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July 26, 2022 6 min read

Performing a proper push up takes strength and stability from your entire upper body. Often people struggle doing this exercise with perfect form and range of motion and opt for progressive options.

Strength in your chest, shoulders, and arms, and stability in your core and lower back are essential for push ups, but what you may not realize is how much your breathing can play a role in this exercise.

Breathing Methods

The breathing process is more complex than just breathing in and out, but the basic idea is we breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide. 

Our body needs oxygen to function properly, and if we don’t get enough, we may experience shortness of breath, headaches, fatigue, high blood pressure, and more lactic acid build up.

Although some symptoms of too little oxygen to the bloodstream can be serious, sometimes it can be helped by practicing proper breathing techniques.

Nasal Breathing

Mouth breathing can be common especially during exercise because it can feel like we‘re getting more oxygen in. 

However, breathing through your nose may actually be more beneficial because it can allow more oxygen to get to active tissues and may not restrict the amount of oxygen you breathe in.

Nasal breathing can help you use the oxygen you inhale more effectively, and the cilia AKA small nose hairs can help filter germs, dust, and pollen.

Deep Breathing

During exercise, people may take short, shallow breaths as they try to catch their breath. This can actually limit the amount of oxygen you take in as well as increase your heart rate and blood pressure. 

Practicing breathing exercises like diaphragmatic or belly breathing can help strengthen your diaphragm to produce better breathing in general.

Valsalva Maneuver

When you’re strength training, you need both strength and stability from your primary and surrounding muscles to maintain safe and good form. Your core and your spine help provide stability to your body during exercise, but if they don‘t have stability themselves, you could be in trouble.

The valsalva maneuver involves taking a deep breath in and holding it until the repetition is complete. 

This technique helps provide intra-abdominal pressure, spine stability, trunk rigidity, and may even help you lift more weight.

How to Do a Push Up

Knowing how to breathe during exercise can be crucial for safe and successful lifts, but you first have to get the proper form down.

For beginners, it can be difficult to get just one good rep of a push up, and even advanced athletes can struggle when high volume is involved.

To get that perfect push up, follow these steps:

  • Set yourself up in a push up position. Your hands should be stacked under your shoulders, toes planted in the ground, and your body should be in a straight line like in a plank.
  • Squeeze your core and your glutes to help maintain this position.
  • Slowly start to lower your body down to the ground by bending your elbows. Your elbows should maintain a less than 90-degree angle and should be angled in towards your ribs.
  • Lower your body until your chest touches the ground.
  • Keep your core and glutes tight as you begin to press back up. Make sure to not let your hips sag during this part.
  • Press all the way up until your arms are fully extended, and you’re back to the starting position.

How to Breathe During Push Ups

This may seem like an obvious answer because we need to breathe in order to live, but when it comes to performing an exercise like the push up, breathing can help your form and even push you through that last rep right before fatigue hits.

A best practice for breathing during push ups is to breathe in when you lower and breathe out when you push up off the floor. 

This can help keep your breathing pattern consistent, help keep correct form, and provide more stability. When you inhale, make sure to breathe deeply into your belly and focus on this as you start to feel muscle fatigue.

Although you’re not lifting weights, a push up is still resistance training because you’re resisting against your own body weight. The best breathing practice for resistance training is the valsalva maneuver, and it can be effective for push ups too.

Push ups require strength from your upper body, but they also rely on your core to stay engaged in order to stay stable and keep your form. 

By increasing your intra-abdominal pressure with the valsalva maneuver, you can help your core stay engaged, and it can make it easier to push through that last, tough rep.

Safety First

It’s important to perform this maneuver properly and understand how to use it. A hernia has the potential to occur during strength training in general, but the increased pressure in your abdomen can contribute further to it.

The best way to help avoid this is to not push more than your body can handle. 

That means don‘t load the barbell with more than you‘re able to lift and choose modified push ups if needed.

Make sure you get a proper warm up before lifting and consult with a personal trainer if you‘re unsure of proper form.

Muscles Worked by Push Ups

Whether it’s your first time or hundredth time doing a push up, you’ll be able to feel your muscles working.

Multiple muscle groups are involved, and it can be a great exercise to build muscle if you get that perfect push up technique down.

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More commonly referred to as your pecs, this is the primary muscle worked by the push up.

Two parts of this muscle, the pectoralis major and pectoralis minor, are both involved during this exercise. The pectoralis major helps control the descent and the pushing up, while the pectoralis minor acts more as a muscle to help keep your chest and shoulders in position.


You may be used to doing dips to build your triceps, but the push up, and its larger cousin the bench press, uses the triceps to help stabilize the movement and helps extend your arms.

Without strong triceps, you may find the final part of any pushing exercise to be difficult, and your shoulders may be at a higher risk of an injury since this muscle helps stabilize them.

Anterior Deltoid

As just one of the three parts of the shoulder muscle, the anterior deltoid is located on the front of your shoulder.

While all three of the deltoid heads may be recruited during a push up, the anterior deltoid is targeted the most. This muscle helps keep your elbows in the proper position while also stabilizing the shoulder.


Bracing your core is an important part of the push up because it can help support your back during the movement.

Without spine stability, you can increase your risk of improper form and potential injury. The abdominals help provide this spinal support for a safe and effective push up.

Push Up Variations

Whether you’re doing a conventional push up or need a challenge or progression, making sure to breathe properly can make a huge difference in your form and stamina. Depending on your fitness level, there are different variations to support your abilities.

Knuckle Push Ups


If you need more of a challenge, doing push ups on your knuckles can require a deeper range of motion or greater shoulder activation.

How to Do Knuckle Push Ups:

  • Ball your hands into a fist and place your knuckles on the ground.
  • Stack your fists under your shoulders and plant your toes.
  • Lower your body to the ground until your chest touches it.
  • Press back up through your fist to the starting position.

Knee Push Up


Getting the full range of motion can make or break the effectiveness of a push up. If you don’t have enough strength or stability yet, try the knee push up to help progress.

How to Do Knee Push Ups:

  • Start in a tabletop position with your hands under your shoulders and knees under your hips.
  • Angle your body forward so your knees stay on the ground, but your hips aren’t in the air.
  • Lower your body to the ground, making sure to not leave your hips behind.
  • Press all the way back up to the starting position.

Don’t Forget to Breathe

Breathing is something we do every second of the day, so we don’t think about it. Although it comes naturally, being intentional with your breathing during exercises like the push up can help improve your form and reduce your risk of an injury.

Understanding proper breathing techniques can make or break a workout, and if you’re struggling to get those push ups down, try really being conscious of how you‘re breathing.

Good breathing is deeper than just inhaling and exhaling. It can help your body function at its best capacity and help you push through that final rep of push ups.