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10 Aug

How-To: Proper Pushup Technique

Over the next week I’ll be covering some key concepts related to the recently-released Primal Blueprint Fitness. You can get your own copy of the free eBook here. First up, proper pushup technique.

If you’ve ever taken a PE class, joined the military, played organized sports, or watched Rocky, you should be familiar with the basic pushup. In theory, it seems pretty simple, right? You assume the position, lower yourself to the ground, touch your chest to it, then push back up. Hence, “pushup.”

It’s a simple movement, but it’s arguably the best way to develop overall upper body strength and mobility. A proper pushup puts your shoulder blades (scapula) through their full range of motion, as opposed to the bench press, which forces you to keep your shoulder blades tight to protect your shoulders. The pushup is also unique in targeting the serratus anterior, an oft-ignored muscle whose development improves overhead movement and performance; the bench press doesn’t hit the serratus. Properly performed, the pushup also improves core stability by forcing you to maintain a rigid torso and straight legs.

The pushup forms the foundation of the Primal Blueprint Fitness Lift Heavy Things upper body program. It requires no equipment and can be scaled up or down depending on your strength and fitness levels. The basic pushup is easy to learn, but difficult to master, and the variations will keep your body guessing and growing for years.

How To Do the Basic Pushup

  1. Assume the pushup position: elbows locked; hands about shoulder width apart, flat against the ground; toes on the ground; torso and legs straight, core tight; body parallel to the floor.
  2. Lower yourself to the ground, touching your chest to it. Make sure you maintain a tight, rigid body. Think of your legs, hips, and torso as if they formed a cohesive plank or a straight line. Maintain that plank throughout the exercise.
  3. Push yourself back up, squeezing your pectoral muscles and completing the full range of motion.
  4. At the top, continue until your elbows are completely locked and your shoulder blades are fully protracted.
  5. Repeat.

Things to Remember

  1. Keep the tight, plank-like torso position at all costs. Never let your hips sag or bend; don’t point your butt in the air to make it easier. Maintain the straight line.
  2. Squeeze your glutes and flex your abs. This will keep your torso honest and avoid hyper-extension of the lower back.
  3. Head is part of the plank. Keep your head facing the ground; don’t tilt your chin up and strain your neck.
  4. Full range of motion! At the top, just as you feel like you’ve gone as far as you can, push a little more.

Watch this video on proper form and technique for the first 4 of 9 total pushup movements in the PBF Lift Heavy Things bodyweight progression.

Find out where you should begin in the pushup progression by taking the self-assessment test found in Primal Blueprint Fitness and then get started today!

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. Mark this is some good stuff. I’ve been referring out your e-book to as many people as I can. It’s funny how many people can’t do even a single push-up with good form these days.

    Keep up the good work =)

    Chad E wrote on August 10th, 2010
  2. how perfect! thanks for the how-to video clip. Helps alot for those of us starting or in the middle of the 100 push ups…

    Peggy wrote on August 10th, 2010
  3. Just when I thought the e-book was perfect, you come along and give extra explanation on it all! The only thing I was really wondering about was *where* to do a pullup? Should I really go into the forest and find some low branches? 😉

    Angelo wrote on August 10th, 2010
    • Just like my book, The Primal Blueprint, and my cookbook, The Primal Blueprint Cookbook, Primal Blueprint Fitness will be a living, growing and evolving publication with MDA acting as an extension of its content. Expect to see more fitness-related material on MDA in the future!

      The branch worked for Grok! Seriously, though, be careful with branches. I’d hate to hear of a branch related injury. Remember law #9. Heck, a doorway pullup bar will do the trick, but something like this isn’t so bad either…

      Skip to minute 1:53…

      Mark Sisson wrote on August 10th, 2010
      • I’ve got a tree in my backyard that I use for pullups. Only problem is washing pine sap off of my hands!

        Jim wrote on August 10th, 2010
      • This is great!

        Dave wrote on August 10th, 2010
        • Before my husband bought a pull-up bar, we used to go to the playground :-)

          Karen wrote on October 19th, 2011
  4. I love the coast scrub ecology of Southern California! Beautiful and aromatic. What a terrific place to exercise.

    Aaron Blaisdell wrote on August 10th, 2010
  5. The new Crossfit standard requires one to pick up the hands 6 inches at the bottom of the pushup movement. Obviously you are laying on the ground for a second. Makes the basic pushup far harder.

