The correct way to do a pushup

A fitness trainer gives us a step-by-step plan to work your way up to a full pushup, plus mistakes to look out for.

Mercey Livingston CNET Contributor
Mercey Livingston is a health and wellness writer and certified Integrative Nutrition Health Coach. She's written about fitness and wellness for Well+Good, Women's Health, Business Insider, and Prevention.com among others. When not writing, she enjoys reading and trying out workout classes all over New York City.
Mercey Livingston
7 min read

Pushups are great full-body workout moves.

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In my humble opinion, if there's one workout move that is always hard -- no matter how "in shape" you are -- it's a pushup. Even on my best workout day, pushups are still a challenge. It doesn't matter if you're doing a full-body pushup, a modified one on your knees or another variation -- I'll always feel the burn fast

Given that pushups are a tried-and-true move that you'll do in basically any workout or class, it's a good idea to learn to do one correctly. According to fitness trainer and founder of Taylored Fitness and the Ignite Program, Brooke Taylor, people do them incorrectly all the time. Part of the problem is not being strong enough to do one in the first place -- and working your way up to doing pushup correctly is no simple feat. 

It takes a combination of strength, endurance and stamina to master pushups. But it's well worth the effort -- the pushup is a simple yet highly efficient way to work your entire body. "Pushups are a great full body exercise designed to build muscular endurance and strength. They activate the chest, core, legs, shoulders, triceps and glutes to maintain proper form. The beauty of pushups is that they can be done anywhere and anytime because they require no equipment," Taylor said.

Keep reading to find out how to do a pushup with perfect form, how to build up the strength to do them more and what you can do to advance once you master the basic pushup.

How to do a pushup correctly

Whether you can do 20 pushups in one go or have never even tried one, it never hurts to have a refresher on the basics of how to do a pushup correctly. Here's how to do one, according to Taylor.

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6 Ways To Progress A Push Up

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Here are Taylor's instructions for the correct pushup form:

1. Start in a quadruped position with your hands directly underneath your shoulders (or slightly wider) and your knees directly underneath your hips.

2. Engage your core and extend one leg out then bring the other to meet it forming one nice long position -- a plank.  Focus on keeping a nice neutral spine throughout with your focus directly in between your hands.

3. As you inhale lower your body down to hover off of the ground, forming a 90-degree angle from shoulder, elbow to hand.  As you exhale push the floor away keeping the body strong and tight.

Read more: Peloton, Daily Burn and more: Best workout subscription apps  

Common form mistakes to look out for

Even though pushups are pretty simple exercises, there are a lot of ways to do them incorrectly. Below are the most common form mistakes Taylor sees all the time.

  • Forward head: When your head is jutting forward, and not in line with the rest of your body.
  • Elevated shoulders: Keep your shoulders down, away from your ears and as relaxed as possible.
  • Lower back caved in: Keep your lower back neutral by making your sure core is engaged, avoid arching or caving it to protect your back.
  • Hips pushed up toward the ceiling: A pushup is not a down-dog or a stretch, so if you let your hips rise you lose the work in your core. 

"A lot of these form mistakes are a result of the client not being able to carry their own body weight and as a result they start to compensate in order to muscle through the exercise," Taylor said. If you notice that you're making these form mistakes, consider progressing your way up to a pushup, which you can learn how to do below. 

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A beginner's guide to doing a pushup

If you're dying to master a pushup, the best way to begin is by taking baby steps and working your way up from a modified pushup to a standard one. Even though it may be tempting to immediately drop to the floor and try to do 20 pushups right now -- you could end up hurting yourself or just get really discouraged. 

Try to do a pushup against the wall first 

"If you are a complete beginner and carrying your own body weight is too difficult then I would highly recommend doing them against the wall. This will enable you to get the feeling of the weight distribution and gradually increase the load placed on the body as you progress. For most beginners, the weight may be a lot on their wrists so this would be a great place to start," Taylor said.

