Soldiers do them. Yogis do them. Even lizards do them (seriously, Google “lizards doing push-ups”). And if you want a strong, athletic body—especially a powerful upper half—you should do them, too.
We’re talking about push-ups—the classic, do-anywhere muscle builder you probably first encountered in grade school PE class. But unlike training wheels and T-ball, you don’t ever really outgrow the push-up. “No matter how strong or fit you are, there’s always a way to get more out of this perennially effective move,” says Nick Tumminello, owner of Performance U in Fort Lauderdale, and author of Strength Training for Fat Loss.
Perfect your form with his seven tips, then try Tumminello’s favorite variations to multiply the move’s total-body benefits.
Keep off Your Knees
If you find the classic push-up too hard, don’t drop to your knees. Why? Because knee push-ups won’t help you learn the correct movement pattern or strengthen all of the muscles you’ll need to perform a full push-up. In short, doing knee push-ups will help you get better at doing knee push-ups, and little else. Instead, perform “incline push-ups” with your hands on an elevated surface, such as a bench, step, or sturdy box, says Tumminello. The more elevated it is, easier the push-ups will be. Once you can do 15 reps at a given height, drop six inches, working your way down until your hands are on the floor.
Tuck Your Elbows
“Most people do push-ups with their elbows out wide, so their upper arms form a 90-degree angle with their shoulders,” says Tumminello. Instead, tuck your elbows so they form a 45-degree angle with your torso as you lower your body toward the ground. Viewed from above, you’ll look less like a “T” than an arrow, with your head forming the projectile’s tip. “It’s safer, because it takes some of the stress off your ligaments of your shoulders,” says Tumminello. “But it’s also harder, because that stress is transferred to your muscles.” The result: happier joints and stronger muscles.
Spread Your Hands
For optimal power transfer into the floor, keep your hands slightly wider than shoulder width. “Using narrow a grip forces your elbows to flare outward excessively and strain your joints,” says Tumminello, adding that he’s not a fan of the ever-popular “diamond push-up,” in which you place your hands close together with your thumbs and index fingers touching, for precisely that reason. Another common mistake: Positioning your hands on the floor with your fingers pointing forward, or even slightly inward. Instead, turn your hands so that your fingers point slightly outwards. “It’s a more natural position for your wrists and shoulders,” says Tumminello.
Shift Your Focus
For optimal body alignment in the push-up position, visualize pushing the floor away from you rather than the other way around. This mental image — think of pushing a stalled car — signals your lower back to find its slight, natural arch and your abs to “brace” more firmly, says Tumminello. That last part is key — keeping your abs braced (imagine you’re about to be punched in the gut) will help keep your body straight from head to heels. The result: Proper mechanics and better efficiency as you perform the move.
Progress The Right Way
Once you can bang out 15 classic push-ups with perfect form, you’ve earned the right to mix things up with more challenging variations of the move. Here are four of Tumminello’s favorites.
Break Dancer Push-Up
Benefit: This dynamic, total body exercise ups the ante on the classic push-up by increasing the challenge to your legs, core, and coordination.
How to do it: Assume a push-up position—feet together, core braced, body straight from head to heels, hands in line with and slightly wider than your shoulders, and fingers turned slightly outward. Lower your body to with in a few inches of the floor. As you push back up, pick your left hand off the floor, rotate your body up to your left, and touch your right knee to your left elbow. Return to the starting position. Repeat, this time rotating up to your right and touching your right elbow to your left knee. “Rotate your entire body up,” says Tumminello. “Don’t twist your torso or roll your hips before your shoulders.”
Benefit: Boulder shoulders.
How to do it: Assume a push-up position, and lower your chest to within a few inches of the floor. As you push up, push back, bending your knees and moving your butt toward your heels. Return to the starting position and repeat. “A few reps of these and your shoulders will be on fire,” says Tumminello. Once you can do 15 perfect reps, try the move with your feet elevated on a bench.
Benefits: In addition to targeting your chest and shoulders, it nails your core. “Every muscle in your torso has to work hard to prevent rotation during this move,” says Tumminello. “It’s also a good progression for who ultimately want to master the one-arm push-up.”
How to do it: Assume a push-up position with your left hand on the floor and your right hand on an 8-inch high aerobic step or box. Lower your chest to within a few inches of the step or box, and then push back up, raising your left hand off the floor and locking your right arm at the top of the move. (Don’t rotate your torso — your body should remain straight with your shoulders parallel to the floor for the entire move.) Return to the starting position. Do 5 reps, switch hands, and repeat.
Benefits: Bragging rights and greater athleticism. “The single-arm push-up is not only exponentially harder than the classic version, but it also has greater carryover to sports,” says Tumminello. “The shoulder of your working arm has to work with your opposite hip — just as it does when you throw, punch, or sprint.”
How to do it: Assume a push-up position with your feet spread wide, your right hand on the floor, and your left hand behind your back. Keeping your right elbow close to your torso and over your wrist, bend your right arm and rotate your right shoulder towards the floor. As you come back up, rotate your right shoulder back towards the ceiling. Keep the body straight and your torso stiff the entire time. “Forget bench presses,” says Tumminello. “To me, the single-arm push-up is the king of upper body pushing exercises.”