How to do a Push-up (9 Form Variations) - Old School Labs
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Home » OSL Blog » How to do a Push-up (9 Form Variations)

How to do a Push-up (9 Form Variations)

February 5, 2020

Key Takeaways

  1. Push-ups may look easy, but they require a good deal of upper body strength. Don’t consider this bodyweight exercise until you’re at a healthy weight to avoid wrist or elbow injuries.
  2. You may think push-ups only work the upper body, but done correctly, they are an effective full-body workout similar to the plank.
  3. If you can’t do a full push-up right away, there are modifications you can try to build up your strength first.
  4. Once you’ve really perfected the form and push-ups become easy, consider adding some variations to up the challenge.

When we say push-ups, what comes to mind? Are they something you do regularly or do you dread them?

Some have flashbacks to fitness tests from middle school, where you had to do as many as possible in a minute. You may not have done them since then, and if not, that’s okay.

Diamond Push-Ups

But, if you are looking for an easy full-body workout that can help you build strength, you may want to reconsider. Push-ups require no equipment and can be done anywhere, as long as you have the floor space.

If you want to learn how to do a push-up, then today is the day to get started. First, we’ll give you some tips on how to prepare yourself. Then, we’ll discuss:

  • The muscles worked
  • The benefits of doing push-ups
  • The proper form to use
  • Modifications to build up to a full push-up
  • Variations to try once you conquer the push-up

Before You Start

Here are some things you need to do before performing push-ups. Like the handstand, you may need to do some work before you are even ready to get started. 

Get in the Right Mindset

Many people say, “I just can’t do push-ups!” And if you’re one of those people, you’re right. 

One of the first things you need to do when doing proper push-ups is to get into the right mindset. If you’ve been telling yourself that you can’t do them, then you definitely won’t be able to.

You need to reframe your thinking from “I can’t!” to “I can!” Once you believe you can do it (with practice and possible modifications at first) you realize your capabilities.

Positive Thinking

It’s the same as anything you’ve done in your life so far. Even the toughest obstacles that have been put in your way are surmountable – with practice and patience. 

Think about the very first time you walked into the gym. You walked in the door, saw the free weights and machines, then probably had one of two reactions:

  1. You took a deep breath and kept walking. Maybe you started with the machines since they instruct you how to use them. Or, you picked up a light dumbbell and got to work on some curls.
  2. You turned around and high-tailed it to the parking lot!

Even if you had the second reaction, eventually, you worked up the courage to go in and lift weights. Learning how to do proper push-ups is no different. And we’re here to help you through it.

We’ll also let you in on a little secret – if you can do a 60-second plank, you can do a push-up! So, let’s get ready. And don’t worry, we’ve got modifications you can do to work your way up to a full push-up.

Prepare Your Body

Lots of people give up on push-ups because they hurt themselves. This is not only because of improper form. You may need to build up your strength in certain areas before you can successfully complete a push-up.

Make sure your wrists are strong before you do push-ups. They will be holding up your body weight while performing the exercise, so you want to make sure they can. Consider doing some of the same wrist exercises you would when working on your handstands.

Wrist Curls

If you have wrist pain, don’t ignore it.

There could be an underlying issue, like a ganglion cyst, causing the pain. It’s best to talk with your doctor before you continue bearing weight on your wrist.

Your core and glutes will also be in on the action. Working to build up your strength here will only help your push-up form.

Don’t forget your upper body! Those arms, shoulders, chest, and back will all be getting a workout. Building strength here will ensure your form stays in line while doing push-ups.

Preparing your body to start any new form of exercise is crucial to avoid injury and improve muscle gains.

Consider Your Current Weight

If you’ve got some weight to lose, then you may need to hold off on push-ups until you lose some pounds. Remember, you’re holding your entire body weight up with your wrists and arms.

The more weight to hold, the more likely you can cause injury.

Lifting weights

If your goal is to lose more weight to get healthier, stick with eating healthy and lifting weights first. This will also help build your strength to prepare you to do push-ups later on.

Nothing will derail your goals faster than an injury. If you can’t work out, you might end up in an eating spiral and not make the best choices. Keeping yourself healthy and injury-free is the only way to go.

If you want to do push-ups as part of your workout routine, make that a goal. It can be once you hit a certain weight or another milestone. Working towards that point will keep you motivated, and the strength you gain will make push-ups easier.

Now, we’ve said before that the push-up is a full-body workout. But what muscles are actually used when you do push-ups? Let’s find out.

Muscles Worked

While the wrists, arms, and shoulders hold the brunt of your body weight during a push-up, that’s not all. When doing push-ups properly, these are the muscles activated:

Upper Body Muscles
  • Pectoralis major and minor
  • Deltoid major and minor
  • Biceps
  • Triceps
  • Trapezius
  • Latissimus dorsi
  • Rhomboids 
  • Core muscles
  • Lower back muscles
  • Gluteus medius and maximus
  • Hamstrings
  • Quadriceps
  • Calves 

As you can see, it really is a full-body workout that helps build strength with no equipment (unless modifications are needed).

