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June 12, 2020 9 min read

The pushup is the first thing you think of when you think of working out, right? It’s the most commonly thought of exercise and one of the most famous. If someone says their arms are feeling weak, they’ll probably say, “Man, I need to do more pushups!” 

But even though the pushup is so famous and popular, so many people think they’re overrated and would toss them aside for some other fancy and impressive move. But the fact is, when the perfect pushup is done with the exact and proper form, it has incredible benefits. These benefits are not just in the upper body (chest, shoulders, and triceps) but for a whole body workout. 

Besides the upper body, the pushup works your core, glutes, and lower back. For beginners and professional athletes alike, the pushup is the perfect go-to bodyweight exercise. It makes a great pre-workout warm-up since it gets all your main muscle groups loosened, active, and ready to go. If you’re a beginner, it’s a great workout to get you primed for heavier lifting. 

Why It’s So Important to Use Proper Form in Your Pushup

If you don’t do the pushup the right way, some of your muscles are going to get overlooked and not get any strength building at all. For example, if you do fifty pushups with your butt sticking up in the air or your back sloping downward, you’re not going to activate your core or glutes. At the same time, your arms won’t get the areas targeted that they need, and you’ll be depriving your body of all the goodness it should be getting. 

It’s so important to do all exercises with proper form when you’re working out. So important, in fact, that it’s better to just do five reps and then quit than to do 15 reps the wrong way. With the pushup, you likely won’t get injured if you do it wrong. You’ll just lose some much-needed benefits. But with other exercises, you are very likely putting your body in grave danger when you don’t do the workouts properly. 

Are we exaggerating or being dramatic when we say ‘grave danger?’ Not at all. Pulling a muscle, putting wear on a tendon where it should be protected, and overstraining your body are all actions that lead to minor injuries. But once you’ve got one small injury, that muscle or tendon or bone becomes much more vulnerable. So you’re actually putting your body at a disadvantage by setting yourself for future injuries and future limits on how far you can take your body. 

Besides the risk of injury, there is also the risk of lack of efficiency in your workouts. When you’ve got a career, a family, and whatever else going on in your life, you need to optimize the time you have to build muscle as much as you possibly can. If you’re serious about burning fat and calories and building strength, you have to tell your body that through your actions. 

That means not just in practicing regular workouts but giving it all you’ve got in each training session. Some people take this advice to mean spending three hours every day in the gym. That is not the case! A proper workout can be done in one hour or less if you’re making it count. What does it mean to make the most of your workout? Well, think about your goals. 

Some people run for three hours and do nothing else. Unless you’re training for a marathon, that’s not going to help you reach the goals you’re looking for. While cardio exercises can certainly build up your stamina, and even work your legs and core (depending on how many hills you run up or how much resistance you’re encountering), they’re not going to get you toned and chiseled. 

Cardio mostly burns calories and makes you hungry, forcing you to eat more every day. In fact, strength building will actually increase your efficiency for running in the long run. 

A woman doing a push up.

How to Optimize Your Workout For the Best Results

As with other goals in your life (physical or mental), the best way to get results is by having a clear goal in mind. Here are the questions to consider to decide your physical priorities:

  • Do I want to lose flabby fat in my “problem areas” to look more trimmed?
  • Do I want to get seriously ripped for an impressive and irresistible body?
  • Do I want to become a professional athlete or a bodybuilder?

Once you can answer this question you’ll be able to plan your workouts accordingly. After you decide your goal, budget your time. For the best results, you should workout 5 times a week with 2 rest days. That can mean you work out every weekday with a weekend for rest. However, many people say the weekend is where they let themselves slip the worst. They get in relaxation mode and throw their diets and activity into the wind. 

If you can, pick two days in the week as your rest days, and work out the other 5, including the weekend. Just remember not to be a total couch potato on your rest days. Those days should still include a good walk that includes some hills, and maybe even some pushups. Pushups don’t have to be done in the gym, they can be done anywhere. Just doing a few in the morning or afternoon can keep your body rearing to go for the upcoming workdays. 

How to Get Your Body in the Starting Position for a Pushup

Now it’s time for the meat of this article: how to do the pushup the right way. Of course, it’s crucial to have backup information about your anatomy, setting clear goals, and knowing how you’ll make them happen. But once you’re all prepped and ready to go, you’ll start feeling the burn in your strength training. 

The best way to start the pushup position is in the plank position. Basically, this means you’ll be starting fully up in the air. Your hands should be placed directly underneath your shoulders. Here are some don’ts to help you get an idea of the dos. 

  • Don’t spread your arms way out past your body. It’s tempting to do and many beginners do it, especially when they’re just starting out and don’t have the strength to do as many pushups as they’d like. When you spread your arms, you spread the bodyweight out further, making the key muscles work less. That’s when you deprive your body of the results it deserves. 
  • Don’t spread your legs too far apart. Keep your feet closer together as you can. Spreading them out beyond shoulder-width has the same effect as spreading your arms. 
  • Don’t stick your butt up in the air. When you arch your butt, you end up straining your shoulders and taking pressure off your core and triceps. This not only deprives your muscle groups of the use and stamina they need to build but actually puts your shoulders in a position they shouldn’t be. That’s just asking for injury!
  • Don’t dip your back. Keep your body in a straight line. When your back is sagging, you take all the weight off your lower back and core and put all the strain on your shoulders. Even though it’s the opposite of arching your buttocks, it basically has the same effect on the body as the prior mistake. The point of doing a pushup properly is to evenly distribute the weight across your body. That’s why you get a full-body workout with this move. 
  • Whatever you do, don’t look down. You may think this instruction should be aimed at climbers or tight rope walkers, but it also applies to the pushup. In fact, it applies to most workout moves. When you look down at the ground while doing an exercise, you put a strain on your neck. Also, your body follows your head. If you look down, your body is more likely to dip down. If you’re looking straight ahead, your body will usually stay straight and keep you going in the right direction. There could be a moral here for all life issues, right?

