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January 13, 2022 9 min read

Push ups of all kinds will generally give you a solid upper body workout. They can build major shoulder and chest strength. They also target the shoulders and triceps and work your core, back, and legs.

This article will show you how to do push ups with the proper form and get all of the best benefits out of the exercise.

Finding Your Form

Proper form is more important than speed, so always move slowly and in a controlled way. Make your exercises meditative, and focus on your breathing: breathe in when you are lowering and breathe out when you are pushing back up. 

Good push up form starts with a rigid plank.

Your arms should be fully extended, with your hands, elbows, and shoulders all in line, and your feet should be no more than 12 inches apart.

The closer your feet and hands are together, the more difficult the push up, because it requires more core activation for stability. Throughout the movement, your spine should be neutral, so that your body forms a straight line from your feet to the crown of your head. Always engage your core and thighs to keep your hips flat and level. You can bend your elbows out to the side in a T formation, which works your pecs, or keep them near your rib cage to work your triceps. Always point your elbows back in the triceps variation.

To protect your shoulders, lower your chest just past the level of your bent elbow so that your upper arms are parallel to the floor. If you go any further down, you’ll put too much stress on the anterior capsule of your shoulder.

Push ups can be a good way to warm up, and they can be mixed into workouts for general conditioning.

There are all kinds of ways to modify them for your own specific needs. Push ups will work your chest, anterior deltoids, and triceps, but you'll also get some solid core engagement and you'll work your legs and hips a little, too.

They are a compound exercise that require no equipment.

You only need your body and gravity, which means you can do them anywhere. Different variations of push ups will give you different outcomes, too. Depending on the style of push up you do, you can develop power, strength, or muscular endurance. If you do lots of reps of an easier push up, you’ll develop better endurance.

If you do more challenging push ups, you’ll develop more strength. 

With each variation, watch out for common form mistakes that can sabotage your efforts. Letting your body sag, for example, is common. Many gymgoers will drop their chin or hips towards the ground instead of staying strong and engaged throughout each set. Always keep your elbows about 45 degrees from your midline. Your torso and arms should make more of an arrow shape than a T shape. 

You also may want to change the position of your hands from time to time during your training program to maximize your gains.

A study published in theFebruary 2016 issue of the  Journal of Physical Therapy Science found that chest muscle activity was greater when push ups were performed with the hands placed halfway inward from their normal position.

Building Your Strength

If you're just getting started with strength training and just starting to do push ups regularly, start with a simple wall version. If you stand near a wall and simply lean on it with both of your hands flat on the wall, just lower yourself to the wall and then push yourself back a few times for wall push ups.

The next common modification is doing them on your knees.

A simple modification you can make between knee push ups and standard push ups is putting a Pilates ring vertically underneath your chest, which helps support your body so you can stay in a strong plank position during your push ups.

All of this helps you build up your strength before taking the exercise to the plank position.

And before moving onto any harder variations, you have to master the form of the standard push up: your body in a straight line at the starting position, your shoulders over your wrists, and your hands shoulder-width apart at the top of the movement. All these easier exercises will start to strengthen the muscles you need to do all the push up variations we describe below.

Push Up Variation #1: Shoulder Tap Push Up

You can take regular push-ups to the next level by adding shoulder taps. This simple addition really tests your strength. You can also move on to tricep pushups. Tricep push ups specifically target the backs of your arms. Because the focus is shifted to your triceps and less on your chest, like in regular push ups, they are more challenging. These exercises will work your core and shoulders on a deeper level.

Push Up Variation #2: Pike Push Up

The pike push up is definitely not a move for beginners. For this exercise, you’ll need to pay extra attention to your form and emphasize quality over quantity to improve your upper-body strength.

Work up to 8 slow, controlled reps as you get started. Do 2 or 3 sets of 5 to 8 reps and rest for a minute between rounds about twice a week for maximum strength gain.

You can slowly start adding more reps and sets as you build strength. 

1. Start in a plank position with your hands firmly on the floor, right under your shoulders.

2. Press your toes firmly into the floor too.

3. Keep your core tight and your back flat and engage your glutes and hamstrings.

4. Lift your hips up and back until your body forms an inverted V shape.

5. Keep your arms and legs as straight as you possibly can.

6. Bend your elbows, and then lower your entire upper body toward the floor.

7. Pause there for a few seconds, then slowly push back up until your arms are straight and you are in the inverted V position.

If you are having trouble perfecting your form for this exercise, it can be helpful to break down the movement, regress, and work on the foundation. Practice doing plank exercises to build strength and stability in your core and your shoulders.

First perfect your form for a regular push up, until your shoulders become strong enough for the pike version.

When you are able to do the pike push up, you can start to build strength by increasing your  number of reps and sets to help you produce rapid muscle and strength gains.

