How to Do the Perfect Push-up

by Greatist
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How to Do the Perfect Push-up

Push-ups — we’ve all done ‘em, but sometimes they just don’t look so pretty. Fear not! We’ve got the guide to get it right. Push-ups are a total-body functional move that are great for increasing strength, much like bench-pressing, and have the added benefit of engaging the core and lower body (thanks, gravity!). The bodyweight exercise can be done just about anywhere — with a ton of variations to liven things up. So let’s drop down and do the perfect push-up.

The Basics

Basic Push Up 604

1. Get into a plank position with hands planted directly under the shoulders (slightly wider than shoulder width apart). Ground the toes into the floor to stabilize the bottom half of the body. Engage the abs and back so the body is neutral. In other words, flat as a… plank (ah, now we get it!).

2. Begin to lower the body — back flat, eyes focused about three feet in front of you to keep a neutral neck— until the chest nearly touches the floor. (Note: Some experts say a push-up isn’t a push-up unless the chest actually grazes the ground). Don’t let the butt dip or stick out at any point during the move; the body should remain flat from head to toe all the way through the movement. Draw the shoulder blades back and down, while keeping the elbows tucked close to the body, so the upper arms form a 45-degree angle at the bottom of the push-up position.

3. Keeping the core engaged, exhale as you push back to the start position as explosively as possible without leaving the ground (pow!). That’s one! Repeat for 10-20 reps or as many as can be performed with good form (no sagging those hips, ya heard?).

Changing the positions of both the elbows and hands will activate different muscles and amp up the intensity of the basic push-up. Ready? Here we go!

Bent Knee Push UpsBent Knee Push-Up

These push-ups are great for beginners to nail down form before graduating to other varieties. Come to all fours, hands directly under the shoulders. With the knees on the floor, lower to the ground the same way as a standard push-up, just with the knees helping to stabilize the body rather than the feet.

Alternating Medicine Ball Push-Up

This variety increases range of motion, and works core stability. Place one hand on top of the medicine ball, while the other stabilizes the body on the floor. Adjust the body into a plank (only this time, one arm is supported by the ball). Perform a standard push-up, then roll the ball to the other hand and repeat.

Single Leg Push-Up

This push-up is tricky, because the body is stabilized by only three points rather than four. Perform a standard push-up, but raise one leg up toward the ceiling, heel reaching toward the wall behind you. Alternate legs after each rep, or perform two sets (starting with one leg, then switching to the other for the next set).

Clap Push Ups

Clap Push-Up

These push-ups are all about plyometrics, meaning the hands lift off the ground,, clap, then return to the floor. To break it down: Perform a standard push-up, but at the exhale, swiftly straighten the arms and forcefully push off the floor. Bring the hands together into a clap, then return to the start position. Note: This is not a beginner’s exercise, and requires quite a bit of strength (and practice!) to perform correctly.

Handstand Push-Up

Handstands? Why not! These push-ups really amp up the demands. And we’re not kidding, they take a lot of practice and coordination (and usually a wall, maybe even a spotter for your first go at it). Position the body against a wall and practice a static handstand before lowering into the push-up. Once you’ve mastered that, slowly lower the body down a few inches then press back up to a full handstand. Eventually, work toward lowering down completely to the floor before pushing back up. Carefully lower those legs and it’s a wrap.

The Most Common Push-Up Mistakes

Focusing too much on the upper body.
 Sure, push-ups are known for strengthening the pecs, shoulders, and triceps, but they’re a total-body move. Pay attention to the glutes and legs, and keep ‘em tight! Tightening that tush can help keep the lower back from arching during the move. Instead of letting the bum flop down first (and compromising the lower back), hit the ground chest first, keeping the hips in the same plane as the shoulders. Imagine the belly button drawing in toward the spine to help keep the torso flat.

Flaring the arms.
 Letting those arms pop out to 90 degrees can be really tough on the shoulders. Instead of forming a “T” with the arms and body, keep the elbows tucked close to the body.

Forgetting to breathe.
 Faith Hill had it right: Just breathe. Concentrating on form and reps can make it easy to forget one of the most important parts of working out — breathing.Inhale on the way down, and exhale on the way back up.

Cheating Yourself. The key is quality over quantity. Make sure each push-up reaches a full range of motion by getting the chest as close to the floor as comfortable, then fully extending the elbows at the top. Having sloppy form will make for a less effective strengthening exercise that targets fewer muscles.

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Article by Nicole McDermott | Illustrations by David Cushnie Bell

About the Author


Greatist helps you find what’s good for you. Not like “eat your vegetables, they’re good for you.” More like “here are some choices you can realistically make, stick with, and feel really good about.” Because in the end, you don’t have to choose between being happy and being healthy; they’re really the same thing.




