How to do a push up properly: Essential form tips and mistakes everyone makes

Whether you're a beginner or a serious athlete, go back to basics with our push up guide

Woman doing push up
(Image credit: iStock)

Push ups are one of the first exercises we’re introduced to in gym or PE classes at school. If you’ve ever tried any kind of fitness class, whether football, rugby, boxing or circuit training, it’s likely the instructor will ask you to do push ups. But how well do you know one of the most common exercises in fitness?

Man doing push up

(Image credit: iStock)

The push up works well as a broad measure of physical fitness: the Journal of the American Medical Association found people who could complete at least 40 push-ups within 30 seconds had a low risk of heart attack, or other cardiovascular issues, over the next 10 years of their life. It can be made easier by doing it on an incline surface, such as a chair or bench, or it can be made more challenging by doing one of our variations below.

Knowing how to do a push up properly helps work your pectoral muscles, triceps and core, making it a great muscle-building move. However, because it works lots of muscles at the same time, it can also boost your metabolism, helping you to lose weight.

For people getting into exercise for the first time, or those returning after an absence, our top tips will help you re-examine how to do a push up. First, follow our step-by-step guide below. You can then try our best at home chest workout, which leans heavily – no pun intended – on push-ups.

How to do a push up

Push up

(Image credit: Future)
  • First, get into the starting plank position. Keep your legs together, with the balls of your feet and toes planted firmly on the floor. Your arms should be straight, with your hands placed just wider than shoulder width apart. 
  • In this starting position, your fingers should be spread out and pointed forwards. Most importantly, your body should form a straight line from your heels to your shoulders, with your head up. 
  • Start lowering yourself down towards the floor, concentrating on maintaining your straight body position. If you pull in your glutes (they’re the muscles in your backside) and your abs, this will help you maintain a rigid body position throughout. 
  • Keep lowering yourself until your chest almost touches the floor. Pause before pushing back up until your arms are straight. That’s one repetition – you should be doing at least 10 in a set. Go slowly at first, concentrating on perfecting the correct body position. 

How to do a push up: What are the most common push up mistakes?

The move may seem simple enough, but there’s a few common mistakes lots of people make when learning how to do a push up without proper instruction. You might not even notice yourself doing them, which could be hampering your progress. 

“People often lift their hips to give their abs a bit of a break, which is the wrong thing to do,” says celebrity PT Scott Laidler. “From that position, you won’t be working your core." 

Push ups aren't just about your chest: to perform them correctly, you need to keep your body in a plank position, which takes core strength. If you push your hips up to give your ab muscles a break, Laidler says you also shift your weight from your chest to your shoulders, which means you're working the wrong muscles. 

Woman doing a Tabata workout, a form of HIIT

(Image credit: Getty Images)

"To fix this, you want your body to be in a straight line when doing a push up, from your shoulders to your heels,” Laidler tells us. You can use a mirror or a workout partner to keep an eye on your form, or some fitness experts believe you’re more likely to maintain a straight body if you hook one ankle around the other.

You should start the move with your hands underneath your chest, and as you lower your body to the ground, your elbows should be no wider than 45 degrees. If your elbows start pointing at right-angles to your body, your hands are probably in the wrong place.

For those who can already do multiple sets of push ups, we’ve gathered lots of muscle-building, fat-torching variations on the move to help you on your fitness journey. 

Variation: Spider-Man push up

Spider-Man push up

(Image credit: Future)

The Spider-Man push up acquired its superhero-themed name as it mimics the leg movements of Stan Lee’s great comic book creation. It’s an altogether trickier – not to mention tougher – workout. 

  • Begin in the standard push up position, with your arms straight and hands placed just wider than shoulder width apart. As usual, your body should form a straight line from your heels to your shoulders.  
  • As you lower yourself, bring your right knee out sideways and pull it up towards your right elbow. Once you’ve reached the lowest position, slowly push back up to the plank position. While you’re doing this, reverse the leg movement so it finishes in the starting position. 
  • Once you’ve done it with your left leg, swap over and do the same exercise with your right leg. Alternate between the two during sets of repetitions. 

Variation: Judo push up

Judo push up

(Image credit: Future)

This variation on the push up adds in extra movements for the core and upper body, so it should help improve your core flexibility. 

  •  Start in an adapted push up position, with your body bent at the hips to make a rough “v” shape. As usual, your hands should be placed just wider than hip-width apart, with your legs together and the balls of your feet grounded. 
  • Lower yourself down in the adapted position, then bring your hips down to make a standard push up “down” position.
  • Pause briefly in the lower position. Don’t allow your chest or hips to touch the floor: pull in your abs and glutes to help maintain good posture. 
  • As you push back up again, raise your head and shoulders to gently stretch your core and lower back. Pause briefly in this position, before lowering your head and shoulders to return to the starting position. 

Variation: Diamond push up

Diamond push up

(Image credit: Future)

If you want a gruelling workout, you should try variations on push-ups with different grips. Closer and wider grips both make the exercise much more difficult. Another excellent alternative is the diamond push-up, which works the triceps just that little bit harder.

  • Assume the plank position, taking care to make a straight line with your back and legs. Place your hands a few inches apart, with your fingers pointing forwards at a 45-degree angle and your thumbs extended. 
  • The tips of your thumbs and fingers should be touching and form a triangle shape. Lower yourself until your chest is just a few inches off the ground, just as you would a normal push up.

Variation: Scorpion push up

Scorpion push up

(Image credit: Future)

 In its purest form, the scorpion push-up offers a real test of your flexibility. In fact, only those with particularly flexible muscles can perform it accurately. Because of this, we’ve adapted the exercise to make it easier for those of all levels of ability and muscular flexibility. 

  • Get into the plank position, but this time place your feet roughly hip-width apart. Your arms should be straight, with your hands positioned in the classic manner. Remember to pull in your glutes and core to help make your body more rigid. This helps maintain that fabled straight line between your shoulders and ankles.  
  • Lower yourself in the standard fashion, until your chest is a few inches off the ground. 
  • As you push back up, flick your left leg over your right ankle and out to the side. To do this, you’ll need to twist at the core a little. How far you are able to flick it out depends on your flexibility; to begin with, don’t try and overreach and concentrate on keeping good balance and control.  
  • Once your arms are fully extended, go straight into another push-up, lowering your body whilst simultaneously bringing your core and legs back to the usual position, as shown in picture two.  
  • When you press back up again, reverse the “scorpion” leg movements so that you’re bringing your right leg over your left ankle and your right heel towards your left shoulder. 

Variation: Walking gecko push up

Walking gecko push up

(Image credit: Future)

This variation on the push up requires good agility, and provides a workout for the core, legs and upper body. If you’re having trouble getting the movements right, imagine that you’re walking like a gecko.

  • Start in a regular plank position, but with your feet hip-width apart and your hands just wider than shoulder width apart. 
  • Lower yourself in the standard manner.  
  • As you come up, simultaneously bring your right knee towards your right elbow, and move your left hand forward.  
  • As you move forward, your body should naturally lower. In the lowest position, your left hand should be further forward than your head.  
  • As you come up, raise your left knee towards your left elbow, and push your right hand forwards.  
  • Complete the movement, so that you’re down low with your left knee touching your left elbow and your right arm extended forwards. That’s one repetition – now onto the next one… 

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