How to do push ups: Master this classic bodyweight workout for bigger arms and pecs

Learn how to do push ups and get better at it by using all the best push up variations

Athletic person doing push ups wearing workout shoes and tights
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Push ups are hands down – pun intended – the best bodyweight exercises for most people. Also known as press ups, this move mainly works triceps and pecs. A standard push up and its variations also work, to varying degrees, your delts (deltoids; shoulders), core, biceps and more. However, there are so many push up variations, you could create a best upper body workout using nothing but push ups. Although I don't recommend that. 

The point is that there a variation of the push up that anyone can do – yes, even you, sir –  but press ups are also genuinely useful workouts. No equipment is needed, and minimal space. That's why push ups are popular in small spaces such as prisons, schools and flats in London or New York.

• This one is too hard for most people, though: how to do a bicep push up

Is there anyone out there who doesn't want big pecs and even bigger arms? With so many push up variations to choose from, sometimes it's hard to tell which muscles are worked with push ups. We are here to help the lift the cloud of confusion.

A push up is also one of the most basic, yet also most effective, best calisthenics exercises. Much like the bench press, everyone thinks they can do it well but in reality, not many people perform them correctly. Therefore they see results much later than they should. So let's look at doing this properly.

Person performing push ups in a studio

Keep your elbows tucked in and your core engaged

(Image credit: Future)

How to do push ups: The method

The starting position is arms extended and shoulder-width apart whilst you are facing the floor. Make sure your palms are directly under your shoulders on the floor. Core and glutes engaged, back straight. It is very important to keep the core engaged all the way through the full motion. Don't let your hip drop and sag or push your bum out as you bend your elbows.

Another very important aspect of doing push-ups is the position of the elbows. Don't let them stick out, keep them tucked in a 45-degree angle. Bringing them closer would work the triceps more, flaring them out is just bad form.

At the lowest position, your nose should almost touch the floor: if someone would place a bowl of water on your back and the liquid in it should be level. That is unless you aren't doing decline push-ups because then you'd get your head wet. Why would anyone want to do that?

Focus on the muscles you want to work all the way through the movement, not just on the way up but also as you lower your body. Keeping the muscles under tension for longer means they are worked harder and harder work, as we all know, will deliver results quicker.

Person perfoming medicine ball push ups

The medicine ball incline press up is particularly fun to do 

(Image credit: Getty Images)

What's the easiest push up variation?

Wall push up

Contrary to popular belief, the easiest push up variation is not the knee push up as doing proper knee push ups require core strength and enough muscle power in the arms and pecs so you are able to push up 2/3 of your bodyweight away from the ground.

No, if you are really struggling with doing even knee push ups, you should try wall push ups as this variation takes most of your bodyweight out of the equation while your muscles get used to the movement and you get stronger.

The way to progress from here is to reduce the incline as time goes by: start with standing upright and bending the arms only, then gradually increase difficulty by stepping further away from the wall and eventually leaning more and more forward. You can use (sturdy) furniture to lean against, such as chest of drawers, the kitchen top, a chair etc.

Make sure that you squeeze the core and the glutes and pay attention to the position of the elbow as you perform wall and/or incline push ups. Performing any exercise with the correct form is more important than rep count.

Best push up variations

Incline push up

This is an easier push up variety, compared to standard push ups, as it reduces the stress (and weight) on the arms and shoulders. The higher the incline, the easier it is (see above). Incline push ups are a great way to introduce your body to push ups and to learn the correct form.

Decline push up

In this variation, your legs are elevated, putting more pressure on the shoulders. The higher the elevation, the more it works your shoulders (and less the pecs).

Pike push up

Do this push up variation if you would like to work your shoulders more. The starting position is a basically the downward-facing dog yoga pose, sticking your bottom in the air. This is a great exercise if you want to work on your shoulders but haven't got a dumbbell or barbell.

Diamond push up

A real triceps killer, this push up variation is considered one of the hardest to perform correctly. Your hands are kept close to each other, in fact, your index fingers and thumbs should touch, forming a diamond shape. Keep your elbows tucked and really concentrate on your triceps muscles as your perform push ups.

• Read more on how to do diamond push ups 

Stability ball decline push up

This version will engage your core more than regular push ups as it will take considerable amount of core strength to steady your body on an exercise ball. Your legs are rested on a stability ball, and although there are different sizes, your feet will most likely be in a higher position compared to your shoulders. If you find it difficult, you can rest your knees on the balls as opposed to your feet.

Medicine ball incline push up

Diamond push up has nothing on this push up alternative. You not only have to work your triceps more to push yourself up (hands being closer together), you also have to balance on a medicine ball while you do so.

Clapping push up

An explosive push up variation, great for HIIT workouts. As you push yourself up, you do it with such force that your hands leave the ground so you can clap in the air before placing your hands back on the floor. Easier said than done.

One arm push ups

The ultimate swagger! Place the weight-bearing hand on the floor so it's under the mid-line of your chest. Place your legs further apart to give yourself some extra room to stabilise your body.

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Matt is a fitness fanatic (a.k.a. fitness and nutrition writer) who's been rambling on about all things health and fitness for over two years now here at T3. His achievements include a short-lived fitness podcast called Fit Mentality Podcast and being a judge on the Fit&Well Awards 2021. In his free time, he works out at home, runs, cycles and loves a good ol' walk around the city. He writes about general fitness stuff, fitness tech, workouts, workout gear/equipment, nutrition and much, much more.