Push-ups are one of the simplest, least expensive, and yet most effective exercises to build a strong upper body and midsection, provided you do them correctly. By perfecting your technique, you can actually target different muscle groups, including not only your chest muscles but also your abs.
Another boon: there are so many ways to vary the intensity and level of difficulty of a push-up – it’s an exercise you can keep in your repertoire more or less indefinitely without hitting a plateau. I personally do 25 pushups twice a day.
Time1 recently shared six ways to get the most out of your push-ups, which I’ll summarize below. I’ll also include a wide variety of tips and tricks, from beginners’ to advanced, to help you optimize and grow with this exercise.
But first, let’s review the proper form for a basic push-up. If you get this wrong, little else will matter.
Proper Push-Up Form
Going too fast and using only partial range of motion are two common mistakes people make when doing push-ups. In the video above, fitness trainer Darin Steen reveals how to correct these mistakes and demonstrates proper form.
He also demonstrates a number of the modifications I’ll review below that can take this exercise to the next level. But first, here’s a summary of the basics of proper form:
- Slow down your movement, and use a three-second contraction. Try to really feel the muscle groups you’re targeting.
- Do a full range of motion. Lower your body all the way down, allowing your sternum to gently touch the floor, and push all the way up. Your arms should be straight, without locking your elbows.
- Pay attention to the alignment of your elbows. The ideal angle from your sides is about 45 degrees. This allows you to effectively work your chest muscles and prevent injuries from overextension.
- Keep your body stiff and straight as a plank, including your head. Pay careful attention and make sure you don’t drop your head forward; it needs to be in line with your back.
- Breathe in on the way down; breathe out on the way up, through your nose, not your mouth.
Six Ways to Get More Out of Your Push-Up
The featured article2 offers the following six suggestions to maximize the effectiveness of your push-up.
|Press your palms firmly into the floor||Make sure your palms are flat on the floor, and focus on pushing from your wrists, not your fingers.Also externally rotate your arms so your elbow and shoulder joints are in a natural and comfortable position allowing for full range of motion.|
|Squeeze your lats||This will help stabilize your upper body. As described in the featured article: “By pressing your palms firmly into the floor you can start to activate them.Then, in addition, think of squeezing your armpits as tightly as possible, like you are holding something in between them.”|
|Draw your shoulder blades down and back||This will engage your back muscles, ease strain on your neck, and target the correct muscles you’re trying to tone, i.e. your core, arms, and shoulders.|
|Keep your neck and spine aligned||Avoid tilting your head too far up or down, as this increases the pressure on your spine. To find a neutral spine, Time suggests:“Instead of tucking your chin completely or looking straight out in front, gaze about six inches or so in front of your fingertips and keep your eyes focused there as you push up.”|
|Engage your core||While your abdominal muscles are relatively small in comparison to other skeletal muscles, the core section of your body, as a whole, is quite large.The core region of your body consists of your entire trunk; everything from your pectoralis (chest muscles), back, and obliques, all the way down to your glutes (buttocks).|
Activating your entire core relieves stress on your lower back and stabilizes your hips, which helps you maintain your body in a firm, straight line as you raise and lower your body.
|Remember to breathe correctly||Your breath is part of proper form, and helps power your movement. So remember to inhale as you lower your body to the ground, and exhale as you raise up.|
Tips for Newbies
Push-ups take a certain amount of strength to perform properly, so if you’re just starting out you may want to begin by keeping your knees on the floor. Bring your heels up toward your buttocks, and keep your body straight. Go slow and use full range of motion, allowing your chest to gently touch the floor. By pulling your elbows closer to your sides, you can place more focus on your chest muscles.
Another beginner option is the wall push-up, demonstrated above. Stand with your feet about three feet away from a wall, then lean against it with your palms flat. Push backward with your arms, and then slowly come forward, making a push-up motion with your arms. Once you can comfortably perform about a dozen push-ups this way, advance to the regular push-up technique, keeping your legs straight, and balancing on your toes. Then, when you can do at least a dozen repetitions or more for two or three sets, move on to the more advanced techniques described below.
