Proper Push-Up Ultimate Guide: How to Do Push Ups with Correct Form

Rebel Leader Steve doing a push-up near some water.

The push-up is one of the best exercises on the planet.

It’s a foundational movement in strength training, and an exercise EVERYBODY should be doing regularly.

However, it’s also an exercise that about 95% of people get wrong and do incorrectly.

A push-up is one of the exercises we really focus on with our Online Coaching ClientsWe make sure each client has great form, and use the exercise as a gateway to many other strength training exercises! 

Fortunately, after reading today’s ultimate guide, you’ll know exactly how to do a proper push-up with correct form:

How to Set up for a Proper Push-up (Staging)

Steve is setting up a proper push-up in this photo.

When it comes to push-ups, your form is crucial. Each push-up needs to be done with proper form so that your total reps measured from workout to workout are on equal footing.

This gif shows Staci doing a push-up in perfect form.

If you did 20 push-ups two days ago, and then today you did 25 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.

Another angle of showing how to setup a proper push-up.

Here’s how to get into proper push-up position:

1) On the ground, set your hands at a distance that is slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. 

Draw a straight line from your chest/nipple down to the floor – it should be directly over your thumbnail.

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.

2) To alleviate wrist pain (if you have poor wrist flexibility) do your push-ups holding onto push-up handles (so your wrists aren’t as compromised), or a bar (see Staci’s video below doing elevated push-ups for example).

If you’re hardcore, you can do them on your knuckles (as long as you’re on a semi-soft surface like grass or carpet or broken glass. Wait, scratch that last one).

3) Your feet should be set up in a way that feels right and comfortable and in balance. For some, that might be shoulder width apart.

For others, it might be with your feet touching. Generally speaking, the wider apart your feet, the more stable you’ll be for your push-ups.

4) 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. You’re essentially holding a plank throughout the entire movement.

5) If you have a problem getting the proper form with your body, try this: clench your butt, and then tighten your abs as if you’re bracing to get punched.

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.

Record a video of yourself to make sure you’re doing it correctly.

6) 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.

7) 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.

8) I want to draw special attention to that first step with hand position: nearly EVERYBODY does push-ups with their arms out far too wide and their shoulders flared. This is bad news bears. 

If I was looking down at you from above, your arms and body should form an ARROW, not a T.

Showing you the proper angle (Arrow) for your push-up.

Showing you the improper angle, "T" for your push-up. Don't do this!

WARNING: If you have been doing push-ups with your arms flared, doing them with proper form will be significantly more difficult!

If you struggle with your push-up form, you’re not alone!

As I said in the intro, 95% of people do push-ups incorrectly, which is why it’s a huge focus of ours in our 1-on-1 Coaching Program: helping people get confident with doing them with proper form. 

Let us check your push-up form via video, create a workout program that fits your lifestyle, and even help you make better food choices, we’d love to help!

Your NF Coach can help you lose weight and get healthy!

How to Do a Proper Push-Up (Correct Push-Up Form with Video).

In the 5 minute “Perfect Push-Up” video above, featuring yours truly and two of our coaches, to take you through EACH of the steps of a push-up, including some variations!

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

  • With your arms straight, butt clenched, and abs braced, steadily lower yourself until your elbows are at a 90 degree angle or less. 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 (or nose/chin) 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.

Once you get down like so for your push-up it's time to...push...up.

 

Do as many as you can until you start to feel your form slip (even slightly); you are done for that set.

Here’s why you should focus on form over quantity:

  • 10 good push-ups and 5 crappy ones are tough to quantify against eleven good push-ups.
  • If you can only do 10 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.

Want to know where push-ups should fall into your workout routine? I have three options!

1) Work with your coach to have push-ups become part of your workout routine! If you’re in the “I just want to be told what to do every day” crowd, check out our 1-on-1 Online Coaching Program!

2) Do them as part of our Beginner Bodyweight Workout Routine! This workout has been done by hundreds of thousands of people as their first strength training workout.

3) Make your own workout with push-ups by following our Build Your Own Workout” guide! It’ll walk you through everything you need to build an exercise program for your goals in 10 steps.

How Do You Train to Do Push-Ups? (Where to Start If You Can’t Do a Push-Up.)

These LEGO characters love to stay fit doing the beginner bodyweight workout

Don’t worry if you can’t do a push-up yet. We have 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.

This is a similar type of progression we use when helping somebody in our 1-on-1 Online Coaching Program develop the proper strength to start doing proper push-ups.

We’ll progress from Level 1 Push-ups to Level 4 Push-ups:

  • Wall Push-Ups: Level 1
  • Elevated Push-Ups: Level 2
  • Knee Push-ups: Level 3
  • Regular Push-ups: Level 4

LEVEL 1: HOW TO DO WALL PUSH-UPS

Stand in front of a wall. Clench your butt, brace your abs, and set your hands on the wall at slightly 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.

Here’s a video of a wall push-up:

HOW TO TRAIN WALL PUSH-UPS:

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 knee push-ups.

LEVEL TWO: HOW TO DO ELEVATED PUSH-UPS

 

As we demonstrate in this video above from the Nerd Fitness Academy, 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. Like so:

HOW TO TRAIN ELEVATED 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.

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.

LEVEL THREE: HOW TO DO KNEE PUSH-UPS

Knee push-ups like this are a great way to progress to a regular push-up!

