How to Do a Pushup - Variations, Modifications and Mistakes

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Step by Step: Pushups

Pushup
Ben Goldstein

Pushups are a powerful total body exercise, building strength and endurance in the chest, shoulders and arms, with the core and lower body acting as stabilizers. Pushups are a favorite go-to exercise, whether you're traveling with no equipment or want an exercise that will fire your muscle fibers, pump blood to your muscles and prepare you for the workout to come. They can be an important part of any strength training routine because they work multiple muscle groups, giving you more out of your training in less time. Even better, there are so many variations that almost anyone, from beginner to advanced exercisers, can find a version that works for them.

The Problem With Pushups

While pushups are an excellent exercise, it's easy to make mistakes and put your body at risk for injury and pain by doing them incorrectly. Pushups require a good deal of upper body strength as well as a very strong core to brace your body as you move up and down. If you're new to pushups, you may need to start with a modification to build strength and endurance and practice your form.

This step by step article explains everything you need to know about pushups: How to do them correctly, variations, modifications, alternatives and mistakes that can put added stress on your body.

In step one, we focus on traditional pushups.

Step by Step: Pushups

  1. Begin on your hands an knees, placing your hands on the floor about shoulder-width apart, palms flat.
  2. Extend the legs straight, resting on your toes. Make sure your hands are directly under the shoulders (not forward).
  3. Brace your abs and legs to stiffen the torso and keep the neck in neutral alignment so that your body is in a straight line from the top of your head to your heels.
  4. Bend the elbows, allowing them to flare naturally out to the sides, and lower your body until the nose touches the floor. Keep your torso rigid and avoid sagging in the middle or piking the hips up.
  5. Push into the floor to push yourself back to starting position, continuing to keep the torso and legs braced. Push all the way up, but don't lock the elbows at the top of the movement.
  6. Continue moving up and down in a flowing motion, avoiding pausing at the top of the movement.
  7. If you're not able to do the move without lifting the hips or sagging through the middle, try a modification and slowly work your way up to traditional pushups.

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Pushup Variations for Challenge and Intensity

Divebomber Pushups
Ben Goldstein

Adding variety to your pushups will help you engage the chest, shoulders, arms and core in different ways and add a new dimension to your training. Below are a few new ideas for how to vary your pushups:

  • Change Your Hand Position - A narrow grip pushup (hands about 2-3 inches apart) will engage more of the triceps while a wide grip pushup (hands wider than the shoulders) will emphasize the outer part of the chest.
  • Pushups on the Ball - A ball can provide extra support if you keep it positioned under the thighs or add intensity if you roll all the way out on your toes.
  • Pushups - Hands on the Ball - This advanced exercise will likely make your arms shake to keep your body in good alignment. Take extra care with this one.
  • Incline Pushups - Elevating the hands shifts your center of gravity, placing the emphasis on the lower part of the chest and reducing the percentage of body weight you're lifting.
  • Staggered Pushups - By staggering your hands, you increase the load on one arm, which adds intensity.
  • Pushups with Med Ball Rolls - Elevating one hand on a medicine ball adds intensity, and rolling the ball from hand to hand engages the abs, adding a dynamic element.
  • Divebomber Pushups - These are intense and challenging, requiring tremendous shoulder and core strength as you dip down and up for a dynamic pushup.
  • Pushups with Side Plank - This pushup involves a rotation into a side plank, emphasizing the core.
  • Resisted Pushups - Adding a resistance band will increase the tension during the both phases of the movement.
  • Pushups on the BOSU Balance Trainer - Elevating the feet on the unstable surface of the dome will challenge your strength as well as your balance and stability.
  • Moving Pushups - Try a regular pushup with one hand on a paper plate and then walk the hands to the side so that the other hand is on the plate for another pushup.
  • Med Ball Pushups - Holding onto a medicine ball will challenge your stability and engage the triceps.
  • Seesaw Pushups on the Ball - This pushup emphasizes the triceps along with the chest.
  • One-Arm Triceps Pushup - This targeted exercise challenges the triceps along with the core.

Adding Pushups to Your Workouts

If you're an intermediate or advanced exerciser, choose 1 to 3 different pushups (such as a regular pushup, a staggered pushup and a decline pushup), performing each for 1 to 3 sets of 10 to 16 reps. If you're a beginner, start with one exercise (such as modified pushups or wall pushups) and do 1 to 2 sets of 10 to 16 reps. Pushups are great at the beginning of your chest or upper body workout to warm up the muscles and get the blood pumping.

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Pushup Modifications

If you haven't done pushups before, or it's been a long time, you may want to start with a modification that will allow you to practice the movement, build strength and keep your body safe. Keep in mind that even modifications may not work for everyone. If you feel pain, skip the exercise and substitute a different version or try one of the alternatives listed below.

  • Wall Pushups - Floor pushups require you to lift a larger percentage of your body weight than wall pushups, which allow you to practice your form without straining through the torso. You can also try these on a stair rail or other raised surface to reduce the amount of body weight you're lifting.
  • Modified Incline Pushups - When you've mastered wall pushups, add intensity by trying a modified incline pushup, with the upper body elevated on a step or platform.
  • Pushups on Your Knees - Taking modified pushups to the floor adds intensity and challenge. Without the elevation, your upper body and core will have to work a little harder.
  • BOSU Pushups - If you want more more of a challenge, using a BOSU will add instability to the movement, requiring your core and stabilizer muscles to kick into high gear.