Push Up Variation #3: Pseudo Planche Push Up

Instead of facing your fingers toward your head like in standard push-ups, pseudo planche push ups have you face your fingers toward your feet. The orientation of your fingers pointing toward your feet and sitting farther down your torso places higher demand on your shoulders and biceps, which causes them to work harder.

Push Up Variation #4: Hand-release Push Up

The hand-release push up is part of the official Army Combat Fitness Test, so there’s no doubt that it can be difficult. Instead of simply pushing yourself up and down, your chest has to go all the way down to the ground, and then you release both hands an inch off the floor and land on your palms, then push yourself up again.

Push Up Variation #5: TRX Push Up

TRX push ups work your upper and lower body at the same time. If you can find a TRX suspension trainer, first stand with your knuckles in line with your shoulders, then slowly bend your arms into a push up position. Then straighten them to bring your body back up. You can increase the degree of difficulty even more by doing this type of push up at an angle (also known as a decline push up or an incline push up).

Push Up Variation #6: Blast-off Push Up

Blast-off push ups call for you to shoot your lower body back into a crouching and hovering plank-like position between each of your push ups, and because of the extra coordination and strength this push up variation requires, it will only take a few reps before your entire body starts feeling the burn.

Push Up Variation #7: Dive Bomber Push Up

Dive bomber push ups offer a full-body challenge that involves more than your core, arms, chest, and back.

They are a combination of push ups and yoga sun salutations.

Dive bomber push ups are much harder than traditional push ups because there is more pushing with the shoulder versus pushing with the chest. You will also feel more hamstring and lower back stretch activation when you do dive bomber push ups.

Push Up Variation #8: Pylo-fly Push Up

When you are doing a pylometric push up, you start with a tricep (or chaturanga) push up (either on the floor or on a riser), then jump your hands outward to the floor on either side of the riser to do a standard push up. Then, you finish by jumping your hands back up to the riser and starting again with the tricep push up. 

Push Up Variation #9: Spiderman Push Up

Spiderman push ups are a good bridge exercise if you are trying to build up enough strength to do one-arm push ups. They require you to engage the muscles of your core more than regular push ups, because one foot is off the ground while you perform each repetition.

These push ups also require a greater degree of upper body strength.

This is because with each repetition, most of your body weight shifts to the side of your body with your leg on the ground and your arm stretched forward. You can also hold yourself up a few feet above the ground while resting your feet on an elevated base. Then, you can complete a series of knee tucks and Spiderman push ups. 

Push Up Variation #10: One-arm Push Up

The final push up variation is the one-arm push up (or single arm push up), which is self-explanatory after you have done all the other variations. You will need to use all your upper-body strength to perform this difficult exercise with one arm behind your back. Basically, this is the ultimate push up, and if you reach this point, you have really developed all of the muscles you need to do this type of upper body workout on a regular basis.

Some General Advice

You can reduce the amount of pain you feel in all of these full body exercises by stretching as much as possible with light dumbbells or resistance bands before you start. Always do a proper warm up before and after strength training to reduce the risk of injury. Never try to do too much at the beginning. It is awful to get a bad injury right as you are starting out.

It is extremely important to have enough general mobility before you attempt any kinds of new exercises like these. You never want to start doing any exercises that are beyond the range of motion of the muscles you are trying to train. Using a medicine ball as you do a few twists is a good way to warm up your obliques.

Always include a sensible overall nutrition plan and a lot of rest in your overall workout program. Your bodybuilding results will often depend on these few factors, and also on how well you can recover after working out.

Building Muscle Mass

As for actual muscle mass, you will find that other exercises like dips can help you quickly strengthen your triceps and pecs together by using 100 percent of your body weight, which is  far more than what you would ever lift during a session of push ups. Even though they generally require you to lift more weight, some beginners find dips easier than even regular push ups.

To achieve maximum chest strength, you may even decide to do one low-rep, strength-focused session and then one higher rep,  hypertrophy-focused workout that often includes squats or deadlifts.

To avoid lower back pain, your muscles will generally need a long time to recover properly. This can be at least 48 hours and up to 72 hours.

If you mostly work out for general health and core strength, then just do a small set of push ups once or twice a week. It is quite common to pair your chest with your triceps and the other muscles of your upper arms because those muscles all work together. You might also decide to train your entire upper body on one day (chest day) and then your lower body (leg day) on another day.

A lot of weightlifters vary in terms of the types of exercises they prefer to build their muscles. Some lifters who already have strong upper back strength prefer chest day, and some lifters who already have strong lower body strength prefer leg day. Finding a good balance between each of the days is the key here.

Supplements for a Better Workout

Push ups are good ways to build a bigger chest, and they can also be used to build bigger shoulders, forearms, biceps, and triceps. Bodyweight exercises such as push ups can often lead to a high level of overall hypertrophy, which is something that can directly build all of your major muscles, not just the ones you are training at the time. 

To add more muscle mass quickly, the  Beach Bod Stack. is exactly what you're looking for. It will optimize your body's resources to pack on lean muscle mass while you increase your strength.