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How to Do a Proper Push-Up

Become the gym class hero you always wished you'd be with this step-by-step guide.

muscular build man exercising push ups at home
skynesherGetty Images

There are plenty of machines and gadgets aimed at giving you the best workouts possible. Some of the more innovative ones have been welcomed additions to our training routine. Other times, it pays to get back to basics.

The push-up is probably one of the first exercises you learned back in gym class, and it maintains its reign as one of the most effective bodyweight movements. You can do a push-up just about anywhere, anytime, and it targets a number of muscle groups, all while requiring zero equipment. But just like any other exercise or training movement, form is key to getting the most out of the push-up. Improper body placement, hand arrangement or other errors could limit your performance and fitness ROI.

To get set on how to perfect your push-up prowess, we sat down with Harley Pasternak, Chief Fitness Advisor at FORME to discuss how to complete the exercise, common sticking points and helpful exercise modifications to make your training easier or more challenging. Now, grab your favorite workout attire and let's get down with this simple yet effective movement.

How to Do a Push-Up

According to Pasternak, you want to begin your push-up in a plank position with a rigid frame from the top of your spine all the way down to your heels. You should also keep your abdominal muscles gently contracted to help maintain that rigid posture throughout the movement.

For hand placement, Pasternak recommends just outside the width of your shoulders. While palms flat on the ground is a common method, Pasternak notes you can alter your setup, like with a fist position or additional grips, for varying challenges — or those instagram-worthy still shots.

Once you have your body in place, Pasternak says to look straight down at the ground and begin to lower your frame toward the floor, "So your nose, nipples and knees all touch the ground at the same time. Then, back up again."

You should also remember to breathe in during your descent and out during your ascent, according to Pasternak.

So, for a more structured play-by-play:

  • Get into a plank position with a rigid frame.
  • Place your hands slightly outside the width of your shoulders.
  • Look straight down at the ground, breathe in and descend your body so your nose, nipples and knees all touch at the same time.
  • Push yourself to ascension, breathing out during the movement.

    the results will come if you keep working at it
    A proper push-up form requires a rigid frame, slightly contracted core and hand placement just outside your shoulder width.
    Goodboy Picture CompanyGetty Images

    Common Push-Up Sticking Points

    Despite its simple execution and minimal steps, not everyone can master the push-up on their first go-around. Pasternak notes that many people often arch their back either concavely or convexly, which can lead to cheating and an ineffective workout. "I'll [also] see people overcompensate with shoulders, kind of coming over the top to try and help them push up with their shoulders more, rather than accessing their pecs," he says.

    If you're not sure whether your push-up form is as precise as necessary, don't fret. There are a number of ways you can determine if your form is more functional than flawed.

    How to Monitor Your Push-Up Form

    As with any exercise, having some form of external feedback can greatly enhance your workout experience. Pasternak says, "When we use the FORME unit, where I train my clients, I think it's key, number one, to have some sense of perspective on what you're doing. So, to be able to have someone watch you demonstrate [a push-up], do it correctly and say, 'Hey, there's too much arch in your back,' or, 'You're not doing the full range of motion,' or, 'You're favoring one side over another.' I think it's really helpful."

    FORME Studio


    If you don't have access to a smart mirror like FORME or don't work one-on-one with a personal trainer, you can still effectively monitor your push-up status. Pasternak notes that utilizing a mirror or recording your workouts via phone or laptop can be an effective solution for external feedback. Regardless of how you monitor your performance, it's important to constantly keep your form in-check, whether you're a rookie gym-goer or seasoned training veteran.

    female athlete doing plank exercise in gym
    Performing push-ups in a mirror can help you monitor your form throughout the workout for more effective training.
    AleksandarGeorgievGetty Images

    Effective Push-Up Modifications

    The beauty of the push-up is it can offer a variety of modifications to suit your fitness levels. According to Pasternak, the main thing to consider when altering the push-up for an easier or more challenging workout experience is where your lever, or where your resistance hinges from.

    If you're just getting started on your fitness journey, Pasternak notes you can place your hands on an elevated surface, creating an inclined plane for easier push-ups. This can take some strain off your shoulders as well. Additionally, resting on your knees can also make for an easier push-up, as this body placement shortens the lever of the movement, creating less resistance to push against.

    For more advanced athletes, Pasternak recommends a declined angle, where your feet are higher than your chest. "You're making the pivot angle higher, so that makes it a little more difficult," he says. Simply place your feet on an elevated surface, like a raised platform or your living room couch, and press away in this more challenging training technique.

    young woman performing step aerobics exercise
    Elevating your hand placement can create an easier push-up movement as you learn how to master the modality.
    aywan88Getty Images

    Are Push-Ups the Best Upper Body Exercise?

    Because of its staying power, you'd think that the push-up is a top-tier exercise for building that perfect chest, right? Well, while you can get by with a common push-up, Pasternak states there are plenty of equipped movements that can do more for building your desired physique.

    "I find that push-ups are an okay exercise if you have no access to dumbbells," he states. "What I find with dumbbells, number one, you have a fuller range of motion; you can actually get more of an arc going, and the pecs work more in [a] pivot motion. You can also change the resistance, so you can make it heavier, medium or lighter."

    So, if you're looking for a more well-rounded chest routine, lean more on the training tech of today, like say, a convenient set of adjustable dumbbells for exercises like presses or flys. But if you're looking to add to your workout — or harken back to those gym classes of yesteryear — the push-up can still give you a calorie-burning, sweat-inducing experience. With the right form and external feedback, you'll be knocking out sets in no time.

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