Avoiding Wrist Pain

One common problem exercisers may experience during pushups is wrist pain. If you already have problems with your wrists (such as carpal tunnel syndrome), pushups may aggravate the problem. If you find this is a problem, try these tips for avoiding wrist pain:

  • Distribute your weight evenly: During pushups, try distributing your weight evenly across your entire hand rather than on the heel of your hand.
  • Use dumbbells or pushup bars: Holding dumbbells or using pushup bars may allow you to keep your wrists straight during your pushups.
  • Use your knuckles: Another option is to do the pushups on your knuckles. Make a fist and rest your hands on your knuckles. Make sure you use a comfortable, cushioned surface and, obviously, avoid this one if it's painful.
  • Brace your core: You can also take some of the weight off your hands (and protect your lower back) by drawing the abs in and keeping your core braced and stiff throughout the movement. If you're not able to do that, move to an easier variation.

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Pushup Mistakes: Sagging in the Middle

The most common problem I see with pushups is sagging in the middle or not properly bracing the core and keeping the torso stiff throughout the movement. Pushups require a fair amount of strength in the abs and back and letting go through the middle can cause back pain and, of course, bad form.

Bracing Your Core

To practice bracing your core and make sure you have the strength to hold your torso stiff for pushups, start with a modified plank exercise. Begin on the elbows and knees, dropping the hips down so that you're in a straight line from the head to the knees. Pull the abs tight to hold your torso stiff, eyes looking naturally forward. Try to do this move in front of a mirror to make sure your hips aren't too high (i.e., as in an all-fours position).

If you can handle the modified plank while bracing the abs, do the same move on your hands instead of your elbows. Again, make sure your torso is stiff and your body is in a straight line.

If you can master that, try moving through a pushup on the knees, making sure you keep the torso stiff. If you find you're letting go at the bottom of the movement, practice your plank exercises, holding each one for 20-60 seconds at a time to build more endurance and strength. You can also go back to an easier modification until you're able to progress.

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Pushup Mistakes: Leading with the Chin or Dropping the Head

Other common pushup mistakes involve leading with the chin or dropping the head, both of which take the neck out of neutral alignment and, thus, compromise your form. It's easy to lose track of your head position when you're focusing on so many other things, particularly when you get fatigued. Your goal should be to use perfect form for every pushup. As soon as any part of your body fails, it's time to rest or move to an easier modification.

Perfect pushup form involves keeping the head in neutral alignment with the body. That means you want the top of your head to point to the opposite wall, eyes on the floor. If you can see your toes or the wall in front of you, your head is out of alignment.

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Pushup Mistakes: Locked Elbows and More

Another mistake we sometimes make during pushups is locking the elbows at the top of the movement. Most of us do this when we get tired and, desperate for a break, we lock the joints, which offers a little breather. Unfortunately, it's never a good idea to lock the joints during any exercise, since that can put too much stress on the joints and potentially cause pain and injury.

During pushups, locking the elbows may give you a brief rest, but it also takes the stress off your muscles and puts it on your elbow joints. You can avoid this by, first, keeping a very slight bend in the elbows at the top of the movement. Second, keep the pushups slow, controlled and flowing from one rep to the next. If you're too fatigued to avoid locking the elbows, take a break or try an easier modification.

Other Common Pushup Mistakes

Aside from the more common form mistakes, there are a few other things to watch out for:

  • Faulty hand position: There are a number of ways to position the hands during pushups; normal grip, wide grip, narrow grip, staggered grip, etc. One common mistake, however, is placing the hands too far forward, which may stress the shoulders. Whatever grip you choose, make sure your hands are positioned at the same level as the shoulders and chest rather than under the neck or chin.
  • Lowering halfway down: If you find a pushup difficult, one common response is to avoid going all the way down. Changing your range of motion at times can be a positive thing but, if all of your pushups involve only half of the movement, move to an easier version that allows you to go all the way down and all the way back up.
  • Rolling on the ball: When doing pushups with the lower body propped on a ball, it's easy to let the ball roll forward or back to 'help' you during your pushup. Use your core and legs to brace your body on the ball so that, as you move up and down, the ball doesn't move.
  • All of the above: When fatigue is high, you may find your body failing in multiple areas -- sagging torso, dropped head, locking elbows and stopping the movement halfway down. Remember that stopping early, or switching to an easier version, is better than continuing with bad form.

Sources

American Council on Exercise. (2003). ACE Personal Trainer Manual, 3rd Edition. San Diego, CA: American Council on Exercise.

American College of Sports Medicine. (2006). ACSM's Guidelines for Exercise Testing and Prescription. Baltimore, MD: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.

Cogley RM, Archambault TA, Fibeger JF, et al. Comparison of muscle activation using various hand positions during the push-up exercise. J Strength Cond Res. 2005 Aug;19(3):628-33.

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