23 responses to “How to Do the Perfect Push-up”

  1. Avatar m says:

    why the pic of the GIRL doing push ups from her knees? hello stereotypes

    • Avatar Kayla gardunio says:

      Thats the fist thing I said to my husband when I saw this! lol But apparently that’s how they do it in the military. My husbands a US Marine and he said those are the standards for women in the Marines. I went on and on about stereotypes and feminism and all that but, eh I always knew the military was a little sexist…

      • Avatar ckdub428 says:

        Unless USMC standards have changed since 2002 women Marines do pushups on their toes just like the men. We did get longer run times and did the flex arm hang instead of pullups, but the pushups were on the toes.

      • Avatar Asher says:

        USMC regulations DO NOT require females to do bent knee push ups. Your husband is either lying or ignorant, but either way, he is downright wrong.

    • Avatar JessB says:

      thank you!! I was thinking the same thing! First thing I noticed. Not all women do knee push ups. (and not all men can do the real ones). One of the things I like about some of the body building sites is that, for the exercise tutorials, they show women doing some of the “manlier” things, like deadlifts or barbell squats, and men doing things that would be considered “girly,” like plie squats.

    • Avatar John Milford Smithers says:

      Yeah, I agree that it sucks, but at least they didn’t call it a “girl push up”. Frankly, with my big gut touching the ground before my chest even gets close, the bent knee push up loses some of it’s effectiveness. I’m better off doing a basic push up with my feet on the ground and my hands on a higher surface, like a bench.

    • Avatar thohan says:

      Women have, on average, less upper-body strength. It’s an appropriate stereotype, and utterly innocuous. At least, I think that is the case. Let me know if your experience differs.

      • Avatar aboots says:

        Women do, on average, have less upper-body strength. However stereotypes are never appropriate and it is not innocuous. It puts women in a box that says, “here’s what you can achieve. Let the big men do the real push ups”. Way more often than not women see the example given to them and think that’s all they are capable of achieving, and don’t strive for more. What might happen if we give examples that feature women doing real push ups? Lifting the heavy weights? Running faster than the guys? We know women can do it because a some of us do, just not most. Give examples of us succeeding. Make it apparent that real push ups are not reserved for dudes and bodybuilding women with huge muscles. Make it the norm. Change the expectation. We will surprise you.

        • Avatar thohan says:

          I would have to agree that what you describe, the box and whatnot, is indeed neither appropriate nor innocuous. I suppose I was subscribing to the more “classical” definition of the word. Perhaps “trend” is more appropriate. The word “stereotype” just doesn’t hurt my feelings, but I do understand that the word bothers some.

          As far as weightlifting and women are concerned, I’m a huge proponent and would really like those two circles to massively merge on the ol’ Venn diagram of life.

    • Avatar aboots says:

      I was JUST about to type the same comment. Really frustrating. How about give us examples of women achieving what were capable of instead of keeping us stuck in our little box huh?

    • Avatar Gwen Fyfe says:

      I was coming to say exactly the same. Poor show, mfp. Women who are into strength training have enough of this crud to put up with already.

  2. Avatar Jerry Stevens says:

    I saw a politician/celebrity on TV showing off how many pushups she could do and she barely bent her elbows. Better to do 20 pushups with good form than 50 lame pushups.

  3. Avatar Suzanne Fong says:

    Many people don’t lower themselves down very far, hardly engaging their pecs at all. An easy way to get the full range of motion is to start by lying on your belly. Everything else is the same: “hands planted directly under the shoulders (slightly wider than shoulder width apart). Ground the toes into the floor . . . Engage the abs and back so the body is neutral . . . shoulder blades back and down” then push up. For knee push-ups, lie on your belly and lift your feet up towards the ceiling; the rest is the same. Bringing yourself gently all the way down to the floor (the eccentric move) engages a lot of muscles, fighting against gravity!

  4. Avatar Chris Welch says:

    Ok dude, if I were a woman, I would be pissed off. Hell I’m not a woman and this bothers me. In the pictures in this guide why is it they show a man doing normal pushups and a woman doing the bent knee pushup? Are they saying women can’t do normal pushups? Is this some oddity I don’t know about? Is this one thing women CAN’T do? Holy shit! Women can’t do a simple pushup??? psh, I guess they got these drawings from some pushup guide from the 50s.

  5. Avatar John Milford Smithers says:

    There’s a great intermediate step between the basic push up and the bent knee push up, where you push up from the bent knee position, then, at the top of the push up, you straighten your legs into the basic push up position and lower yourself down slowly, like a regular push up. At the bottom of the push up, you return to bent knee and push up again. This way, while you may not be able to perform a full basic push up, you can at least do the negative portion and build up to it.

  6. Avatar Asher says:

    This article irks me on so many levels and only because of the illustration of the female being the only one doing the beginner push up. This is downright stereotypical and wrong. I can do push ups just like any other guy and sometimes even better. Give me a break….

  7. Avatar West Omaha Dad says:

    Where are the double clap pushups?

  8. Avatar RJ says:

    Oh, no. This article is not only sexist but racist, too. Where is the white man, asian man, or hispanic man push-up picture?

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