Workout Wednesday: Improve your Pushup

Pushups are one of the most important exercises out there, but also one of the most misunderstood. Not only are they a fundamental pushing movement that will benefit you in many areas of life, but they are also a simple exercise that you can do anywhere, no equipment necessary. I have known people who only do pull ups and push ups for upper body work, no weights at all, and they are some of the most in-shape, muscularly toned people I know. Trust me, these are valuable, but only if done right.

First, lets talk traditional push ups, and the two most important things to remember when executing this full body lift.


This is a push up with correct form. Elbows in, back straight, full body engagement. 

  1. Elbows in! Keep those elbows as close to your side as possible, i.e., not flaring out perpendicular to the rest of your body. I have found that this is the mistake that is made more often, and it’s a great way to over stress your shoulder joints in a very awkward position. Keeping those elbows tucked in by your side, or at least inside of a 45 degree angle from your torso will help to protect your shoulders, as well as really optimize the use of your triceps, deltoids and pecs (the muscles we’re focusing on here).

Pushup Incorrect2

It was actually really hard for me to demonstrate with elbows flaring out. If you’re doing push ups like this, you’re making them harder for yourself! Plus, I could feel the extra stress on my shoulders. Ouch! Also, look how that shoulder posture changed the position of my back? It’s all connected! 

  1. Engage your entire body. This is not just an upper body exercise, this is a full body exercise. By engaging your entire body from shoulders to toes, you’ll reap far more rewards from this lift. Keep your core nice and tight and keep your back from sagging towards the floor (this will protect your spine). Along with your core, however, think about and engage your glutes, quads, hamstrings, all the way down to your feet. Think of this as a full body lift and you’ll get full body results! Don’t let any part of your body be lazy during your push up, and the payoff will be worth it.

Pushup Incorrect1

Here I am not engaging my core at all, letting my back sag down, which puts extra stress on your spine. Ouch again! Engage that core and straighten out to prevent injury. 

Now, what are you supposed to do if you can’t do a traditional pull up yet? Many people in this situation turn to “girl” pull ups (Oh my goodness how I hate that term), or knee push ups. First of all, lets throw that “girl push up” business right out the window, because I know PLENTY of guys who cannot do a strict chest to floor push up. Am I right, ladies?

Anyway, moving on to the fact that I do not believe in using knee pushups as a progression to traditional push ups. Why is that? Let’s break it down.

When you move from your toes to your knees for a push up, you are changing the lever completely, thus changing the muscle engagement needed to complete the lift. By completely changing the mechanics of the lever, it’s very hard to translate multiple reps of a knee push up to even a single rep of a true push up. The muscles engaged are different, and it’s not training your body to complete the movement correctly. Essentially eliminating the need for full body contractions and strong core engagement, you’re doing little to prepare yourself for the real deal.  Thus, when you do someday move on to a true push up, your form may be completely trash because you have been not working true push up form all along.

Pushup Knee1

Pushup Knee2.JPG

Knee pushups are FINE, they are not bad for you. But if you’re trying to translate this movement into a true push up, you may be out of luck, or it will take much longer than necessary. 

So how can we progress to a true push up if we can’t do one in the first place?

The answer lies in elevation. Incline push ups allow you to move through the full range of motion for the lift, but at less difficult positions, depending on how extreme your level of elevation. For the least resistance, you can start against a wall, with your feet 6-12 inches from the wall. Place your hands on the wall, and using good push up form, complete all of your reps in this standing position.

Now, wall push ups are a great beginner point and are excellent for upper body rehab, but most of you will soon be able to move on and place yourself on the back of a couch, a table, or a higher chair to progress. By gradually lowering yourself onto less and less elevation, you are continuously training your pushups through the entire correct range of motion, building your strength through the correct movements until eventually you can move to the floor.

Pushup Incline

Chair incline push up. Notice how I’m able to keep my true push up form from the floor, helping me to engage the proper muscles so that this will build strength toward a proper floor push up. 

Even if you are stuck at say, a step or stair for a long time and still can’t get your true floor push ups, you’re doing your body much better service than trying them from your knees. You’re training your muscles through the entire push up motion, and that is going to be the strength that will translate to a true push up at a later date.

And truth be told, as someone who can do true chest to floor pushups, I still use incline push ups on the days when I want to train higher reps. Not only are they good for those who are learning push ups from the start, but they’re a great training tool to play around with rep ranges, increase your muscular endurance, and progress your floor push ups to higher reps. Incline push ups can be valuable for anyone at any level of fitness, and that is precisely the reason why beginners should jump on that train as well. If you can do something that the pros are doing, why not?

So forget the push ups from your knees, and start on a true, strict form progression from elevation. If you have to start at the wall, so be it, and if you can start on a chair or step, than great! The wonderful thing about incline push ups is that they can be modified to fit any level, and they can be progressed infinitely.

Readers: Do you use incline push ups in your training? What’s your favorite body weight upper body lift? 






9 thoughts on “Workout Wednesday: Improve your Pushup

  1. I definitely can’t do a full press up yet. And it’s the most frustrating thing!! Still at the knee stage but I will get there one day! Great post and you look awesome x

    1. My favorite body weight upper body lift would have to be chest press on the decline bench. I sit with my feet higher than my head and hold two barbells separately. I love this workout because it gives my chest muscles a chance to workout at a different angle!

  2. Push-ups, when done correctly, are so hard!! It’s funny because up until a few months ago, I was always told to encourage members to do pushups on their knees instead of their toes if they’re only going down an inch or so and have their elbows flared way out. I forget where I first heard the piece where by doing that, you’re not really training your body to get better at true push-ups on your toes, but it makes sense. It’s hard, though, because in a class setting, incline push-ups are not always a viable option- even if we are using steps. In that case, I would prefer to have people do even one or two pushups on their toes with correct form, but if that’s not an option for them yet I would rather them do knee push-ups with good form. Your saggy back picture (no core engaged) is what I most commonly see in group ex classes and it kills me! So, if the alternative for them is to do knee pushups, I’ll take that (even though most refuse to do the push-ups on their knees!). Lately I’ve been doing a lot of incline push-ups because, like you said, I can get more reps in that way (especially on an upper body day where it’s already tired!). I wish I could have all of my members read this- very informative and the pictures are great 🙂

  3. This is great information! I thought I was supposed to have my elbows out, and I’ve also been told many times to go with knee push-ups if I can’t do the real thing. Thanks for setting the record straight!

  4. Push-ups are definitely one of the best exercises you can do for your chest other than the bench press. They really engage the stabilizer muscles and help with superb upper-body development.

  5. Thanks for this post. I can’t do a push up, but I want to work up to doing one . . . one day!

  6. Great info. which I will use teachinghigh school PE. Very clearly communicated. Thank you.

  7. My favorite body weight upper body lift would have to be the decline bench with chest press. I use to individual barbells and hang with my legs higher than my head on the bench. This helps reach my chest muscles but on a different angle than normally!

  8. My favorite body weight upper body lift would have to be chest press on the decline bench. I sit with my feet higher than my head and hold two barbells separately. I love this workout because it gives my chest muscles a chance to workout at a different angle!

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