Ultimate PUSH-UP Guide: Perfect Your Push-up

99, 100, 101… Oh, I didn’t see you there. I was busy finishing my 101st push-up of the day and decided to write this article. 

I am just kidding; I did 90 push-ups before writing. 

Okay, enough joking around. I wrote this push-up guide because I saw a 100 push-up-a-day challenge on social media.  

Many posts show folks finishing their push-ups, grabbing their shoulders, and wincing.  

That’s never a good sign.  

Your shoulders shouldn’t bother you after push-ups, even if you decide to do 100 of them. 

But since you’re a persistent Pete, I promise by the end of this guide, you will be able to perform more pain-free push-ups than an action hero in a 1980s training montage. 

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But Push-Ups Are Easy

I hear you. Maybe you think push-ups are easy because they are a “basic” bodyweight pushing movement; however, there is nothing basic about the basics.  

When appropriately performed, the push-up is a full-body strength movement. I mean, look at the stats: 

Push-Ups
Prime Movers: Pectoralis major, anterior deltoids, triceps
Supporting Musculature: Abdominals, latisimus dorsi, serratus anterior, biceps brachii, infra and supraspinatus, teres minor, rhomboids, mid and lower trapezius. 
Bonus: Quadriceps (if legs are extended) & glutes (hip extension).

There is more than meets the eye when it comes to push-ups.  

Also, if you’re skipping push-ups, you’re missing out on developing total body strength & control. 

Strength + Control = Mobility

Cool, Why Does Any Of This Matter? 

I’m so glad you asked, Curious George. 

I will say that being able to perform slow and controlled bodyweight push-ups will only make you better at loaded pressing movements.  

You will have more body awareness. 

You will have more control. 

Your ability to press weight will improve.  

You will be working with a lot of the same musculature.

Push-UpBench Press
Prime Movers: Pectoralis major, anterior deltoids, tricepsPrime Movers: Pectoralis major, anterior deltoids, triceps
Supporting Musculature: Abdominals, latisimus dorsi, serratus anterior, biceps brachii, infra and supraspinatus, teres minor, rhomboids, mid and lower trapezius. Supporting Musculature: Abdominals, latisimus dorsi, biceps brachii, infra and supraspinatus, teres minor, rhomboids, lower trapezius 

There is quite a bit of crossover between the two pressing movements. 

Not to mention, proper push-ups allow the shoulder blades to articulate, leading to happy and healthy shoulders. ✅

And…

By the end of this push-up guide, you will know how and why to stop your pesky elbows from flaring, which has a direct carry-over into more efficient pressing movements. 

Now let’s move on, shall we? 

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About Those Elbows 

When I started working as a trainer, one of the more senior trainers took me aside after watching me do push-ups.  

My elbows were VERY flared, like every stock photo of someone performing push-ups. 

He could tell my shoulder was bothering me after my set.  

This is what he said: 

“Your shoulder is kind of like a golf ball on a tee. Knocking a ball off a tee doesn’t take much, right?” 

Now, I believe that shoulders are resilient and meant to move in various ways. 👇

However, your shoulders do not appreciate push-ups with flared elbows. It places more stress on the joint, and it doesn’t feel great if you have ever benched with flared elbows. 

When you flare the elbows, you lose a lot of stability, and if you do that for long enough, the shoulders get cranky. 

So here is what we are after: 

By drawing the elbows in, you will create more stability.  

With the added stability, you will have more control, and your shoulders will be happy. 

Another tip is trying to align the elbows with your middle finger.  

Ever notice how your elbows flare if you perform diamond push-ups?  

If you have difficulty keeping the elbows in, try slightly turning your hands out.  

The push-up might become more challenging, and that’s OKAY! After all, you said push-ups were easy, right? 😉 

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Proper Position

One more note, my anxious ant eater, let’s dive into the ideal body position for the push-up.  

Please take a moment to review this position, and be sure to apply it to all of the following progressions. 🤓

Push-Up Progressions

Forearm Plank 

  • Start on hands and knees
  • Place forearms on the ground making a 90-degree angle.
  • Extend legs back and maintain level hips

Plank 

  • Start with hands and knees on the ground
  • Push through arms and extend legs
  • Squeeze legs together
  • Create a straight line from the top of your head to the bottom of your feet. 

Elevated Push-Up 

  • Use a stable surface
  • Perform your push-up with elbows tight to the body.
  • As push-ups get easier, lower the surface closer to the ground.