    Greg wrote on August 10th, 2010
    • That’s not true. At the CF Games the athletes were required to pick their hands up off the ground at the bottom of a push-up, for accountability purposes. It’s not the standard. Also….can anyone pick their hands up off the ground 6 inches at the bottom of a push up?? Not me!

      Ben wrote on August 10th, 2010
      • Hands off the ground is deadly– love it. It requires re-enganging the muscles between the shoulders at the bottom of the pushup.

        cenz wrote on August 11th, 2010
        • Yeah. It’s crazy hard. My gym tried it in a wod after the games.

          Ben wrote on August 11th, 2010
  6. Mark,

    Any advice on a push-up substitute? I have a pretty serious injury to my elbow and can’t even lift any weight for a month.

    Would love to see more on injury rehab.

    BTW – thanks (at least in part) to the PB, my injury wasn’t as bad as it could have been, and the Dr’s commented on how strong my bones are (for a 48 year old female) since none of them broke!

    ColleenT wrote on August 10th, 2010
    • I can’t make recommendations for you personally not knowing more about your injury.

      Generally speaking, though, those that struggle with proper pushups should start with levels 1-3 in the pushup progression. The wall push is about as easy is a push exercise gets. Make it easier by reducing the distance your feet are from the wall.

      I’ll consider covering injury rehab in the future. Be well!

      Mark Sisson wrote on August 10th, 2010
      • Thanks!

        ColleenT wrote on August 10th, 2010
  7. What a beautiful location Mark! My only suggestion or bone to pick is in the orientation of the arms. I personally prefer to keep my elbows in tight to my sides, basically rubbing my sides on the ways down and up (military style). Doing this takes a lot of tension out of my wrists which has built up over the years of martial arts and working in an office on a computer. The only down side is that this method is significantly harder than the elbows out to the side method which Mark expertly demonstrated. This is mostly just my personal preference.

    I hope you make a series out of this post Mark! Show off some of that gorgeous West Coast flora.

    Josh the Monkey wrote on August 10th, 2010
    • Yeah, there’s no scenery like that in upstate NY!

      Susan Campbell wrote on August 10th, 2010
      • I used to live in Binghamton, and it can be a beautiful, bucolic setting for about 6 weeks out of the year.

        And the countryside and small towns outside of Buffalo, my birthplace, can be lovely in the summer.

        But now that I live in Southern California, I can’t imagine living anyplace more wonderful!

        Aaron Blaisdell wrote on August 10th, 2010
        • Yea I live in Buffalo. We don’t have quite the beautiful scenery as you guys in Cali :-). Still waiting for nice spring weather, so I can enjoy walking around more and more outdoor workouts!

          Jeremiah wrote on April 18th, 2011
    • My coach has us do them that way as well, “until you can do 20 in a row with perfect form.” It helps keep your back engaged and lessens the change of shoulder injury. Once you have built up sufficient strength you can experiment with variations (wide, diamond, elevated). It may seem harder, but in reality you will be able to do more work since you’re using the big muscles in your back rather than the small shoulder/tricep muscles that wear out quickly.

      Kris wrote on August 10th, 2010
  8. greg-that is NOT the new crossfit standard. at the games, the hands had to just come off the ground each time. it was only the standard at the games to make the judging easier (hands can’t come off the ground if chest isn’t touching the ground).

    ava wrote on August 10th, 2010
  9. I still haven’t gotten the link to download the eBook, so I tried to re-register but it says that I’m already in your records… Any suggestions?

    Christine Crain wrote on August 10th, 2010
    • ya, me too. But I think I get my weekly newsletters a day or 2 later, so I’m being patient, yet jealous of the others that got to read it already. Hang in there Christine!

      Peggy wrote on August 10th, 2010
    • We just emailed you. Check your inbox. For all others that may have this problem, stay tuned. All future MDA weekly newsletters (sent out every Wednesday) will provide access to the eBook. Also, check you spam folder if you didn’t receive yesterday’s special email and you think you should have.

      Mark Sisson wrote on August 10th, 2010
      • Thanks a bunch! Printing as we speak!

        Christine Crain wrote on August 10th, 2010
        • wow Christine – we are synched! I can’t wait to read mine…
          Thanks again to the folks behind the scenes!

          Peggy wrote on August 10th, 2010
  10. The new Crossfit push up (hands off the ground) is a great variation to a push up. When you lift your hands you release the tension in your core as a result of your body resting on the ground.

