Is there anything worse than seeing someone do heinous looking push ups? It’s a cross between doing the worm, hip gyrations and a whole lot of other strange movements that have nothing to do with the chest and arms. Enough is enough, this is my public service announcement on how to master the push up like a pro.
If you’re a beginner looking to learn how to do a push up correctly, you can’t quite get down in the push up all of the way, you haven’t done them in a while, or, you just want to check your form, keep reading.
WHAT MUSCLES DO PUSH UPS TARGET?
Push ups are amazing because they hit all of the major pushing muscles of the body (chest, shoulders, triceps, biceps, and forearms), and when done properly they can also teach good core mechanics. Plus, they require zero equipment which is a win in my book.
WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS OF PUSH UPS?
For some reason, bench pressing seems to get all of the glory for being the greatest upper body pushing movement, however, I can take the strongest man or women and put them through a quality set of push ups and their whole body will be smoked. The chest, shoulders, triceps, forearms, abs, lower back, glutes, and even the legs get in on the action. What other exercise out there accomplishes all of this?
HOW NOT TO DO A PUSH UP
Here are a couple of the common mistakes I usually see when people are doing push ups:
Not keeping your body tight - we’re not doing the worm folks!
Letting your head fall down towards the floor - no bobbleheads!
Allowing your elbows to be too far away from the body - you should not be flapping your wings!
Being too relaxed in your hands and forearms - nothing funny here, but I see people’s hands moving way too much causing you to lose power through the press.
1/4 or half reps - no explanation needed, that’s not a push up.
HOW TO DO A PUSH UP
Below, I'll show you two progressions for how to do the proper push up but before you start, we have to do two things: get your setup down and learn how to create tension in the body.
Setting Up A Push Up
Before you start moving, let's get your setup down! Hitting these checkpoints will set you up for getting the most out of your push up safely, while creating maximal tension in the body.
First place your hands flat on the floor directly under your shoulders. Start with this width and move the hands farther apart if it feels a little uncomfortable.
Regardless of if you’re doing push ups from your knees or your feet, make sure you have a straight line from the top of your head down through your knees.
Lastly, tuck your tailbone underneath you (think pointing your belt buckle up towards your face) as this will help keep your body nice and straight throughout the push ups.
The Secret Sauce: Create Tension
I like to think of a push up as a moving plank, so after you get your setup locked down, you need to learn how to create total body tension. We do this by:
Bracing the core
Creating tension in the thighs, calves, and even the big toes
Create even more tension in the fingers, palms, forearms, and all the way up into the shoulders and chest
Once we achieved all of this, we start to move. If you can’t check every one of these, then you must regress your push up.
PUSH UP PROGRESSIONS
If it’s been a while since you were working out consistently, or if it’s your first time doing push ups, it’s crucial to start by finding the appropriate progression, instead of jumping into the full exercise. The goal with any exercise is to find the position that will allow you to get the most out of it. If you’ve never done push ups before, doing a conventional version will be way too much for you to handle.
Progression #1: Kneeling Push Ups
The first progression I usually teach with clients is the kneeling push up. I’ll never call these “girl push ups” ever again, after I was quite humbled when trying to do 3 sets of 40 of these, the right way. Anytime I have a male or female client make fun of them, I make sure they never use those words again.
The name sums this exercise up pretty easily. However, as I mentioned earlier, you must create tension from the hands all the way down through the legs before you think about moving. I suggest building up to 3 sets of 30 reps for this progression before moving on to the next. In the video below, I go over all of the cues you’ll need to succeed. You’re ok if you can only get a few reps when starting. Over time the reps WILL go up and you’ll be quickly on your way to the next progression.
Progression #2: Standard Push Ups
Once you’ve mastered the kneeling push up, it’s time to start attacking this progression. This is the push up most people think of when talking about push ups. When done properly, I consider this the gold standard of upper body pushing. Nothing makes me more proud than when one of my clients can hop down and bang out a perfect set of 20…giddy up!!!
Don’t be discouraged when you only get 8-10 really good reps when you first start out. Once your technique starts to go south, shut it down, take a few minutes to recover, and then start set number 2. What you’ll quickly realize is that the more tension you create in your entire body, the easier they become. Trust me, you’ll see what I’m talking about after a few weeks of doing these.
SHOULDER OR WRIST PAIN DURING PUSH UPS?
If you struggle with shoulder or wrist pain while doing a push up, I've put together resources to help you troubleshoot the issue.
BULLETPROOF YOUR SHOULDERS
For my favorite mobility exercises to bulletproof your body, click the link below where you can get my 3 must-have mobility moves for free. There's one specifically for your shoulders that will be a game changer for relieving pain so you can continue to master those push ups. Once you try them, you’ll see why they’re my all-time favorite.
ABOUT COACH MATT PIPPIN
Matt is a Strength and Mobility Coach with over 15 years experience in his field and has coached over a thousand professional, collegiate and everyday athletes with the goal to help them move, feel and perform at their highest level. He's incredibly passionate about bringing simple and effective online mobility training programs to everyone who wants to take control of their self care and make lasting change. CLICK HERE to learn more.
NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist
Level 3: Fascial Stretch Specialist
Level 1: Institute of Motion Health Coach
Certified FRC Mobility Specialist (FRCms)
Level 1 Kinstretch Instructor
Weck Method Qualified