The push-up is an amazing exercise: Not only does it build your arms and chest, it's also a great way of strengthening your core, glutes and legs. And to keep you from getting bored, there are tons of push-up variations. So learning how to perfect the basic move is an essential first step.
One of the key aspects of doing this exercise correctly is push-up depth. While some trainers claim you can build strength at any depth, others swear that until your nose touches the ground, you're not really benefiting from a push-up.
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But how low do you really need to go in a push-up? Well, practically speaking, it depends. Here's what experts have to say about it.
Is There an Ideal Push-Up Depth?
Many factors determine how low you should go in a push-up. Your workout goal, fitness level, upper-body strength, shoulder mobility and even the push-up variation you're doing all play a role in determining how low you can safely go.
"Push-up depths vary for every kind of person, goal or even the push-up style," Connor Derrickson, CSCS, certified strength and conditioning specialist at Future, tells LIVESTRONG.com. "For normal push-ups, the optimal depth is when your elbows go just past 90 degrees. That's a little different for everybody but a good standard depth."
Said another way: "For most people, an ideal push-up depth will go from having their arms nearly fully straight to having their triceps level with their torso," Blake Reichenbach, ISSA-certified personal trainer and owner of Self Himprovement, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
Going lower than this can increase your chances of hurting your shoulder, Derrickson says. But does this mean you should ditch the nose-to-ground style? Certainly not — as long as you can handle it.
"Going deeper — nose-to-ground depth — isn't necessarily worse, but if you're still building strength and stability in your chest, dropping this low can increase the likelihood of injuring your elbows," Reichenbach says.
But if you have sufficient strength and mobility, dropping lower can "better activate parts of the pectoralis minor (upper chest), if it's something you can do in a stable, controlled motion," Reichenbach says.
Is There a Minimum Depth for Building Strength?
That depends. Generally speaking, you can build strength at pretty much any range of motion. "Any depth is better than no depth," Reichenbach says. "But if you're dealing with very little depth — say 50 percent or less of a full push-up — you're most likely going to be concentrating the contraction of your triceps rather than your chest."
He recommends a push-up depth of 70 percent or more if you're trying to strengthen both your chest and triceps. You don't have to touch the ground with your chest, but you need to go deep enough to feel some strain on the outside of your pecs (chest muscles) at the bottom of each rep.
Derrickson agrees, saying, "I can get really strong at the top of a push-up by doing weighted quarter reps. But is that ideal? Probably not. For many people that can't perform full-range push-ups, I typically recommend half reps from the top or eccentric push-ups, where they do just the lower portion."
The takeaway? Go as low as you can safely go until you become strong enough to go even lower. Never go beyond your ability level.
As cool as it may be to go lower in push-ups, you have to watch your elbows. “Your elbows should be neither pinned to your side nor flared out at 90-degree angles,” Reichenbach says.
“Having your elbows flared out too far will strain your shoulders. This reduces your push-up depth and increases your risk of a shoulder injury. On the flip side, if your elbows are pinned to your side, the bulk of the exertion will be on your triceps rather than distributed through your entire chest.”
How to Increase Your Push-Up Depth
There are a few ways you can safely increase your push-up depth. Reichenbach recommends working on strengthening and stabilizing the secondary muscles used in the exercise.
"For instance, in my push-ups, I used to notice that my wrists and shoulders felt tired before my chest and triceps," Reichenbach says. "So, to improve my push-up endurance and depth, I integrated more deep stretches and strengthening exercises for those muscles."
In addition, both Reichenbach and Derrickson recommend doing a few push-up modifications. "I recommend elevated push-ups where your hands are on a bench or a coffee table and modified push-ups where your knees are on the ground," Derrickson says, adding that these two variations change the lever points and angles to make the movement a little easier.
Reichenbach adds that other push-up variations such as elevating your legs, elevating your torso, and bringing your hands closer together can help target the muscles involved in your push-ups in ways that traditional push-ups don't.
"Bringing new types of movement and strain to your muscles can help round out mobility and stability," he says.