Doing the Perfect Push-up
Could the push-up be the "perfect exercise"? Here's what it can do for you, and how to get it right.
By Colette Bouchez
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD
While fitness fads may come and go as fast as their late-night infomercials, some types of exercise transcend trends. Among them is the push-up, which uses your own body weight along with gravity to tone and condition muscles. Some fitness experts have called the push-up the closest thing there is to a perfect exercise. And with good reason.
"One of the reasons the push-up has endured so long is it's cheap, it's easy, it doesn't require any equipment, it can work multiple parts of the body at the same time -- and pretty much everyone, from beginners to athletes, can derive benefits," says personal trainer Jonathan Ross, a spokesman for the American Council on Exercise (ACE).
What kind of benefits? If you're thinking the push-up is the best upper body exercise, many fitness experts agree. But, personal trainer Jessica Bottesch tells WebMD, the push-up benefits many muscle groups body-wide.
"The primary movers [the major muscle groups that produce the motion of a push-up] are the chest and tricep. However, if you look at the form your body takes during the perfect push-up, you're typically suspended from your toes all the way to your neck, so in reality, every muscle between your shoulders and your toes is engaged," says Bottesch, co-owner of Empower Personal Training in Durham, N.C.
This includes the all important core muscles of the trunk, as well as the abdominals, legs and hips, she says.
And for women, Bottesch tells WebMD, the push-up has an extra benefit.
"A push-up is considered a resistance exercise, so in addition to muscle strengthening, you also get bone-building effects. It can be as effective as working out with weights," says Bottesch.
The Perfect Push-up: Mastering the Basics
Although there are many variations on the push-up, the basic principal remains the same: Engage your upper back, shoulders, and arms to lift your body weight off the floor, then slowly lower it back down. While that sounds simple, experts say there's plenty of room for mistakes.
"The biggest mistake people make when doing a push-up is to try and take some of the stress off their arms by using other muscle groups to help lift their body, so they don't get the full benefits," says Todd Schlifstein, DO, a rehabilitation physician at the Langone Medical Center's Rusk Institute at New York University and assistant professor at the NYU School of Medicine.
Ross agrees: "Body weight should be lifted by your arms, and don't use your butt or stomach or the lower half of your body to pull you up," he says.
The correct movement for the perfect push-up, he says, is smooth, "with no swaying of the hips as you go up and down."
Bottesch adds that it's also important to keep a straight line from your head down to your ankles when you're in the lifted position.
Another tip to get the most out of your push-ups: Don't let your chest actually touch the floor when you come down.
"Your chest should come within 2 to 3 inches of the floor. Put a textbook, a sneaker, a rolled-up sock underneath you, and when you touch it, it's time to go back up," says Ross, who was named ACE's 2008 personal trainer of the year.
Now if all this sounds a bit daunting for your out-of-shape body, fear not. There are ways to make push-ups easier while still gaining the benefits.
"If you're having trouble … lifting the whole body in the proper alignment, you can do the same exercise, but do it on your knees," says Schlifstein. While you still need to keep a straight line from neck to torso, by engaging the knees you'll reduce your lifting load by about half.
For those looking to minimize tension on the wrist, Ross says a variation called the "knuckle push-up" can help. For this type of push-up, you close your hands and put your weight on your knuckles instead of your palms, avoiding the wrist extension motion. But be sure to do this type of push-up on a padded mat or carpet.
"Because there is clearly less fat on this part of the hand, you really do need to add some type of padding if you are going to try this," says Ross.
The Perfect Push-up: How-to's for Beginners
If you haven't done any kind of push-up -- let alone a perfect one -- since your high school gym teacher stood over you with a whistle and a scowl, don't worry. There are several ways to ease into doing push-ups.
One option is to use a low bench to prop up your arms, and then do either a regular push-up or the knees-on-the-floor version, Bottesch says.