How To Do Better Push-Ups

In today’s fitness landscape, Olympic and power lifting have become so commonplace that it’s easy for us to forget about just how amazing the basics can be when we do them right.  Bodyweight movements build volume, prevent injury and allow us to build unflappable movement patterns.  Above all, the person that has the most control and strength over their body weight movements will likely be among the alpha physical male and females in the room.

For all of you “I only care about the barbell” jokers out there, here’s a fun fact.

A proper pushup will require you to move approximately 64% of your bodyweight. Consider that a deadlift at 2x bodyweight for a 175 pound male is 350 pounds.  One might perform 25 reps of that in a given deadlift strength workout, resulting in 8,750 pounds moved during that time frame. Take that same 175# male who performs 80 flawless pushups in a workout. At 64% of his bodyweight, that’s 8,960 pounds.

Here’s another fun fact.

In an electromyography (EMG) test that pitted the band-resisted pushup against the bench press to see which movement experienced the higher intensity of muscle contraction, the pushup and the bench press came out as dead even over the course of six reps? Ever wondered why we don’t bench as often as the other barbell lifts? Because the push-up is not just some useless progression on your way to {insert lift here}. As the study concludes, “It’s on par with category leaders if performed correctly.”

Let me ask you to perform a quick test. I’d like you to drop down right now and max out your unbroken reps, no resting.

Did you get more than 40 reps as a male or 25 as a woman? If so, one of two things are true.

  1. You are very strong. Congratulations. You can stop reading.
  2. You did them wrong.

Also, it’s number two.

4 Keys to Perfect Reps

Imagine trying to perform a proper deadlift with a flagrantly incorrect set-up. The push-up is no different.

Create Tension
For starters, pull your feet and knees together so you can maintain tension. Part of the pushup benefit is in the work on the trunk/core musculature, and even the quadriceps which are working isometrically. Without tension, the work on these muscles becomes lost. Tension starts in your feet and moves its way up the chain, so bring your toes together, lock your knees, squeeze your glutes together and keep everything tight and tense until that set is finished.


“Kiss the Ground” to Maintain Tension
Believe it or not, where you position your head has everything to do with how your hips will behave in a pushup.  The very top part of your spine is the cervical area (C-Spine) and is very sensitive to hyperextension (looking up when you shouldn’t). When you are in the pushup position, it is impossible to look up without your hips sagging downward.  When your hips sag, you break that important tension and basically remove any work on your trunk/core. You also immediately shorten your range of motion and look like one of those people having bad sex with the floor versus performing a pushup. Instead, focus on kissing the floor. We won’t judge you if you actually do it, just no tongue.

No Flaring Elbows
Elbows are usually flailing all over the place on bad push-ups and the result can be very detrimental. Number one, it can be bad for the shoulder. Number two, when your elbows flare out at 90 degrees you greatly reduce the involvement and targeting of the shoulders and chest and basically just make it an average triceps exercise. Your working joints (wrist, elbow, shoulder) should essentially all just be stacked on top of one another throughout all parts of the rep. This means that your elbows should stay at about 20 – 40 degrees off your body the entire time, and your starting position from your hands should be thumbs directly underneath your shoulders.


Everything Arrives at Once
Your head, chest, hips and legs should all be reaching the floor together and then returning to the starting position at the exact same time, essentially just making this exercise a “moving plank”. The flip side of this would be sagging hips that hit first do to looking up the whole time.  Pretend your body is connected by a string from your ankles to your ears and that you must keep that string linear throughout the entire set.

Voila, you just did a perfect rep and is much better to perform just a handful of those than a bunch of sloppy, prideful based reps when you could easily modify and get greater results. This is a perfect segue to…

When to Modify

“But wait, is there a fifth key” you ask? – Phil Dunphy

Why yes! Yes there is.

None of the above matters if you don’t possess the requisite strength to hold and move through those positions to full range of motion. Here is how we want our push-ups to look.

So key number five — being strong.

Great push-ups don’t happen overnight, and if you find yourself struggling to connect five as a woman or ten as male with reps looking like Coach Lenny, it’s quite okay. The key is not to force yourself into movements that don’t serve you. Here are some excellent ways that you can modify and work your way up to full, unassisted push-ups.

The Supported Push-Up
A favorite in Coach Ashley’s classes, this option is excellent because it takes you off of your knees and teaches your body to gradually move its entire weight. This is like getting a spot on a bench press.

The Elevated Push-Up
Like the supported push-up, this version takes you off of your knees and moves a higher percentage of your body weight.

Hopefully this article helped bring some awareness to the push-up’s value, your technique, and ways you can immediately start to improve them with your Coach in class. Go forth and push!