Push ups are the go-to exercise of the universe. They’re used as strength tests in school and in the military, as punishments in gym class, and to impress people on the beach.
In my studio, I use them to assess upper body and torso strength, muscular imbalances, and the ability to move the body as a unit. Unfortunately, most of the people I see have never learned how to do a push up properly, and a large percentage can’t do one full push up.
When I ask to see one push up, people tend to laugh embarrassedly or stare at me as if I’ve just asked them to bench press my car. “Can I do ‘girl’ pushups?” they ask, looking at me hopefully.
Never fear – all is not lost. There are many ways to gain your first full pushup or to improve on the push ups you already have. The tips below should help get you well on your way.
Master the Correct Elbow Position
The biggest mistake I see in pushups is people’s elbows sticking straight out to the sides. If you do them this way, you’re definitely not alone. Michelle Obama’s famous Ellen pushups were done just like that. And I’m not gonna lie – it made me kind of sad.
Think about it this way: if you were going to push, say, a refrigerator across the floor, would you do it with your elbows flared out like an angry chicken? Chances are, you wouldn’t. The way the human body naturally pushes is with the elbows at about a 45-degree angle from your ribs If you’re an elbow flarer, this one fix will significantly change the way your pushups feel.
De-Droopify Your Torso
A droopy torso in a push up also makes me sad. So, for the sake of my happiness, clean it up. A push up is essentially a moving plank. Therefore, your abdominals should be fully involved. A good little trick to find a solid core position is this:
- Put your thumbs right on your bottom ribs.
- Put your middle fingers right on your hip bones.
- Now, without bending your upper body forward, try to bring your ribs and your hips (your middle fingers and your thumbs) closer to each other. Essentially, you’ll be flattening out the curve of your lower back. You should feel your abs flex. If you can’t figure out how to make this work, try squeezing your butt. That usually forces your pelvis into this position.
Maintain a solid core position by bringing your ribs and your hip bones closer together to create a tighter plank.
Put It All Together
In addition to the elements above, a good push up needs you to keep your head neutral (don’t tilt your chin up or down – this is more important than you might think) and your legs locked and together. Your hands should be right underneath your shoulders. (There are plenty of other hand and foot positions that are perfectly legitimate, but we’re just dealing with the basics right now. We’ll get to more advanced stuff later).
“A push up is essentially a moving plank. Therefore, your abdominals should be fully involved.”
Something I like to do in my push ups is to sort of screw my hands into the floor. You’ll want your middle finger to point to twelve o’clock in your push ups every time. With your hands in this position and without moving them, rotate your arms away from your torso. This will engage your lats so they can help your push ups a bit more and will help secure your elbows into the correct position.
What If I Can’t Do a Full Push Up?
Glad you asked! There are lots of ways you can build up your strength. The first thing to do is figure out your sticking point so you can work on it.
Your sticking point is the place at which you can no longer lower yourself down (or push yourself up) with good form. Once you know that, then take one (or more) of the following approaches to power up your push up.
Do Top-Down Work
From the top plank position of your push up, lower yourself slowly and under control all the way to your sticking point. Once you’re there, try holding that position with excellent form for 3-5 seconds. As you get stronger, start to lower and raise yourself just a hair under that point, and then a hair over that point.
Do Bottom-Up Work
Lie on the floor on your stomach with your hands and feet in push up position. Try to push yourself in one solid piece up to your sticking point and practice the raising and lowering sequence. If you can’t push yourself up off the floor, then push into the floor as hard as you can as if you were going to do the push up. Hold this isometric for 3-5 seconds. You just found another sticking point.
Elevate Your Push Ups
Find a bench, sofa arm, table, or other elevated stable object you can put your hands on for push ups. Make sure it’s not too easy. It should be a height that is challenging, but at which you can do a full, chest-to-bottom push up with excellent form.
Practice your push ups at this height. As you get stronger, use lower and lower surfaces until you reach the floor. I find this method is significantly more effective than “girl push ups” (and I hate that term, too). Your body does not behave the same way from your knees as it does from your toes. If you practice knee push ups, you’ll get very good at knee push ups. Practice full push ups instead.
From the top position of your push up, lower yourself as slowly as you can all the way to the floor with excellent form. Reset and repeat. If you can’t do this with full range of motion, elevate your body until you are at an angle that works for you and progress from there.
From the floor, push yourself under control and with perfect form all the way to the top position. Reset and repeat. If you can’t do this with full range of motion, elevate your body until you are at an angle that works for you and progress from there.
How to Progress After Your First Push Ups
If you can already do some decent pushups and would like to increase your strength or reps, increasing your range of motion can help you. I like to use two kettlebells for this. With perfect form, lower to the absolute end range of motion you can manage – without pain, of course – and practice that way. Push ups off the floor should come a lot easier if you master these.
Accessory Exercises to Help Your Push Ups
- Tricep exercises – Your triceps straighten your arm at the elbow, so getting them strong can help any sort of pressing exercise. Overhead extensions, skull-crushers, bent-over extensions, pulldowns, and dips are just some of the exercises you can use to build tricep strength.
- Planks and bananas – As I mentioned before, a push up is essentially a moving plank. Practicing hollow position and planks for time (both from your hands and from your elbows) can help strengthen a droopy torso. (For a full description of “bananas,” see my pull up article).
- Bench press – The bench press is a great way to strengthen your chest and all the muscles that assist pressing from the chest. Obviously, abdominal stabilization will not come into play as much with bench press, but it’s a great way to learn how to push a lot of weight.
Once you’ve mastered the push up, you can play with it a million different ways.
Wherever you are with your push up progressions, practice a few variations several times per week, and you’ll get stronger and better with time. Enjoy the ride, and let me know how it goes!