There is beauty in simplicity. Einstein knew it, so did da Vinci, Isaac Newton, and the ancients. There’s even a principle dedicated to it (Occam’s razor).12 3 While not quite as highfalutin as the theory of relativity or the law of gravity, in the realm of fitness, push-ups are just as foundational. They are the simplest of exercises, highly effective, and widely popular. QED, baby. The greats would have loved it.
Push-ups (or press-ups if you are in the UK) are one of the most commonly performed exercises in the world. From punishing kids in phys ed and rehabbing the injured to preparing elite soldiers for battle and Olympians to break records, everyone, it seems, does push-ups.
But just because they are performed far and wide, doesn’t mean they are always performed properly, so we cover how to do push-ups correctly and a host of pushup variations to help you get the most out of this brilliant bodyweight exercise. Plus everything else you need to know.
Which Muscles do Push-Ups Work?
The primary muscles targeted by push-ups are those of the upper body, especially the chest and shoulders:4
- Pectoralis major (chest)
- Anterior deltoids (shoulder)
- Serratus anterior (stabilizes shoulder blade)
- Triceps (back of upper arm)
- Rectus abdominus (abs)
Other key muscles used include:
- Rhomboids and trapezius (back)
- Quadriceps (thighs)
- Glutes (butt)
Different push-up variations can shift the focus onto different muscle groups, such as doing unstable push-ups or changing hand and foot positions.5
Switching up the difficulty level and type of the push-up will also change your training outcomes. Easier push-ups and more reps builds muscular endurance, harder push-ups and fewer reps increases strength, while plyometric push-ups will develop power.
Push-Up vs Bench Press
But when it comes to developing maximal pushing strength, according to conventional thinking the bench press comes out on top. Turns out, that’s not true. Research comparing the pushup and bench press found them to be equally effective in building strength and gaining muscle.89
The key to making gains is not to simply increase reps, but to make the push-up itself sufficiently challenging. So as you get stronger, utilize increasingly harder push-up progressions or increase the load if using resistance bands or weights.10 It’s the same principe you’d employ when bench pressing – not simply churning out more reps, but lifting more weight.
If you’ve still got your eye on the bench press, you have to go through the push-up first. Because there’s no point bench pressing until you’ve mastered the push-up.
Benefits of Push-Ups
Beginner or advanced, pushups provide a great no-frills workout for your upper body. You can perform them just about anywhere which makes them the perfect no-excuse exercise. And providing you perform push-up properly, they are a very safe exercise.
There are enough variations to keep even the most flighty of athlete entertained. Push-ups can be adapted to suit any level, and there are endless ways to tweak this exercise to regress or progress it.
Performing push-ups regularly develops upper-body strength, power, and muscular endurance.11 They make daily activities easier and also boost sports performance.
Widely used as a therapeutic exercise to improve shoulder function in rehab, push-ups also strengthen the muscles around the shoulder, and improve shoulder joint stability and proprioception.12
Stepping it up further, being able to perform more push-ups is linked to better health. A 10-year study in male firefighters found that those able to complete more than 40 consecutive push-ups had a 96% lower chance of developing heart disease compared to those unable to perform 10 push-ups.13
How to do a Push-Up
Despite being the most commonly performed exercise on the planet, pushups are often performed with abominably poor form. This makes them less effective and may even increase risk of injury. While inherently simple, there’s still nuance to performing the perfect push-up. Here’s how to master the push-up like a pro.
How to Do a Perfect Push-Up
- Starting position: Kneel down and place your hands flat on the floor with your fingers pointing forward. Your hands should be around shoulder-width apart.
- Keeping your arms straight, walk your feet back until your knees and hips are extended and your shoulders, hips, knees and feet form a straight line.
- Tense your abs as though you are expecting to get punched in the stomach. Lower your chin and make your neck long, so you are looking straight down at the floor.
- Lower down: Inhale, bend your arms and lower your chest to lightly touch the floor – no touch means no rep! Your elbows should travel backward and stay close to your ribs.
- Push-up: Keeping your body straight and core tight, push yourself back up to full arm extension exhaling as you do so.
A weak core can mean your middle sags when you do push-ups – this places an inordinate strain on your lower back. If your core is weak, choose an easier version until you can safely and securely keep your spine properly aligned.
Who should not do pushups? If you have any wrist issues, push-ups can be uncomfortable to perform and a history of shoulder problems may also preclude you from performing this move. If you cannot perform even a couple of push-ups, try one of the beginner push-ups listed below.
Avoid some common push-up mistakes and make them as productive as possible by following these simple tips.
