Whether you're new to resistance training or dealing with elbow pain, try these push-up variations to strengthen your upper body in a way that feels best for you.
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Credit: Shape / Clothing: Aerie, Makeup and Hair: Tee Chavez

Welcome to Modify This Move, the ongoing series where you'll find everything you need to amend a standard exercise to meet your goals, your body, and your mood. Each story breaks down how to perform a foundational fitness move, then offers various modifications based on your current fitness or energy level, present or prior injuries, or the muscles you want to target most. So check your ego at that door and ensure every workout meets you where you're at today.

Take one look at a person powering through a round of push-ups, and you'll instantly recognize just how powerful this upper-body exercise can be. And the power behind this foundational exercise is simply a fact: Push-ups put the muscles in your arms, chest, and shoulders to the test, according to the American Council on Exercise.

But push-ups don't just build strong triceps and deltoids. In fact, the go-to exercise also works wrist mobility and improves core strength and stability, says Phyllicia Bonanno, a SWEAT yoga instructor. "While you're lowering, you're tapping into your strength to keep everything in one straight line," she explains. Translation: The push-up is a multifunctional move that's more than deserving of a spot in your fitness routine.

That said, the traditional push-up isn't the only way you can nab those strength-building benefits. Whether you're unfamiliar with the exercise or you're a seasoned athlete in need of a workout that's gentle on the body, you can opt for a toned-down push-up variation that will prevent you from feeling mentally or physically overwhelmed. And if you're dealing with aches in your wrists or elbows, don't try to push through the pain. Instead, choose a push-up variation that leaves you feeling strong and comfortable. Regardless of your reason, there's no shame in modifying your workout to meet your current needs, abilities, and goals. 

Ready to give the upper-body exercise a shot? Follow the instructions below to master the traditional push-up, and then watch as Bonanno demonstrates how to switch up the exercise with five different push-up variations she shared that work for all abilities and fitness goals.

How to Do a Push-Up

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

B. Engage core by tucking tailbone and drawing navel in toward spine. Lock in lats by drawing shoulders down and away from ears. Engage glutes and quads. Push elbows out so arms form a 45-degree angle to body.

C. Look down to keep neck neutral, engage core, and ensure body forms a straight line from head to toe. Slowly bend at elbows to lower body, stopping about 3 inches above the floor.

D. Push away from the floor to return to the starting position.

5 Push-Up Variations

While the standard push-up is often seen as a staple exercise, it's not everyone's cup of tea. That's why you should feel comfortable testing out push-up variations and finding one (or a few) that makes you feel powerful and pain-free. If you want to up the difficulty, hone in on a specific muscle, or perfect your form without any bells and whistles, consider a push-up variation that helps you do just that.

Here, you'll find push-up variations that scale the exercise up or down, including push-up variations for wrist and elbow pain, push-up variations to improve your balance, and push-up variations to challenge your core. No matter which option you choose, continue checking in with your body as you power through your reps. "If you feel any pain or anything doesn't feel good, just stop doing it," suggests Bonanno. "Go back to doing the regular push-up or try another one that feels right to you."

Push-Up Variation to Level Up: Spiderman Push-Up

This push-up variation is sure to leave your core quivering. To perform the exercise, you'll draw one knee toward your armpit while lowering down into a push-up, so your core (which, BTW, isn't just your abdominal muscles) has to work even harder to keep you stable, says Bonanno. Plus, your arms will have to support even more weight throughout the move, so expect your biceps to fire up, too, she adds. 

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

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

C. Push elbows out so arms form a 45-degree angle to body. Look down to keep neck neutral, engage core, and ensure body forms a straight line from head to toe.

D. Slowly bend at elbows to lower body and simultaneously lift left foot off the floor and drive left knee up to tap left elbow, stopping about 3 inches above the floor.

E. Push away from the floor and extend left foot back to the floor to return to the starting position. Repeat on the opposite side.

Push-Up Variation to Scale Down: Knee Push-Up

If you're a total newbie to push-ups or you want to nail down your form, consider trying this push-up variation. "Resting your knees takes away some of the weight when you're lowering to the floor," says Bonanno, so it's a bit less challenging on your core and upper body. 

A. Start in a table-top position on the floor with hands directly under shoulders and knees under hips. Walk knees back until body forms a straight line from head to knees, then rest tips of toes on the floor.

B. Engage core by tucking tailbone and drawing navel in toward spine. Lock in lats by drawing shoulders down and away from ears. Push elbows out so arms form a 45-degree angle to body.

C. Look down and slightly forward to keep neck neutral and engage core. Slowly bend at elbows to lower body, stopping about 3 inches above the floor.

D. Push away from the floor to return to the starting position.

Push-Up Variation for Wrist Pain: Push-Up On Dumbbells

When you're experiencing aches and pains in your wrist, consider testing this push-up variation, which involves gripping onto the handles of a pair of dumbbells. In doing so, you'll remove some of the pressure from your wrists, keeping your pain in check, says Bonanno.

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

B. Engage core by tucking tailbone and drawing navel in toward spine. Lock in lats by drawing shoulders down and away from ears. Engage glutes and quads. Push elbows out so arms form a 45-degree angle to body.

C. Look down to keep neck neutral, engage core, and ensure body forms a straight line from head to toe. Slowly bend at elbows to lower body, stopping about 3 inches above the floor.

D. Push away from the floor to return to the starting position.

Push-Up Variation for Elbow Pain: Triceps Push-Up

Rather than pushing your elbows out at your sides, you'll keep them tucked next to your ribcage in this push-up variation. "When the elbows are pulled in close to you, you have more control and you're able to lower down without having as much pressure on the elbows," says Bonanno. As a result, this exercise is less likely to aggravate any existing elbow pain. Another perk? This slight tweak to your form also helps build strength in the triceps, says Bonanno.

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

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

C. Look down to keep neck neutral, engage core, and ensure body forms a straight line from head to toe. Keeping biceps close to sides, slowly bend at elbows to lower body, stopping about 3 inches above the floor.

D. Push away from the floor to return to the starting position.

Push-Up Variation to Improve Balance and Core Stability: Medicine Ball Push-Up

Placing your hands on top of a small, rolling medicine ball — rather than the solid floor — turns the traditional push-up into a serious stability challenge and balance-building exercise, says Bonanno. Specifically, your core will have to work overtime to keep your body steady as you lower down into a push-up and return to a high plank position. 

A. Start in a high plank position on the floor with hands resting on a medicine ball directly underneath chest and legs extended, feet hip-width apart.

B. Engage core by tucking tailbone and drawing navel in toward spine. Lock in lats by drawing shoulders down and away from ears. Engage glutes and quads. Push elbows out so arms form a 45-degree angle to body.

C. Look down to keep neck neutral, engage core, and ensure body forms a straight line from head to toe. Slowly bend at elbows to lower body, stopping about 3 inches above the floor.

D. Push away from the floor to return to the starting position.

Photography and art: Jenna Brillhart
Model and fitness expert: Phyllicia Bonanno
Hair and makeup: Tee Chavez

Wardrobe: Aerie