Push-ups are among the first exercises that you learn as a kid, but doing one correctly is something that surprisingly few people can do. There’s no shame in starting with the basics; it can take six months to one year to become truly competent, says CPT Nick Tumminello. Get ready to be empowered by the power of the push-up. Build strength for a full push-up with this quick guide to technique.
Why Push-Ups Are Simple Yet Brilliant
There’s a reason that the push-up has been a staple of the American fitness lexicon for a century. “One thing is accessibility,” Tumminello says. “You don’t need any special equipment, and it helps you get [in] a good workout—anywhere, anytime.” Push-ups can also complement other traditional chest workouts, such as a bench press, and serve as a barometer of your strength, relative to your body weight.
Whereas bench press isn’t particularly core-activating, push-ups force you to engage your entire torso. “I’ve seen people get really militant about it and put a broomstick on top of someone’s spine,” Tumminello says. “Just make sure that you’re not sagging your hips, and having a mirror [to see your form] helps.” One of Tumminello’s favorite tricks for push-up form is to imagine that you’re pushing the ground down, rather than pushing yourself up. “When people think of pushing up, they tend to relax the torso,” he says. “Think of pushing the floor down to create preset stiffness.”
How to Do Your First Full Push-Up
Start at an incline.
The default practice push-up is perceived to be knee push-ups, but they don’t translate particularly well to doing a real push-up. “I find a lot more carry-over with incline push-ups than going from knee push-ups,” Tumminello says, referring to how knee push-ups reduce the distance between the body’s contact points to the ground, thus changing the motion altogether.
Find your gym’s Smith machine (or use an empty squat rack and barbell) and set the bar to a height at which you can do 20 good ones; the height doesn’t really matter, so long as you can rep out a handful of them. “You start with 12-14 good ones,” Tumminello says, “then work from there to add a rep each workout, and work your way up to 20.” Once you’ve mastered that, lower the bar to the next increment and repeat.
Practice good hand position.
Your grip on the barbell (or hand position on the ground) dictates the mechanics of the push-up, and although there’s a handful of appropriate methods, the classical form engages the pectorals without applying as much pressure to the triceps and shoulders. “The first thing you want to do is have your elbows directly over your wrist the whole time,” Tumminello says. “Have your arms make an arrow, with a 45-degree angle relative to the torso.” Come down and touch your chest to the bar.
Putting your hands closer together puts more pressure on the elbows and forces your triceps to work harder than the pectorals, which will likely be more difficult than a push-up that relies on the pectorals. A hand position wider than shoulder width might be easier, Tumminello says, but for the wrong reasons. “Most of the time, people’s arms are in a “T” position relative to the torso,” he says. “That actually makes the push-up easier, but less effective at gaining strength, because you’re hanging on your connective tissues.”
Begin your first push-ups workout.
Even while working at a steep incline, you can still get a solid push-up-based workout in with a timed set. Begin at an incline at which you can rep at least 20 push-ups, and start the timer. “Say you want to do 20 reps in as little time as you can—someone can do 12 reps, take 30 seconds rest, do six more, rest again, and finish the last two,” Tumminello says.
So, how to achieve the golden rule of progressive overload without weight? Record your performance, and try to beat it next week. “Say that took you three minutes to finish the last 20 reps,” Tumminello says. “Now let’s see if we can get it done in less time.”