How to do a push up – a step-by-step guide

Think you’re not strong enough to do a push up? Think again. Our resident personal trainer walks you through it.

Push ups or press-ups: whatever you want to call them, they’re a nemesis for many – even the more seasoned exercisers amongst us. When I first started exercising regularly, I thought there would never be a day when I became capable of completing one push up on my toes. As with most exercises though, a bit of perseverance and a lot of work perfecting the right technique, and I got there. 

Push ups aren’t easy. After all, you’re essentially lowering all your body weight to the floor and then pushing it back up again. But they are a great strength training exercise for improving chest, triceps and core. Over the years, I’ve coached many people to achieve the perfect push up for them, and now I’m going to walk you through it with a step-by-step guide. 

Man doing a pushupCredit: Shutterstock / Blue Planet Studio

Exercise: push up.

Equipment needed: optional mat for hands or knees if needed.  

Areas worked: chest, arms, shoulders, core.

The benefits of push ups

A push up is a compound” exercise, meaning it works multiple muscle groups at once. Personally, I like compound movements – if I’m going to exercise, I want it to be worth it!    

One of the benefits of strength training is building muscle, and push ups are great for building upper body and core strength, no matter which variation you do. In everyday life we are constantly required to push or pull things – whether that’s opening a heavy door, pushing a lawnmower, or carrying shopping bags. It’s useful, therefore, to keep our muscles in good condition by exercising them.  

Think of the core muscles as a band around your middle. When we talk of the core we include the abdominal muscles, but also the muscles in the lower back and the glutes (bum). It’s these muscles that work to stabilise us in movement, hold us upright and protect our back from injury. In a push up, the core works to hold us in a straight position.  

How to do a push up step-by-step

There’s a phrase I use a lot when coaching groups: “what’s perfect for you won’t be perfect for your neighbour”. We are all different – in age, weight, height, mobility, physical ability and so much more – and this will affect what the perfect push up looks like for each of us.  

We will go on to look at many variations of push up, so you’ll be able to pick a style that suits you best, but for now, let’s examine the traditional push up technique. 

Push up starting position

Woman in high plank positionCredit: Saga Exceptional
  1. Start in a strong plank position 
  2. Your hands should be positioned slightly wider than your shoulders. 
  3. Make sure the hands are directly in line – if we took a side view, they shouldn’t be in front of the shoulders. 
  4. Your body needs to be in one straight line from head to toe – make sure your bottom isn’t high in the air and that your back doesn’t sag 
  5. Keep your head in line with your spine – so look to the floor in front of you. Don’t look up or back to your toes 
  6. Keep everything braced, so squeeze your glutes (bum muscles) tightly, and engage your core muscles (stomach and lower back). 

Practise getting into this starting position and holding it, even if you’re not going to be doing push ups on your toes just yet. Holding this high plank helps develop core control and balance. It’s a good workout on its own, and you can gradually increase the time you hold it for.  

Doing a push up

Woman doing a pushupCredit: Saga Exceptional
  1. From the starting position, take a breath in and brace 
  2. Lower your body in one straight line, letting the elbows bend at a 45-degree angle to the body – dont let them flare out 
  3. Lower yourself until your whole body is about 3 inches (7.5cm) from the floor don’t leave your bum in the air! 
  4. Explode back up to the starting position 

Common push up mistakes to avoid

Here are some common mistakes I see when coaching people to do push ups. Don’t worry if you’re doing them – we’re all learning! But it’s useful to watch your form, either in a mirror or better yet by videoing yourself, and then correcting these mistakes if you spot them.  

Hands too far forward

If you’re having trouble keeping your hips down, your hands might be too far forward – they need to be directly under the shoulders in a push up. 

Bum in the air

A common issue, but easily corrected. Look at your hand position first (see above). Also check head alignment you don’t need to look to your toes, they aren’t doing anything interesting. Keep your neck in line with the spine, so your gaze naturally rests on the ground two or three inches in front of you.  

Body not moving as one

It’s important you move your chest, core, hips and legs down as one and back up again too. Don’t leave your bum behind! When I do push ups, in my head I repeat, “Lower yourself into the hole, then push the ground away. I think of lowering my whole body into a pit, Mission Impossible-style, and then pushing the floor away to come back up.  

