It’s one of the first exercises we learn as youngsters. In fact, you were probably forced to do them in gym class, as punishment for being late to practice, or maybe you just did them on your own because you saw other people doing them.
Regardless of your introduction to push-ups, most of us have been performing them for some time now, which is fantastic! They are simple to learn, don’t require any equipment, and you can typically progress quickly when doing them regularly.
They should also be a cornerstone of any proper lifting program, as they are fantastic upper body and core strength builders, and it’s just simply important to master body-weight movements before moving onto more complicated or advanced exercises. (Plus, let’s be honest, a chick bangin’ out several sets of perfect push-ups is just badass!)
What if I told you that you have may have been doing them wrong this whole time?
“Blasphemy!” you say. “I go all the way until my chest touches the floor and I really feel it in my chest the next day! My form is great!”
Well that’s what I thought until I learned how I should really be doing them. I went from doing push-ups with a 45-pound plate on my back for sets of 16, to not even being able to execute five correct push-ups on the floor with just my body weight. Talk about humiliation!
So how exactly should you be performing push-ups? I’ll explain in detail below:
1. Chest out.
Beware, this is harder than it seems. Most of us battle with weak scapular stabilizers and tight pecs since we are constantly sitting; sitting at work, sitting in the car, or sitting playing video games. In order to keep your chest out properly you must seat your scapulae, driving them down and together. This puts your scapulae in the correct position to do their job during the push-up, which leads us to our next point.
2. Scapular retraction and protraction during the push-up.
When you go into the bottom portion of the push-up, your scapulae should retract or “come together” and when you push yourself up, your scapulae should protract, or “come apart.”
3. Low back neutral.
This is one of the biggest issues I see whenever someone is doing a push-up. Everyone thinks that they are keeping their core nice and tight, but the truth is you probably aren’t. Get a video of yourself doing push-ups from the side and you will get a much more objective perspective of what your push-up really looks like! In order to stay neutral, brace your core like you are preparing to be punched in the stomach throughout the entire movement. This will take any unnecessary stress off the lumbar spine, and actually turns the push-up into one of the best core strengthening exercises out there.
4. Glutes tight.
You should be squeezing your glutes like you are holding a $100 bill in there! Keeping your glutes tight will help stabilize your core and pelvis while performing the push-up. I know it’s not an easy task concentrating on keeping every area of your body tight at once, but you will gain more strength with every tight push-up than you would with 10 mindless push-ups.
5. Elbows at 45 degrees and go through the full range of motion (ROM).
OK… this one might be preaching to the choir, but just to cover my bases, flaring your elbows out to 90 degrees is hard on the shoulders and should be avoided. And if you aren’t getting full ROM, well then you are just fooling yourself. If you cannot get full ROM at first, feel free to start with push-ups on an incline and slowly lower the include until you are ready to do push-ups on the floor.
Keep in mind that if you try to implement all of these tips at once, there is a good chance you WILL have to do push-ups on an incline for a while, and there is no shame in that. Check your ego at the door and learn how to do a perfect push-up!
Example of a push-up performed incorrectly
Example of a push-up performed correctly (incline and regular)
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About The Author: Molly Galbraith
Molly Galbraith, CSCS is co-founder and owner of Girls Gone Strong, a global movement that aims to empower women to embrace all that’s possible for their lives and for their bodies through body-positive, evidence-based, nutrition, training, and self-care information. She is also the author of The Modern Woman’s Guide to Strength Training.
As a former figure competitor who dabbled in powerlifting, Molly understands the more extreme side of training and nutrition, and after years of personal struggle with her own body image and self-worth, Molly is committed to helping women embrace their bodies and fall in love with themselves, and teaching other coaches and trainers how to better understand, connect with, and serve their women clients. Learn more about Molly on her website and connect with her on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.