Perfecting Your Push-Up

Perfecting Your Push-Up

Push-ups are a simple and effective exercise most can relate to. They provide a foundation for advanced pressing movements (handstand push-ups, planche push-ups, 90 degree push-ups) and are a great way to develop arm, chest and shoulder muscles in a functional manner.

There are a myriad of push-up variations, such as wide arm, diamond, archer, and pseudo planche push-ups. This article will focus predominantly on the basic push-up.

What is working in a push-up?
A push-up primarily works the muscles in your chest, shoulders, and arms. Push-ups can be a great way to strengthen and develop these muscles.

Different push-up variations will vary how hard each of these muscles work. For example,a narrow hand placement will result in significantly greater tricep activation than a wide base hand placement. (1)

Some say the push-up is a “whole body exercise” and although this is technically correct, it is somewhat misleading. To maintain good alignment, your abdominals and gluteal muscles are contracting, and your quads are also contracting to keep your legs straight. Push-ups can be a great way to teach somebody to activate these muscles and improve neuromuscular control,but just because these muscles are contracting doesn’t mean push-ups are a smart choice to grow or develop these muscles, especially for experienced athletes. For muscles to get stronger or grow, there needs to be sufficient intensity. Although the quads and gluteal muscles are contracting in a push-up, these muscles are not faced with enough resistance and therefore not contracting hard enough to develop significant strength or size.

An analogy is to consider drinking a glass of water as an exercise. The biceps and anterior deltoid muscles are contracting as you bring the glass to your mouth. Although these muscles are working, even if you did this action hundreds of times a day, your arms probably wouldn’t get any bigger or stronger. As a glass of water doesn’t provide much intensity for the average person, performing the bicep curl exercise with a heavier weight is a smarter exercise choice. In summary, although the push-up can technically be called a “full body exercise” it is primarily a strengthening exercise for the chest, arms, and shoulders.

Correct form / alignment
For all exercises, there is a technique that will optimize the results you are after. Maintaining correct technique throughout a push-up can greatly increase the difficulty and effectiveness of the exercise. As mentioned previously, there are many push-up variations. This guide will focus on the basic elbows-in push-up. For almost all other variations, the body shape should remain the same and it is simply the position of the upper limbs that changes.

Let’s start at the hands and work our way down the body.

Hand position
Hands should be positioned shoulder-width apart with fingers facing forwards. For those with wrist issues, the position of the hands can be modified for comfort by angling the fingers out or using parallettes to maintain a neutral wrist position. Slightly narrower or wider hand placements can also be adopted, but it should be acknowledged that these will in turn place increased stress on the ulnar (little finger) and radial (thumb) sides of the wrist respectively.

Elbow position
The elbow joint should be positioned directly over the wrists for the basic push-up variations. Elbow creases should be facing forward for the elbows-in technique, to maintain the elbows by your sides throughout the motion.

Shoulder position

When you start, the arms should be parallel and vertical. The shoulders should be positioned above the wrists and elbows.

Shoulder blade (scapula) position
A common mistake with the push-up is not performing the exercise through a full range of movement. To ensure this, at the top of the push-up the shoulder blades should be protracted (rounded) by pushing the chest as far from the floor as possible. Toward the bottom of the push-up, the shoulders should retract (drawing the shoulder blades together) so the chest, and chin/nose touch (but do not rest on) the floor, or stop JUST short of this. By protracting and retracting at each end of the push-up, the practitioner ensures they have performed the exercise through the full range of movement.

Head position
The head should be in a neutral position. This means it should be in the same position relative to the body as when standing up with good posture, looking straight ahead. As gravity wants to pull the head down, the upper cervical (neck) flexor muscles and lower cervical extensor muscles must contract to maintain this head and neck position when the body is horizontal. A cue commonly used to help people maintain this position is “try to tuck your chin in”.

Torso position
The body should form a straight line (or as close as possible to this) from the head down to the heels. There should be no arch in the back. When relating to the torso, gymnasts refer to this as the “hollow body” shape. Your muscles will have to fight against gravity to prevent your body from sagging toward the ground. To eliminate the arch in the lower back, the pelvis should be tilted posteriorly by engaging the rectus abdominis (6-pack muscles) and gluteal muscles. Performing push-ups in a hollow body shape has a strong crossover effect and will improve your technique for many other bodyweight skills.

Lower limb position
The knees should be completely straight with the feet together. The choice of whether to have the toes under or toes pointed (see photos) is up to the practitioner’s preference.

Throughout the movement
Throughout the push-up, the hollow body position should be maintained. Errors such as letting the hips sag are common during the concentric or “up” phase of the push-up. Emphasis should be placed on maintaining body tension or “keeping tight” during the push-up movement. This will transfer to more advanced bodyweight strength movements such as levers and handstand push-ups as you progress.

Choose a level of difficulty that allows you to maintain good technique. In the traditional push-up the hands support roughly 69% of your bodyweight in the up position, and 75% in the down position. (2) The difficulty of a push-up can be increased by adding resistance, such as weight or a resistance band and decreased by placing the body in a more mechanically advantageous position. By performing a push-up on your knees rather than your feet, you will reduce the amount of bodyweight your upper limbs support to 54% and 62% in the up and down positions, respectively. (2) Another way to reduce the difficulty is to elevate your arms on objects. For example, performing the push-up against a wall is easy, on a bench is more challenging, and on the floor even more challenging.

Choose a speed of movement that allows you to maintain correct technique throughout the entire movement. Performing exercises too quickly can result in technical compromise. 1 second up and 2 seconds down is usually adequate. To maximize explosive power the up phase should be performed as quickly as possible but the down phase should still be controlled.

Elbows in or elbows out?

Neither of these is inherently better or technically right or wrong. Both are acceptable, safe,and effective choices when performed correctly.

Many fitness enthusiasts and bodybuilders use the elbows-out variation. It is a great way to develop the pectoral muscles, and when done with resistance yields similar strength gains to the bench press. (3)

Gymnasts and calisthenics athletes predominantly use the elbows-in variation as it has more functional application to bodyweight skills (for example, the handstand push-up).

Those wanting to better their bodyweight strength skills should primarily focus on the elbows-in variation, but there is no reason why you can’t use both.

(1) Cogley RM, Archambault TA, Fibeger JF, Koverman MM, Youdas JW, Hollman JH.Comparison of muscle activation using various hand positions during the push-up exercise. J Strength Cond Res. 2005 Aug;19(3):628-33.

(2) SuprakDN, Dawes J, Stephenson MD. The effect of position on the percentage of body mass supported during traditional and modified push-up variants.J Strength Cond Res. 2011 Feb;25(2):497-503.

(3) Calatayud J, Borreani S, Colado JC, Martin F, Tella V, Andersen LL. Bench Press and Push-up at Comparable Levels of Muscle Activity Results in Similar Strength Gains. J Strength Cond Res. 2015 Jan;29(1):246-53.

  • Xarhel
    Posted at 11:22h, 02 December

    Thanks for this Simon, It is an helpful and very well detailed article. 🙂

  • Jo Payne
    Posted at 14:58h, 29 August

    Thank you for the detailed explanation of the push-up. Just found your site and videos, I’m in awe! I’m over 50 but would love to have better upper body strength. Keep sharing!