How to Do A Proper Push Up

Greetings from Heaven!

As it turns out, Heaven is actually located off the coast of New Zealand. Who knew?  The island of Waiheke, my home for the past few days, is definitely one of the most beautiful places on Earth; I was initially scheduled to just spend an afternoon here, but that has quickly turned into three days because I can’t get enough of this place.  Now, this article would have been up yesterday, but I ran into some technical difficulties with internet connections (which can happen when you’re on an island paradise), so you’re getting it today instead.

Fortunately, today’s post has nothing to do with Valentine’s Day; hopefully you can forgive me for not talking about how St. Valentine drove the snakes out of Ireland because he saw his shadow after finding a tooth under his pillow.  We’ll save that for next year.

Instead, let’s talk about push ups!

Push ups are one of the best exercises ever invented (thanks random caveman, whoever you were) – they require zero equipment, build strength in all of the right places, have hundreds of variations to keep things fresh, and are easily quantifiable so keeping track of progression is a breeze.  Push ups are a HUGE part of the Nerd Fitness Academy.

If you couldn’t already tell…push ups are kind of a big deal.

I realized that I had never done a proper post on proper push ups (say that three times fast…or don’t – your call), so today is the day you’re going to make sure you’re doing things right.  All pictures in today’s post were taken on the island of Waiheke.

Ever since I’ve started traveling and haven’t had regular access to a gym, push ups have become my go-to exercise.

Today, they’re going to become yours too.

How to set up for a proper push up

When it comes to push ups, your form is crucial. Each push up needs to be done perfectly so that your total reps measured from workout to workout are on equal footing. If you did thirty perfect push ups two days ago, and then today you did sixty push ups by only going down halfway, sticking your ass up in the air, etc., it’s absolutely impossible to tell if you got any stronger.

Here’s how to get set up to do a push up:

  • When down on the ground, set your hands at a distance that is slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Depending on your strength and experience, your hands should be angled in a way that feels comfortable to you.  For me, my hands are set up so that my middle finger points straight up and away from me.  You can also turn your hands inwards slightly if it’s less stressful on your wrists, or you can do your push ups on your knuckles (as long as you’re on a semi-soft surface like grass or carpet.
  • Your feet should be set up in a way that feels right and comfortable to you. For some, that might be shoulder width apart. For others, it might be that the feet are touching.  Generally speaking, the wider apart your feet, the more stable you’ll be for your push ups.
  • Think of your body as one giant straight line – from the top of your head down through your heels. Your butt shouldn’t be sticking way up in the air or sagging.
  • If you have a problem getting the proper form with your body, try this (yes I’m serious): clench your butt, and then tighten your abs. Your core will be engaged, and your body should be in that straight line. If you’ve been doing push ups incorrectly, this might be a big change for you.
  • Your head should be looking slightly ahead of you, not straight down (yeah I know I’m looking straight down in my top picture, I hadn’t started yet!). I read somewhere that said “if you’re doing them right, your chin should be the first part of your head to touch the floor, not your nose.” Looking up helps you keep your body in line, but feel free to look down if that helps you concentrate more.
  • At the top of your push up, your arms should be straight and supporting your weight. You’re now ready to do a push up.

How to complete a push up

Alright, now that you’re actually all set up and eager to begin, let’s get you through one repetition. Remember that good form is crucial, so keep your focus through each movement and start to set good habits.

Here’s how to complete one repetition of a push up:

  • With your arms straight, butt clenched, and abs braced, steadily lower yourself until your elbows are at a 90 degree angle or smaller. Depending on your level of experience, age, and flexibility, 90 degrees might be the lowest you’re able to go. Personally, I like to go down until my chest (not my face), hits the floor.  That way, I know I’m going the same distance each and every time.
  • Try not to let your elbows go flying way out with each repetition. Keep them relatively close to your body, and keep note of when they start to fly out when you get tired.
  • Once your chest touches the floor (or your arms go down to a 90 degree angle), pause slightly and then explode back up until you’re back in the same position.
  • Congratulations, you just did a proper push up. Do as many as you can until you start to feel your form slip (even slightly); you are done for that set. Ten good push ups and 5 crappy ones are tough to quantify against eleven good push ups. If you can only do ten of something, write down your results and aim for 11 next time. Perfect form allows you to keep track of your improvements week over week.

