Push-ups: How to Do Them Properly

The push-up is one of the most basic bodyweight exercises. If you do them properly, on a regular basis, you will develop strength in your chest, shoulders, triceps and core.

Push-ups are also one of the hardest exercises to do properly. Because they seem so basic, everybody thinks they sorta-kinda know how to do them.

Not only is there lots of confusion on what correct form means, the biggest problem is that many people don’t consciously think about their push-up form. After all, it’s just push-ups, right?

To help clarify some of the main aspects of proper push-up form, I created this Neat Guide.

Read on to get to know all about the different aspects of proper push-up form.

Why Should You Care?

Good form always ensures two things: Preventing injuries and stressing as many muscles as possible.

Most people know that lifting something heavy with a rounded back is bad for your spine. Yet, many people underestimate the possibility of injury while doing push-ups.

If you are even remotely serious about bodyweight strength training, you are going to do a fair amount of push-ups. Doing them with poor form might result in shoulder injuries and teaching yourself bad motor skills. Just thinking about your form during an exercise makes you a better athlete, because you are actually aware of what your body is doing.

So, using clean form while doing push-ups ensures that you will reap the most benefits from them while still being able to do them injury free in the future.

What Is Good Form?

Now that you care about your form, here are some key points to consider while performing push-ups:

  • Keep a straight body from head to toe, head is aligned with the torso
  • Engage your abdominals, squeeze your butt, press your feet together
  • Starting position: Arms are locked out at the elbows
  • End position: Nose touches floor
  • Hands slightly more than shoulder width apart
  • Elbows are kept close to the upper body
  • Speed is controlled, not slow

The first four points are the things most people agree on. Keeping a straight body engages your core (which consists of those infamous abs and also your lower back). This protects your spine and works your core muscles.

It also makes the exercise more measurable. Somebody who can do 30 push-ups with a straight body has probably more pushing strength than somebody who can do 30 push-ups with the butt pointing to the sky.

And of course you should perform any exercise with the most range of motion (ROM) possible. Ideally, the push-up movement goes from all the way up (elbows locked) to all the way down (nose touches floor). This ensures that all the fibers in your muscles get worked. Additionally, it gives you an active stretch in your chest and keeps your joints limber.

Which brings us to the reasons why I recommend the above hand and elbow positioning. If you keep your elbows close to your torso, your shoulders automatically are more engaged in the movement. This usually makes the exercise harder, because the shoulders are not as strong as chest and triceps.

Shoulder muscle engagement is crucial to shoulder joint health. The problem is that your joints adapt at a much slower rate than muscles do. If you’re doing lots of push-ups with your elbows flared out, you’re putting a lot of stress on your shoulder joints without the support of your shoulder muscles.

However, if your shoulder muscles and joints get stronger along the way, you’ll be able to do all your push-ups for a long time without a nagging shoulder injury.

You won’t die from doing push-ups with elbows flared out or a too short ROM. It’s just not that beneficial. You cannot be too cautious when it comes to injury prevention. Injuries hinder you from doing your workouts, which just sucks.

A word on speed: Nobody likes a show-off, and doing speed push-ups with only half the ROM is not really impressive. That does not mean you should always do them super slow, either. Choose a speed where you can maintain good form. Use your feeling here, no counting necessary. If your push-up form is really good, you can start experimenting with different speeds.

Push-Up Progressions

After reading all this, you might say “Man, I cannot do one proper push-up. I don’t even know where to start now.”

Well, don’t despair. For every bodyweight exercise, there is a progression that helps you build up strength to do a certain variation of an exercise.

If you cannot perform a single clean push-up as described above, you can just try easier variations of the regular push-up.

The easiest variation that I can think of is the wall push-up.

Just get in front of a wall. Distance is slightly less than arm length. Put your hands against the wall and get in push-up position. “Lower” yourself to the wall and push back up.

Do wall push-ups regularly and try to do as much repitions as possible. If you can do about 50 consecutive reps in one set, it’s time to move on to the next step in the progression.

Find an elevated surface (like about hip height). Place your hands on it and do push-ups with your hands on the elevated surface. These are called incline push-ups.

They are easier than regular floor push-ups because of the leverage. More weight rests on your legs, which means there is less weight that you need to push.

By decreasing the incline (finding lower surfaces), you can progressively make this exercise harder.

Always be aware of your form.

It should be as described above. The only difference is the angle between your body and the ground.

Try to hit around 30 reps of clean incline push-ups with a surface that suits your level of strength. Then find lower surfaces and repeat. Do this until you can do crisp and clean push-ups on the floor.

Beyond Push-Ups

If push-ups don’t push you enough (get it?), there are many ways to make them harder.

This works again by manipulating the leverage of your body, only this time by putting your feet on an elevated surface instead of your hands.

This is called a decline push-up.

Decline push-ups put more emphasis on your shoulders. Because the shoulders usually don’t handle the same resistance as chest and triceps do, this will make the exercise harder.

Find higher surfaces once the decline is not enough for you. Again, make sure to maintain good form regardless of the decline.

There is a huge variety of different push-ups that you can experiment with. But it would blow up the scope of this post. Here are some ideas that you can experiment with if push-ups get boring for you:

So now, go forth and push yourself up and down from the floor, the wall, different surfaces or whatever floats your boat. Try to work on your body awareness when doing push-ups by keeping the key points of good form in mind.

What are your thoughts on perfect push-up form? What aspects are the most challenging ones for you? Share your thoughts in the comments below.