- Despite being an upper body exercise, keeping your whole body tense will help you perform this exercise better. Make sure you tense your legs, butt and abs when completing push-ups and do not allow your lower back to arch or hollow.
- Lower yourself down more slowly than you push yourself back up. Imagine you are compressing a spring as you descend and then letting it expand as you push up.
- Try to rotate your hands outward as you perform the exercise to activate your lats and deep shoulder stabilizers. This will give you a more solid base from which to push.
- Keep an eye on form and fatigue as you perform more reps. When you begin to tire you may start changing your position to take some of the weight off your upper body and shift it onto your legs.14
Mix and match your sets and reps. Do multiple sub-maximal sets where you stop a few reps from failure in some workouts, while for others do max-rep sets where you do as many as you can for fewer sets. Variety like this will ensure you get the most from your push-up workouts.
Push-Up Hand Positions
Close-grip push-up. Narrower than the standard push-up, it is about 50% of shoulder-width. Works the triceps, chest muscles, and the infraspinatus (muscle at the the back of your shoulder) more. An example of a close-grip push-up is the diamond push-up (see below).
Wide-grip push-up. Wider than the standard push-up, it is about 150% of shoulder-width. Works the biceps more, but results in less muscle activation of the chest (pectoralis) muscles.
Despite often being wrongly labeled as an exercise for beginners, pushups are in fact extremely versatile, benefiting just about anyone who chooses to perform them. From hands and knees to handstand – there is a push-up for everyone. You’ll never outgrow it.
Pep up your pushups with some of the variations listed below. It’ll take from beginner push-ups all the way to the hardcore. Exercises are listed in approximate order of difficulty.
1 Wall Push-Up
For beginners a full push-up may be too strenuous. That doesn’t mean you can’t do this great exercise. Standing significantly reduces the body weight you have to push, making this move a great starting point for beginners.
- Simply place your hands against a wall at around shoulder-height and perform wall pushups.
- As with all pushup variations, keep your abs tight and do not arch or hunch your lower back.
As you get stronger, walk your feet a little further back and lower your hands.
2 Elevated Push-Ups
Works: lower chest and triceps
The more horizontal you are the more of your body weight you have to lift, and the harder the push-up.18 This move is sandwiched between being vertical (wall push-up) and horizontal (standard push-up).
- Place your hands on an elevated surface like a counter top, bench, or box.
To make the push-up progressively harder, keep lowering the surface until you can do a standard push-up.
3 Kneeling Push-Ups
Knee pushups (aka modified or three-quarter push-up) can be a stepping stone to full pushups or simply incorporated into more advanced push-ups.
- From the regular pushup position, bend your legs and rest your knees on the floor.
- Everything else is identical including tight abs and lowering your chest all the way to the floor.
Periodically test your strength by straightening your legs and trying full pushups.
4 Diamond Push-Ups
Good for: Chest, triceps
As explained above (push-up hand positions) this variation emphasizes your triceps.
- Either on your toes or on your knees, place your hands together so your first fingers and thumbs form a rough diamond shape.
- Lower your chest down to touch the diamond and then push back up.
5 Push-Ups with Taps
Good for: Arms, core, chest; symmetrical strength
An easier incarnation of the one-arm push-up, this variation momentarily removes one hand to inject difficulty into the move. As only one hand is touching the ground during the tap this move trains the core to stabilize the body. You can also use this push-up variation to progress to the the one arm push-up.
- At the top of the movement give the other side of your body a tap with one hand. You can also do push-ups with shoulder taps.
- Alternate between sides by switching hands with each rep.
6 Push-Up with Knee Tuck
Good for: Core, chest; symmetrical strength
In a similar vein, this push-up is an easier version of the one-leg push-up. The knee tuck also requires hip flexibility and targets the rotational muscles of your core.
- At the top of the push-up bring your knee to the opposite elbow.
7 Pike Push-Ups
The pike push-up seriously works your shoulder muscles. This move looks a little like a downward-facing dog position of Yoga. It’s a good starting point to build strength if you’ve got your eye on performing handstand push-ups down the road.
- Start with your your feet and hands about shoulder-width apart. Raise your hips high so that your body forms an upside down V. Keep you arms and legs as straight as you can.
- Bend you arms and lower your upper body until your head nearly touches the ground, while keeping your hips high.
- Straighten your arms and push yourself back up to the starting position.