Given all the muscles activated when doing push-ups, there’s got to be some benefits, right? Of course, there are.

Benefits of push-ups

Let’s look at some benefits you can see from doing regular push-ups.

Burn Calories

The whole idea of exercising is to burn calories and build up muscle strength. Having to hold up your entire body weight and using large muscle groups to do it definitely burns calories.

Plan Healthy

The number of calories burned will depend on a few things:

  • Age
  • Height
  • Weight
  • How long you perform the activity

That you can do this exercise pretty much anywhere means you have no excuses not to burn calories. Once you’ve got the form down, you can do as many as possible to get your workout routine in.

Strengthening Your Upper Body

Our shoulders can feel like they carry the weight of the world sometimes. It can get heavy, so having a solid foundation can help support you – mentally and physically.

Unlike other upper-body exercises, your shoulder blade moves freely when performing a push-up. Stability in your shoulder helps not only in the gym but during activities of daily living.

Strong Upper Body

Push-ups are a great way to build up the muscles around your shoulder joint. Strengthening the serratus anterior (the muscle under your armpit) also helps reduce shoulder impingement during other exercises. 

Once you perfect your form and get the hang of doing push-ups, there are different variations to try. We’ll get into some of them later, but here are a few that really target specific upper-body muscle groups:

  • Abs and back muscles: forward and backward (hand placement) push-ups
  • Triceps and pecs: narrow (arm stance) push-ups
  • All muscle groups: backward push-ups

A strong upper-body isn’t the only benefit, push-ups also help keep your heart strong.

Improve Cardiovascular Health

While you may not be thinking much about your heart health now, as you age, it becomes more of a concern. The earlier you start eating right and exercising, the healthier you will be later in life.

One study followed over 1,100 male firefighters of various ages over a period of 10 years. What they found at the end of the study is the more push-ups they could do, the less risk of cardiovascular events.

Push-ups Cardiovascular Health

The group that could perform over 40 push-ups (10 per set) was 96% less likely to have an event. This compared them to men in the same group who could do 10 or fewer push-ups without stopping.

When you first start out, you may not be able to do over 10 without stopping. And that’s okay. You want to make a goal of doing 40 or more and build up to that. Patience and practice are the way to get there.

Now that we’ve talked about some benefits, let’s get into proper form.

How to Do a Push-up with Proper Form

If you can’t do a push-up, here’s how to get started with the proper form. Avoid injury by doing them right from the beginning. 

Doing a Push Up

Don’t worry if you can’t hold yourself up completely at first. We will provide you some modifications to build up to a full push-up if needed.

First, let’s get into placement before we begin.

Body Placement

  1. Start in a plank position. If you don’t know how to do a plank, we linked it above and here it is again.
    • Instead of starting on your elbows, you’ll support your weight with your wrists.
    • Your hands should be flat with your fingers facing forward. Hands should be just over shoulder-width apart with your hands next to your upper pec (when in the down position).
  2. Elbows: One of the most common errors, when beginners learn how to do a push-up, is elbow placement.
    • You may think your arms should be straight out, but you actually want them angled.
    • Think about it this way – if you’re looking down from above, your upper arms and torso should form an arrow, not a T.
  3. Feet: Foot placement may come down to personal preference.
    • You may feel more comfortable having your feet together or further apart. Your toes and the ball of your foot will hold up your body weight.
    • Just remember a wider stance = more stability.
  4. Head: Don’t look down! Seriously…keep yourself from making this error.
    • Instead, look forward so that when you’re in the down position, your chin is the closest to the ground.
    • This also helps keep your body in a straight line throughout the movement.

Now, you’re in the right position to start the work of doing a proper push-up. We hope you’re ready!

One Rep of a Proper Push-up

No matter if you’re a male or female beginner, learning how to do push-ups is basically the same. Here, we will complete one full rep of a push-up with proper form.

  1. Keep your core engaged and your glutes clenched so you maintain the plank pose throughout. Don’t let your butt rise or your back arch. Maintain a straight line with your torso.
  2. Begin by lowering your body down and bending your elbows. Keep your elbows in so they don’t splay out as you go down.
  3. Continue lowering your body until a.) your elbows are at a 90-degree angle or b.) your chest is touching the ground.

This is the only difference that you may see in females to males. Pause for just a moment and then in one explosive motion, push yourself back up the starting position.

Reps of Push Ups

Consideration: though the explosive upward movement is common, this study advised a slower speed may benefit muscle activation. To better improve upper body strength, consider reducing your speed during each rep.

