How to Do a Push-Up with Perfect Form — Even as a Beginner
Buried deep in your brain, you might have a memory of shakily attempting — and maybe failing — to do a handful of push-ups during your fifth-grade gym class. It was the era of the agonizing (though some say scarring) Presidential Fitness Test, and you may be apprehensive about performing the upper-body-building exercise to this day.
It's an understandable feeling. But given all the benefits push-ups have to offer, you may want to shake off your worries and give the movement another shot.
Your first step: Follow along with this in-depth guide on how to do a push-up. Here, you'll find expert answers to the question, "What do push-ups work?" tips on how to do push-ups for beginners, and push-up variations that will help you get the most out of the movement no matter where you are in your journey.
What Muscles Do Push-Ups Target?
A predominantly upper-body exercise, push-ups call largely on the chest muscles — the pectoralis major and minor — as well as the biceps, triceps, serratus anterior, and deltoids, says Bianca Vesco, a NASM-certified personal trainer and fitness instructor in Nashville. "Having a strong upper body is crucial to living an easier life, not to mention the control and body awareness you learn from bodyweight exercises is substantial in preventing injury," she explains.
Your core also lights up during a push-up, adds Amber Harris, a certified functional strength coach and ACE-certified personal trainer in Kansas City. Push-ups are essentially a dynamic high plank, and your core — the muscles throughout your trunk that help move and support the spine — will work to stabilize the body and maintain proper alignment as you lower to the floor and press back up to the starting position, she notes.
So, what do push-ups help us with? The exercise offers several key benefits you won't want to miss out on — from muscle strength and posture improvement, to supporting your everyday functioning and quality of life.
1. They Build Strength and Muscle
Including push-ups in your resistance training program will help you increase your strength and muscle mass, says Harris — the latter of which you may naturally lose at a rate of 3 to 8 percent each decade after age 30.
2. They Support Everyday Functioning
Performing push-ups helps you build strength in the pushing movements you do in your day-to-day life. Over time, push-ups empower you to be able to push open any door, no matter how heavy it is, says Vesco. You'll have no problem pushing your kid's massive stroller up a hill in your neighborhood. And if you fall to the ground, you'll be able to get yourself back up to standing with ease, adds Harris.
Since push-ups also work the muscles throughout your arms and shoulders, the exercise can make carrying and lifting items overhead (like a heavy carry-on suitcase) feel less taxing, too, says Harris.
3. They Improve Posture
Practicing push-ups can also help you stand with better posture, says Vesco. Many muscle groups help support good posture, including deep core muscles, which work to control the position of your joints and spinal segments, according to 2018 research. The serratus anterior (the muscle that attaches your shoulder blade to your rib cage) also comes into play. When the muscle, which is essential to the optimal movement of the shoulder complex, is weak, a scapular "winging" posture can develop and ultimately shorten the pectoralis minor muscle. In turn, the scapula (aka shoulder blades) may tilt forward and rotate inward, research suggests. By keeping these muscles strong, you're more likely to sit and stand tall.
4. They're Easily Modifiable
People tend to avoid push-ups because they're quite difficult, says Vesco. But as a bodyweight exercise, "they are also very easily adapted to meet any fitness level where they're at, which isn't always the case for other exercises," she explains. When you're not quite able to perform a full push-up with good form, you can scale back and try the movement on your knees, against a wall, or with a kitchen counter — no additional gym equipment required.
How to Do Push-Ups for Beginners
Before you give the exercise a try, follow this step-by-step guide on how to do a push-up with perfect form.
1. Start in a high plank position on the floor, with your hands placed slightly outside of your shoulders, your legs fully extended, and your feet hip-width apart. Gaze down and slightly forward for a neutral neck. Your body should form a straight line from head to heel.
2. Tuck your biceps close to your sides so your elbows are pointed roughly 45 degrees away from your body.
3. Spread your fingers as wide as possible to grip the floor and externally rotate your hands slightly, as if you're screwing them into the floor. Keep your palms flat, distributing the load of your body evenly throughout your hand. Then, engage your core, bracing as if someone were about to punch you in the gut.
4. Keeping your back flat, core engaged, and body forming a straight line, bend your elbows to slowly lower yourself to the floor on an inhale. Stop lowering when you're hovering about 3 inches above the floor.
