How to do a push up properly to build strength and tone up

Want to learn how to do a push up properly? We'll help you focus on your form for this staple move and its variations

Man learning how to do a push up outdoors
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Learning how to do a push up properly is an essential part of any fitness routine. This indispensable move helps build upper body strength, works your core, and tones your arms. If you can master the art of how to do a perfect push up, it'll help support you in a range of other exercises too.

Importantly, you don't need to take out a gym membership, buy additional equipment, or have a certain fitness level to learn how to do a push up correctly.  The same could be said for learning how to do a plank as well. Importantly, push up variations can modify the exercise for beginners or make it more challenging for fitness experts.

“Push-ups work multiple muscles at the same time, making this a compound movement pattern. They’ll strengthen your chest, shoulders, triceps, biceps and back. Push-ups work muscle groups you may not initially think of too,” notes James Thomas, a Les Mills US Trainer & Studio Manager. 

Man doing push up

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Push ups, known also as press ups, are an effective measure of your overall health. Researchers found that completing 40 push-ups within 30 seconds correlated with a low risk of heart attack and other cardiovascular issues over the next 10 years of their lives.

Moreover, doing a push up correctly can help develop stronger shoulders, create defined back muscle, and work your biceps. This is because push ups are a compound exercise, where multiple muscles are used in a single move.

According to Thomas, “to maintain proper form, you’ll find your core and lower body activating to assist the primary muscles moving your body as one unit through the full range of motion.” As a result, it's an incredibly effective workout for your whole body and one of the best home chest workouts

So, if you're ready to learn how to do a push up, we've put together the ultimate guide to this essential move with some push up variations for you to try when you want to shake up your routine.

How to do a push up

Push up

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  • 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: tips and common mistakes to avoid

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 learning how to do a push up properly, demonstrating correct form

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"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, revealing one of his top push up tips: use a mirror or a workout partner to keep an eye on your form. Alternatively, 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.

Push up variations

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. 

How to do a Spider-Man push up

Spider-Man push up

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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. 

How to do a Judo push up

Judo push up

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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. 

How to do a diamond push up

Diamond push up

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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.

How to do a scorpion push up

Scorpion push up

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 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. 

How to do a walking gecko push up

Walking gecko push up

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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… 

How to do a push-up into rotation

Woman doing a push up into rotation

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If you're after a way to build muscle in your upper body and develop core strength, then consider adding a push up into rotation to your routine. In effect, this move combines a push up with a side plank but also requires your core for stabilization as you transition between the two positions.

  • Start in a push-up position, either on your toes or on your knees.
  • Lower your body towards the floor.
  • As you rise back to the start position, raise one hand off the floor and rotate up, so your raised hand is pointing towards the ceiling.
  • Return to the start position and repeat on the other side.

How to do a dive-bomb push up

Woman doing a dive-bomb push up

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This push up variation blends the bodyweight move with yoga-style stretching. The movement starts in the yoga position downward-facing dog before transitioning into a chest and leg-focused strength exercise.

  • Perform a downward dog, raising your bottom in the air, so you look like an inverted 'v'.
  • Lower shoulders towards the floor, but before your chin hits the ground, swoop your body forward, so you push your chest out and forwards.
  • Your back should be arched and arms locked out.
  • Hold the position for a second, then return to the starting position by reversing the exercise.

How to do a close hand push up

Woman doing a close hand push up

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Initially, this move looks similar to a diamond push up, but the placement of your hands is mid-way between shoulder-width and the diamond position. As a result, it works different muscles and is complementary to a standard or diamond push up.

  • Take up a plank position with your hands placed on the floor, narrower than shoulder-width apart.
  • Slowly lower yourself down to perform a press up until your chest almost touches the floor.
  • Pause, then push yourself up to the starting position.

How to do a Swiss Ball push up

Woman doing a Swiss Ball push up

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If you want to challenge yourself and get a whole-body workout, then give this Swiss Ball push up a try. The exercise targets your chest, triceps, and core as the ball's instability means your whole body will work to maintain balance.

  • Perform a press up with your feet on the ball, ensuring that you maintain a good neutral plank position throughout.
  • Once you have completed your press up, push your body back while keeping your core engaged and return to the start position.

How to do a knee push up

Woman doing a knee push up

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If you're looking for how to do a push up for beginners, then a knee push up is a great place to start. By placing your knees on the ground, you don't have to support the majority of your bodyweight through your upper body during the exercise.

  • Start on all fours and lean forward so your hands are under your shoulders and your weight is over your top half.
  • With your elbows facing outwards, lower your body to the floor, keeping a straight back.
  • Lift your torso, pushing through your arms.