Could the push-up be the “perfect exercise”? Here’s what it can do for you, and how to get it right.
By Colette Bouchez (WebMD Feature)
(Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD)
While fitness fads may come and go as fast as their late-night infomercials, some types of exercise transcend trends. Among them is the push-up, which uses your own body weight along with gravity to tone and condition muscles. Some fitness experts have called the push-up the closest thing there is to a perfect exercise. And with good reason.
“One of the reasons the push-up has endured so long is it’s cheap, it’s easy, it doesn’t require any equipment, it can work multiple parts of the body at the same time — and pretty much everyone, from beginners to athletes, can derive benefits,” says personal trainer Jonathan Ross, a spokesman for the American Council on Exercise (ACE).
What kind of benefits? If you’re thinking the push-up is the best upper body exercise, many fitness experts agree. But, personal trainer Jessica Bottesch tells WebMD, the push-up benefits many muscle groups body-wide.
“The primary movers [the major muscle groups that produce the motion of a push-up] are the chest and tricep. However, if you look at the form your body takes during the perfect push-up, you’re typically suspended from your toes all the way to your neck, so in reality, every muscle between your shoulders and your toes is engaged,” says Bottesch, co-owner of Empower Personal Training in Durham, N.C.
This includes the all important core muscles of the trunk, as well as the abdominals, legs and hips, she says.
And for women, Bottesch tells WebMD, the push-up has an extra benefit.
“A push-up is considered a resistance exercise, so in addition to muscle strengthening, you also get bone-building effects. It can be as effective as working out with weights,” says Bottesch.
The Perfect Push-up: Mastering the Basics
Although there are many variations on the push-up, the basic principal remains the same: Engage your upper back, shoulders, and arms to lift your body weight off the floor, then slowly lower it back down. While that sounds simple, experts say there’s plenty of room for mistakes.
“The biggest mistake people make when doing a push-up is to try and take some of the stress off their arms by using other muscle groups to help lift their body, so they don’t get the full benefits,” says Todd Schlifstein, DO, a rehabilitation physician at the Langone Medical Center’s Rusk Institute at New York University and assistant professor at the NYU School of Medicine.
Ross agrees: “Body weight should be lifted by your arms, and don’t use your butt or stomach or the lower half of your body to pull you up,” he says.
The correct movement for the perfect push-up, he says, is smooth, “with no swaying of the hips as you go up and down.”
Bottesch adds that it’s also important to keep a straight line from your head down to your ankles when you’re in the lifted position.
Another tip to get the most out of your push-ups: Don’t let your chest actually touch the floor when you come down.
“Your chest should come within 2 to 3 inches of the floor. Put a textbook, a sneaker, a rolled-up sock underneath you, and when you touch it, it’s time to go back up,” says Ross, who was named ACE’s 2008 personal trainer of the year.
Now if all this sounds a bit daunting for your out-of-shape body, fear not. There are ways to make push-ups easier while still gaining the benefits.
“If you’re having trouble … lifting the whole body in the proper alignment, you can do the same exercise, but do it on your knees,” says Schlifstein. While you still need to keep a straight line from neck to torso, by engaging the knees you’ll reduce your lifting load by about half.
For those looking to minimize tension on the wrist, Ross says a variation called the “knuckle push-up” can help. For this type of push-up, you close your hands and put your weight on your knuckles instead of your palms, avoiding the wrist extension motion. But be sure to do this type of push-up on a padded mat or carpet.
“Because there is clearly less fat on this part of the hand, you really do need to add some type of padding if you are going to try this,” says Ross.
The Perfect Push-up: How-to’s for Beginners
If you haven’t done any kind of push-up — let alone a perfect one — since your high school gym teacher stood over you with a whistle and a scowl, don’t worry. There are several ways to ease into doing push-ups.
One option is to use a low bench to prop up your arms, and then do either a regular push-up or the knees-on-the-floor version, Bottesch says.
“If you put your feet on the floor and put your hands on the bench, you can work on getting the body form right with much less strain,” she says.
If even a kneeling push-up with a bench is too tough for you, there’s an even easier way to begin.
You don’t have to lie down at all, Ross tells WebMD. Instead, do your push-ups standing against the wall, which dramatically reduces the pressure on arms and upper back. To make it simpler still, stand closer to the wall.
“With your feet very close to the wall, there is almost no strain, but it still allows you to keep your body in alignment so you get a real sense of how it should feel,” says Ross. As you gain strength, keep moving your feet further away until you feel confident enough to try push-ups on the floor.
The Perfect Push-up Gadgets: What Works
Although the push-up doesn’t require any equipment at all, that doesn’t mean it hasn’t found its way into a late-night infomercial or two. There are a variety of push-up gadgets on the market, designed to put variety into your routine. Most are based on some of type of handle you hang on to during the exercise — and it might surprise you to learn that experts say they can work.
“They provide variation in your workout, plus the basic handle design is especially good for anyone who has an issue with keeping their wrists fully extended,” says Ross.
Taking the handle concept a step further are devices like the one called the “Perfect Pushup,” which incorporate a swiveling action. By rotating the arms while lifting the body, you may be able to increase your range of motion, which in turn increases benefits, Schlifstein says.
Even without gadgets, experts say, you can put variety into your push-up routine by changing up your positions. For example, there’s the one-handed push-up, though experts say it’s not for the faint of heart.
“This requires not only upper body strength, but also a very good sense of balance, so you really have to be in pretty good shape to try this,” says Schlifstein.
Another advanced option: With your hands on the floor, elevate your feet on a low bench behind you as you do push-ups. “It’s an amazing workout, but I don’t recommend anyone try this unless they have really mastered a regular floor push-up,” says Bottesch.
A word of caution: If you feel pain while doing any type of push-up, particularly if the discomfort is focused on one joint, stop working out and talk to your doctor, Bottesch says. And if you have shoulder or elbow issues, including any previous injuries to those areas, Bottesch says push-ups may not be the exercise for you.
6 More Perfect Push-up Tips From the Pros
Here are six more tips from the exercise experts to help you perfect your push-up technique:
- Keep making small changes in your routine, like angling your hands or changing how far apart they are. This will ensure that you keep gaining benefits.
- When starting out, use a “spotter” — someone to watch the angle of your body. If that’s not possible, do your push-ups next to a mirror where you can turn your head and catch a glimpse of your form.
- As you lower yourself toward the ground, the first thing that should graze the floor is your chest. If your hips or legs come down first, you’re doing it wrong.
- For toning muscles (and for smooth, jiggle-free upper arms) you need more repetitions with less body weight, so go for push-ups on your knees or standing at a wall.
- To build muscle mass in your upper arms and back, go for fewer reps with maximum weight load. Do push-ups with your legs straight out, and bring your chest no lower than 2 inches from the ground.
- Remember that while a push-up helps tone muscles body-wide, it doesn’t offer much in the way of cardio benefits, and it won’t help develop the “pull” muscles in your back. So be sure to include other exercises in your regular workouts.