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How to Do a Push-Up (or Safely Work Your Way Up to One)

Learn how to master this classic strength move, even if you’ve never done one before.

By Jenny McCoyJanuary 18, 2024


Push-ups are a classic bodyweight exercise with a reputation for being hard (really, really hard). Challenging as they may be, they're extremely effective. Not only does this move work multiple muscle groups in one fell swoop, but it also provides functional benefits and is easy to modify for people of all fitness levels.

We tapped on four experts, including Peloton instructor Erik Jäger, to get intel on this popular strength training move.

What Is a Push-Up?

The name “push-up” pretty much sums up the exercise, and according to Erik, it's "one of the most effective bodyweight exercises we can do without any equipment."

To do a standard push-up, you start in a high plank, lower your body toward the floor, and then push yourself back up to your starting position. It sounds simple, but anyone who’s attempted a push-up knows how intense this move can feel. Depending on your fitness level, the standard version may be too challenging (and that's completely OK).

Read for the good news? Push-ups are “infinitely scalable,” says Erienne Lauersdorf, a Wisconsin-based physical therapist who specializes in functional training. So don’t be discouraged if you can’t bust out the standard version on your first, second, or fiftieth try. Modified push-ups offer plenty of benefits and can even help you build enough strength to make classic push-ups feel doable.

What Muscles Do Push-Ups Work?

When you do a push-up, you’re working multiple muscles in your upper body, including your chest, shoulders, and triceps. You also hit your back and biceps, however these muscles aren’t the main movers; They mostly support your chest and triceps as they execute the pushing motion, explains Chicago-based strength coach Evan Williams.

Push-ups also fire up your core stabilizers, including your abs and the small muscles that run along your spine. If you're doing a push-up with proper form, you engage these muscles to prevent your lower back from arching. Your lower body also plays a role since your hip flexors and quads help you maintain solid form in plank position, Lauersdorf says.

What Are the Benefits of Push-Ups?

The main benefits of push-ups boil down to three key qualities, says DeAnne Davis Brooks, a certified exercise physiologist and the director of graduate studies in the department of kinesiology at University of North Carolina Greensboro.

  • Push-ups are functional. The motion mimics patterns in daily life, like pushing a grocery cart or opening a heavy door.

  • Push-ups are extremely efficient. They work multiple muscle groups (upper body, core, and lower body) at once.

  • Push-ups are accessible. You don’t need equipment, tons of space, or specialized skills to weave this exercise into your routine.

How to Properly Do Standard Push-Ups

Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to perfect your push-up form, according to experts. Follow these tips to do a standard push-up safely and effectively.

Push-Up Erik Jager GIF | The Output by Peloton

Standard Push-Up

  1. Start in a high plank position. Place your hands on the ground and position them shoulder width apart (or slightly wider). Spread your fingers to really engage your upper body muscles, Erik says. Extend your legs, placing your feet hip distance apart, and engage your core to form a straight line from your head to your ankles. 

  2. With control, bend your elbows to lower your entire body toward the ground. Your elbows shouldn’t point directly to the sides or to the back, but somewhere in between; Erik advises aiming for a 45-degree angle. Make sure your body moves together as one unit, with your hips and shoulders lowering simultaneously. 

  3. Lower as far as you can while keeping your body in one straight line. The ultimate goal is to touch your chest to the ground, but that takes time. Don't force it.

  4. Pause at the bottom. Then, press through your palms to straighten your arms, returning to the starting position. Again, make sure your body moves as one unit and brace your core to ensure your hips don’t sag or hike up.

The above sequence, from start to finish, is one rep. The right number of reps depends on your fitness level, but as a general rule of thumb, do as many push-ups as it takes to fatigue your muscles. Stop when you feel like you could only manage two or three more reps with good form, Lauersdorf says.

For beginners, Williams suggests doing three sets of push-ups two to three times per week, gauging the number of reps using the aforementioned guidelines. They should avoid doing this exercise every day, says Lauersdorf, who instead recommends beginners do push-ups no more than every other day. This cadence allows your muscles a day to recover and gives you time to understand how your body responds to the exercise, which is important in case any pain or discomfort crops up.

Push-Up Variations and Adjustments

There are many ways you can tweak a push-up to make it more accessible or more challenging. If you're not sure where to start, consider the following options.