Kneeling Push-up

  • Start with hands and knees on the ground. (Shoulders over wrists, knees under hips) 
  • With elbow pits facing forward, lower your torso with control
  • Maintain vertical forearms through the entire movement

Negative Push-Up 

  • Start in a plank position with legs together
  • Lower to the ground while keeping elbows tight and moving as one solid unit from start to finish
  • Try taking 5 Mississippi’s before you reach the floor

Plank Lower to Kneeling Push-Up 

  • Start in a plank position with legs together
  • Lower to the ground while keeping elbows tight and moving as one solid unit from start to finish
  • When at the bottom, pause, lower your knees, and press back up

Half Push-Up

  • Start in a plank position
  • Lower with control and pause halfway down
  • Push back to starting position
  • Think of holding the bottom position for 3 Mississippi’s 

1.5 Push-Up

  • Start in a plank position
  • Lower halfway and push back up
  • Lower down and pause for a two-count.
  • Lower knees and press back up; this counts as one repetition. 

Full Push-up 

  • Start in a plank position
  • Lower down with elbows tight to the body.
  • Press back to starting position.

In my opinion, no matter how experienced you are with the Push-Up, you will benefit from practicing each of the progressions, especially the first few. Those first few progressions guarantee you will clean up your technique and strengthen areas you may have neglected in the past. 

Fun Examples

Once you can complete several sets with solid form, you can switch things up. You can play with fun examples once you practice the basics. 

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Push-Up FAQs

Why do my shoulders hurt when I do push-ups? 

Gosh, there could be a few reasons, but if I had to venture a guess, it is because you are flaring your elbows.  

You might consider filming yourself from the side to see what your form looks like. You can use a little checklist like this: 

✅ Are my shoulders over my wrists? 

✅ Is my head neutral? 

✅ Are my elbow pits facing forward and forearm vertical? 

✅ Can I create a straight line from the top of my head to the bottom of my foot? 

Pick 1 thing to focus on during every set and see how things feel. 

On another note: 

Consider doing one beautiful attempt, resting, and then performing another. 

Yes, you will do fewer repetitions than usual; however, your form will improve. If you want to do more repetitions, drop down a progression and continue to focus on solid form.  

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What if my wrists hurt during push-ups? 

Great question! One reason your wrist can bother you during push-ups is that your weight is sitting on the heal of your palm. 

Think of your hand like a foot. The goal is to distribute your weight evenly through your foot so you can adequately balance and have a solid arch.  

You can apply the same logic to your hands.   

You want your weight in the center of your palm. To do this, stack the shoulders over your wrists, and keep your elbow pits facing forward. 

External rotation keeps your hands more active and should take the pressure off the wrists. 

But what if the wrists still bother me? 

If that’s the case, I would consider spending time mobilizing and strengthening your wrists with this routine & performing push-ups on something like parallettes. 

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What if push-ups are easy for me? I can easily do 100! 

Woah, that’s rad!  

Here’s a question for you. 

How many of those push-ups were with solid form? 

If your answer is 20, then you did 80 with 💩 form.  

I would rather see someone drop down a progression and focus on executing it with a slow and controlled tempo.  

Yes, it isn’t sexy; however, building strength and control is essential and shouldn’t be over looked. 

Sometimes our egos get in the way, and that’s ok because I’ve been there MANY times. 

Slow down, make it pretty, and watch yourself get ridiculously strong. 

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How do I know when to move on to a different progression? 

This is my favorite question of all time.  

How do you know? 

There are a lot of factors someone can consider. I would look at the ease and quality of the movement. 

Another term for this is the Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE)  

You would rate the particular movement on a scale of 1 – 10 

1= EASY PEASY 

10= GOOD GOLLY MISS MOLLY, THAT’S TOUGH

I know that this can seem abstract if you’re newer to training. So, I suggest looking at Ease and Quality

Here is a rad infographic from my pals at GMB Fitness. 

If your Ease rating is Maximum Effort and your Quality is Rough or Broken, that’s a pretty good sign that you’ll want to take things down a notch. 

But if you find things are feeling smooth and solid, try going up a progression. Things might feel like a challenge, but that’s a good thing. Progressive overload is how someone builds strength and muscle.  

Both of these measurements are what I use with my online coaching clients. 

It’s how I get clients to practice autoregulation

The goal is to have every one of my clients be able to roll out of bed and be ready for whatever the day throws their way. 

That could be wrangling kids home sick from school or being able to squeeze in a quick session during a lunch break.  

The goal is to get stronger without running the risk of consistently overreaching. That’s what makes a successful progressive training plan. 

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Be Strong For Life

Training should leave you ready for what life throws your way. 

Push-ups are a staple in many of my client’s programming. Yes, they are a basic bodyweight movement; however, they lay a solid foundation for more advanced skills. 

A truly well thoughout training plan will mix body weight with weighted movements. 

So whether you’re dusting off the training cobwebs or are looking to spice up your training can be a key training tool for developing long-term strength and control.  

And if you want to develop total body strength, move pain-free, & see some serious results consider applying for 1:1 online coaching. 

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