There are few exercises that test the boundaries of pure strength like the push-up. Oftentimes, you can tell just how truly strong someone is by how solid their push-up is. A staple of many workouts, push-ups place special emphasis on the upper body and core muscles. But if you look closely, you'll see that's not all.
"When done properly, the push-up requires full-body tension and also engages the quads and glutes," Miriam Alicea, a National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM)-certified trainer with a specialization in corrective exercise, tells LIVESTRONG.com. "Push-ups are a compound exercise, which means that they require multiple muscles and joints to act together at a high-energy cost for successful completion of the movement."
The Benefits of Push-Ups
Research suggests that the number of push-ups you can do may also be an indication of how long you might live: According to a May 2018 study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, which surveyed more than 80,000 adults, people who did strength-based exercises, such as push-ups and sit-ups, reduced their risk of premature death by 23 percent.
Moreover, a February 2019 study in the JAMA Network found that active adult men who were able to do more than 40 push-ups in a single workout session reduced their risk of cardiovascular disease compared to their counterparts who were only able to do less than 10 reps at a time.
The problem is that most people don't know how to do a push-up properly and engage the correct muscles to get the most out of the exercise. The most common push-up mistakes include placing your hands too far apart, not actviating your glutes and quads, allowing your hips to dip and pushing solely from your shoulders.
That's why it's important to perfect the plank and do exercises, like rows, chest presses and even modified push-ups, to ensure you're really doing the exercise correctly at each stage.
"They are one of the most challenging body-weight exercises due to the amount of coordination and upper body and core strength required," Alicea says. But good form is a must. "I'll take five push-ups with great form from my clients over 15 reps with less than ideal form. Always remember, quality over quantity," she says.
How to Do a Perfect Push-Up
- Start in a high plank with your feet hip-width apart, shoulders over wrists and pelvis in a neutral position. Make sure to pack your shoulders back and down and keep your elbows relatively close to the rib cage.
- Keeping your back flat and tightening your glutes and quads, bend your arms, and lower yourself as close to the ground as possible. Your elbows should be at about a 45-degree angle to your torso.
- Press your hands into the floor to push yourself back up to the high plank position.
3 Push-Up Pain Points — and How to Fix Them
- Wrist pain: If you're experiencing wrist pain from doing push-ups, Alicea recommends holding onto a bar or dumbbells. "The key here is to keep your wrist and hand in line with your forearm to relieve any pressure on the wrist," she says. Actively gripping the ground with your fingers also helps relieve pressure from your wrists. "This allows for the pressure to be spread evenly throughout your hand as opposed to being centralized at the wrist," she notes.
- Neck pain: "A common mistake is what I call 'leading with your chin,'” Alicea says. "This is when someone pokes their chin toward the ground on the lowering phase of the push-up. Focusing on a point just in front of you, instead of looking straight down will help keep your neck in line with your spine.”
- Back pain: If you are saddled with back pain, drop down to your knees. “Performing push-ups on your knees shortens the body’s lever and requires less work and recruitment of the core muscles, taking pressure off the lower back,” Alicea says.
Be sure to balance all of these pushing movements with pulling exercises (think deadlifts and pull-ups), Alicea says. “This prevents your shoulders from rounding forward, which can lead to a rounded back and hinder your shoulder range of motion.”
Push-Up Modifications for People Who Hate Push-Ups
There's no shame in not being able to bang out push-ups in perfect succession yet. In reality, most people aren't doing push-ups correctly, and quite frankly, their egos are getting in the way of doing them right. Instead of focusing on how many push-ups you can do, Alicea says form should always be the top priority.
Here are her top push-up modifications to help you safely and effectively develop the strength and endurance necessary to progress to a standard push-up.
If You're Not Engaging Your Glutes and Quads
Try: the High Plank
A high plank is the foundation of a strong push-up. By mastering this exercise, you'll learn how to fully engage all of the muscles in your body, including your glutes and quads. After all, the push-up is a full-body exercise. When you tighten your core, glutes and quads, you take pressure off of your shoulders and chest from carrying all of the load.
- Begin in a tabletop position with your hands and knees shoulder-width apart, and your shoulders stacked directly over your wrists and hips over knees.
- Bracing your core, lift your knees a few inches off the ground and extend your legs behind you. You should be able to draw a straight line from the top of your head to your heels.
- Tighten your glutes and quads to prevent your lower back and hips from dipping. Hold for 20 to 30 seconds, increasing the time as you get stronger. Repeat 2 to 3 times a week.
Keep your gaze a few inches in front of your hands to maintain a neutral neck, and don't arch your back.
If You're Not Keeping Your Body in a Straight Line
Try: the Plank-Up
The plank-up is a great exercise for practicing the downward and upward phases of the push-up. It is a helpful reminder that your body should be moving in a straight line, avoiding swaying your hips from side to side and arching your lower back. Think of your body as an elevator, moving from one floor to the next. If you place a glass of water on your back, it shouldn't fall off.
