Proper Push-Up Technique

Push-ups are a fantastic workout 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 a proper push-up every time, that correct form will quickly become second nature and help maximize the benefits of your push-up workouts, while minimizing your risk of injury.

Make sure to use proper form when doing push ups. (Image: PeopleImages/E+/GettyImages)

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 always be assuming some variant of this push-up position.

Here's a look at how to properly position yourself for a push-up, along with the most common mistakes you might find yourself making:

  1. Position yourself on your hands and your knees.
  2. Walk your feet back until your legs are straight and you're balanced on your palms and your toes.
  3. Check your body and hand position: Your body should make a straight line from head to heels, and your hands should be under the line of your shoulders, but slightly wider apart than your shoulders.

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 into the "down" position they'll be under your face instead of your shoulders. But to get the proper leverage, your hands should stay under the line of your shoulders.

People often underestimate how challenging push-ups are as a core exercise, which means body position is another thing that can go wrong. 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.

This may take conscious attention to cues like tucking your belly button up against your spine (to contract your abdominal muscles). And if your core isn't quite up to the demands of doing full push-ups, no problem ⁠— you can build up your core strength by doing easier push-up variations such as knee push-ups or wall push-ups, or by doing other exercises that emphasize isometric core work, such as planks and side planks.

Moving Into the "Down" Position

The position just described is commonly referred to as the "up" push-up position, because your body is in the highest position it'll reach during the exercise. Once you're properly positioned, you'll bend your arms and lower yourself into the "down" push-up position. 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 and elbows as a necklace.

Take a hint from the American Council on Exercise: You do want to let your elbows flare out during the exercise — in other words, don't keep them tucked against your body — but don't let them creep up around your neck, either. Ideally, if you drew a line from one elbow to the other while you're in the "down" phase of your push-up, the line would pass through your armpits or just below them.

Another thing you should pay close attention to is your body position. Even if you started in the right position, it's very 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.

Range of Motion for Push-Ups

Another common point of interest with push-ups is exactly how far down you should go — and if you ask a dozen experts, you'll get at least a handful of different answers. In large part, choosing an appropriate range of motion for you depends on your goals and your shoulder stability and strength.

When you go very 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 might end up using a more conservative range of motion. Often, this means stopping when your shoulders break the plane of your elbows — or even sooner, if needed to maintain a pain-free range of motion.

Tip

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. So 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 a personal priority for you, then you'll use a longer range of motion to better prepare your body for those demands.

A common cue for this includes lowering yourself until your chest touches the floor, but not everybody's shoulders will accommodate this range of motion. So make maintaining a pain-free range of motion your priority, and make sure you remain in full control of the push-up movement throughout each repetition. Not only does this make your muscles work harder (which ultimately means more benefit for you), it helps protect you from accidentally flinging your shoulders too far into external rotation.

How Many Should I Do?

So now you can do one proper push-up — and another, and another after that. How many should you do? Again, this depends somewhat on your goals: If you're working to develop endurance in your upper-body muscles, you should set your goals on doing higher numbers of push-ups; if you're building strength or power, you should focus on progressing into harder variations as you're able.

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 eight to 12 repetitions, done twice a week, is enough to reap health benefits and build strength. Doing two or three sets at each session can offer even more benefit. You can then adjust from there, depending on your goals.

If you don't have a specific goal beyond getting more fit, try this one on for size: 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 so definitively affect your cardiovascular 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.

Tip

According to a November 2016 study published in the journal Sports Medicine, if you're focused on building bigger muscles, strength-training twice a week is more effective than training once a week. 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.

But Push-Ups Are Hard ...

Push-ups are a very challenging exercise, forcing you to lift about 75 percent of your body weight out of the "down" position. So if you can't do a complete set of full push-ups, don't worry ⁠— you're far from alone, and you can work up to doing that full set.

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, knee push-ups and wall or counter push-ups are excellent variations for most people:

Move 1: Knee Push-Ups

  1. Position yourself on your hands and knees, hands positioned under the line of your shoulders and slightly wider than your shoulders.
  2. Walk your knees back until your body is in a straight line from head to knees, as opposed to the "head to heels" straight line of a full push-up.
  3. Perform your push-ups as usual from this position.

Move 2: Wall Push-Ups

  1. Assume the normal push-up position, but instead of placing your hands on the floor, place them on an elevated surface: A wall, weight bench or kitchen counter are both ideal. The higher the surface, the easier the exercise will be.
  2. Perform the push-ups as usual, lowering your chest down toward your hands, then straightening your arms to press yourself back up to the starting position.

Once you can do a full set of either of these variations, try adding one full push-up into 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 two push-ups at the beginning of your set, then three, and so on, until you can manage a full set of push-ups with no modifications at all.

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