The humble push-up (also known as the press-up) is arguably the most well-known and frequently executed exercise in the world. Performed by school kids in physical education classes to Olympic athletes, push-ups are also used as a fitness assessment by the armed services, law enforcement, and many other organizations.
And while push-ups are widely performed, they are often ignored by many exercisers who mistakenly believe they have advanced beyond the push-up and have to do more cutting-edge exercises instead.
In fact, the opposite is often true; the push-up is THE best upper body exercise bar none and should be part of everyone’s workout irrespective of how advanced they are.
The benefits of push-ups
So what makes the push-up so good? Let’s take a look…
- You can do push-ups anywhere
- They are much easier on your joints than many other strength training exercises
- You can regress or progress the push-up to make them suitable for all levels of exerciser
- Push-ups involve moving your body through space (very natural) while most exercises involve keeping your body still and moving an external load (less natural)
- Whatever your fitness goal, push-ups will help you get there faster
Push-ups are primarily an upper body exercise emphasizing your chest, shoulders, and the triceps located at the back of your upper arm. However, many other muscles get in on the action to help keep your body straight and rigid. These include your legs, specifically your quadriceps, and your core or abdominal muscles. This contrasts significantly to exercises like the bench press and seated chest press machine which, because they provide you with support, do not involve these additional muscle groups.
How to perform a perfect push-up
If you are going to experience the power of push-ups for yourself, you need to do them right. Say no to ugly, ineffective push-ups by following this step-by-step guide…
- Place your hands flat on the floor, fingers pointing forward, around shoulder-width apart. Twist your hands outward to “turn on” your deep shoulder stabilizers. Imagine you are screwing your hands into the floor.
- Walk your feet back until your shoulders, hips, knees, and feet form a straight line. Tuck your chin in and lengthen your neck.
- Tense your abs and your legs to increase the rigidity of your body.
- Inhale, bend your arms, and lower your chest to within an inch of the floor. Keep your body straight and tight. Tuck your elbows in slightly as you descend.
- Push up and, as your arms straighten, exhale. Push all the way up until your arms are straight but not locked.
- Inhale and repeat.
- Let your hips drop
- Crane your head down toward the floor or lift your head up
- Lift your butt into the air
- Stop your descent before your chest is close to the floor
Modifications and variations
The standard push-up will get the job done for the majority of exercisers but, in some cases, it will be necessary to make modifications to regress or progress the difficulty of the exercise…
Three-quarter push-ups – if full push-ups are too hard for you right now, bend your legs and rest your knees on the floor, preferably on a mat or folded towel. This ¾ position shortens the levers and makes push-ups a little easier.
Box push-ups – from the ¾ position, bring your knees closer to your hands so that, when viewed from the side, your kneeling position resembles a box. This makes the exercise easier still.
Feet-elevated push-ups – place your feet on a knee-high box or step to place more weight on your hands and make push-ups more demanding.
Pike push-ups – lift your hips up into the air to form an inverted V-shape. This places more stress on the shoulders and triceps and is a prelude to handstand push-ups. Lower your forehead to the floor.
Narrow push-ups – with your fingers touching, lower your chest to touch the backs of your hands. This makes push-ups harder and also emphasizes the triceps at the back of the upper arm.
Wide push-ups – place your hands 1.5 shoulder-widths apart to put more stress on the chest and shoulders.
Clap push-ups – lower as normal and then push up off the floor as fast as you can so your hands leave the floor. Clap in mid-air and then land on slightly bent elbows before repeating. This develops explosive power.
Handstand push-ups – with your hands on the floor around 30cm/12” from a wall, kick up and into a handstand using the wall for balance. Bend your arms and lower your head to the floor and then push back up. This version really emphasizes your shoulders and is a very demanding exercise.
One-hand push-ups – in the push-up position, shift your weight over onto one hand and place your other hand on your lower back. Bend your arm and lower your shoulder down toward your hand. This super-hard push-up is not only tough on your upper body but tough on your core too.
Whether you want more toned arms, a firmer chest, bigger shoulders, or strength for sports, the push-up can help you reach your training goals. If you are a serious weight trainer, use push-ups in your warm up to prime your upper body muscles for the rest of your workout. Or, if you are simply looking for an effective, no-frills way to exercise your upper body, build your bodyweight workouts around push-ups. Push-ups ARE old-school, but they are every bit as beneficial as they have always been and deserve to be part of your workouts.