8 Decline Push-Ups
Works: Chest, shoulders, and scapular stabilizers (the muscles that connect neck, mid-back, and shoulders).21
Okay, so strictly speaking becoming more horizontal doesn’t increase how much weight you have to lift. It’s actually where your head is relative to your feet. In other words, raising your feet above your head (so you’re tilting downwards) increases the amount of bodyweight you have to lift and therefore the difficulty of the exercise.
The higher your feet, the harder it gets. When feet are elevated 12 inches you lift 70% of your bodyweight, when elevated 24 inches it climbs to 74%.22 Yup, this ends exactly where you thought – the opposite of a wall push-up, a handstand push-up.
- Place your feet on a bench, box, step or other sturdy platform.
- Do not allow your lower back to arch – a common mistake with this exercise.
- Use a narrow or wide grip as preferred.
Start off with a six-inch elevation and increase gradually to make the exercise more and more demanding.
9 Push-Up Jacks
Good for: Core, shoulders; cardio
All the goodness of a push-up, plus it challenges your core to stabilize the spine. This one will really get your heart rate up!
- A combo move, for this variation as you lower your body jump your legs out to the side so your feet are wide apart.
- As you push your body back up to jump your feet back together.
For an easier version with less impact, start with just one leg. As you lower you body simply just tap one foot out to the side. Switch feet with every rep.
10 Deficit Push-Ups
Works: Chest, triceps
This push-up variation increases the range of movement available at your shoulders and subsequently make it more demanding
- Place your hands on two elevated surfaces (there has to be a gap between them), a pair of dumbbells, thick books, weight plates or pushup stands.
Note! Practice caution, as this variation can be hard on your shoulders, especially if you lack sufficient shoulder mobility.
11 Medicine Ball Push-Ups
Works: Core, triceps
You can use a balance board, Swiss ball, BOSU ball, or medicine ball. A medicine ball calls for a narrow hand position, which emphasizes your triceps while pushing inward really makes your pecs work hard.
- Put a medicine ball on the floor and place your hands on either side of the apex.
- Perform your pushups on your toes or knees but focus on pushing your hands together as you do them.
If both hands on the ball is too challenging, start with one hand only on an unstable surface.
12 Suspended Push-Ups
Perform pushups using a TRX, gymnastic rings or similar suspension trainer. The suspension straps are highly unstable, which significantly increases the difficulty of the exercise and makes your core work super hard to keep your body stable. It also increases the available range of movement at the shoulder.252627
- You’ll need to really brace your core muscles when performing suspended push-ups to ensure your spine is properly aligned.
- The degree of difficulty can be changed by lowering or raising the straps.
Note! Take extra caution if you suffer with low back pain. The instability of suspension training can result in back injury, particularly if you lack sufficient core strength or have a history of back problems.28
13 Clapping (Plyometric) Push-Ups
Works: Upper body power
- Lower your chest to the floor slowly and with control.
- As fast as you are able, forcefully and explosively push up, propelling your upper body as far off the floor as you can.
- If possible, clap your hands to show you have managed to get airborne.
- Land on slightly bent elbows to absorb the shock.
Stop your set as soon as you are unable to generate enough force to leave the floor.
Note! Avoid this exercise if you have a history of wrist or back problems.
14 Sliding Push-Up with Arm Reach
Good for: Arms, core; symmetrical strength
Harder than shoulder tap push-ups and not quite (but almost) a one-arm push-up, this variation requires good core stability.
- Perform this exercise with a slider or small towel.
- As you lower your body, slide one hand out in front of you.
- Bring your hand back to the starting position as you push back up.
15 One Arm Push-Up
Good for: Arms, core, chest; symmetrical strength
Beloved by Rocky and boxers in general, for many, 1-arm pushups are the epitome of fitness. It’s no mean feat. To execute this move, you’re lifting 60% of your bodyweight with one arm.31 It’s is a big step up from regular to 1-arm pushups so make the transition gradually.
- Wide feet, turning your shoulder into the movement and keeping your core braced as tightly as possible will all make 1-arm pushup performance easier and safer.
Don’t be surprised to find you have one arm stronger than the other.
16 Handstand Push-Up
Good for: Triceps, shoulders
Where horizontal push-ups target your chest, shoulders and triceps, vertical handstand push-ups place an emphasis on the shoulders, and require a lot of work to maintain balance and stability. You’re also now essentially lifting 100% of your bodyweight.
- Kick up and into a handstand against a wall and then bend your arms to gently touch your head on the floor.
- Push back up to full arm extension.
- Place a cushion under your head until you are confident you can control the speed of your downward descent.
And for completeness – the two-fingertip push-up, à la Bruce Lee.