Ever done a push-up and felt your hips hit the ground and your arms barely bend? We’ve been there.
A push-up is a total-body functional movement that is great for increasing strength and has the added benefit of engaging the core and lower body. Since it’s a bodyweight exercise, it can be done just about anywhere—with a ton of variations to liven things up. So whether you’ve been unsuccessful in the past or just want to fine-tune your form, here are the details you’ll need to master a perfect push-up.
1. Start in a high plank position. Place hands firmly on the ground, directly under shoulders. Ground toes into the floor to stabilize your lower half. Brace core (tighten abs as if preparing to take a punch), engage glutes and hamstrings, and flatten your back so your entire body is neutral and straight.
2. Begin to lower your body—keeping back flat and eyes focused about three feet in front of you to maintain a neutral neck—until chest grazes floor. Don’t let your butt dip or stick out at any point during the move; your body should remain in a straight line from head to toe. Draw shoulder blades back and down, keeping elbows tucked close to your body (don’t “T” your arms).
3. Keeping core engaged, exhale as you push back to starting position. Pro tip: Imagine you are screwing your hands into the ground as you push back up. That’s one! Repeat for 10 to 20 reps or as many as can be performed with good form.
Once you’ve nailed the form, mix it up with one of these 82 push-up variations.
The Mistake: Letting Your Lower Back Sag or Arch
The Fix: Sure, push-ups are known for strengthening your pecs, shoulders, and triceps, but they’re a total-body move. Focus on tightening your glutes and legs. Engaging your glutes will help keep the lower back from arching or sagging during the move. And instead of letting your hips flop to the ground, press your chest to the ground first, keeping hips in the same plane as your shoulders.
The Mistake: Forgetting to Breathe
The Fix: Don’t hold your breath. Concentrating on form and reps can make it easy to forget one of the most important parts of working out: breathing. Inhale on the way down and exhale on the way up.
The Mistake: Flaring Your Arms
The Fix: Letting those arms pop out to 90 degrees can be really tough on the shoulders. Instead of forming a “T” with the arms and body, keep your elbows tucked closer at about a 20- to 40-degree angle to your torso.
The Mistake: Cheating Yourself
The Fix: The key is quality over quantity. Make sure each push-up reaches a full range of motion by getting your chest as close to the floor as comfortable, then fully extending your elbows at the top. Having sloppy form will make for a less effective exercise that targets fewer muscles.
The Mistake: Sending Forehead to the Ground
The Fix: If you’ve ever had neck pain while doing a push-up, chances are you’re not holding your neck in a neutral position. If you don’t have the strength to lower your chest to ground, it’s common to strain your neck so your forehead lowers first. You can fix this by picking a point on the floor a few feet in front of you to stare at. If you still feel yourself twisting your neck into a strange angle, drop to your knees until your form improves.
The Mistake: Not Stacking Wrists
The Fix: It might feel easier (at first) to shift your weight back during a push-up. But not stacking your wrists directly under your shoulders compromises your form and takes the work out of your chest. To fix, shift your body forward slightly so that your shoulders sit directly on top of wrists before performing the first step.
Originally posted March 2013. Updated June 2017.