Once you’re comfortable doing wall or elevated push-ups, proceed to knee push-ups. Your shoulder and hand placement will look just like a regular push-up (an “arrow”, not a “T”), but you’ll stabilize yourself on your knees instead of your feet. As demonstrated here:

HOW TO TRAIN KNEE PUSH-UPS

Once you can do 4 sets of 20 repetitions on your knees, you can start thinking about doing regular push-ups.

To recap, if you can’t do a regular push-up, move from:

  • Wall Push-Ups: Level 1
  • Elevated Push-Ups: Level 2
  • Knee Push-Ups: Level 3
  • Regular Push-ups: Level 4

How do I know the above progression will work? Well, it’s the exact plan we use with our 1-on-1 Online Coaching clientsWe help busy people just like you do push-ups for the first time with tailor-made workout routines. 

Plus, our coaching app lets you record and send a video of your movement directly to your coach, who will make sure you’re doing your push-ups safely and effectively.

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What Are Other Types of Push-Ups? (Push-Up Variations)

These stromtroopers need some variety in their push-up routine...if this drill instructor ever lets up.

Basic push-ups can get boring…

Fortunately there are dozens upon dozens of variations to make things more difficult for you.

Once you’re cranking out perfect form push-ups like it’s your job,[1] try some of these advanced variations on for size.

Click on each for a video demonstration (these are some of the push-up variations pulled from The NF Academy):

#1) One-legged Push-ups: introducing some variety and balance by removing one of your legs for less stabilization:

 

#2) Side-to-Side Push-Ups Get into the classic push-up position and move your hands farther apart. Now, lower yourself down towards one arm only – you should feel like you’re supporting a lot of your weight. 

To complete the rep, slide horizontally over to the other arm, and push-up. The farther apart your hands, the higher percentage of your bodyweight will be supported by that side of your chest/shoulder and arm (thus getting harder)!

 

#3) Decline Push-Ups – these work your shoulders and triceps more so than normal push-ups.

 

#4) Diamond Push-Ups – keep 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.

 

#5) Dive-Bomber Push-Ups – funky, difficult, but oh so fun. I’d explain it, but just watch the video

 

#6) Plyometric Push-Ups – these are brutal and will wear you out just after a few repetitions. Just don’t hurt yourself and smash your face during a failed attempt (not that I’ve ever done that. Shut up my face always looks like this)!

 

#7) Handstand Push-Ups – This goes without saying, but you should be able to do a proper handstand before attempting these!

Kick up against a wall, and without flailing your elbows way out to the side (which can wreak havoc on your shoulders and elbow joints), slowly lower yourself down until your head touches the ground softly.

Then raise yourself back up.

Rotate some of these advanced push-ups into your workout routine and you’ll be well on your way to a great strength training practice.

The coaches in our 1-on-1 Coaching Program are all huge nerds who can’t wait to help people like you get strong as hell. Whether you’re working on knee push or trying to nail your first handstand, we can build custom workout programs that fit your lifestyle and align with your goals. 

We also provide text support and worldwide accountability to make sure you actually DO your workouts!  

We also have a comprehensive guide, Strength Training 101: Everything You Need to Know, when you sign up for the Rebellion (that’s our community) below:

How to get better at push-ups

Notice how Steve's arms are angled like an arrow? This is the correct form for a push-up.

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:

  1. Get healthy! As you lose weight (which is 80% nutrition!), you will have to move less weight around than before, which will make your push-ups easier to manage. Have you had trouble losing weight in the past? Check out our article “Why Can’t I Lose Weight?” to find out why.
  2. Don’t cheat on the last few push-ups – 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.
  3. When starting out 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. However, when push-ups became a warm-up exercise for you – you can do them every day if you want. If you’re advanced, you can consider a PLP program.
  4. Get enough 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. You can read our ultimate guide on protein and protein shakes for some tips on how to up your protein intake.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.

These 6 tips will be a great addition to your strength training plan. Keep at it and before you know it you’ll be doing one arm push-ups like Batman.

One arm push-ups are hardcore, which is why Batman does them.

What’s that? You don’t have a strength building plan!!! Well then…

What’s Your Strength Building Plan?

Once you get comfortable with regular push-ups, you can try plyometric push ups like this.

It makes me sad when we get emails from people who struggle and try and work hard to get healthier, and to be better at push-ups, and just can’t seem to make any progress.

If that’s you, you’re not alone!

#1) Consider working with an online coach (or in-person trainer).

Helping people learn push-ups and other bodyweight exercises is why we built our 1-on-1 Online Coaching Program: We build programs for busy people to cut through the noise and just get results

#2) More of a “Do it Yourself” person? Great. We have our Nerd Fitness Academy: 7 levels of bodyweight workouts, a 10-level nutrition plan, an online community, boss battles, quests, and a full character leveling system.

3) Join our community! We have hundreds of thousands of people, and I send out two free emails every week to help them level up their lives. Join our free community today, and I’ll send you a dozen free ebooks, including TONS of workout plans you can do anytime, anywhere. 

Join the community by signing up in the box below:

YOUR MISSION, SHOULD YOU CHOOSE TO ACCEPT IT: go home, set up a camera, 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.

Go do some push-ups, and work on getting better with them every day.

You’ll be moving from Level 1 to Level 4 push-ups and beyond!

-Steve

PS: Not to brag, but I typed this entire article while doing 1-handed push-ups. 

PPS: Okay no I didn’t. But it would have been cool if I did, right?

PPPS: No? Fine. Sigh.

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Photo source:[2]

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