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9 Tips for Perfect Push-up Performance

Although push-ups are familiar to many, few actually perform them in a way that maximizes strength and endurance gains while also reducing the risk of injuries. Dr. Jonathan Su, the Get-Fit Guy, shares 9 tips for performing a perfect push-up.

By
Dr. Jonathan Su, DPT, CSCS, TSAC-F, C-IAYT
5-minute read
Episode #561
The Quick And Dirty

Here are 9 tips for performing a perfect push-up:

  1. Keep your middle finger pointed straight forward
  2. Don’t lock your elbows
  3. Point your biceps forward
  4. Keep your back parallel to the floor
  5. Engage your core
  6. Keep your head and neck aligned with your spine
  7. Move up and down with control
  8. Lightly touch your chest to the ground
  9. Keep your elbows tucked next your body

Push-ups are a popular exercise for building upper body muscle strength and endurance. They work your triceps, chest, and shoulders while also strengthening your core when performed correctly. 

For many people, including myself, push-ups are one of the first exercises we learn to perform. It’s probably because it’s one of the few exercises that’s effective, yet doesn’t require any equipment and can be performed just about anywhere. 

With gyms closed and workout equipment sold out for several months during the early days of the pandemic, it became a staple upper body exercise for anyone wanting to stay in shape. I remember performing a twice weekly strength workout consisting of push-ups, pullups, and lunges with a backpack full of canned goods for resistance. 

Although push-ups are familiar to many, few actually perform it in a way that maximizes strength and endurance gains while also reducing the risk of injuries. 

9 tips for performing a perfect push-up

Before I delve into the tips for performing a perfect push-up, I’d like to first mention that there are a ton of push-up variations to choose from. For example, wide push-ups, diamond push-ups, incline push-ups, decline push-ups, just to name a few.

My focus here will be on the standard push-up that’s performed on a flat surface with your hands directly under your shoulders. Your feet can be together or hip-width apart. 

This variation of the push-up is good for just about anyone. Beginners can perform the standard push-up on their knees to reduce the resistance. Advanced exercisers can perform it with a weighted vest, plate, or, like me, backpack filled with canned goods on the back to increase the resistance. 

With this in mind, let’s jump into the 9 tips for perfect push-up performance. 

Tip 1: Keep your middle finger pointed straight forward

With your hands directly under your shoulders, you want to ensure that your middle fingers are pointed straight forward. This will ensure that your wrists, elbows, and shoulder are in a neutral position. Point your middle fingers too far to the left or right and you’ll increase the stress on your wrist, elbow, or shoulder joints which can lead to pain or injuries. 

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Tip 2: Don’t lock your elbows

Most of us have been taught to move through a full range of motion while performing push-ups. However, if you take this advice literally, you risk locking your elbows, which can increase the risk of injuries. Locking causes the bony tip of the elbow to slam into the bony notch on the other end. Repeated forceful impact of these two bones can lead to pain, tenderness, swelling, and stiffness. Avoid locking your elbows while performing push-ups by stopping just shy of the fully extended position. 

Tip 3: Point your biceps forward

This is a new one for most people but give it a try and you’ll immediately notice the difference while performing push-ups. With your palms fixed to the floor and your middle fingers pointed straight forward, rotate your arms out to the sides so that your biceps point straight forward. This will be a subtle, yet important, tweak that’ll allow your triceps to contribute more fully to the exercise. 

Tip 4: Keep your back parallel to the floor 

Most descriptions of the push-up position will tell you to keep your body in a straight line from head to toe to keep your hips from sagging. I’ve found that raising your butt slightly so that the entire length of your back is parallel to the floor is a better way to prevent this common mistake. Try this and you’ll also notice that you get a better chest workout because of the shift in your center of gravity. 

Tip 5: Engage your core

This one is familiar to most people but is commonly forgotten when fatigue sets while performing push-ups. Engage your core throughout the entire push-up by tightening your abdominal muscles as if you were bracing for a punch. Not only will this keep your hips from sagging and protect your lower back, but it’ll also help you strengthen your core by making push-ups a dynamic front plank exercise.  

Tip 6: Keep your head and neck aligned with your spine

It’s important to keep your head aligned with your spine to protect your neck from injuries. It’s common to look forward or up while performing push-ups, which extends your neck, which can increase the risk of injuries. Remember, your head and neck tends to follow where your eyes go. Protect your spine by keeping your eyes looking straight down on the ground while performing push-ups. 

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Tip 7: Move up and down with control

It’s tempting to measure your push-up performance by the number of repetitions you can perform. But quality tends to go down the drain when quantity is the goal, which can lead to suboptimal performance gains and increase your risk of injuries. Do your best to move up and down with control while performing push-ups to avoid injuries and get the most benefit from exercise. Of course, quantity is sometimes important or necessary; for example, if you’re a member of the military and get tested on the number of push-ups you can perform. If this is the case, train for quality by moving up and down with control and perform for quantity a few weeks before your testing event. 

Tip 8: Lightly touch your chest to the ground

Going through a full range of motion (a.k.a. moving as far as anatomically possible) during an exercise is important for giving the muscles a more robust workout. Move through a full range of motion while performing push-ups by lightly touching your chest to the ground on the way down. 

Tip 9: Keep your elbows tucked next your body

As you move up and down while performing push-ups, be sure to keep your elbows tucked next to your body. This will improve your push-up performance by keeping your shoulder, chest, and triceps muscles on the same plane which allows your muscles to work synergistically. This will also prevent injuries by keeping your wrists, elbows, and shoulder joints aligned, thereby reducing the stress on these joints. The opposite of keeping your elbow tucked next to your body is called flaring, which has your elbows out to the side, and should be avoided. 

5-day perfect push-up challenge

Let’s put this knowledge to use with a 5-day perfect push-up challenge! Over the next five days, your challenge is to perform as many push-ups as you can in 2 minutes while following the tips provided. Give it a try and let me know how you feel by emailing me at getfitguy@quickanddirtytips.com or leaving me a voicemail at 510-353-3104. 

All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own health provider. Please consult a licensed health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Dr. Jonathan Su, DPT, CSCS, TSAC-F, C-IAYT

Dr. Jonathan Su is the host of the Get-Fit Guy podcast. He is a physical therapist and fitness expert whose mission is to make fitness accessible for everyone. Dr. Su is author of the bestsellers Six-Minute Fitness at 60+ and Six-Minute Core Strength.

Got a question for Dr. Su? You can email him at getfitguy@quickanddirtytips.com or leave him a message at the Get-Fit Guy voicemail line at (510) 353-3104.