Brooke Taylor

Master a plank

A plank is essentially the first step in doing a pushup, so it makes sense that if you can master a plank, then doing a pushup will be much easier from there. "In order to progress to a real pushup, then you must be able to master a perfect plank with your weight distribution over your wrists, core engaged, pelvis and spine neutral and a long neck," Taylor said.

Start on your knees

A typical modification for a pushup is to do one on your knees. This takes a lot of the weight off of your upper body, but not so much that you don't get a challenge.

"Get used to holding your own body weight, engaging the correct muscles, establishing proper form then building upon that," Taylor said. "This is the best way for beginners to learn how to recruit all of the right muscles and build up initial strength to handle their own body weight."

Brooke Taylor

To do a pushup from your knees, "Start in a prone position, laying flat on your belly. Place your hands down in line with your shoulders, activate your glutes, engage your core and press up forming a nice long line from head, shoulder hips to knees. As you inhale, lower your body down forming a 90-degree angle at your elbow, exhale press away. Repeat." Taylor said.

Advance to a one-leg pushup

Brooke Taylor

Once you have mastered the kneeling pushup, you can advance to a one-leg pushup. Here's how to do it:

1. Start out lying flat on your belly with your hands in line with your shoulders, while bending one knee in toward your glutes. Extend the opposite leg and tuck your toes under.  

2. As you exhale, press up forming one long dart position from shoulder, hip, to knee while extending that opposite leg out.  

3. As you inhale, lower your body down to hover off of the ground forming a 90-degree angle from the elbow, keeping your core tight and glutes activated.  

4. As you exhale press the body away and extend the elbows. 

"This is a unilateral movement which means one side of the body is working while the other side is forced to stabilize. It adds more weight load, while still forcing you to recruit your core muscles to avoid rotation and shift in weight distribution. Both sides are forced to work independently of each other. Start out doing six on each side and progress as you perfect your form," Taylor said.

3 advanced pushup variations

Once you master the basic pushup (congrats!), you can now try to do variations on pushups, which are more advanced and help you target even more muscle groups. Below are a few challenging variations Taylor recommends trying once you master the basics.

Superman pushups

"This is a great way to train your body to work in both the concentric and eccentric phase to aid in getting full range of motion. It also adds the extra bonus of activating the posterior chain of the body," Taylor said.  

1. Start lying prone on your belly with your arms and legs extended out long.

2. Inhale reach the arms and legs away from your center extending your spine with your palms face up.  

3. As you exhale slide the hands in toward your chest and simultaneously tuck your toes to push the floor away and find your plank -- long dart position from head, shoulders, hips and toes.  

4. Inhale to lower the body down evenly and extend the arms back out to superman position and exhale to press up and repeat. 

Commandos to pushups 

"This is a great way to challenge your upper body to improve your muscular strength and endurance. The goal here is to keep your core tight and pelvis neutral throughout combining two push exercises," Taylor said.

1. Start out in a plank. 

2. As you inhale lower right elbow down then the left elbow down, then exhale to push up with the right arm, then the left to return to your plank. 

3. Inhale to lower the body down forming a 90-degree angle of the elbow, shoulder, and chest, exhale press the floor away.  

4. Repeat alternating sides.  

Pushups to runners  

1. Start in a plank position with your hands directly underneath your shoulders, your core and glutes engaged and your legs hip- distance apart. 

2. As you inhale, lower your body down forming a 90-degree angle at the elbow about a fist's distance between your chest and the floor. 

3. Exhale to extend the elbows and press the floor away. Inhale quickly draw in one knee in toward your center and as it extends switch to the other leg -- this move is called a "runner." 

4. Alternating each side four times total. 

5. Repeat the sequence.

"This is a great way to build on muscular endurance and add variation to your pushup. It challenges the shoulder girdle, core stabilization, pecs and adds a little cardio element into the exercise," Taylor said.

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.