Master the push-up, once and for all (Part 1)

Once upon a time, I was knocking out some push-ups at the gym, feeling strong AF when my coach walks over and says “bring your arms a little closer,” and then walked away. I did as instructed and holy hell, I could barely get in three solid push-ups after that!

Yup, I got schooled on an exercise I considered myself pretty damn good in (until that point), and I was not pleased. How could I, a fitness professional, never have noticed I was doing this incorrectly? Better yet, how was it that no other trainer or coach had corrected me until now?

Clearly annoyed and briefly humiliated, I realized that there is always room for improvement fitness-wise. We can either swallow our pride and get to work, or ignore the lessons to protect our ego. I choose the former.

The push-up is one of those tried-and-true exercises that everyone, from schoolyard kids to stay-at-home moms to convicted felons can benefit from. A feat of strength in and of itself, a proper push-up can translate into other aspects of our life and training. For one, hotter looking arms – very important. Two, you can do it anywhere with zero equipment (like, in prison). Three, four five, and six: improves overall functional strength, it’s a compound movement that utilizes several muscle groups at once, improves muscle endurance, and simply makes you better at life. And there are the mental benefits, too. Executing one solid, proper push-up increases our confidence to tackle bigger, more challenging, and more badass exercises like pull-ups and Turkish get-ups.

Getting strong in the push-up = strong enough for more complex feats of strength like the TGU

Getting strong in the push-up = strong enough for more complex feats of strength like the TGU

Oh, and you get some sexy arms, too. Did I mention that?

The only downside is that push-ups are hard to execute properly and most of us are never corrected along the way (as I was). “Girly” push-ups on the knees will never carry over to a full push-up on the toes. A push-up with a saggy hip or butt—in-the-air pike will never allow us to hit full ROM. And that half-rep bullshit, is well, bullshit. It doesn’t count!

So what’s the deal? How can we improve our push-up game and get strong in this movement once and for all?

Allow me to show you the way, Fitness Junkies….

Why we fail at push-ups

If you can master the push-up, you can progress to more challenging variations like the diamond push-up, plyo push-ups and single-arm push-up (that is, if you’re interested). But before we go there, we should have a basic understanding of why we fail to execute them in the first place.

A common misconception is that the push-up is an upper-body exercise exclusive to the chest, shoulders and arms. Sure, those muscle groups are involved but a proper push-up engages the entire body – glutes, back, trunk, shoulders, etc. There’s a lot happening in the set-up alone to ensure everything is working together to help one stabilize during the movement. Imagine how hard it is to hold a plank when you have muscles engaged from head to toe. Add in resistance from gravity and you’ll be sweating out bullets by the second rep.

Another reason so many of us fail at dominating the push-up is simply lack of practice. Seems obvious but you’d be surprised how often I hear “I don’t know what happened. I used to to be able to crush [insert exercise here] three months ago without a problem now I can barely do one.” If you want to improve in anything, you need to practice. It’s that simple. No one ever got good at painting by looking at artwork online. You must actually paint! The rule applies here as well. Practice the push-up while you’re fresh or incorporate them as an assistance exercise to get your practice time in.

Finally, so many of us fail to get better at push-ups because we’re simply misinformed. For years I was told “girl” push-ups would help me improve but that wasn’t the case. In fact, once I started personal training, I banned on-the-knee push-ups with my clients in favor of more useful progressions (more on that in Part 2).

4 Setup Tips for the Push up

Hand placement: As I found out, hand placement is important in the push-up, not only to perform the movement properly but to prevent injuries in the long run. In my case, my hand placement allowed me to recruit more of my chest into the movement, but my achy shoulders suffered as a result. Bringing the arms closer to the body at about 45 degrees is the sweet spot for most.

Many of us use a wide hand placement (where your elbow sits at 90 degrees on the downward phase of the push-up) which is not the most optimal position for your shoulders. It’s also a lot harder to “pack the shoulders” in this position. Instead, bring the hands a bit closer to the body so that your arms are out at about 45 degrees on the descent portion of the exercise. Not only will you involve the triceps more this way, but it’ll be easier to stabilize the shoulders and it won’t mess up your shoulders in the long run.

Avoid wide hand placement if building overall strength in the push-up is the goal. PC: Stack

Avoid wide hand placement if building overall strength in the push-up is the goal. PC: Stack


Pack the shoulders: As mentioned above, getting your shoulders stable is key to performing the push-up correctly. I like using the cue “slide your shoulders into your back pockets”. You want to feel strong through the back not all loosey-goosey. We want to avoid “pinching” the shoulder blades together – that’s not really an effective cue for the push-up because well…we want your scapula to move. That’s their job. But the goal is to get strong and stable through the shoulders before actually doing the movement. Another cue I use in addition to ‘packing the shoulders’ is to push against the floor through my palms simultaneously. I like that this reinforces shoulder stability and ensures my muscles are braced properly before executing.

Glutes and legs tight: As I said, push-ups are a total body exercise. In the set-up you’ll want to suction your inner thighs together and squeeze the glutes. Now, keep it that way! Bracing through the lower body will ensure you’re stable throughout the movement. I also find it prevents or minimizes the dreaded hip swag and butt pike.

Brace the abs: When setting up imagine that someone has punched you in the gut to get your abs to brace. Pull it in and keep it in. You want to avoid that hip swag that often happens during the push away phase of the movement. And while this won’t eliminate that tendency completely it will certainly help groove the pattern a bit more for a stronger push-up.

These tips are in no way revolutionary, but they’re the most effective in getting my students and clients stronger at perfecting the push-up. Don’t underestimate the power of a proper set-up. If you start sloppy, the movement will be sloppy as well.

Stay tuned for Part 2 where I go over a few push-up progressions and strength exercises to help you master this movement once and for all!


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