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Proper Push-Up Technique

by 
author image Collette Stohler
Collette Stohler is the author of Passport to Fitness. She is also the creative director and co-founder of the travel blog, Roamaroo. She was an All-American Track and Field athlete & Olympic trials qualifier in Olympic Weightlifting. She attended the University of Pennsylvania and received a master's degree from the University of Miami.
Proper Push-Up Technique
Push-ups are one of the most effective upper body exercises. Photo Credit: Blend Images - Erik Isakson/Brand X Pictures/GettyImages

The push-up is one of the most simple, yet effective upper-body and core exercises. It activates multiple muscles, including the deltoids, pectoral muscles, triceps, core muscles and even glutes.

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With one compound exercise (meaning it involves more than one joint), individuals are able to exercise multiple muscle groups. To gain the maximum results, it's imperative to perform this exercise with proper form.

How to Perform a Push-Up

First, let's start with the basics. There are three simple steps to mastering a standard push-up.

Start your push-up in a high plank position.
Start your push-up in a high plank position. Photo Credit: Mike Kemp/Blend Images/GettyImages

Step 1: Set It Up

Start by placing your hands underneath your shoulders. Your legs should extend straight out behind you, so that the balls of your feet are on the ground. You're now in a high plank position.

Step 2: Lower to the Ground

Keep your core tight and your glutes engaged as you lower down until your chest touches the ground.

Step 3: Press Back Up

Continue to keep your body in a straight line as you push away from the floor and bring your body back up to the starting position.

Read more: What Are the Benefits of Push-Ups?

4 Common Push-Up Mistakes

Depending on how you do them, push-ups can do one of two things:

  1. Help you build upper-body strength and muscle. (Good!)
  2. Screw up your shoulders and posture. (Bad!)

Here's how to tell the difference between a good push-up and a bad push-up and how to quickly fix your form to get the biggest benefits.

1. Piking/Lifting Your Butt

A common mistake in the push-up is raising your butt above your body into a pike position, likely due to tight hips and weak glute muscles.

While this takes some pressure out of your core, you’re not going to get the total benefit of your push-up. And when you raise your butt up into the air, you place more pressure on your shoulders.

FIX: Keep your butt clenched tight and hips flat and level.

2. Dropping Your Stomach/Arching Your Back

If you have a weak core, you may be tempted to let your stomach sag in the middle as you do your push-ups, which leads to a "slinky" effect often caused by an unstable spine.

FIX: Keep your core engaged throughout the entire movement in order to protect your lower back.

3. Flaring Your Elbows Out Too Wide

This usually happens when you have weak upper back muscles that can't activate properly. Or you simply get tired and resort to bad form. But once your form suffers. Stop and regroup to make sure you do every rep with proper form.

FIX: Keep your elbows tucked in toward your body at a 45-degree angle.

4. Your Head Droops

Sure, you may get tired, and holding your head up is just one more thing you have to think about. But letting your head droop is bad for your neck and spine.

FIX: Hips, torso, neck and head all in a straight line.

Read more: Join the LIVESTRONG.COM Push-Up Challenge

Mix things up with push-up variations.
Mix things up with push-up variations. Photo Credit: milanvirijevic/E+/GettyImages

5 Foundational Push-Up Variations

Now that you've mastered the basic form, you can focus on different muscles by incorporating variations of the traditional push-up into your workout routine. Here are five to start with.

1. Incline Push-Up

This variation is just right for beginners.

HOW TO DO IT: Start by placing your hands on an elevated surface such as a bench. Place your legs straight behind you and your body in a stiff, plank position. Slowly lower your chest to the bench and push back to the starting position. This limited range of motion makes the exercise easier.

2. Decline Push-Up

A decline push-up will make the traditional push-up more difficult, so it's recommended that only intermediate to advanced athletes perform this.

HOW TO DO IT: Place your feet on an elevated surface such as a bench and your hands on the ground underneath your shoulders. While keeping your core locked in a tight, plank position, slowly lower your chest down to the ground. Once your chest touches, push the floor away from you as you return to the starting position.

3. Clap Push-Up

The clapping push-up is an advanced variation on the traditional push-up.

HOW TO DO IT: Start with your hands underneath your shoulders and your feet back behind you in a plank position. Lower your chest down to the ground. As soon as your chest touches the ground, explode out of the bottom position so that your hands lift off of the ground and clap in front of your chest. While your feet stay on the ground, your hands return to the ground underneath your shoulders.

4. Wide-Arm Push-Up

With your hands spread wider than shoulder-width, you’ll recruit more pectoral muscle versus the traditional triceps recruitment.

HOW TO DO IT: Place your hands wider than shoulder-width apart with your feet back behind you and your legs fully extended. With your body in a plank position, lower your body down until your chest touches the ground. As soon as your chest touches the ground, push your body away from the floor and return to the starting position.

5. Diamond Push-Up

The diamond push-up is an advanced move and heavily targets your tricep muscles.

HOW TO DO IT: Start by placing your hands in a triangle position underneath your chest with your pointer fingers touching above and your thumbs touching. Place your feet behind you, spread wider than a normal push-up to balance your body.

Keeping your body in a stiff plank position, lower your body down until your chest touches your hands. As soon as your chest touches your hands, push your body away from the ground and return to the starting position.

Read more: 10 MORE Push-Up Variations for a Stronger Body

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