How to master push ups, a classic bodyweight exercise, for maximum arms and pecs gain

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)

The push-up is hands down – pun intended – the best upper body bodyweight exercise for people who want to build big arms and even bigger chest muscles at home. Also known as the press-up, this compound exercise mainly works triceps and pecs but also helps, to varying degrees, to grow your shoulders, core and biceps. 

As excellent as the push-up is, it's easy to do it wrong, and when that happens, joint pain will soon follow. Don't be afraid, as we'll show you not only the correct way to perform push-ups but also the easiest push-up variation and the best push-up variations to try.

Let's get started!

How to do push ups

The push-up starting position is also known as a high-plank pose: core engaged, spine neutral, hands on the ground directly under the shoulders, The starting position is arms extended and shoulder-width apart.

From here, lower your body by being the elbows until your nose touches the ground (or as low as you can go without feeling too uncomfortable). It's important to keep your core engaged by flexing the abs and the lower back all the way through the motion.

Keep your elbows tucked in. They should be at a 45-degree angle and not perpendicular to your body. Flaring them out too much will put too much pressure on your joints, especially on your shoulders.

Then, push yourself back up by pushing the floor away from you. That's one rep.

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.

What's the easiest push up variation?

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 body weight 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 is to reduce the incline. Start with standing upright and bending the arms only, then gradually increase the 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 a 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

In-depth: Read more on how to do diamond push-ups

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 you perform 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.

T3's how-to exercise guides

Matt Kollat
Fitness Editor

Matt is T3's Fitness Editor and covers everything from smart fitness tech to running and workout shoes, home gym equipment, exercise how-tos, nutrition, cycling, and more. His byline appears in several publications, including Techradar (opens in new tab) and Fit&Well (opens in new tab), and he collaborated with other fitness content creators such as Garage Gym Reviews (opens in new tab).