Congratulations!! You’ve just done one push-up rep!! 

Now, continue to do the reps until you break form. Once you’ve reached that point, the set is over. Take a rest for 30-60 seconds before you start your next set. Complete three to four sets.

When you’re done, write how many reps you could complete for each set. There’s no right or wrong here, as long as you do each rep with perfect form. As you get stronger and more confident, you’ll gain in reps.

But, what if you can’t do over one or two push-up exercises? You may need modifications to start with before you can do a full push-up. Here are some to consider.

Push-up Modifications

Women lack upper-body strength compared to men, so they may need more modification. The great thing about push-ups is that you can do them in different ways. If you can’t do a full push-up right away, that’s normal. 

Here are some things to try first to build up to a push-up.

1. Wall Push-ups

Using a wall to do push-ups is a great modification that also eases pressure on the wrists. This modification will focus mainly on the upper body muscles.

Wall Push Ups Women

It helps you get your form down and learn the basic movements until you’re ready to go to the next modification.

To learn how to do a wall push-up with video, check it out here.

2. Knee Push-ups

This modification also helps takes some pressure off the wrists as you aren’t having to support your entire body weight.

Knee Push-Ups

You’ll get into the same position as the full push-up, but your knees will be on the ground. Either your feet will be together and flat on the floor, or you can have them up the air. You can use this position to work on your form too.

Take a look if you want to see how to do a knee push-up exercise.

3. Incline Push-ups

Another modification is to raise your upper body up on an object. You can use whatever object is easier for you:

  • Chair
  • Stairs
  • Sturdy box
  • Weight bench

If you start out at a higher elevation, go down to a lower elevation next time. Eventually, you’ll be doing a full push-up on the ground.

incline push-ups

The incline push-up will work your lower pecs more than the rest of your chest. Here is someone doing an incline push-up.

If, on the other hand, you’ve got the full push-up exercise down, here are some variations you can try. These will really increase the challenge of doing a push-up.

Push-Up Variations

Changing up the push-up also changes the focus on different muscle groups. Make sure you really have the push-up down before you try any of these variations.

Some of them require more upper body strength while others may be more dangerous. Proceed with some of these push-up variations with caution.

Check out this wikiHow to do a push-up to see the different push-up variations in action.

1. Plyometric Push-ups

These types of push-ups usually include an explosive action during the upward phase of the push-up. For example, when moving upward, push yourself completely off the ground so your hands lift.

Plyometric Push-ups

If you can get yourself high enough off the ground, you can also clap your hands before catching yourself. These are pretty difficult, so you may want to try some other variations first.

2. Knuckle and Fingertip Push-ups

These are done just like regular push-ups, except you are putting your weight either on your fingertips or knuckles.

Knuckle Push-Ups

You need a decent amount of strength in your hands and wrists to pull these off. They are a good way to condition for contact sports such as martial arts or boxing.

3. One-Arm or One-Leg Push-ups

Try these variations to build up strength in your limbs by switching back and forth. This can also be a good way to gain symmetry if one limb is stronger than the other.

One Arm Push-Ups

These also might help engage your core more, so you can work to build up strength in your abs. 

4. Decline Push-ups

Try this push-up variation by putting your feet up on a box or chair before doing a normal push-up. It may look easy but it’s more of a challenge than a full push-up.

Decline Push-ups

Increase the difficulty by increasing the height of the object your feet are on. 

5. Stability Ball Push-ups

Increase muscle activation by using a stability ball (or Swiss ball) under your hands. If you really want to target your triceps, consider using a Swiss ball instead of placing your hands on the ground.

Stability Ball Push-ups

You can also place the ball under your feet instead of your hands. The instability of the ball requires the muscles to work harder during the push-ups, especially the core.

6. Width Change Push-ups

You can also change the different muscles activated by changing the width of your hands. Moving your hands wide, well past your shoulders, focuses more on the chest muscles.

Width Change Push-ups

To focus on the pectoralis minor and the triceps, a narrow stance will provide greater activation. Changing the stance will increase the challenge of performing each set of push-ups.


The push-up may look easy, but without proper upper body strength, it can prove difficult. There are modifications available to help improve strength and form if you can’t do a full push-up right away.

Once you have the form down and to avoid a fitness plateau or boredom, you can include variations. Push-ups are a great full-body workout that doesn’t require equipment and can be done almost anywhere.

Do you like doing push-ups? Have you tried some of the variations we listed? Which are your favorites? Let us know in the comments below.

Disclaimer: None of the individuals and/or companies mentioned necessarily endorse Old School Labs or COSIDLA Inc. products or the contents of this article. Any programs provided for illustration purposes only. Always consult with your personal trainer, nutritionist and physician before changing or starting any new exercise, nutrition, or supplementation program.
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