture.
Step 2 — Pull Yourself to the Ground
Don’t just drop into the bottom position. Think about pulling yourself down toward the ground. You want to be in total control of your movement. Squeeze your shoulder blades together as you lower yourself toward the floor. Maintain a “stiff as a board” plank position from your torso through your legs.
As your body descends, aim your elbows at roughly 45-degrees between your feet and shoulders. Feel muscular tension increasing in your chest, shoulders, and triceps as you approach the bottom position. Lower yourself as far as your mobility allows, with the goal of touching the floor.
Form Tip: Don’t allow your elbows to flare out as you lower yourself because it can increase stress on your shoulder joints. You may need to adjust your hand position to allow proper elbow tracking. If your fingers are pointed towards each other, your elbows will be more likely to flair. Position your hands with your fingers pointed straight ahead or slightly outward.
Step 3 — Press to Return to the Top Position
Once you graze the ground with your chest, or reach your lowest possible depth, push through your hands and feet to bring your body away from the ground. Keep your legs straight, but use the muscular tension stored head-to-toe to make your body “light as a feather.”
Apply steady force until your arms are fully locked and you’ve returned to the starting position. Pause briefly in the tall plank position and re-engage your core before beginning the next repetition.
Form Tip: You can change the tempo (rep speed) to adjust the difficulty of the exercise. Moving at a slower pace will increase the total time under tension and increase muscle recruitment, which can increase the muscle-building stimulus. (1)(2)
Push-Up Mistakes to Avoid
There are many different mistakes that can happen in a push-up because the movement involves coordinating your entire body from head to toe. However, the most common mistakes usually occur at your arms and in your core. Here’s what to watch out for.
Elbows Flaring Out
One frequent mistake is allowing your elbows to flare out during the exercise. For better results with less joint stress, be sure to keep your elbows at about 45-degrees. Don’t allow them to point sideways toward the walls.
Your elbow position can vary slightly depending on your individual arm length and leverages, but letting your elbows spread out toward your shoulders shifts more strain to your shoulder and elbow joints.
Avoid It: When you set up to begin the exercise, lock your shoulders into place by “un-shrugging” and pulling them away from your ears. When your elbows flare, it can drive your shoulders up toward your ears. By securing strong shoulders, your shoulders help to keep your elbows in position. Also be aware of maintaining this strong shoulder position as you begin pushing from the bottom of the movement.
Another major mistake is your core sagging down toward the floor. Instead of falling out of core alignment, keep your rib cage and hips stacked evenly. This is the same fully engaged position you need during many standing exercises, like the overhead press.
When your core sags down and breaks the stable plank position, it’s an indicator that you’re not holding tension in your core. With this unstable position, the rest of the movement will be out of alignment. It also puts unwanted pressure on your spine, which can potentially lead to injury.
Avoid it: Many people have been told too many times that their butts are “too high in the air” while doing planks, so they try to compensate and the opposite occurs — they end up sagging to the ground.
It would be more effective to have your butt “too high” while you are gaining strength with the movement, rather than have your core sag down and compromise spinal stability. Tuck your pelvis and rib cage toward your belly button, as if doing a basic crunch. Hold this strong core position as you focus on lowering your body as one unit.
Benefits of the Push-Up
Push-ups have several benefits including general muscular strength, muscular endurance, core stability, and longevity. Here’s a closer look at why you should work on this simple and effective bodyweight movement.
Upper Body Strength
Push-ups are one of the most complete upper body, bodyweight exercises you can do. Without needing any training equipment whatsoever, you can challenge your chest, shoulder, and triceps muscles, as well as your core and hips.
Your legs, and even your back muscles, are also recruited as stabilizers to control your body’s movement during the exercise.
Push-ups can build muscular size, endurance, or general strength. Each goal may involve different volumes (sets and reps) or intensity techniques, but the push-up is a quick and effective option to train for nearly any goal without any training equipment.
The push-up is an efficient way to build, maintain, or monitor relative strength — being “strong for your size” or having a high degree of functional strength. Because it requires you to lift your bodyweight, the push-up can help to ensure or monitor relative strength gains as you build muscle. This may also be one reason why push-up capacity has been associated with general cardiovascular health. (3)
Push-ups are most commonly known for working the pectoralis muscles (your chest), but push-ups work several other muscles throughout the body.
Pectoralis Major and Pec Minor
The pec major is the primary “chest muscle” and it is responsible for pulling the arms toward the body’s centerline. The is composed of two separate heads — the sternocostal and the clavicular — which work together during most movements.
