Reality check: It’s time to stop thinking of push-ups as a punishment of the drop-and-give-me-20 variety. The truth is, they’re a fantastic strength-building exercise — not just for your arms, but for your entire torso. “Yes, they’re great for strengthening the chest, triceps, and shoulders, but they’re also an incredible core-stability exercise,” says personal trainer Molly Galbraith, CSCS, founder of GirlsGoneStrong.com. “And you’ll even work the glutes as well.”
The secret to a good push-up is just that: engaging your whole body and thinking of it like a moving plank (which is basically what it is). It’s also key to send your elbows back on an angle, not winging out to the side, so the chest and shoulders do more of the work. (See our fundamentals guide below for more how-to.)
To help you build up the strength toward full push-ups, our 30-day Push-Up Challenge starts you with your hands elevated on a bench (or a couch with the cushions removed). That’s right; you won’t be doing any knee push-ups here — they don’t quite engage the muscles in the same way as having your body in the full plank position.
You’ll also be reducing your reps within each successive set to help maintain good form and combat fatigue. You should take at least a minute break between each set, and can even spread the sets out throughout your day if you prefer. Once you’ve mastered the incline push-ups, you’ll take your hands to the ground for a few reps at a time, until you can bang out 10. “The goal is to avoid ‘grinders,’ where you do reps for the sake of the count but at the sacrifice of your form, developing bad habits in the process,” Galbraith says. You’ll also have rest days, which are essential for letting your hard-working muscles recover.
Place your hands atop a bench, the edge of a couch with the cushions removed, or any solid surface that’s about 18 inches off the ground. Your fingers should point straight ahead and your palms should be spaced about two feet apart — wider than you probably think.
Come up on your toes so you’re in a plank position. Squeeze your glutes together and pull your belly button in toward your spine to tighten your abs.
Slowly lower yourself down toward the bench, holding your elbows back so they don’t wing out wide, but instead so your upper arms form the sides of a triangle, with your head as the point. You should feel your shoulder blades pinch together as you lower down, stopping when your elbows are at right angles. At the bottom of the move, your chest will hover an inch or two above the bench edge.
Keeping your body tight, press yourself back up to the start position. Use your breath to help you through the move: Inhale as you lower down, and exhale as you press up.
If you’re struggling to get the form right, do some practice push-ups — or even the first set of the first couple of days — against the wall or from a higher surface, such as a desk or a kitchen counter.
Place your hands on the floor about two feet apart. Come up on your toes into your strong, solid plank.
Remember your form: tight glutes, engaged abs, and elbows back on an angle, inhaling as you lower yourself down. Again, your shoulder blades will squeeze together; your chest will be a couple inches above the floor at the bottom of the move.
It may help to push your whole body ever-so-slightly forward from your toes as you’re lowering down; this will keep your elbows back in the proper position.
Stay strong and tight, and exhale while you press yourself back up. And that’s how a real push-up is done.