    Your body goes from relaxed to a state of tension in the push. It’s unique because generally in a push up you have the negative (down) and then the push (up). However, you carry tension from the negative into the push and it gives you a rebound as you start your push up.

    By stopping and lifting your hands at the bottom you eliminate this little rebound and the push becomes very difficult.

    Worth attempting if you’re advanced

    Dozer wrote on August 10th, 2010
  11. What are you thoughts on the so-called “power pushup” where you push off with maximum force and clap your hands before coming down again?

    Shawn wrote on August 10th, 2010
    • It’s level 8 of the PBF LHT pushup progression. 😉

      Mark Sisson wrote on August 10th, 2010
      • LOL, guess I should have read first !

        Shawn wrote on August 10th, 2010
  12. Mark,

    Another thing that I see all the time is people dropping the crown of their head down. It limits the range of motion and makes it impossible to for you to touch your chest and nose at the same time. You are better off doing less reps properly than a bunch of reps at 50% of the range of motion.


    David Grim wrote on August 10th, 2010
  13. The awesome thing about these progressions is that it is fairly easy to advance to the next exercise – even for women. I have some people who come to bootcamp who laugh at the kneeling push up but within 1 month they are doing a few decent push ups on their toes. I love seeing that! They become so proud of their accomplishments!

    Susan Campbell wrote on August 10th, 2010
  14. I’m so excited about some new posts involving exercise! All the biorhythm, hormone, mobility, etc stuff was really interesting, but it’s great to get back to the basics!

    Matt wrote on August 10th, 2010
  15. Great video Mark! I need to print out the e-book immediately and dive in right away!

    Primal Toad wrote on August 10th, 2010
  16. One thing that I tell people and seems to help is that the push-up is mainly a chest exercise and arms are secondary. I believe too many people struggle with push-ups because they try to use their triceps as the primary muscle, which creates unneeded tension and strain. Use the big muscles and the smaller muscles will go along for the ride.

    Woody wrote on August 10th, 2010
  17. Any article or post that mentions the beauty and importance of the serratus is a favorite of mine. excellent breakdown. Thank You! I shared it on my fb fan page!

    TandyG wrote on August 10th, 2010
  18. Mark I feel it would be remiss not to mention that your upper arms should be at an angle of less than 90 degrees with your torso. Doing them with your arms straight out (perpendicular to your torso) can cause impingment of the rotator cuff between the acromion process and humerus. Most people will naturally assume such a position, as it is more comfortable, but some beginners make that mistake.

    Nic Kirkland wrote on August 10th, 2010
    • Do you mean we should have our arms wider than shoulder width apart? Wouldn’t that be an angle of more than 90 degrees? Sorry, I just didn’t quite get what you meant and I want to get this right =)

      Alyssa wrote on August 11th, 2010
  19. Should one do pushups with a rotator cuff problem. When I was trying to do the 100 pushup challenge, I wasnt getting pain doing them, but my rotator cuff was definitely worsening so I stopped.

    Suse wrote on August 10th, 2010
    • Yes, absolutely, as long as it’s not completely torn. If that’s the case you most likely will need surgery to repair it.

      But push ups are an excellent exercise to strengthen the rotator cuff muscles. Just start with the most basic progression and work your way up as you build strength.

      Nic Kirkland wrote on August 10th, 2010
    • protect your shoulders but having your elbows point toward your feet not flared. Flared elbows = hurt and overtrained shoulders.

      Mike Sicuranza wrote on August 20th, 2010
  20. I second the recommendation regarding positioning of the elbows. The push-ups demonstrated on the videos are slightly too flared for my taste, as it seems you can see the shoulders start to shrug up towards the head on the way down. Start with a 45 degree angle from the body and find your sweet spot from there.

    As you appraoch 90 degrees you significantly increase your risk of shoulder/rotator cuff pain and/or injury.

    Russ wrote on August 10th, 2010
    • Do you have a link to a video that shows this? I’d like to be totally sure I understand.

      Kilton wrote on August 10th, 2010
      • Check out how the guy looks at 1:05 in this video:

        That is good. This is bad (0:11):

        Pay special attention to the angle of the upper arm relative to the body.

        Nic Kirkland wrote on August 10th, 2010
        • Doh, just realized I pasted the same link twice. The first link (good arm angle) should be:

          Nic Kirkland wrote on August 10th, 2010
      • I apologize for the confusion. I’ll see if I can get a link up. I can probably find a vid on Eric Cressey’s site somewhere.


