Always feel push-ups in your chest and shoulders — but never in your glutes and core? Chances are something’s amiss. After all, how far apart should your hands be, should your elbows flare, and what’s the deal with knee push-ups exactly? For a seemingly straightforward bodyweight exercise, there’s some major room for error. Luckily, a few simple tweaks can make all the difference.
“The push-up is a full-body exercise, if you’re doing it right,” says Dara Theodore, Daily Burn 365 trainer. “Largely it’s a triceps and chest exercise, but you should be squeezing your glutes and engaging your core.” Read on for Theodore’s tips and tricks for your best push-ups yet.
Your Ultimate Guide to Perfect Push-Ups
First order of business: Pick your poison from the options below. Keep in mind, each variation will be challenging in different ways (and no, the term “girl push-ups” is NOT allowed). No matter which version you choose, Theodore recommends setting up a phone to record yourself and assess your technique. That way, you’ll be able to see right away if your hips are too high, too low or just right. Or, ask a knowledgeable workout buddy to do a quick check of your form.
Ah, the classic push-up, king of all bodyweight exercises to build strength, endurance and explosiveness. But before you get those guns firing away, focus on hand placement to set yourself up for success. Where and how you place your palms will influence how your shoulders and elbows align. Your hands should be right under your shoulders or slightly wider and your fingertips should be pointed straight ahead, not inwards or outwards, says Theodore. “Think of screwing your arms into the ground,” she says. If you take your hands too wide, your elbows are more likely to flare out to the sides. That precarious “T” position will put undue pressure on your shoulders — the opposite of what you want when trying to build strength.
Do: Let your elbows float slightly out to the sides about 45-degrees (like in the picture above).
Don’t: Let your hips collapse as you descend into your push-up and press back up. Squeezing your glutes and core, and being conscious of maintaining a straight line from the top of your head to your toes will keep you in sound alignment. You also don’t want your hips to sag downwards, as that puts the lumbar spine in a compromised and potentially compressed position, says Theodore.
Want to tone the back of your arms? You’ll recruit your triceps more if you keep your elbows anchored closer to your body as you lower yourself to the floor, says Theodore. “I find it also forces me to engage my core just a little bit more,” she says. Imagine performing a chaturanga (the yoga move). Your upper body should shift slightly forward as you descend. Your arm will form a 90-degree angle as you lower down from plank position.
Do: Move your shoulders beyond your wrists as you lower down. Your hands should end up next to your ribs (chest area) and your forearms should be perpendicular to the ground.
Don’t: Crunch your shoulders up towards your ears. This will throw your body alignment for a loop, says Theodore. “Your elbows are going to be way behind your wrists.” Instead, focus on squeezing your shoulder blades together and rolling your shoulders back and downwards. “A properly aligned push-up mimics proper posture,” Theodore says, noting that firing up your core can help prevent your shoulders from creeping up.
We’ve all been there: You start out strong with a few standard push-ups but by the end of your second set, your hips are bouncing all over the place as you try to speed through a few more reps. Red alert! Theodore says you should choose an easier variation the second your form starts to go awry. There’s no need to be a push-up hero — you’ll get the best results and avoid injury if you maintain proper body alignment.
Theodore recommends putting your hands on a bench or box to perform an incline push-up if your not feeling up to standard push-ups, since incline push-ups can better activate your core muscles. No bench around? You can drop to your knees, but be sure to keep a close eye on hand, elbow and shoulder placement. You can let your elbows flare out a bit like a standard push-up or keep them close to your torso like tricep push-ups — the choice is yours.
Do: Keep your shins on the ground instead of raising your feet in the air if knee push-ups usually bother your kneecaps.
Don’t: Stick your butt out. This isn’t the dance floor — your booty should not be sticking up in the air, even if you’re on your knees. Your action plan: Engage your core as much as possible.
Ready to put your push-ups to the test? Work out with Dara and Daily Burn’s other elite fitness trainers live at 9 am ET every day. For your 30-day free trial, head to DailyBurn.com/365.