While the exercise for this week’s “Exercises You Should Be Doing, But Probably Aren’t” may be one of the most common exercises on the planet, it’s also one of the most butchered. So I thought it would be appropriate to go a little more in-depth as to what constitutes a proper push-up. Most people have been doing them wrong since their grade school days in hopes of earning that cool Presidential Fitness badge!
First of all, the push-up is one of my favorite all-time exercises. It requires zero equipment, builds strength in all the right places, and there are tons of variations to offer a continuous challenge and keep your workouts fresh. Push-ups are a big part of my own personal fitness program, as well as my clients and group training participants.
So if you couldn’t already tell, I kind of like push-ups.
The Ugly Side of Push-Ups
As much as I love the push-up, there’s also an ugly side to push-ups that affects a good majority of those who do them. Especially beginning exercisers and push-up rookies.
Elbows flaring out to the side, hands placed too far in front of the body, hips sagging to the floor, butts elevated to the ceiling, partial reps … these are all common mistakes seen in the push-up.
What constitutes a good, proper push-up? I’m glad you asked! Let’s break it down and get you on your way to doing them right.
How To Setup
For the sake of keeping things simple and not jumping all over the place describing each type of push-up, I’m going to base things off of the regular push-up off of the floor. I’ll follow-up with a future article better describing some of the more popular push-up progressions.
- Set your hands at, or slightly wider, than shoulder-width apart: Your hands should be placed in a way that feels comfortable, but also safe for the shoulder and wrists. My hands are usually placed so that my middle fingers point straight up and away from me. Another good option is to slightly turn your hands inward. Do NOT turn your hands out … this will put your wrists and shoulders in a bad position.
- Experiment with your foot position: Some people prefer to place their feet shoulder width apart, while others might like the challenge of bringing the feet together. For the most part, the wider apart your feet, the more stable you’ll be when performing the push-ups.
- Imagine your body is a straight line: From your head all the way to your heels, keep your body as straight as you can. Pay special attention to your hips (don’t let them drop or sag toward the floor) and butt (don’t stick it up toward the ceiling).
- Keep your eyes out and not down: Don’t make the mistake of dropping your chin too far down toward your chest. You don’t want to stamp the floor with your forehead. Instead, look about six inches beyond your hands – almost as if your chin would touch the floor at the bottom of the movement – to keep your head in the proper position.
- Arms straight at the top of the position: It’s now go time!
How To Do A Push-Up
Now that you’re set with the proper push-up position, let the fun begin:
- Slowly lower yourself until your elbows are at a 90 degree angle or less. Be sure to brace yourself through the middle (abs) and think about tightening the butt. This will help with keeping the core area engaged and also help with the proper straight-line form mentioned above.
- Try not to let your elbows flare out. This is the most common mistake I see in push-ups and it can lead to shoulder problems. Focus on keeping them fairly close to the body. Here’s a simple illustration that will help you get a better picture of how your arms should and shouldn’t be.
- Once you reach the bottom of the movement (chest to floor or arms at 90 degrees), pause slightly before “exploding” back up to the starting position.
- The decent (downward) portion of the push-up should be slow and controlled (I like to use about a three second count), while the up portion should be quick and explosive. When using this method, 10-12 push-up should be tough.
- Breathe out as you push-yourself up.
Help! I can’t do a Push-Up!
No worries, a proper push-up as described above is tough! A great way to work your way up to those is by doing an elevated or incline push-up. This puts your body in a better position with less weight applied to the upper body. Here’s how to do them.
- Use a bench or some other type of sturdy, elevated surface and place your hands as described above. I like to use the edge of the bench and use the heels of my hands to support myself. Be sure the bench you’re using is stable and won’t tip as you put your weight into it.
- Again, vary your foot position to find what feels most comfortable for you.
- Slowly lower your body toward the bench, making sure to focus on the proper elbow position mentioned above. Your lower chest should touch the edge of the bench at the bottom.
- Explode up from the bottom positon, making sure to exhale (breathe out) as you push yourself up.
Once you can master a proper push-up (15-20 is a good goal to shoot for using the form described above), it’s time to add a little variety to your push-up programming. I’ll be back soon with some fun, but challenging, push-up progressions that will help take your strength program to a whole new level.
Now go do some push-ups!
About the writer: Ken Grall is a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) and owns and operates an Edge Fitness in Madison, Wisconsin. Learn more about Ken.