You’re Doing it Wrong: The Ultimate Guide to the Push-up

fit man performing push ups outside on bench in the park

This is a guest blog post by Adam Farrah, author of The Paleo Dieter’s Missing Link and Functional Fitness, Kettlebell, Yoga and Meditation coach.

The push-up is a basic, bodyweight exercise that can be powerfully beneficial but is often performed incorrectly.

In a perfect world, it begins with straight arms, flat back, legs extended, and hands positioned about shoulder width apart. From here, the weight of the body is lowered and the chest comes close to touching the ground. The movement is properly completed when trainee is able to “push up” and return to the starting position using the strength of their chest, back, arms, shoulders, and core with minimal deviation in the position of the spine.

Sounds great right? So how about you give it a shot. Just one rep…

I’d be willing to bet that there’s at least some part of your form that is not spot on, and if that is the case, you could be setting yourself up for shoulder injuries, uneven pecs, and all sorts of other issues.

Thankfully, this is the Ultimate Guide to the Push-up, so keep reading and we’ll get you on track to:

  • Perform a safe and stable push-up
  • Add variety with push-up modifications
  • Common form corrections
  • How to effectively incorporate the push-up into your training routine

Creating a Stable Push-Up

Good stabilization is the first step toward a strong push-up. You can’t bench press safely or effectively on a wobbly bench, and you can’t do a strong and safe push-up if you’re not able to stabilize yourself throughout the full range of motion of the exercise.

There are three main areas of stabilization in the push-up. Let’s go over them now.

1. Shoulder Stabilization

The first area of stabilization is the shoulder. During pressing movements, the upper back and latissimus dorsi stabilize the shoulder—in kettlebell training we call this “packing the shoulder.”

These next two drills are my favorites for teaching proper shoulder stabilization.

Shoulders into the Sockets Pull-Up Drill

For this drill, you’re going to hang loosely from a pull-up bar, and then pull yourself up using only your shoulders and upper back. You’ll move just a few inches, but this drill will teach you what good shoulder stabilization feels like.

Packing the Shoulder from the Floor

When I teach the Turkish get-up with a kettlebell, this is where I start. The get-up is an excellent movement because it forces extreme focus on shoulder stabilization in both the bench press and overhead press position.

For this drill, we’ll isolate things to just the initial press from the floor.

Lie down on the floor and safely move a moderately heavy kettlebell or dumbbell into position for a press. Now, contract your back and press the weight up.

Throughout the press, think of pressing yourself through the floor and away from the ‘bell, as opposed to pressing the weight “up.” Pressing yourself “through the floor” puts the focus on a strong shoulder stabilization, whereas pressing the ‘bell “up” tends to encourage a reaching motion that takes the shoulder off the ground.

Finally, in the top position of the press, recheck your shoulder, contract your back to pull the shoulder into the socket, and let the weight drive your shoulder down into the socket.

2. Hand Position

For a standard push-up, the hands should be directly underneath the shoulders and slightly “pigeon-toed,” which generates tension in the arms for a stronger push-up. It’s a similar feeling to “bending the bar” during a bench press.

3. Core Stabilization

The push-up is really just a plank position with movement added, so strong core stabilization is extremely important. The abs and glutes should be contracted, and the body should be more or less a straight line from toes to head.

A weak core, meanwhile, will show up in a “broken” midsection, with the glutes either sticking up too high or dropping lower than the shoulders.

Sometimes a “weak push-up” is really a weak plank, as the core fails before the shoulders do. If this is the case, more ab work is indicated, and push-ups from the knees can be substituted to work the shoulders effectively while relying a little less on the core.

A strong plank for a strong push-up. As Pavel Tsatsouline says: “You can’t fire a cannon from a canoe!”

Now that we’ve created a stable push-up, let’s scale the difficulty a little.

Scaling the Push-Up

In his excellent book The Naked Warrior, Pavel explains the idea of changing the leverage in bodyweight exercises to adjust their level of difficulty. This is sometimes referred to as “scaling”, as it’s scaling the difficulty of the movement.

The easiest version of the push-up is standing up and pushing against a wall. This is suitable for individuals with a serious lack of upper body strength. The hardest version of a push-up will be a handstand push-up.

In between, there are many variations of positioning that change the difficulty of the movement. There are also various tools that can be introduced that decrease stability and make the movement harder.

Here’s how to go about scaling the push-up.

Basic Rules for Scaling

The vast majority of my clients do one-on-one sessions. This allows me to fine-tune the difficulty of push-up movements on an individual basis.

What I generally shoot for is getting a trainee to 10 excellent reps in the standard push-up—back straight, a strong and straight plank throughout, chest to the floor, and stable shoulders for the entire rep.

Once this is happening, I’ll move into lower reps of the variations to increase difficulty, and intersperse that with 10 or more reps of the standard push-up from time to time.

My standard is always progress in the standard push-up. Push-up variations, and even barbell pressing movements are great, but I always want to return to the push-up proper to gauge progress. As long as regular push-ups are progressing, the variations are doing what they’re supposed to be doing.

Push-Up Variations

There is a wide variety of push-up variations. Here are a few of my favorites that I fall back on again and again in my own training and that of my clients.

A Word of Caution

But first, a word of warning on these variations: Shoulders can be delicate structures. This is compounded when a trainee isn’t used to stabilizing the shoulder in a press exercise. It’s also exaggerated by sedentary computer work, which creates strength and flexibility imbalances due to typing position and hunching.

Until a trainee can do 10 or more regular push-ups with excellent form, I don’t generally add in any of these more advanced variations.

Taking a weak push-up and further destabilizing it with advanced variations isn’t a good idea. Be careful, and progress yourself or your clients slowly.

Close-Grip Push Ups

This one is similar to close-grip bench presses in that it removes much of the chest and shoulders from the exercise and emphasizes the triceps.

Medicine Ball Variations

There are several push-up variations that can be done on a medicine ball. In addition, the type of medicine ball will change the leverage and the difficulty. Hard med balls will offer a strong tendency to roll, whereas a soft, Dynamax-style ball will roll less but be softer and create a different type of difficulty. Even a Swiss ball can be used to create another type of difficult surface.

Also remember that medicine or Swiss balls can be used to destabilize at the hands or at the feet. Destabilizing at the feet increases the level of difficulty through both the destabilization and the increased foot height, which places more bodyweight on the upper body and makes the press even harder.

Renegade Rows

These are a favorite of mine. They combine a destabilized push-up on kettlebells with an upper-body pull in the form of a row.

This is the bottom position of a push-up on kettlebells. These can be done on their own or as part of the renegade row sequence that follows.

The row portion of the renegade row. It’s push-up, row right, row left, push-up.

The Workouts

Workout 1
25 kettlebell swings (16 kg for a female/24 kg for a male)
10 push-ups
10 medicine ball cleans (12 lb/20 lb)
3-5 rounds for time

Workout 2
10 lunges with medicine ball held overhead (12 lb/20 lb)
5 renegade rows (12 kg/16 kg) (push-up, row right, row left = one rep)
5 rounds for time

Workout 3
5 deadlifts (95 lb/135 lb)
10 push-ups
5 rounds for time

That’s it for this post. What are your favorite push-up variations? Is there a workout that includes push-ups that you love? Let us know in the comments!

Also published on Medium.