“But I can’t do a push up!”

That’s okay, here’s a plan that will help you get there. You need to start with an easier push movement, and work up to progressively more difficult types of moves that will eventually result in you doing true push ups.

Start with Wall Push Ups:

Just like with a regular push up, clench your butt, brace your abs, and set your hands on a wall at a width that’s wider than shoulder-width apart. Walk backwards with your feet until your arms are fully extended and supporting your weight (generally one decent sized step back with both feet will suffice). Keeping the rest of your body in a straight line, steadily lower yourself towards the wall until your nose almost touches the wall, and then explode back up to the starting position.

Do 4 sets of wall push ups with a 2-minute rest between sets, every other day. Keep track of how many repetitions you can do WITH PROPER FORM for each set in a notebook for easy comparison to previous workouts.  Once you can do 4 sets of 20 repetitions of wall push ups, you can progress to elevated (or incline) push ups.

Elevated Push Ups

Elevated (incline) Push Ups Video

Elevated push ups are just what they sound like – your hands are on an elevated surface, whether it’s something as tall as a kitchen table or as low as a few blocks that are inches off the ground. This will depend on your level of strength and experience.

If you’ve just progressed from wall push ups, pick something that is at a level that’s right for you – I generally find the back of a park bench or the side of a picnic table to be a perfect height for doing incline push ups.

Do 4 sets of elevated push ups with a 2-minute rest between sets, every other day. Again, keep track of all of your stats for how many proper form repetitions you can do in each set.  Once you can do 4 sets of 20 repetitions, it’s time to either move to regular push ups, knee push ups, or a lower height for your hands to be supported.

To work on progression, try to doing your elevated push ups on the stairs in your house. As you get stronger, you can move your hands to lower and lower steps until your hands are on the ground.

Now, once you’re cranking out four sets of proper form elevated push ups  you need to progress to either regular push ups, a lower incline push up, or push ups with your knees on the ground. In my opinion, if you can do 4 sets of 20 repetitions of incline push ups, it might be time to switch to regular push ups.

How to get better at push ups

So you’ve learned how to do a push up, you can do a few of them, but you want to get better.  Here are some tips to help you along the way:

  • Get healthy! As you lose weight, you will have to move less weight around than before, which will make your push ups easier to manage.
  • Don’t cheat on the last few – when you’re tired, it’s easy to skip out on good form for your last few reps. As soon as you do one bad form push up, you’re done. Finish up your four sets, write down your numbers, and try to beat those numbers next time.
  • Don’t do push ups two days in a row. You need to give your muscles time to rebuild and recover – take off at least 48 hours in between your push up adventure.
  • Get protein into your system after finishing up your workout – protein helps rebuild the muscles you just broke down doing push ups, and it helps them rebuild those same muscles stronger than before.
  • If you can do 4 sets of 20-25 perfect form push ups no sweat, then it’s time to start looking into push up variations to keep things interesting.
  • Build up your core with planks - this will help keep your core strong so that it’s not the weakest link in your proper form push ups.

Push Up Variations

Basic push ups can get boring - fortunately there are dozens upon dozens of variations to make things more difficult for you.  Although I think the Hundred Push Ups program is a solid program for folks to follow, I’m a bigger fan of making the push ups tougher once you’re able to do more than four sets of 20+ push ups.

Why? Because muscle and strength get built when you’re lifting a heavy enough weight that somewhere between 6-12 repetitions per set is a challenge (and even up to 15-20 reps to an extent…but beyond that it becomes less about strength and muscle building and more about muscular endurance).

