How many push-ups can you do? Even if you can only do a few with good form, you can increase the number over time through consistent training. The ability to do push-ups is a general measure of overall fitness, although being able to do lots of them is a measure of muscle endurance. The push-up works so many muscles that you can’t afford not to have it in your routine. Even the military uses push-ups as a measure of combat readiness! No equipment needed. Just drop to the ground and whip out a set.
Why is the push-up so iconic? Few upper body exercises work so many muscle groups at the same time with no equipment. Plus, you can progress your training by working up to harder push-up variations to help your shoulders, arms, and chest get stronger and more defined. But it’s still possible to butcher a push-up because not everyone uses good form when they do this bodyweight movement. If you do a push-up with bad form, you won’t get the full fitness benefits that this exercise offers.
Are you ready to improve your push-up form? Here are some tips to take your push-ups up a notch and get more strength and endurance gains too.
Work on Core Strength
One of the most common mistakes people make when they do a push-up is that they let their hips and lower back sag when they get into a push-up position. Do this enough and you could end up with a bad case of lower back pain. Plus, sagging hips place more stress on your shoulders and can lead to a shoulder injury.
How can you correct saggy hips? Strengthen the muscles in your core. When you have weak core muscles, it’s harder to hold your back in a straight line when you’re in a push-up position. You need strong rectus abdominis and oblique muscles to hold your body in a straight line from head to toe. One of the best ways to remedy the problem is to build core strength and endurance with plank exercises. Planks are the best isometric movement for getting a core of steel and they simulate the position you assume when you do a push-up.
Don’t Cheat on Range-of-Motion
Too often, people think they’re doing a push-up when they aren’t taking the exercise through its full range-of-motion. If that’s the case, you’re not getting the full benefits of the exercise. One reason people have a problem doing full push-ups is they’ve gotten into the habit of doing partial push-ups. Sloppy form and incomplete range-of-motion become a habit that’s hard to break. Plus, for some people, there’s an ego factor. It feels good to say you did 30 push-ups, even if those push-ups only went halfway to the floor. Shoulder stability can also be a problem for some people who can’t go all the way down. As you get toward the bottom of the movement, the stress on the shoulders increases and the exercise becomes harder or uncomfortable.
If you lack the strength to do a full push-up, place your hands on a raised platform. The platform will make it easier to do the exercise and you can retrain yourself to do the movement using a complete range-of-motion. Never be afraid to master the easier version first. It’ll help you avoid bad habits.
Strengthen Your Quads
If you have trouble holding your knees out straight behind you when you do a push-up, weak quads may be the problem. If that’s the case, shift some of your workout time toward strengthening the muscles in your anterior thighs. Focus more on front squats and Bulgarian splits squats, movements that emphasize the quads. If you use dumbbells to squat, challenge your quads differently by using a barbell. Sprinting is another way to build quad strength and power while getting your heart rate up at the same time.
Get Back to Basics
Ask someone knowledgeable to critique your form when you do push-ups. If your hips sag and you’re not going all the way down, do an easier version until you’ve mastered the proper form. Elevate your arms on a platform to make the movement easier and focus on keeping your body straight and doing a full range-of-motion. Also, placing your hands wider than shoulder-width on the floor is easier than using a narrow hand position.
Likewise, don’t get stuck in a rut. Once you’ve mastered a standard push-up, do a harder variation. Switch to a narrow grip or try the challenging triangle version. Place your feet on a platform, do a push-up with a hip extension, or build explosive power in your upper body with clap push-ups. The key to making continued gains is to challenge your body more over time.
Focus on Quality First
It’s more effective to do ten push-ups with perfect form than to do 20 sloppy push-ups with sagging hips and partial range-of-motion. Stop focusing on doing more of them and concentrate on doing them better! Real results come from engaging the muscles you work. That applies to all exercises! Proper form and technique is the key to getting results and avoiding injury. Focus on every repetition you do until it becomes second nature.
The Bottom Line
Push-ups are a “do anywhere” exercise that works multiple muscle groups, but you’ll get more out of them if you do them with good form and choose a variation appropriate for your level of strength and training. No one starts out doing 30 narrow grip push-ups. However, with time you can work your way up to a stronger, fitter upper body and increase the number of push-ups you do with good form. But don’t overdo it! The way you place your hands when doing a push-up places a lot of strain on your wrists. To reduce wrist strain, use handles or place two dumbbells on the floor and hold on to them when you do a push-up. Enjoy the many fitness benefits that push-ups offer!
- J Strength Cond Res 19: 628-633, 2005.
- J Strength Cond Res. 2011 Oct;25(10):2891-4. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e31820c8587.