Push-ups are a fantastic exercise for your chest, arms, shoulders and core — but only if you take the time to learn proper push-up form. If you make it a habit to do this exercise correctly every time, the movement will quickly become second nature, minimizing your risk of injury.
Start With the Proper Push-Up Position
Many elements of proper push-up form remain the same no matter what kind of push-up variation you decide to tackle. And without fail, you'll be starting from a high plank. Here's how to set yourself up for a push-up, along with the most common mistakes you might find yourself making:
Push-Up Starting Position (aka High Plank)
- Position yourself on your hands and your knees.
- Step your feet back and straighten your legs so that you're balanced on your palms and toes.
- Check your body and hand position: Your body should make a straight line from head to hips to heels, and your hands should be directly under your shoulders or slightly wider apart.
Sounds pretty simple, right? And it is — but there are a few things that commonly go wrong, especially for beginners. One of the first is your hand position. It's tempting to walk your hands too far forward, so that when you lower down, they're under your face instead of your shoulders. But to get the proper leverage, your hands should stay in line with your shoulders.
Next up: Check your body alignment. Imagine a straight line between your head and your heels. It's very common for your hips to either pike up above that line or sag below it, but neither is correct. Instead, focus on keeping your hips in line with your head and your heels. Think about drawing your bellybutton toward your spine (to contract your abs).
Or if your core isn't quite up to the demands of full push-ups, build your core strength by modifying with knee or wall push-ups or by doing other isometric core exercises, such as planks and side planks.
Then Master the Movement
The position just described is commonly referred to as the "up" push-up position, because your body is at the apex of the exercise. Once you're in a high plank, you'll bend your arms and lower yourself into the "down" position. Lastly, you'll push back up. Here's how to do it properly:
Proper Push-Up Form
- From a high plank, bend your elbows at a 45-degree angle to your body and lower your body to the floor.
- Make sure to keep the body in one straight line from the neck through the spine to the hips and down to the heels.
- Press into your palms and push the floor away from you to come back up to a high plank, still keeping your body in one straight line.
Also pretty straightforward — but again, there are a handful of common mistakes that can be hard not to make.
The first is your arm position: Even when you start out in an appropriate push-up position, it's not uncommon for beginners to let their shoulders creep out or their elbows flare up. If you were to look down from above, the resulting position looks a bit like they're trying to wear their shoulders as earrings.
Take a hint from the American Council on Exercise: You do want to let your elbows flare out too far during the exercise. Don't let them creep up around your neck, but don't keep them tucked against your body.
Another thing to pay close attention to is your body position. Even if you started in the right position, it's common for your hips to sag up or down as you move through the motion of the push-up — and you might not be aware of that happening. It helps to have a workout buddy watch your form for you or you can use a mirror to check your own form.
Modify Push-Ups if Needed
Push-ups are a very challenging exercise, forcing you to lift about 75 percent of your body weight. If you can't do a complete set of standard push-ups, don't worry — you're far from alone, and you can work up to them.
The trick is to modify the exercise to suit your current strength level, because if you compromise your form as a way of pushing through those full push-ups, you'll be decreasing the benefit you get from the exercise, while increasing your risk of injury.
With that in mind, incline push-ups are an excellent variation for most people:
- Stand arm's distance from a sturdy wall with your feet under your hips.
- Place your palms on the wall shoulder-distance apart at shoulder height.
- Bend your elbows and bring your chest toward the wall. Keep your elbows pointing down, rather than out to the side.
- Press back to the starting position.
You can also modify your push-ups by dropping to your knees.
Once you can do 15 incline push-ups, try adding 1 to 2 full push-ups at the start of your set. Then, finish out the set with your usual modified push-up form. Before you know it, you'll be able to do 3 of 4 push-ups at the beginning of your set, then 5 and so on, until you can manage a full set of push-ups with no modifications at all.
Fine Tune Your Range of Motion
Now that you have the basics down, it's time to address some details. First, how far down should you should go in your push-ups? Unfortunately, there's no easy answer here. If you ask a dozen experts, you'll get at least a handful of different answers. In large part, choosing the appropriate range of motion for you depends on your upper-body strength and shoulder stability.
When you go far down into a push-up, you're putting your shoulders into an inherently unstable position known as external rotation. So if your shoulders are injured or otherwise unstable, you should stick to a more conservative range of motion. Often, this means stopping when your shoulders break the plane of your elbows — or even sooner to maintain a pain-free range of motion.
If you're dealing with shoulder issues, your medical team will be your best allies in determining the appropriate range of motion for you — along with how you can, if appropriate, build strength to progress into a larger range of motion.
With that said, your body will adapt to the challenges you give it. If you're training for a sport or activity that requires extended range of motion in your shoulders or if developing a full range of motion is one of your goals, then you'll want to work up to a greater range of motion.
If that's the case, try to lower yourself until your chest touches the floor. Keep in mind, though, that not everybody's shoulders will accommodate this range of motion. Only go as low as you can without pain and make sure you remain in full control of the movement throughout each rep. Not only does this make your muscles work harder (which ultimately means more benefit for you), it helps protect you from accidentally pushing your shoulders too far into external rotation.
How Many Push-Ups Should I Do?
Another commonly asked questions is, "How many should I do?" Again, this depends on your fitness level and goals: If you're working to develop upper-body endurance, aim for a higher number of push-ups; if you're building strength or power, focus on progressing into harder variations.
If you're focused on building bigger muscles, strength-training twice a week is more effective than training once a week, according to a November 2016 study published in the journal Sports Medicine.
That applies to all strength-training exercises, including push-ups. In the same study, scientists note that they're not yet sure whether strength-training the same muscle group three times a week is more effective than doing it twice a week.
To get yourself started, follow the recommendations from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services physical activity guidelines for Americans: One set of 8 to 12 repetitions, done twice a week, is enough to reap health benefits and build strength. And doing 2 or 3 sets at each session can offer even more benefit. Then, you can then adjust from there, depending on your goals.
If you don't have a specific goal beyond getting fit, here's a number to aim for: In a study published in the February 2019 issue of JAMA Network Open, researchers followed 1,104 "occupationally active" middle-aged adult men over a 10-year period. They found that participants who had been able to do more than 40 push-ups during the initial evaluation were significantly less likely to have a cardiovascular disease event during the 10-year follow-up period.
That doesn't mean push-ups are a magic cure for cardiovascular disease, although they're certainly good for you. Instead, it identified push-ups as a convenient, inexpensive means of measuring the fitness levels that can also affect your heart health.
The researchers are quick to note that because their cohort of subjects was restricted to such specific criteria, they're not sure whether the results can be generalized to other populations, such as women, older people or less-active people. But the study's benchmark of 40 push-ups nonetheless gives you a great goal to aim for if you're looking for a fun reason to challenge yourself.
- American Council on Exercise: "Push-Up"
- Health.gov: "Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, 2nd Edition"
- Sports Medicine: "Effects of Resistance Training Frequency on Measures of Muscle Hypertrophy: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis"
- JAMA Network Open: "Association Between Push-Up Exercise Capacity and Future Cardiovascular Events Among Active Adult Men"
- National Institutes of Health: "Physical Activity and Your Health"
- Cooper Institute: "How Much Weight Is Really Lifted During a Push-Up?"