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Simple, strenuous and possible to do almost anywhere, push-ups are an almost universally known exercise and a mainstay of military, sport and fitness training regimens. Push-ups are a “basic, foundational movement,” said James Whitener III, a strength and conditioning coach at Bethune-Cookman University in Florida.
Because it requires a cognizance of the body’s position from head to toe, the exercise helps to develop something called kinesthetic awareness — an understanding of how one’s body moves through space. This awareness, in turn, can help exercisers develop a sense of their body’s ability and prepare them for “bigger, more complex movements,” like dead lifts or squats, he said.
But getting the most out of push-ups requires good technique. Here’s what you need to know.
What makes push-ups great
Push-ups hone your chest, shoulders and arms — particularly the deltoid, triceps and pectoral muscles — but they’re really a full body movement. “We think of it as an upper body exercise, but it’s also working the core muscles and building coordination as well,” Mr. Whitener said. Holding your body in a rigid plank position while executing a push-up activates your core muscles and can even require some work from your legs too.
“They’re very versatile, because they just target so many things at once,” said Tessia De Mattos, a physical therapist and strength, conditioning and performance rehabilitation coach at The Strength Athlete.
How to do a push-up
To start, get into a classic plank position with your palms on the ground, arms slightly wider than shoulder-width apart and your palms about even with your shoulders. Mastering regular planks is important, Dr. De Mattos said, because “if you can’t do a full plank with proper form, you’re going to have difficulty performing a full push-up.”
To ensure that you’re using good form, try filming yourself with a smartphone, advised Hampton Liu, a personal trainer, fitness influencer and founder of Hybrid Calisthenics. “You don’t have to show anyone your video! You can even delete it immediately afterward. It’s just for you.”
Two common mistakes, Dr. De Mattos said, are letting your belly sag or arching your lower back rather than keeping it aligned with the rest of your body.
How many repetitions you should do depends on your current ability and your objectives. For the average person who is trying to get healthier, fitter and stronger, the best approach is to aim for momentary failure — the point of fatigue where you can’t complete another rep with good form — rather than a specific number of repetitions, said Patroklos Androulakis-Korakakis, a researcher at Solent University in England and strength coach at StrongerByScience.com.
“By reaching momentary failure, or at least getting very close to it, people can ensure that they’re getting a sufficient enough stimulus for strength and hypertrophy adaptations,” he said.
If you can’t do more than a handful of repetitions before reaching this point, you can try some of the easier variations below. As you progress, you can switch back to standard push-ups and then move on to more difficult variations to increase the difficulty as you get stronger, Dr. Androulakis-Korakakis said.
To make the push-up easier …
“There’s no reason to be ashamed if you can’t do a push-up. Fitness is a journey and we all start somewhere,” Mr. Liu said in a video about push-ups. If you can’t yet do a push-up, “you can build up,” he added.
If you’re just starting out, Mr. Liu suggested trying wall push-ups. Stand facing a wall at arm’s length, and place your hands about shoulder-width apart against it. Lean in until your face almost touches the wall, then push back to your starting position. Do as many reps as you can, and when this gets easy, you can progress to a kneeling push-up.
If you can’t quite do a standard push-up yet, you can give yourself a bit of a boost by initiating the movement from a kneeling position, which reduces the amount of load you’re putting on your arms, shoulders and chest, Dr. De Mattos said.
To make the push-up harder …
As you become more proficient at doing push-ups, you’ll need to do more of them to reach the point of momentary failure. Performing exercises to this point can maximize motor unit and muscle fiber recruitment, Dr. Androulakis-Korakakis said, which in turn will stimulate adaptations and make you stronger. “Reaching momentary failure is a great way to ensure people are getting the most out of each set.” Here are some ways to get you there.
Raised leg push-up
Once you become adept at standard push-ups, you can increase the difficulty by starting the push-up movement with your feet elevated above you, Mr. Liu said. Starting with a few books on the ground underneath your feet should provide some noticeable difference, he said. From there, you can try a short stool (maybe a foot off the ground) and then work up to a chair or even a railing.
Narrow (or diamond) push-up
These are a more difficult push-up variation that you do by holding your hands together with your thumbs and forefingers touching in a way that creates a diamond-shaped hole where your hands come together. You can work your way up to these by simply moving your hands a little closer together until that becomes easy, then moving them closer and closer until eventually they finally touch, Mr. Liu said.
When you can do sets of 10 push-ups easily, you can turn up the difficulty by placing a small weight plate on your back to increase the weight you’re pushing. If you’re doing these at home and don’t have weights, you can throw a few heavy books in a backpack and use that as a weight, Dr. De Mattos said. The extra weight shouldn’t be so much that you can’t do more than a couple, but should be enough to get you to the point of momentary failure in about ten reps or less.
One armed push-up
These require excellent core strength to keep your body in position as you push up with a single arm, Mr. Liu said. “It’s a great core exercise.” The trick here is to use your legs and core to keep your body stable as you push up with a single arm. Spreading your feet further apart can help you stabilize yourself as you go.
There are lots of ways to do push-ups, Mr. Liu said. “Find one you can do, and work it.” As you get stronger you can progress to a harder version.
Christie Aschwanden is a writer based in western Colorado and the author of “Good to Go: What the Athlete in All of Us Can Learn from the Strange Science of Recovery.”