The Right Way to Do a Push Up

Push ups. You’ve been doing them since middle school gym class. Did I say doing? I meant dreading. The elbow shaking, wrist hurting, back cramping make push ups the last thing you want to do at the gym, but they’re such a convenient way to build strength.

“It’s a great exercise to know how to do because if you’re traveling you can do it in a hotel room,” said Patricia Montagano, the director of recreation and intramural sports at Hofstra University.

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If you’re still not sold on push ups, perhaps the reason you haven’t grown to like… eh, tolerate, them is that you haven’t been doing them correctly.

I sat down with Montagano to talk about what makes the perfect push up.

Where to Start



When you’re doing a push up, form is everything.

“Push ups are truly one of the best exercises you can do because they incorporate all muscle groups, even your core,” said Montagano.

Common mistakes people make are dipping or raising their hips and lowering their bodies at the shoulder joint. Keeping your back flat and bending at the elbows will build more muscle in a pain-free form and ensure you aren’t cheating yourself out of an efficient workout.

Your arms should be shoulder width apart in front of you. The closer you bring your arms into your body, the less isolated your muscles are and the less weight they have to lift.

Put your weight on your toes and keep your hands flat on the floor. This position will help you get a bonus core workout on arm day.

Keep your head in line with body. Looking up or to the side or dipping your head will put undue strain on your neck.

Most importantly, breathe! You want to keep your body tight, not strained.

How do you know where to start? It all depends on each person’s level of fitness and age. Montagano recommends 2-3 sets of 5-10 push ups if you’re new, 3-4 sets of 10-15 if you’re good and 3-4 sets of 15-20 push ups as the best workout.

Make it Easier


If you’re new to push ups, it’s OK to ease yourself into a full one. It’s better to be able to do one good push up in the correct form than 20 push ups incorrectly.

The easiest way to practice is leaning against a wall at an angle. You’re still pushing your body weight away, without having to resist all of it.

If you’re not quite at the level of doing a full push up, try doing it on your knees. Just be careful, it’s very easy to raise your hips. Use this modified method to perfect your form.

Make it Harder



If you’re a push up machine, try challenging yourself by holding a push up in the down position. This keeps your muscles contracted and engaged.

“Changing your arm position will increase the difficulty of the movement,” said Montagano. The closer you go to your body the more you work your triceps. Making a triangle with your index fingers and thumbs, with hands flat on the floor, will work the tricep muscle group.

You can also try changing your hand placement by doing the exercise on your knuckles or moving your hands further away laterally. 

Make push ups a part of you new daily routine by following Montagano’s advice to “start slow, focus on your form and pound away.”