Once you’re cranking out perfect form push ups like it’s your job, try some of these variations on for size. Click on each for a video demonstration (done by yours truly):

  • One foot push upsthe easiest variation, your body needs to stay in balance throughout the whole movement.
  • Walking push upsadds a degree of difficulty by forcing you to move your arms around in between reps
  • Decline push upsthese work your shoulders and triceps more so than normal push ups.
  • Tricep push upskeep your arms tight at your side, rotate your hands outward, and keep your elbows tight as you lower your body. Works your triceps like crazy.
  • Dive-bomber push upsfunky, difficult, but oh so fun.  I’d explain it, but just watch the video
  • Plyometric Push upsthese are brutal and will wear you out just after a few repetitions.  Just don’t hurt yourself!

And that’s just a few examples. This great post over on the Art of Manliness highlights over 35+ push up variations, including the brutally difficult handstand push up.  I think I have a ways to go until I get there.

My strength building plan

Over the next few months while traveling, I’ll be working on building muscle by only doing body weight exercises and following the body weight routines – I’m going to do my best to stay healthy, build muscle, and come back in better shape than before I left. I’ll be keeping track of all of my workouts to show what happens to a guy who travels for months and has nothing but his own body weight to use for his workouts.

[update: I managed to get in the best shape of my life while traveling: here's how I did it]

That’s all for today: go home, set up an camera or grab a friend and have them film you, and check your form on your push ups.  I hope you’ll find that your form is as good as you expected, but it’s okay if it’s not, it’ll give you something to work on.

Now, go do some push ups!

-Steve

Today’s Rebel Hero: My buddy Zach Daniels, banjo player extraordinaire.  Zach has shared the stage with guys like Lyle Lovett, Shawn Mullins, Zac Brown Band, the Barenaked Ladies, and pretty much every other big league artist out there.

If you didn’t think it was possible to shred on a banjo, you are sorely mistaken, my friend.

Because it is.  And Zach does in fact shred on a banjo.

Last week Zach hopped on board a music festival cruise with the Barenaked Ladies, and he decided to represent with a kick-ass Nerd Fitness t-shirt!

Have you ordered your Nerd Fitness shirt yet? Pick one up and send me a photo – you could be the next Rebel Hero!

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  • http://www.justinhamlin.com Justin Hamlin

    Love the dive bomber push-ups. Do not know how you did that without a little chuckle each time.

    Thanks for the detailed breakdown of the push-up. Keep the quality content coming and enjoy your trip!

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  • http://twitter.com/SimOliver Simon Oliver

    Nice post and well timed for me. Like you I am nowhere near a gym of any sort here in rural Cambodia.

    I’m in my third week of a 0-100 push up program. I nearly gave up after the first few days but as I had a few other people online that I was doing the program with I stuck at it. Made all the difference.

    It’s now turning into quite a challenge and I’m amazed to say that I actually look forward to them.every other day.

  • http://twitter.com/SimOliver Simon Oliver

    Nice post and well timed for me. Like you I am nowhere near a gym of any sort here in rural Cambodia.

    I’m in my third week of a 0-100 push up program. I nearly gave up after the first few days but as I had a few other people online that I was doing the program with I stuck at it. Made all the difference.

    It’s now turning into quite a challenge and I’m amazed to say that I actually look forward to them.every other day.

  • http://www.stellarpath.net/ Jeremy Logsdon

    This post has inspired me to tackle the 100 push up program again. I can do a few with perfect form, but you reminded me of what my trainer says – I’d rather see you do a few on your knees with proper form than fifty wrong.

  • http://www.stellarpath.net/ Jeremy Logsdon

    This post has inspired me to tackle the 100 push up program again. I can do a few with perfect form, but you reminded me of what my trainer says – I’d rather see you do a few on your knees with proper form than fifty wrong.

  • http://joelrunyon.com/two3 Joel Runyon | [BIT]

    First of all – more topless photos of steve? Really?

    The 100 pushups programs is *tough*. Kicking my butt, but I’m almost there. Now I just have to make sure they all look “perfect” :)

  • Eric

    Rock on Steve! Push-ups rule!!

    at the start of the new year, I accepted the challenge of doing each day and every day corresponding to the day of the year. So on January 1, 2011 I completed 1 push-up. On January 31, I completed 31 push-ups (not consecutively, mind you). On February 1, I completed 32 push-ups and on and on and on. Today, I’ve completed 23 or 46 push-ups (23 more to go by the time my head hits the pillow tonight). On December 31, I’ll complete 365 push-ups. Been noticing a difference since I started as to how many consecutive push-ups I can do without collapsing.