5. On an exhale, press through your palms to straighten your arms and push back up to the starting position.
Push-Up Form Tips and Common Mistakes
To keep your form on point with each rep, imagine you have a string connecting your belly button to the ceiling that's pulling you up, suggests Vesco. This cue can help prevent dipping in the low back, which may stem from a lack of body awareness or weak core muscles, she says.
Similarly, avoid lowering rapidly and "snaking" your body up the starting position, which negates all of the benefits of push-ups, says Harris. You want your shoulders, hips, and ankles to be in alignment, and your trunk should feel strong, still, and stable, according to the experts.
At the bottom of your push-up, your arms should also be at a soft "A" angle — not a harsh "T," says Vesco. "[When your] elbows go out into a 'T,' it puts extra stress on the shoulders, which makes them vulnerable and then prone to injury," adds Harris.
"Any of these very common mistakes, done over and over again, can lead your body to some not-so-great muscle memory and over time hinder you from perfecting your push-up," says Vesco.
Push-Up Variations to Try
Push-ups are tough to nail on your first try, so if you need to tweak the exercise to make it sync with your fitness level, do so.
- Incline Push-ups: Start by mastering the proper push-up form and technique standing up, with your hands planted on the wall in front of your shoulders. Then, gradually progress to various inclines (the kitchen counter, the coffee table, a step on the staircase) — and finally the floor, suggests Harris. Working through this journey, which slowly amps up in resistance, will help you build strength in the traditional push-up form.
- Push-up negative, or eccentric push-ups: Settle into the push-up starting position, then spend four to five seconds lowering yourself to the floor with good technique. Once your chest hits the ground, place your knees on the floor and reset to the starting position. "We're not really working ascent, just the eccentric part," Harris explains. "Doing a few sets of those really helps to build the muscles so that you can actually do push-ups."
- Push-ups on your knees: Knee push-ups may seem like the easy way out, but Vesco says they're more effective than you think. "We build strength in a full range of motion, so doing a full chest-to-floor push-up on your knees is more beneficial than moving a few inches on your toes," says Vesco. Just make sure to avoid crossing your ankles and place your knees together or slightly separated — whichever feels best — to ensure good form, she says. You can lift your feet off the floor if that's what feels most comfortable to you, but Vesco generally encourages her clients to keep their feet touching the ground throughout a knee push-up. "If you keep the tops of the feet relaxed onto the floor, you are using only your core to assist," she explains. "If you curl the heels toward the glutes, off the floor, and engage your hamstrings, the back of your legs will also assist you back up." That said, the latter isn't a "wrong" technique — it's just different, she says.
Once you're a classic push-up pro, level up the movement by playing with tempo (think: lowering for two seconds, pausing for two seconds, and repeating), adding shoulder tap holds, or hovering one foot above the ground, suggests Vesco. You can also try decline push-ups (during which your feet are elevated), push-ups with a weighted vest or weight plate on your back, or push-ups with a resistance band hooked around your thumbs and placed over your back to increase the muscular challenge, adds Harris.
There are also triceps push-ups, which more heavily target — you guessed it — the triceps. The technique is pretty similar to a standard push-up, but your hands will be directly under your shoulders and your elbows will point straight back. Your biceps may even graze your ribcage as you lower, says Vesco.
How to Add Push-Ups to Your Routine
Before you attempt your very first push-up, make sure you're able to hold a high plank for at least 30 seconds, says Harris. Hitting this goal is a good sign you have the necessary strength and stability in your core to maintain proper alignment during a dynamic push-up, she explains.
Elsewhere in your fitness routine, prioritize exercises that build upper-body and core strength, which will both help build push-up strength, says Vesco. Try chest presses, shoulder presses, planks, and other isolated core exercises, she suggests. "The push part of push-ups is the hard part, so if your goal is to have a stronger push-up, put more push exercises into your routine," she adds.
There aren't any hard-and-fast guidelines in terms of when to perform push-ups or how many reps you should do. But, "if stronger push-ups are at the top of your list, I wouldn't save them for the very end of your workout when you are absolutely gassed and exhausted," says Vesco. Your last two reps should be challenging to finish, but not so difficult that you hurt yourself. So if you're a push-up newbie, consider aiming for three to five sets of one to five reps and adjusting your goals from there, she suggests.
Most importantly, don't let a few failed reps discourage you. "Push-ups are hard. Let them be hard!" says Vesco. "Be patient, lean into consistency, and trust that your body will get there if you give it some time."