Back arching or dipping

This can be an issue if you don’t have much core strength. Work on holding the starting position, increasing the time until you’re able to confidently stay in a good solid plank for 20-30 seconds.  

Shorter range of motion

In a push up, you want to lower the body until it’s around three inches from the floor. At that point, your elbows will be at a 90-degree angle. If you can’t get down low enough, you won’t benefit from the movement. Instead, try one of the alternatives below and build from there. 

Easier push up variations for beginners

Doing a full push up can be difficult. It’s an advanced exercise and does require a degree of strength and flexibility to make it happen. But we all start somewhere, and there are many variations to push ups that are perfect for beginners. Look at the list below and pick a variation that suits your fitness level.  

Wall push ups

Wall pushupCredit: Saga Exceptional
You can start with wall pushups if mobility in the shoulders is an issue

This is a great option for beginning to build strength in the arms and flexibility in the shoulders.  

  1. Place hands flat on the wall slightly wider than your shoulders, arms fully extended, feet hip-width apart 
  2. Take a step back, so your body is sloping away from the wall.  
  3. Push yourself towards the wall, letting the elbows bend at a 45-degree angle to the body. 
  4. Try to keep your body in one straight line throughout the movement.  
  5. Once you’re about 3 inches (7.5cm) from the wall, push yourself back to the starting position.  

When you can do three rounds of between five and eight repetitions (reps) with ease, move on to incline push ups 

Incline push ups

Woman doing a pushup with her hands on a bench.Credit: Saga Exceptional

It’s important that you use a stable surface such as a gym bench for this exercise.  

  1. Follow the push up guidelines above but place your hands firmly on a bench or other sturdy surface to perform the exercise.  
  2. Be sure to keep your core engaged throughout and move the body as one unit (don’t leave your backside behind!).  

When you can confidently perform three rounds of five to eight reps, move on to bent knee push ups 

Bent knee push ups

woman doing a pushup with knees downCredit: Saga Exceptional
  1. Follow the starting position instructions for a full push up 
  2. Once you’re in the plank position, drop your knees underneath you so your body is still angled the same way, just with the knees touching the floor.  
  3. You shouldn’t be in a box position – your hips should still angle down away from the shoulders.  
  4. Follow the push up instructions, taking care to hold the correct body position.  

Once you can confidently perform between five and eight reps, try one push up on your toes and the rest on your knees, until you can add another rep on your toes and so on. If you find your technique is not as good or you can’t get as low, go back to bent knee push ups 

Remember – theres no rule to say you must learn to do push ups on your toes! Pick a style that works for you and only progress to the next level if you feel physically able to do so.  

Advanced push up variations

If you’re a push up pro, you might like to try one of these variations for an extra challenge:  

  • Diamond push ups: work the triceps by moving your hands closer together, forming a diamond shape.  
  • Decline push ups: raise the feet onto a bench or stable surface to really target the chest and shoulders.  
  • Medicine ball push ups: perform a push up with one hand on a medicine ball for a tricky challenge.  
  • Single arm push up: the gold standard of bodyweight strength training a singlearm push up takes a lot of skill and dedication to master successfully.  

How to add pushups into your workout

Push ups are great for home workouts or bodyweight strength training. They’re a good way to build muscle with no equipment needed, so you can try them out at home as much as you like. Sets of five to eight reps is ideal, and about three or four rounds works best. Remember to rest between rounds though.  

If you want to add them into a gym workout routine, you could incorporate them into our gym workout ideas, or combine them with the best arm exercises for an upper body blast.  

Becky Fuller

Written by Becky Fuller she/her

Updated:

Becky Fuller is a fully qualified Personal Trainer, specialising in strength and conditioning for over 50s. Becky’s focus is helping people to become stronger both in body and mind, and to move well without pain. Becky also has many years’ experience working as a freelance journalist, writing for a wide variety of publications such as Screen Rant, Geek Feed, and Daily Actor. She also regularly reviews theatre productions for UKTW.

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