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A beginner-friendly guide to the perfect push-up

With all the exercise machines at the gym and countless number of workout videos online, it can feel intimidating about where to start. When in doubt, you can’t go wrong with the basics. 

Push-ups are a classic way of strengthening your body. Beyond toning your chest, pushups activate muscles in your back, hamstrings, abs, quads, and triceps. Another perk is that you don’t need fancy equipment or a gym membership—just yourself and some space on the floor. There’s only one catch: Push-ups are notoriously hard to do correctly but not impossible.

There are several reasons you might have trouble doing a single push-up. Some might be as minor as correcting your form or practicing breathwork. Others involve working on your current strength level. No matter where you’re at on your fitness journey, mastering the push-up will be challenging but worth the effort.

First, check your form. An incorrect stance can make it difficult to engage the right muscles. 

Try this step-by-step guide to conquer the proper push-up position: 

  • A push-up involves getting into a high plank position with arms fully extended and shoulder-width apart. 
  • Your palms are on the floor and wrists are right under your shoulders. 
  • The legs should extend back with your feet hip-width apart. 
  • Bend your elbow to a 90-degree angle (pointing back towards your feet) 
  • Lower your whole body before pushing back up. 
  • Throughout the push-up, you should have your head in line with your spine with your gaze down a few inches in front of your hands instead of looking up.

A common issue for people having trouble with push-ups is maintaining their body in a straight line, says Ashley Carter, a personal trainer and health coach in Washington D.C. People may unknowingly dip their hips or spread their hands too far forward because they have trouble supporting the plank position. If stance is an issue, Carter recommends perfecting your plank first before trying a push-up. You can use a mirror to watch your form and adjust when needed. 

Another form issue is flaring the elbows out like chicken wings. Carter says many people tend to angle their elbows down into a V because it takes away some of the tricep work by engaging more of the chest. Additionally, when bringing your elbows up, you’ll want to keep them straight but slightly bent to avoid hyperextension. Locking out the elbows can put more stress on your wrists and lead to possible injury.

Engaging the core is essential for maintaining the proper push-up stance and avoiding pain in your lower back and wrist, which may be used to compensate for the lack of core control. Carter advises to draw your belly button to your spine, a feeling similar to bracing for a punch in the gut. Additionally, squeezing the thighs and glutes activates those muscles, giving you the power to push yourself back up while keeping the spine neutral.

People unconsciously forget to breathe when concentrating on a difficult activity. The same goes when you’re focusing on completing a push-up. 

Sergio Pedemonte, a personal trainer and owner of Your House Fitness in Toronto, says taking a deep breath and holding it can help engage the core. However, releasing the breath is just as important as the muscles need oxygen to get through a strenuous workout. Forgetting to breathe out can tire out your muscles more quickly.

Take a deep breath as you lower yourself down, Pedemonte tells PopSci. You should hold your breath for one to two seconds while engaging the core and then exhale as you are coming back up.

If your problem is being unable to hold yourself as you lower down, Pedemonte recommends using a chest press machine to strengthen the pectorals, triceps, and deltoid muscles. “It’s great for people who don’t have balance or are starting from zero,” he explains. “I just want you to focus on pushing and then pulling back.” A higher progression is a dumbbell chest press where you lie down on your back with knees flat on the floor and arms extended. Each arm should hold two dumbbells where you’ll lower them to your chest at the same time before lifting them back up again. 

If you’re sagging your hips, consider adding more core-centric exercises. In addition to planks, Pedemonte recommends anti-rotational movements such as Pallof press exercises to strengthen the abdominal muscles. Standing parallel to a cable machine, you grip the cable at chest height and pull it away until your arms are extended before bringing it back to your chest. Unlike traditional abdominal workouts like crunches, the exercise challenges you to keep your core engaged so your midsection stays still even when your arms are in motion. 

Everyone’s fitness level is different, and sometimes that calls for regressions or progressions. If you are someone who’s having trouble with push-ups, there are several variations you can try that are less physically demanding on your body. While regressions scale back the intensity of the workout, it is not an easier workout. It still challenges your muscles but allows you to maintain a more consistent form and complete it at a more consistent pace. 

Carter recommends hand elevated push-ups for someone new to this workout. Also known as an incline push-up, you can place your hands on an elevated surface like a bench or a chair. The workout helps build upper body strength by activating several muscles in your arm, chest, and core while putting less stress on the elbow. Additionally, the higher angle has you lift less of your body weight compared to traditional push-ups. Carter adds that “the farther you are off the ground, the easier it’s going to be.”

Another beginner-friendly variation is wall and knee push-ups. Like a regular push-up, you’re pressing yourself away before pulling back. Doing it against a wall uses less upper body strength, easing pressure off your shoulder joints and wrists. Knee-pushups are slightly more challenging than wall push-ups, but still take some of the body weight load off than if you were pushing up from your toes.

Once you’ve gotten used to some of the easier regressions, you might ask yourself when it’s time to move up to a harder variation. That’s up to a person’s individual goals. Carter recommends having a certain number of reps you want to accomplish and adding one or two harder variations each time. Pedemonte says you can check your progress by seeing if you can complete five repetitions in three to five sets in a slow and controlled manner. 

No matter how you train, don’t beat yourself up if you aren’t seeing results immediately. Pedemonte says the most important thing is consistency. Keep challenging yourself and listen to your body when it is time to rest. The results will show up if you keep showing up. 

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