Things to Keep in Mind While Performing the Pushup

There’s so much more to a pushup than just it’s starting pushup! Now you have to focus on how to go into the peak of the move successfully. For this one, we’ll share with you a list of dos. 

Do: Bend your elbows at a 45-degree angle. 

This will help you know how low you should go. If it’s too complicated to think about what degree your elbow is at while you’re straining and sweating, there’s another way to think about it. Just go down until your nose and chest almost touch the ground but not quite. If your body touches the ground, you’ve definitely gone to far. 

But keep in mind that the further down you go, the more muscle you build. Another common mistake beginners make is to only go down halfway. This makes the pushups much faster so you can quickly pump them out and do more in one set. But the disadvantages outweigh the advantages of that tactic. 

When you don’t go down far enough, you end up lacking the muscle depth that is involved with going deep into the pushup. When you go through the full move of the pushup, you allow your muscles to burn through the pain, giving them higher resistance, stamina, and even working areas of the muscles that might not be reached with the half-move. 

Do: Engage your core and glutes. 

Some people have issues following the right form for the pushup because they’re doing pushups at home and don’t have access to a good mirror to see their form and adjust if necessary. Of course, you can always take a video and examine it later, but it’s more helpful to feel the right and wrong you’re doing so you can adjust it right in the moment. 

One way to know if the pushup is right without looking in the mirror is to pay attention to the way your body feels. Even though building muscle is about your brain telling your body you can keep going further, it’s also about a healthy communication between the brain and body. You need to pay attention to the feel of the pushup. Try to feel which areas are straining and working. 

Can you feel the move in your glutes and core? Or is it just in your arms or back? Pay careful attention to which areas are getting in on the action, especially in the beginning. As you learn to tune in to your muscles and muscle groups, you’ll learn to feel when the pushup is in proper form and when you’re making a mistake. 

As you get more accustomed to listening to and feeling your body, you can also start to feel when you’re blasting through fat and when you’re straining unwanted areas. If you feel tightness and unwillingness to give, that’s a sure sign of strain. If you feel a deep burn that slowly creeps through one of the muscle groups we’ve mentioned in this article, that’s a sure sign your muscles are growing and strengthening. 

Another helpful way to engage your core and glutes is by squeezing them as you complete the move. This will actually activate them even more than just letting them hold their natural position. This is a great technique for any workout move you’ll be doing. Think about which muscles you’re trying to target in the exercise, then squeeze them when you reach the height of the exercise (the hardest part). 

Do: Keep your elbows close to your body. 

Don’t let your elbows fly outside your body when you’re going down or pushing up. You need your elbows for stability. You also need to have total control of your body while you’re working out. So think about keeping your elbows tight against your body. Not so tight that they’re touching your sides, but tight enough that they’re staying straight and strong as you’re completing the move. 

A man doing a push up outside. 

How to do a Variation of If You’re Not Strong Enough for a Full Pushup

Don’t worry! Many people are in the same boat. You can do a knee-pushup when you’re not strong enough for a regular pushup. Just make sure to maintain the proper form. If you let yourself stray from the good form, you’ll set yourself up for bad habits and problems later on. The only difference between the standard pushup and the modified pushup (or knee pushup) is to steady your body with your knees touching the floor. This helps break the body weight in half so that you’ve got an extra stabilizer. 

Other Advanced Variations of the Pushup

When you experiment with other variations of the pushup, whether it’s for the sake of working your muscles in a more rounded and thorough way, or whether it’s for the sake of impressing someone with a cool party trick, just always keep using the proper form. If you do that, you can’t go wrong. Here are a couple of famous and fun pushup variations. Don’t forget that you can also do other bodyweight exercises, like the pullup

Diamond Pushup: This is where you put your hands together in front of you (rather than under your shoulders).  Your palms should be flat on the floor with your thumbs and forefingers shaped like an ‘L.’ Point the tips of your fingers slightly toward each other so that your thumbs touch horizontally and your forefingers barely touch. 

Wall Pushup: You’ll be in an upside-down position, with your feet up high against the wall and your hands touching the ground in front of the wall. This is the most extreme version because all your weight is going to be on your arms and chest. As long as you keep proper form, you shouldn’t have any trouble with unwanted shoulder strain. 

Getting the Full Effects and Best Results

The best way to increase your pushup reps is to keep going further every day. Whether you can increase by one pushup every day or five pushups every day doesn’t matter. You should also incorporate the pushup with other full-body workouts that include some weights. 

The most important is just to keep doing them every day and to keep doing more every day. And above all, have fun with it! Engage in competitions with your friends, keep a workout journal, or try those other pushup variations.