  • Eric

    forgive me…

    That is, I accepted the challenge of completing one push-up each day for every day corresponding to the day of the year…etc, etc, etc.

  • Hans

    Your guidance to get video feedback is critical. I see to many terrible pushups! Another method for increasing the volume is to figure out what your maximum one set number of pushups is and do half that number in sets throughout the day.

    Too many people underestimate the pushup and end up with shoulder problems from falling in love with the bench press.

  • Kyle

    Mate if you think that was heaven, while your in the Northern Territory cruise up to Darwin and head out into Kakadu National Park. You will just be catching the tail end of the wet season so there should be plenty of crocs around to get photos of. Make sure you take a dip in some of the billabongs while you are there. I have some photos from the 3rd trip up there last year on my facebook, have a look.
    http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=417368179685&set=a.417361034685.189718.650589685

  • http://www.180nutrition.com.au/blog Info

    Good stuff…. I should send everyone from my gym to read this post.. The form I see with many is incredible, you would think they were busting out a break dance move!

  • http://www.180nutrition.com.au/blog Guy

    mmmm… my name is not info… its Guy :)

  • Janine

    Hi Steve

    At the end of this month I will also be going on a five month travel adventure to South America. Like you, I will also only be able to do body weight work-outs and my goal outcome is to come back in MUCH better shape than before. I sort let myself slide during my sedentary PC bound desk job.

    Do you perhaps have a sample workout I could use? I’m pretty sporty, 27 year old female and able to do 10-15 push ups at a time. But would REALLY appreciate any other ideas/work out plan.

    If you could get in touch with me that would be GREAT!!!
    My e-mail addy is on the link I’ve just posted

    Great article by the by, really enjoyed it. Thanks for all the handy tips!
    Janine

  • http://www.stevekamb.com Steve Kamb

    Hey Eric!

    To be honest with you man, I’d recommend switching to an every other day routine once you get to 50. Your muscles need to recover after getting used strenuously, and I’d hate to see how beat up they are after doing 360 push ups and then have to do 361 push ups the next day.

    I’d advise that you do something like 300 on day 300, then 302 on day 302. Maybe do squats on your alternate days? soo 300 push ups on day 300, 301 squats on day 301, 302 push ups on day 302?

    I’m not a big fan of numbers of that magnitude, but if you have your heart set on following through with this goal that would be the advice I would give

    Cheers!

    -=S

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  • Lydia

    Great article, per usual. I haven’t really thought about it before, but I don’t see a lot of proper form when it comes to push ups. Thanks!

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  • http://www.fitterhappierproductive.com Darren Beattie

    You know I love push-ups, they are bar none, one of my favourite exercises period. Excellent for shoulder health (Serratus Anterior Function – Check…), excellent for core stability (yes I said stability, not strength) and excellent for training a pressing motion.

    A cue I like to use with my clientele for push-ups is to put the thumbs at the nipples, this helps keep them away from the dreaded ‘elbow flare’ or what is effectively pec dominant pressers trying to use more pec major and anterior deltoid in their press. Elbows end up around 45 degrees relative to the body.

    I think while you’re travelling you’ll like what many people refer to as ‘The Rest-Pause’ Push-Up. There are a few ways to incorporate this technique, but I find it’s a great tool for muscle building when you’ve got nothing but your body weight. It makes the traditional push-up that much more difficult by eliminating your use of your myotatic reflex or the elastic energy your muscle stores on the way down to help you get back up. You effectively end up utilizing more muscle, less elastic energy and develop good amounts of starting strength. Try to pause at the bottom of the push-up for 3-4 seconds and see if 4 sets of 20 is still easy…

    The second recommendation would be to slow the eccentric (lowering) portion of the lift down considerably. Applying slower tempos to the lift can cause great muscle damage, which means the need for greater muscle recovery, think up to 10 seconds to execute 1 rep even. It could be simply a 4 second lower, a 4 second pause and explode back to the top.