- Start in a high plank with your hands and feet shoulder-width apart and wrists stacked underneath your shoulders, core tight.
- Keeping your body in a straight line, lift your right hand and bring your elbow to the ground. Immediately follow it with your left elbow, coming into a forearm plank. Avoid rocking your hips side to side as you lower your body.
- Pressing your left forearm into the ground, place your right hand on the ground directly beneath the right shoulder. Follow it with the left hand, coming back to a high plank. Continue for 20 to 30 seconds, increasing the time as you get stronger. Repeat 2 go 3 times a week.
If You Want to Boost Your "Push" Power
Try: the Hand Release Push-Up
When it comes to building strength and locking down proper push-up form and mechanics, Alicea counts this variation as her favorite. The hand release portion of this exercise allows you to build power from the ground up, forcing you to utilize your chest, triceps, as well as your glutes and quads to get into a high plank.
- Begin by lying on your stomach on the ground with arms extended overhead or at your sides, toes tucked behind you. Place your hands right by your chest.
- Tigthening your body, press your hands firmly into the ground to push yourself up into a high plank, creating a straight line. Avoid lifting your upper body first and then your lower body off the ground — your body should come up in one piece.
- Bend elbows and lower yourself back down to the ground.
- Lift your hands off the ground.
- Place your hands back down on the ground, and push back up. Complete 5 to 15 reps for 3 sets. Repeat 2 to 3 times a week.
This exercise requires full-body tension and proper alignment, Alicea says, which will allow you to work on and improve the pushing phase, which tends to be the most challenging for people.
If You Want to Strengthen the Downward Phase
Try: the Negative Push-Up
"Strength gains occur during the eccentric, or lowering portion, of an exercise," Alicea says, which is exactly what the negative push-up targets. The negative push-up helps you slow down the downward phase of the push-up to ensure you're recruiting the right muscles and that you're keeping your shoulders back and opening up your chest. Try counting to five on the way down.
- Start in a high plank with your hands and feet shoulder-width apart and wrists stacked underneath shoulders, core tight.
- Slowly lower your body down to the ground.
- Return to the starting position by placing your knees on the ground and then pressing your body back up. Complete 5 to 15 reps for 3 sets. Repeat 2 to 3 times per week.
"The slower you lower yourself down, the better," Alicea says. "Remember, we are focusing on the negative portion of the move, so don’t wear yourself out by pushing yourself back up on your toes."
If You Have Trouble Lowering Your Body to the Ground
Try: the Incline Push-Up
If you find it challenging to bring your body to touch the ground, an incline push-up on a bench, wall or box shortens the distance between your body and the surface. This exercise is one of the most common push-up variations because of the similarities in form to a standard push-up, which allows for quicker progressions, Alicea says. This variation will also help you gauge your progress over time.
- Stand facing a chair or bench with your hands flat on the chair
- Walk your feet back until your body is at about a 45-degree angle and in one long line. Your shoulders should be stacked over your wrists.
- Tightening your glutes and quads and bracing your core, bend your arms and lower yourself as close to the chair as possible.
- Press your hands firmly on the chair and push yourself back up to the starting position. Complete 5 to 15 reps for 3 sets. Repeat 2 to 3 times per week.
"Think of starting your push-up program with a wall push-up, and then progressing to a lower platform, maybe your window sill, then to the edge of a small stool, and finally your standard push-up," Alicea suggests.
If You're Not Using Your Back
Try: the Scapular Push-Up
When you're doing a push-up, your back is mimicing the same motion it does when you're performing a row: You're pinching your shoulder blades together. The scapular push-up is a good reminder that if you put your back into it, you'll help relieve your shoulders.
This variation is "used to train the body to maintain the scapula and upper body in the proper position and alignment to avoid and/or alleviate shoulder pain," Alicea says.
- Start in a high plank with your hands and feet shoulder-width apart and your wrists stacked underneath shoulders, core tight.
- Keeping your arms straight, drop your ribs and chest toward the ground, pinching your shoulder blades together at the top.
- Draw your spine toward the ceiling while pulling your shoulder blades down and back.
- Complete 5 to 15 reps for 3 sets, and repeat 2 to 3 times a week.
As you drop your ribs and chest down, work to maintain elbow extension throughout, Alicea says.
- American Journal of Epidemiology: "Does Strength-Promoting Exercise Confer Unique Health Benefits? A Pooled Analysis of Data on 11 Population Cohorts With All-Cause, Cancer, and Cardiovascular Mortality Endpoints"
- JAMA Network: "Association Between Push-Up Exercise Capacity and Future Cardiovascular Events Among Active Adult Men"