Kicking It Up a Notch…
You’re probably familiar with the advice to avoid doing the same exercise all the time, or it might lose its effectiveness. You need to “confuse” the muscle to keep building it. So to switch things up, try some of the following.
|Incline push-up||Place your hands on a raised surface, such as the seat of a chair or a table.|
|Put your hands on a medicine ball||The ball is an unstable surface, and as it shifts, it will force your core muscles to work to keep you in balance, while providing a greater challenge to your upper body. A similar option is to use two medicine balls, place the palms of your hands on top of the balls, and perform the push-up from there.|
|Switch hand positions||The placement of your hands will dictate which muscle groups are targeted. Instead of the traditional hand placement (slightly wider than shoulder-width apart), try widening their stance to work your chest and shoulders. If you bring your hands together below your chest, you’ll work your triceps. You can also elevate one arm (place your hand on a yoga block, or lift it into the air, for instance), which will challenge your upper body even more.|
|Raise a leg||As you extend your leg behind you, your upper body gets a challenge while your core and glutes get toned.|
|Elevate your feet||In the traditional push-up position, put your feet on a step, chair, or gym ball, so your feet are higher than your hands. This puts more weight on your upper body, giving your arms, chest, and upper back a workout.|
|Do push-ups off your fingertips||This is a more advanced technique that will improve the strength and grip of your hands.|
The ULTIMATE Push-up
If you really want to challenge yourself then you must watch Stephen Colbert’s recent fitness challenge. He starts out normal but then goes into “Superman” mode around 25 seconds into video.
How to Target Your Abs
Most people tend to think you need sit-ups to really work your abs, but push-ups can actually be just as effective, if not more so. Of course, six-pack abs cannot be obtained through target exercises alone. You have to shed fat, or you will not be able to see the muscle. Men typically need to get their body fat down to about six percent, and women around nine percent to achieve that classic six-pack. That said, if you want to work your rectus abdominis muscle for a six-pack look, pay attention to the following instructions.
- Pull in your bellybutton. Your bellybutton is attached to your transverse abdominis, that inner sheath that holds your gut inside and gives your spine and vertebrae a nice, weight belt-tightening type of support. So by pulling it in while you’re in plank position, you begin to contract the deep inner transverse abdominis muscle.
- Do a Kegel squeeze. A Kegel squeeze is performed by drawing your lower pelvic muscles up and holding them up high and tight. For men who aren’t familiar with that term, it’s similar to trying to stop urinating in the middle of the flow. This squeeze allows you to feel and focus on your abdominal muscles.
The push-up dumbbell row is a great exercise to target your abs. Start with a weight appropriate for your current level of strength, and progress to heavier dumbbells as you get stronger. Place the dumbbells at a 45-degree angle; pull in your bellybutton; draw up your lower pelvic muscles (Kegel squeeze), and breathe in as you lower your upper body to the floor.
Breathe out on the way up, and once your arms are in the fully extended position, perform a row — pulling the right dumbbell up toward your chest. On the next push-up, pull up with your left. This advanced technique will work your abs from side to side, and target deep core muscles as well.
Going All the Way: High-Intensity Push-Ups
Research shows that relatively short bursts of intense exercise can deliver many of the health and fitness benefits you get from doing much longer conventional exercise. High-intensity interval training (HIIT) can be done with or without equipment, and you can even turn push-ups into a high intensity exercise.
Examples are listed below. For even more variations on the standard push-up, including a number of advanced calisthenics push-ups, see the video above. In summary, push-ups, whether performed traditionally or using any of the other techniques described above or below, are a simple way to add tremendous core-building benefits to your comprehensive fitness routine.
- Plyometric push-ups: Once your sternum touches the floor, hold your position and breathe for about three seconds, then perform an explosive push upward. An even more advanced version, the “Superman push-up,” requires you to explode upwards with sufficient force to lift both your hands and feet off the ground. (See demonstration in the video above.)
- Clap push-ups: Do a plyometric push-up as just described, and as your hands lift off the floor, clap them together in front of your chest. An even more advanced version is to clap your hands behind your body, as demonstrated in the video above.
- Three minutes of push-ups: Here, you’re simply trying to squeeze out as many push-ups as you possibly can in three minutes. You need to have good technique, good form, and a strategy. If you go all out you’ll lose your energy and likely won’t last for three minutes. So, go at a pace of about 80 percent of your total ability, and when you can’t go any further, rest for 20-30 seconds, stretch, and then resume.
- The handstand push-up (highly advanced): Facing a wall, place your hands at a 45-degree angle about one to two hand-lengths from the wall. Kick your legs up. You can use the wall to stabilize you as you perform the push-up. Breathe in as you lower yourself to the floor, and breathe out as you push yourself up. Darin Steen demonstrates this extremely challenging move in the featured video at the top of this article.
- The Hindu push-up: This version is reminiscent of yoga, incorporating a push-up with the Down Dog and Cobra positions. For a demonstration, see the video below. This is a high-intensity exercise that will work your entire upper body and increase flexibility.