For most people, the push-up seems like the simplest movement of all. You get down in the prone position and use your hands to push yourself away from the ground, then lower yourself until the chest touches, and repeat. Not everyone has the strength or technique to do them, but everyone pretty much knows what a push-up looks like. There’s no real mystery around it.
However, there’s more to push-ups than just facing the ground and pushing on it. Proper form is essential if you want to get the most bang for your buck out of the movement as you can.
How To Do a Push-up
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.
Lower yourself to the ground, touching your chest to it.
Push yourself back up while keeping elbows in, squeezing your pectoral muscles and completing the full range of motion.
At the top, continue until your elbows are completely locked and your shoulder blades are fully protracted.
The Benefits of Push-Ups
The push-up is a simple exercise, but don’t be fooled: the simplicity makes it one of the very best things you can do for your body.
Full Body Workout: Push-ups target numerous muscle groups at once, making them a highly efficient full-body exercise.
Strengthens Connective Tissue: Push-ups not only work your muscles but also boost the strength of your bones, tendons, and other connective tissues by placing stress on them.
Enhances Core Stability: Performing push-ups correctly requires you to maintain a rigid torso. It’s like doing a plank and bench press together at once.
Boosts Upper Body Strength: Regular push-ups can substantially enhance your upper body strength, including the often ignored muscle group, serratus anterior.
Improves Mobility: Push-ups put your shoulder blades (scapula) through their full range of motion, thus improving your overall body mobility.
Convenience: Push-ups don’t require any special equipment and can be done anywhere you have a flat surface. If you have access to the ground and gravity, you can do a push-up.
Closed-Chain Exercise: Unlike the open-chain bench press, push-ups are a closed-chain exercise. This means your hands are stationary and your body is moved, which can lead to better joint stability and improved proprioception (the sense of the relative position of one’s own parts of the body and strength of effort being employed in movement).
Easy to Scale: You can do push-ups against a wall or table to make them easier, or you can elevate your feet or even wear a weight vest to make them harder. They are almost endlessly scalable.
How to Target Different Muscles with Your Push-Ups
Many people wonder “what muscles do push-ups work?” And the most honest answer is “All of them.” Depending on the variation of push-up you employ, however, you can target different muscles more than others.
Triceps: Bring your hands closer together. The more narrow your hand position, the more you’ll target your triceps. To really hit your triceps, try forming a diamond with your hands on the ground.
Shoulders: Do pike push-ups, where you form an upside down V with your legs and torso. This places your torso in more of a vertical position and emphasizes the triceps and shoulders more than the regular push-up. You can increase the shoulder emphasis by putting your feet on a bench or table. The more vertical your torso, the greater the shoulder engagement.
Chest: All push-ups work the chest, but if you really want to hit it hard you need to go deeper into the descent to increase the range of motion. Knuckle push-ups, handle push-ups, ring push-ups, or even just doing push-ups between two chairs (or dip bars, or stacked books) can increase the range of motion and emphasize the chest.
Hands: In a normal push-up, instead of laying your hands flat on the ground, try “gripping” the ground with your hand. This is a great grip builder.
Common Push-Up Mistakes
But here’s the thing: most people are doing them wrong. Doing them wrong doesn’t just shortchange your results. It can also increase your risk of injury.
If you want to get the most out of your push-ups and come out of them stronger, healthier, and fitter, read on for some form fixes. These form tips apply whatever variation of pushup you’re doing.
Be a stiff lever.
When you’re doing a push-up, you’re a single cohesive slab of human. You are a plank. You are a lever, and your toes are the fulcrum. To be a good lever, you have to tighten up everything: abs (all trunk muscles, in fact), lumbar muscles, glutes, quads. Everything. Make sure you maintain a tight, rigid body. Think of your legs, hips, and torso as if they formed a straight line (they should). Maintain that plank throughout the exercise; maintain the lever.
If you don’t stay tight throughout the movement, you’ll shortchange your results. You won’t generate as much power. Imagine trying to use a floppy crowbar to pry off a baseboard. It just wouldn’t work as well.
Mind your head position.
Rather than looking ahead, you should be looking down at the ground right in front of you. This places your neck in a neutral position and maintains the straight line from head to foot.
Don’t look ahead. Look down.
Elbows in, not flared out.
Flaring out your elbows places your shoulders in an internally-rotated position, which is a major cause of shoulder pain during the exercise. Your average person who claims “push-ups hurt my shoulders” is doing them with flared elbows and severe internal rotation.
Check your hand position.
A good cue for maintaining proper shoulder and elbow position is to externally rotate your hands when you place them on the floor so that your thumbs are pointing straight ahead and your fingers are pointing out to the sides. This forces your elbows to stay in against your body and protects your shoulders.
Protract your shoulder blades at the top.
At the top of the push-up, your shoulder blades should be fully protracted—moving your shoulder blades away from the spine. As you descend, they will retract—moving your shoulders blades closer to the spine, or “packed in” against the spine. This ensures full range of motion (and, again, healthy shoulders).
This is different from the bench press, where your shoulder blades stay retracted throughout the entire movement.
Quality over quantity.
Hammer this into your head until it becomes like breathing: Technique is more important than speed. Form begets function. The major problem people run into with push-ups is they’re chasing a number rather than chasing quality.
I’d take 10 good, hard, perfect push-ups over 40 sloppy, rushed, easy push-ups. The former will get you stronger. The latter will get you injured.
If you’re interested in making push-ups even harder, try thinking of your toes as a passive fulcrum:
Instead of “going down,” you rotate your body toward the ground around the fulcrum of your toes. This is a pretty subtle change, but it places an incredible amount of weight on your chest, triceps, and shoulders. It will feel like you’re “leaning forward” and your hands will feel “farther back” than usual. If you need another cue, imagine touching your shoulders to the ground.
Everything else still applies: stay in rigid plank formation (you’re a lever, remember?), press fully up, don’t do half reps, keep your elbows in, control your shoulder blades and move them mindfully.
The result is a legitimately difficult upper body exercise. You might not be able to bang out 50 pushups like this on a whim, and you’ll probably end up doing these more slowly than before, but I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised with the results.
Another benefit is they feel easier on the joints.
About the Author
Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.