Beginner: Incline Push-Up

Place your hands on an elevated surface, such as a chair, table, or bench. This modification makes the move less challenging by reducing the amount of weight you’re pushing back up. The higher the surface, the less weight you have to push. For an even easier version, stand up and put your hands against a wall, Brooks says.

Beginner: Push-Ups On Your Knees

Performing a push-up on your hands and knees is another way to make this exercise easier. To ensure proper form, start in a high plank, drop your knees to the floor, and shift your body slightly forward so your upper body supports the majority of your bodyweight. "Make sure you slowly lower yourself to the floor for up to five seconds," Erik instructs.

Advanced: Spiderman Push-Up

To do this dynamic push-up variation, bring one knee to meet your elbow as you lower down and then extend your leg back out as you push up. The knee lift challenges your stability by removing a point of contact with the ground, and the crunching motion fires up your oblique muscles, Williams explains. Switch legs each rep, and be aware: This move is for advanced exercisers who have already mastered standard push-ups.

Advanced: Decline Push-Up

A decline push-up involves elevating your feet on a surface, such as a box, step, or bench. Raising your lower body increases the challenge for your upper body, especially your shoulders, Williams says. The higher you place your feet, the more difficult this move will be. He suggests starting by lifting your feet about six inches off the ground and gradually increasing the height.

Common Push-Up Mistakes to Avoid

To get the most out of a push-up and stay safe in the process, it’s important to prioritize proper form. Here are some of the most common mistakes people make while doing push-ups, plus tips on how to avoid them. 

  • Letting your hips sag. This error reduces the move's effectiveness and can cause you to strain your lower back, Williams explains. Avoid it by bracing your core and moving your entire body as one unit. 

  • Placing your hands too far forward or too far apart. Putting your hands farther forward than your chin can place too much stress on your shoulders, Williams warns. The same is true for positioning them too far apart, Lauersdorf adds. Your hands should be directly below your chest, about shoulder distance apart or slightly wider.

  • Straining your wrists. If you experience pain or discomfort in your wrists while doing push-ups, you might be putting too much weight on them, Erik explains. "It's possible that the movement is unfamiliar, or the load you're lifting is too heavy," he adds. To alleviate the pressure on your wrists, try placing your knuckles on the ground (instead of your palms), folding a towel beneath your wrists, or gripping dumbbells. 

  • Not lowering your body far enough. It’s important to reach a full range of motion while doing push-ups, Lauersdorf says. If you aren’t able to lower yourself all the way to the floor, Erik recommends modifying the move until you can.

Why Can’t I Do a Push-Up?

Standard push-ups demand a lot of upper body strength, and many people lack proper training in this area since most of their day-to-day movements (such as walking, climbing stairs, and squatting) demand more activity from their lower body. That’s why “upper body strength in general tends to lag behind lower body strength,” Brooks explains.

But it’s not just about strength; Push-ups can be extra challenging for people with long arms since they have a greater distance to travel for each rep, Williams explains. If you can’t do a standard push-up, try incline or knee push-ups instead. Once you’re able to consistently do 10 reps of a modified push-up, try the standard version.

Push-Ups vs. Chest Presses

Push-ups and chest presses involve a similar motion, but there are some key differences between them. A push-up engages your upper body along with your core and lower body, whereas a chest press primarily isolates your chest and shoulders, Lauersdorf explains. In that sense, push-ups provide more bang for your buck since they work your whole body.

Chest presses offer their own advantages, though. For example, people often perform them with free weights, which challenges both arms to work equally hard. Using two weights prevents one side from taking on more work, which often happens when both arms work in unison to move a single weight. Chest presses can also help pinpoint and correct any imbalances that exist between sides, which is helpful for reducing injury risk and boosting overall strength.

Because of these moves’ unique benefits, consider working both push-ups and chest presses into your routine. Push-ups can be modified for almost any fitness level. However, beginners who struggle with push-ups may find it helpful to build their upper body strength with chest presses first, Williams says.

Incorporating Push-Ups Into Your Fitness Routine

Perfecting your push-up form is worth your time and effort, and you can do this move alone or as part of a workout routine. Peloton App users won’t have any trouble finding a strength training class that includes the standard move, but if you want to dive right in, try this 20-Minute Strength Roll Call: Upper Body. Led by instructor Jermaine Johnson, the brief but challenging session offers many opportunities to practice push-ups along with other effective moves such as chest presses, biceps curls, overhead presses, and more.


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