Who doesn’t love the push-up? It’s an exercise you can do almost anywhere – from the floor, or bench, or even on top of your desk. Once you’ve mastered a basic push-up, there are variations you can do to help build your chest, lats, triceps, and rhomboids. But to get the most out of this exercise, you need to do it correctly. Have you truly mastered the push-up? Here are some tips for getting more out of this basic exercise and truly master the exercise.
Lower yourself more slowly.
It’s not just about the number of push-ups you can do, it’s how you perform each one. One way to ensure you’re getting the most out of each repetition is to slow down the tempo. When you reach the bottom of the movement, with your chest almost to the floor, hold the position isometrically for 5 to 10 seconds. Try increasing the length of your hold every week or two until you’ve worked up to 30 seconds. Be sure to keep breathing while you hold! Doing this will increase muscle endurance more than not including an isometric hold.
Keep your elbows close to your body.
Keep your elbows tight by your side and at a 45-degree angle when you lower yourself down—this will help engage even more of your chest muscles (pectorals), triceps, and back (latissimus dorsi). Bonus: by keeping those elbows closer in towards your ribs as they bend, you’ll also avoid putting too much stress on your shoulder joints. One study also found that letting elbows flare when doing a push-up increases the risk of shoulder impingement. Protect your shoulders and elbows when you do a push-up, so you can keep doing them without injuring your shoulders.
Maintain proper body alignment.
Keep your body into a straight line from your ankles to your head when you do push-ups. One of the most common problems people have when doing a push-up is they let their hips sag.
Here’s what to do:
- Place your hands on the floor, shoulder-width apart, and your feet together.
- Move your body into a straight line from your ankles to your head. Your head should be aligned with your spine; don’t allow it to drop forward or look up at the ceiling (this will strain your neck). Instead, pick a spot on the floor just in front of you and focus there while doing each rep. Your chin should be tucked in slightly to avoid “hyperextending your neck” or causing strain.
- It may help to think of pushing yourself away from the ground rather than pulling yourself toward it—this can keep you from overextending at the bottom of each rep and straining muscles in your back and shoulders (a common mistake!).
Your midsection plays a huge role in stabilizing your spine and hips. If your hips sag during push-ups, the main muscle involved in keeping your spine and pelvis stable won’t fire as readily when you do exercises such as a squat or a deadlift. It can be difficult to keep tabs on proper form when you’re pushing yourself during a workout. But maintaining alignment is important for avoiding injury and maximizing results. It may be helpful to video yourself doing push-ups or ask someone knowledgeable to critique your form.
Stay on the path and limit extraneous movements.
To get the most out of a push-up, control your body movements. Some people flail around when they do the exercise and push themselves up and down in a disorganized manner with lots of extraneous movement. Your arms should not be going off in different directions with every rep; rather, they should follow the same path each time you lower and raise yourself from the floor. Take your time and perform each motion in a slow, controlled manner, so you can limit extraneous movements.
Go down far enough
Ideally, you should lower your chest almost down to the floor. Many people “cheat” and only go part of the way down, thereby cheating themselves out of some of the benefits of the exercise. Rather than obsessing over how many push-ups you can do, focus on your form and going low enough to the floor. Ten quality push-ups where your chest almost touches the floor will work your triceps, shoulders, and chest more than incomplete repetitions.
Don’t hold your breath
Many people hold their breath on the way up and it’s a big mistake. Breathe out as you push up and breathe in as you come back down for maximum power and endurance. Breathing properly will reduce fatigue and help you get more out of the exercise. Plus, holding your breath during the exercise can cause a rise in blood pressure.
Use progressive overload
Progressive overload is the principle by which muscles grow and become stronger. The most obvious way to add progressive overload is to increase the resistance. Since you’re not using weights, that’s harder to do with push-ups. Therefore, you can quickly reach a plateau if you don’t make the exercise more challenging over time. There are ways to make push-ups harder over time though. Some ways to do this is to:
- Place your hands closer together, so your body has further to travel
- Raise your feet on a bench when you do the exercise. Keep increasing the height for more overload
- Slow down the tempo to increase time under tension.
- Increase the number of push-ups you do. (Without sacrificing quality)
- Use resistance bands to increase the resistance
The Bottom Line
Push-ups are a classic upper body exercise, and they’re a great way to build strength in your chest, shoulders, and triceps without equipment. Make them part of a larger program to build upper body and core strength. They can help you progress toward your fitness goals, whether you want to get stronger or build endurance. Make sure you’re doing them correctly!
- Suprak DN, Bohannon J, Morales G, Stroschein J, San Juan JG. Scapular Kinematics and Shoulder Elevation in a Traditional Push-Up. Journal of Athletic Training. 2013;48(6):826-835. doi:10.4085/1062-6050-48.5.08.
- “The rise of push-ups: A classic exercise that can help you ….” 18 Feb. 2019, https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/rise-push-ups-classic-exercise-can-motivate-get-stronger-2019021810165.
- Cogley RM, Archambault TA, Fibeger JF, Koverman MM, Youdas JW, Hollman JH. Comparison of muscle activation using various hand positions during the push-up exercise. J Strength Cond Res. 2005 Aug;19(3):628-33. doi: 10.1519/15094.1. PMID: 16095413.
- Contreras B, Schoenfeld B, Mike J, Tiryaki-Sonmez G, Cronin J, Vaino E. The Biomechanics of the Push-up. Strength & Conditioning Journal. 2012;34(5):41-46. doi:10.1519/ssc.0b013e31826d877b.