        Hand position isn’t all that important, there are many variations of hand positioning to tweak the exercise. Narrow, shoulder width, etc.

        For The standard push-up hands would be shoulder with apart – or more precisely the inside of your hands as you look at them on the floor should be under the outside or lateral head of your shoulders.

        The 45 degree angle I spoke of refers to the angle of your elbow in relation to your torso as you go through the range of motion. Most people often have their elbows flared out similar to a scarecrow – this is the WRONG way. They should be much closer.

        Again it’s hard diagnosing from a video and not in person, but in Marks videos it looks as though I would instruct him to keep his elbows slightly closer to his torso – especially on the way down.

        Hope this helps. I’ll go check for a vid.

        Russ wrote on August 11th, 2010

          There ya go.

          Russ wrote on August 11th, 2010
        • Thanks!

          Kilton wrote on August 11th, 2010
    • Sorry, this seems important and I just don’t get it. Which angle should be 45 degrees? Are you saying the hands shouldn’t be directly under the shoulders? Where should they be? Or are you saying to not go all the way to the ground but start with arms straight and only go down half way? Sorry to be so dense.

      Michael wrote on August 11th, 2010
      • See the above reply. You still go all teh way to the ground provided you have orthopedic restrictions.

        Russ wrote on August 11th, 2010
        • I meant NO orthopedic restrictions.

          Russ wrote on August 11th, 2010
    • Agreed. The 45 degree angle point is made in the eBook.

      Mark Sisson wrote on August 11th, 2010
  21. Here’s another great book about pushups from my martial arts teacher

    Heikki Hallamaa wrote on August 10th, 2010
  22. Love the video but as a Military man, who has literally performed thousands upon thousands of push-ups, I have to say your form needs some tweaking. Keep that head tilted up a little to ensure proper alignment but I’ll still give you a solid A-.

    Matt wrote on August 10th, 2010
  23. Mark,

    Great post. Glad you emphasized proper technique because pushups are way more effective when performed correctly. Looking forward to reading Primal Blueprint Fitness.


    Alykhan wrote on August 10th, 2010
  24. This is something that a lot of people will find useful. I guess women should pay more attention to this. A lot of women I have come across seem to think that the push up is only for men. Yet they do not realize the beneficial effects that they will attain from it. Another point I want to make is that those who are not able to do a full push up most likely have a weak core. While the arms play a part, the core is also equally important for performing the perfect push up.

    Paramjit wrote on August 10th, 2010
  25. Great video! What I did when I was starting to get into pushups, was to do it against the bathroom counter. I could get a good angle, to get a good amount of resistance, and I could also see myslef in teh mirror, to ensure good form.

    Dennis wrote on August 11th, 2010
  26. Quick burst of exercise (lift heavy things, sprint once in a while) BUILDS muscle. Chronic cardio DESTROYS muscle. I love to surf, but when I surf often in the summer I lose a little strength and muscle. I’m ok with this because I have all winter when the water is cold to get it back in the gym.

    But it makes me wonder about pushups. At what point do you think they cease to be “lift heavy things” that BUILD muscle and enter the realm of “chronic cardio”? If you can eek out 10 reps and that’s your max effort that’s probably building muscle. But what about 20 reps? What about 40? What about 60? At what point is it not helping build muscle?

    fixed gear wrote on August 11th, 2010

    DAVE PARSONS wrote on August 11th, 2010
  28. That was incredibly helpful, Mark. Nobody has ever explained the pushup like this to me before. I was just supposed to “do” them and they’ve never exactly been good for me. But now I can proceed with confidence! Thank you!

    Lori B. wrote on August 11th, 2010
  29. what is the proper sit up?

    john lucich jr wrote on August 12th, 2010
  30. Thanks. I liked the wall pushup & work my way up. Loved how ez you make it seem too. This is just what I needed. 😀

    madeline wrote on August 12th, 2010
  31. Key to a good pushup is having the elbows tucked in and not flared. Elbows tucked in and pointed back protects the shoulders. Check out Steve Maxwell on Utube for perfect form.

    Mike Sicuranza wrote on August 12th, 2010
  32. The elbow angle is recommended to be at 45 degrees, but what if you want to concentrate more on your chest. Can you have a wider hand position?

    Steven wrote on August 13th, 2010

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