    And lastly, you could always learn the one-handed push-up, it would effectively put you into more of a strength training zone (<8 reps) immediately. I'm sure you can figure out how to do it, but if you want more info, just email me, I'd be happy to help you out.

  • http://www.fitterhappierproductive.com Darren Beattie

    You know I love push-ups, they are bar none, one of my favourite exercises period. Excellent for shoulder health (Serratus Anterior Function – Check…), excellent for core stability (yes I said stability, not strength) and excellent for training a pressing motion.

    A cue I like to use with my clientele for push-ups is to put the thumbs at the nipples, this helps keep them away from the dreaded ‘elbow flare’ or what is effectively pec dominant pressers trying to use more pec major and anterior deltoid in their press. Elbows end up around 45 degrees relative to the body.

    I think while you’re travelling you’ll like what many people refer to as ‘The Rest-Pause’ Push-Up. There are a few ways to incorporate this technique, but I find it’s a great tool for muscle building when you’ve got nothing but your body weight. It makes the traditional push-up that much more difficult by eliminating your use of your myotatic reflex or the elastic energy your muscle stores on the way down to help you get back up. You effectively end up utilizing more muscle, less elastic energy and develop good amounts of starting strength. Try to pause at the bottom of the push-up for 3-4 seconds and see if 4 sets of 20 is still easy…

    The second recommendation would be to slow the eccentric (lowering) portion of the lift down considerably. Applying slower tempos to the lift can cause great muscle damage, which means the need for greater muscle recovery, think up to 10 seconds to execute 1 rep even. It could be simply a 4 second lower, a 4 second pause and explode back to the top.

    And lastly, you could always learn the one-handed push-up, it would effectively put you into more of a strength training zone (<8 reps) immediately. I'm sure you can figure out how to do it, but if you want more info, just email me, I'd be happy to help you out.

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  • bryan

    I feel a little embarrassed that, at 38, I had something to learn about push-ups. But on the positive side, I learned something! Thanks.

  • Dianne

    Thank you so much! I’ve been working out lately and tried to incorporate push ups in my routine but to my disappointment I realized I wasn’t doing it right and for the life of me I find it really hard to do proper push ups! That wall suggestion is pure gold, I’ll yake your advice and try it out! Thank you for being awesome!

  • Fiona Payne

    Love that divebomb move. Reminds me of down-dog-to-cobra pose in yoga. :)

  • theodora

    hey steve, why dont u try the pilates push up: think elbows bending back first, “into” your ribs parallel to your body..and legs closed..If u alternate sets of your pushup with this, u get a total chest, tricep and shoulder workout

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  • Suzie

    This probably seems like a stupid question, but what’s a set exactly? I’m pretty sure it means taking a break after a certain number, so 4 of 20 would eventually be 80, but how long between? If I’m waiting two hours between sets, are they still sets or is it just a new workout? And also, if I can only do 10 in a row, should I be doing 8 of 10? Cheers!

  • http://www.stevekamb.com Steve Kamb

    a set is a number of repetitions in a row without stopping.  so 3 sets of 10 reps is 10 repetitions, then wait 60 seconds, then another 10 reps, wait 60 seconds, then another 10 reps.

    -S

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  • a creep

    hello i like to eat jelly, everyday, everyday AND THEN DO PUSH UP AND THEN EAT AGAIN

  • a creep

    hello i like to eat jelly, everyday, everyday AND THEN DO PUSH UP AND THEN EAT AGAIN

  • a creep/ no

    sorry, it was my friend ….
    i was just visitting and he acted like a retard .. sorry again

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  • Pam Feb

    Thanks for your advice.. I’m pretty fit but find push ups difficult but my challenge is to do 20 REAL ones in a row.. Here we go :)

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  • Darrin Walker – Grace

    I live in Hamilton NZ and I have taken my passion for doing Push ups to the next level by building a custom application called Push Up King.

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