Fitness pro Hannah Davis demonstrates how to safely perform push-ups to build a strong upper body.

By Megan Falk
November 21, 2019
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You’ve probably been powering through push-ups (or at least trying to) since your elementary school days, with the aim of beating all your classmates in phys-ed tests. But, despite years of practice in sweaty school gyms and fitness centers, most people aren’t performing the upper-body exercise correctly, says Hannah Davis, C.S.C.S., trainer and creator of Body By Hannah. Poor form diminishes your workout’s effectiveness, leading to injuries, not sculpted shoulders. 

To get the strong chest, solid core, and I'm-a-badass satisfaction you’re hoping to achieve with push-ups, you have to go back to the basics. Here, Davis demonstrates four push-up variations that'll help you perfect your push-up form and have more productive workouts. (Once you've mastered these progressions, try more push-up variations with this 30-day push-up challenge.)

Push-Up Variations to Build Better Form

How it works: For each push-up variation, do 3 sets of 10 reps.

Credit: Corey Maloney

Step 1: Modified Eccentric Push-Up

This full-range-of-motion move will help you nail the key components of a proper push-up: engaging the core and lats (the large back muscles that extend from your armpit down to the top of your glutes in a fan-like shape). By finishing the downward (aka eccentric) phase of the push-up on the floor, you’ll build and strengthen the muscle fibers needed to smoothly press your body back up to the starting position. (BTW, this is how you really engage your core.)

A. Start in a modified plank position with hands directly under shoulders, knees on the floor, and toes touching the floor.

B. Engage core by tucking tailbone and drawing navel in toward spine. Lock in the lats by drawing the shoulders down and away from the ears. (Imagine screwing palms outward into the floor).

C. Push elbows out so arms form a 45-degree angle to the body. Look down at the floor to keep neck neutral. Slowly lower body down to the floor, keeping core engaged throughout the movement and ensuring body forms a straight line from head to knees. Chest, core, and thighs should hit the floor at the same time.

D. Quickly press chest then thighs off the ground to return to start.

Do 3 sets of 10 reps.

Credit: Corey Maloney

Step 2: Modified Push-Up

Once you’ve gotten the hang of slowly lowering and pressing your body off the ground, it’s time to build endurance with modified push-ups. When pressing yourself back into the starting position, don’t forget to maintain proper alignment, with head, shoulders, hips, and knees all in line.

A. Start in a modified plank position with hands directly under shoulders and knees on the floor. Lift feet off the ground and hold them there.

B. Engage core by tucking the tailbone and drawing the navel in toward the spine. Lock in the lats by drawing the shoulders down and away from the ears.

C. Push elbows out so the arms form a 45-degree angle to the body. Slowly lower body, and stop 3 inches above the floor, keeping core engaged throughout the movement and ensuring body forms a straight line from head to knees.

D. Push away from the floor to return to start.

Do 3 sets of 10 reps.

Credit: Corey Maloney

Step 3: Eccentric Push-up

Now that you’ve committed the core activation to muscle memory, try the eccentric push-up variation to practice engaging your entire body. The plank position will encourage you to fire up your glutes and quads in addition to your core and upper body. (After all, a push-up is just a moving version of a high plank.)

A. Start in a high plank position with hands directly underneath shoulders and legs extended, feet hip-width apart.

B. Engage core by tucking the tailbone and drawing the navel in toward the spine. Lock in the lats by drawing the shoulders down and away from the ears. Engage the glutes and quads.

C. Push elbows out so the arms form a 45-degree angle to the body. Look down to keep neck neutral, and slowly lower body down to the floor. Keep core engaged throughout the movement, ensuring body forms a straight line from head to toes. Chest, core, and thighs should hit the floor at the same time.

D. Press chest then thighs off the ground to return to start.

Do 3 sets of 10 reps.

Credit: Corey Maloney

Step 4: Full Push-up

Using all of the techniques you’ve learned so far, finish with a full push-up. Remember to keep your core strong, lats engaged, and tailbone tucked, and you’ll work the muscles you actually want to work. 

A. Start in a high plank position with hands directly underneath shoulders and legs extended, feet hip-width apart.

B. Engage core by tucking the tailbone and drawing the navel in toward the spine. Lock in the lats by drawing the shoulders down and away from the ears. Engage the glutes and quads.

C. Push elbows out so the arms form a 45-degree angle to the body. Look down to keep neck neutral, and slowly lower body, stopping 3 inches above the floor. Keep core engaged throughout the movement, ensuring body forms a straight line from head to toe.

D. Quickly push back up to start.

Do 3 sets of 10 reps.

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