The pectoralis minor is a supportive, stabilizing muscle located beneath the pec major. It plays a role in joint stability and is heavily recruited as the shoulder blades move during the exercise. The pec muscles are stretched as you descend toward the ground and they strongly contract as you push up from the floor.
The serratus are found alongside your ribs, sometimes considered “armpit muscles” because they run near your underarm. This stabilizer muscle aids in keeping your shoulders and scapula in a strong, locked-in position as your arms press and extend during push-ups. They are significantly recruited as your approach lockout at the top of each repetition.
Your triceps are made of three separate heads — the lateral, the long, and the medial. Because the triceps are responsible for straightening your arms at the elbow joint, they are recruited during all pressing exercises, including the push-up.
The triceps are more significantly activated if you perform a relatively close-grip push-up, as opposed to using a shoulder-width or greater hand position, which recruits more pec muscle. (4)
These muscles are found on the front of your shoulders. The anterior deltoids help to control arm movement in front of your body. During push-ups, the muscles lengthen as they aid in controlling your descent. They contract when you apply force to the top of the movement.
Your abdominals, running along the front of your torso, act as a brace and provide upper body strength and support in conjunction with your hips and lower back. The abs are recruited to maintain a stable and efficient total-body pressing position. They are not put through any significant range of motion during push-ups. They work statically, holding one position from start to finish.
Who Should Do the Push-Up
Push-ups are for everyone — from bodybuilders and strength athletes to the general population who just want to be able to lift their kids. The simplicity and versatility of the push-up make it an useful exercise for the majority of people in the gym.
Bodybuilders and Physique-Focused Lifters
While the push-up may not offer relatively heavy loads, unless you add a weighted vest or other external resistance, its convenience and practicality make it an effective choice for supersets during a chest workout — immediately performing a set of push-ups after a set of dumbbell flyes, for example.
This is a simple way to increase total training volume and intensity during a workout, which can lead to improved muscle growth.
Lifters who continuously move heavy loads with barbell or dumbbell exercises can achieve comparable strength-building benefits from push-ups performed with added resistance. (5)(6) This allows load-focused lifters to increase their strength while reducing wear and tear on their shoulders and elbows from repetitive exercises.
Because push-ups are a fundamental bodyweight exercise, they are an excellent way to build functional, real-world strength with quick, efficient training. (7) The ability to perform push-ups anywhere there’s room on the ground (any room of the house, for example) makes it an ideal exercise for people who find it difficult to schedule consistent gym time.
The beauty of bodyweight movements is that the range of volume (sets and reps) and intensity can be very broad. The volume and intensity depends on your goals and ability. If you are more advanced, you can either do more volume or you can make the push-up more challenging. If you’re still learning the movement, focus on racking up quality repetitions instead of pushing your limits.
Unweighted, Low Repetition
When you’re first learning the push-up and establishing basic strength in the movement, you don’t need to do a ton of repetitions because your form will start to break down from fatigue. Three to four sets of four to six reps is a good place to start.
You’ll benefit from performing a few solid repetitions with perfect technique to create good movement patterns, and slowly increasing the volume.
Unweighted, High Repetition
High-repetition training can be an effective way to build muscle without putting your joints under any significant load. (8) Once you’ve mastered push-up technique, aiming to reach muscular fatigue for two to three sets of 25 or more repetitions can be a unique muscle-building stimulus for the chest, shoulders, and triceps.
In this high-rep range, your abdominals are also significantly challenged from holding the static support position for the duration of each set.
Weighted, Moderate Repetition
Advanced lifters, in particular, can benefit from adding resistance with a weighted vest, loaded backpack, or other alternative, and performing three to four sets of 10 to 15 repetitions. This is a time-tested approach, similar to traditional weight training, which challenges the muscles with significant time under tension to promote muscle growth.
The beauty of push-ups is the incredibly long list of variations, which make push-ups suitable for just about everyone. Understanding the ability to regress, progress, or just have other options available will help you be able to learn push-ups or incorporate them into your existing program.
Incline push-ups allow you to do a full range of motion push-up using a “decreased” body weight because you shift the leverage.
While incline push-ups are a regression (easier version) of the standard push-up, it can still be progressed by gradually lowering the height you use. You can start by leaning on a wall at a very high, nearly upright, angle and slowly progress your way to the floor.
At home, you can use sturdy countertops, couches, or stairs to adjust your incline over time. At the gym, using a flat bench is a simple solution. A Smith machine is also an excellent way to make the exercise incrementally more challenging as you slowly move the bar down the rack toward the floor.
Negative push-ups are another effective favorite because, not only are they great for beginners, but they can also provide a fantastic challenge for more advanced lifters.
A “negative push-up,” simply means that you only focus on performing a slow, controlled descent (eccentric, or negative, phase) without trying to press yourself up to the starting position. You can “cheat” yourself back to the top by kneeling and resetting between each rep.
Advanced lifters, however, can add a regular-speed press to the top position or perform a press using the same slow tempo for an increased challenge.
Negative push-ups help to learn control of the movement, they help to work on core stability and strength. Take at least five seconds to complete the negative phase of the repetition. The longer it takes, the harder it will be, which in turn helps to build upper body strength. When using a slower slow speed, simply focus on using proper form with full core engagement and stability.
If you want to make push-ups more challenging without throwing weights on your back, just remove a limb from your base of support. By keeping one leg raised in the air throughout the exercise, you’re focusing your core to engage even more drastically to stabilize your entire body through your hips and working leg. Alternate the raised leg with each set to ensure balanced strength development.
Once you’ve mastered single-leg push-ups, keep both legs on the ground and work on single-arm push-ups — arguably one of the most advanced bodyweight exercises. If/when the time comes that single-arm push-ups aren’t tough, it’s time for single-arm/single-leg push-ups. Really. Lift your right arm and left foot off the ground, perform reps, then switch sides.
Some lifters still might not be ready for push-ups. Maybe they live where there’s no ground to press from. Who knows? Let’s talk about alternative exercises that work muscles similarly to a push-up.
Dips are right at the top of the list with push-ups, as far as bodyweight chest exercises go. In comparison to push-ups, dips are typically harder because you can’t push through the floor with your legs. It’s also a slightly more “vertical” body position, making you lift a higher percentage of your bodyweight. To make dips more accessible to a broader range of the population, the exercise often needs to be modified.
Bench dips, using a flat bench or sturdy chair, let you brace your legs similar to performing incline push-ups. It will help to decrease the amount of your body weight being used, but the altered body angle will emphasize your triceps more than your chest.
Performing dips with resistance bands is a very effective way to reduce the percentage of body weight you lift during the movement, allowing you to progress gradually. Dips do require a higher degree of upper back mobility and shoulder joint stability, so take your time progressing the movement and always work within a controlled range of motion.
Dumbbell Chest Press
The dumbbell chest press is a free weight alternative to the push-up. This basic exercise challenges all of the same muscles — chest, shoulders, and triceps — with the straightforward progression of added weight.
The exercise is adaptable and can be performed on a flat, incline, or decline bench. Dumbbells also allow the wrists to rotate freely, which can adjust hand position for altered muscle recruitment or increased comfort on the wrists and elbows.
You can even do dumbbell presses while lying on the floor to limit the range of motion, reduce shoulder strain, and increase triceps recruitment.
The big, basic, barbell bench press might be the most popular upper body exercise around. It’s a very effective alternative to the push-up and allows the use of potentially heavy weights.
This staple exercise can be adapted, like the dumbbell variation, with multiple angles and adjusted ranges of motion (like lying on the floor instead of a bench).
Many people jump to the barbell bench press as one of the first exercises they perform in the gym. But if they’ve ever practices push-ups at home, they’ve prepared themselves for the bench press without even realizing it.
Why are push-ups so hard?
Push-ups challenge the whole body and require coordination and strength from head to toe — from your upper back and neck across your torso through your legs and into the ground.
Push-ups are hard for many people because it requires lifting your body weight off of the floor using the direct strength of your chest and arms, which are often undertrained, especially in beginners. With time, practice, and inevitable strength gains, the exercise can start to feel easier, more controlled, and much more natural.
Can I do push-ups every day?
The simple answer is: Yes. The more complicated answer is: Yes, but… don’t forget to listen to your body and rest your muscles as needed. When you’re just starting to learn how to do push-ups, performing five to 10 reps a day can help to build good patterns.
You can even do very low-rep sets multiple times throughout the day to benefit from “greasing the groove,” or building strength and technique with high frequency training.
However you need to make sure that you don’t train every day with high intensity and you don’t train to muscular failure. You need to rest the muscles and allow them to recover so that you don’t overtrain.
Get Pushin’ with the Push-Up
Everyone can do push-ups, anywhere, anytime. From young lifters to competitive athletes to elderly adults, push-ups can help to keep your training plan convenient and accessible so your body stays strong. You’re never too strong, too experienced, or too new to hit the deck and gimme 20. Or 10. Or even five perfect reps.
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- Calatayud, J., Borreani, S., Colado, J. C., Martin, F., Tella, V., & Andersen, L. L. (2015). Bench press and push-up at comparable levels of muscle activity results in similar strength gains. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 29(1), 246–253. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0000000000000589
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