How to do Pushups with Optimal Technique For Better Results and Less Injuries

This article and video is about how to do pushups with optimal technique. There are a ton of pushup technique videos and tutorials circulating the web, and I’ve viewed many of them over the years. But adhering to a couple of vague and generic technique tips isn’t enough to ensure proper pushup form, and unfortunately, most pushup performances these days leave a lot to be desired. I wish there wasn’t a need for me to post a pushup technique tutorial, but from what I’ve seen so far, most people still don’t know how to do this exercise correctly – let alone with optimal form.

Of course, you have the usual culprits of over-extending the neck backwards, and letting the hips sag, both of which detract from spinal alignment, and thus, greatly inhibit maximal strength and power potential. But even people who do pushups with a “flat back” often still haven’t learned how to truly push something with optimal alignment, range of motion, breathing, and ultimately with the greatest force production potential. You’ve got guys and gals who can successfully flex their triceps, delts, and pec muscles, but still don’t know how to actually transfer immense force into something in front of them (i.e. the ground) again and again.

Given that this is such a foundational strength training exercise that provides a host of benefits, I wanted to finally give it the attention it deserves. Check out the following video to learn exactly how to do pushups with optimal technique – including some subtle nuances in the movement that have the potential to sky-rocket your performance and pushup numbers. Even if you’ve been doing pushups for a long time, you’ll probably learn something new that will help you to do pushups even better.

How to do Pushups with Optimal Technique



Note: much of what applies to the plank exercise is also relevant in the pushup. Click here to check out a detailed plank instructional video that will help you refine some of the primary pushup technique points.

Pushup Technique Tips to Help You Master Proper Pushup Form

If you learn how to do pushups with optimal technique, you will ensure that you squeeze as much benefit out of every repetition as possible – and that means more results and less injuries. So, here are the main coaching points for the pushup exercise, in order of importance (they’re all important to a degree):

1. Hand positioning – Hands should be placed directly underneath your elbows, which should be directly beneath your shoulders. Make two vertical pillars with your arms, instead of allowing your hands to deviate either inward or outward. Spread your fingers, and grip the ground with your hands during the exercise.

2. Elbow positioning – Elbows should be fully extended and externally rotated in the top position – elbows pits facing forward. This direction is to be maintained throughout the entire range of motion. During descent and ascent, elbows should be kept tight into the torso, and should track just off of the ribs – NOT flaring out to the sides.

3. Shoulder positioning – Shoulders should be packed down onto the ribs (ie stabilized on the core) throughout the entire range of motion. Pull the shoulders directly downwards in relation to your torso (the opposite motion of a shoulder shrug) to pack them down properly. Do not allow the shoulders to unpack during any part of the exercise.

4. Spinal alignment – Keep the spine neutral throughout the entire range of motion, lengthening it in both directions. Reach with the crown of your head above and away from your body (in combination with shoulder pack), and also reach your tailbone in the opposite direction with a slight tailbone tuck as described below.

5. Hip activation – Tuck your tailbone down and rotate your pelvis backward slightly with a gentle abdominal and gluteal contraction (in combination with an exhale – see below). Think of a dog tucking its tail between its legs.

6. Leg and foot positioning + leg drive – Resting on ball of foot, the feet should be placed about hip-width apart, if possible. Deviating from this position will not likely affect the performance of the exercise much, but a hip-width stance allows for optimal leg drive, which can be accomplished by extending the knees to lockout and pressing the heels backwards. Maintain this leg drive throughout the entire range of motion of the exercise.

7. Breathing – For most people, exhaling during the effort portion of the exercise is ideal. So, when pushing yourself up, that’s when you perform a strong exhale. When lowering yourself back down, allow a passive inhale to get sucked back into your lungs, but don’t actively breathe in, which will over-oxygenate your blood and possibly make you lightheaded.

8. Range of motion – Descend as deeply as your range of motion allows, until either a) your chest/sternum touches the floor, or b) you cannot maintain one of the above technique cues. Ascend until achieving full elbow lock.

Wrap-Up

Using optimal technique in your exercise program is not just the best way to train, it’s the only way to train if you want to succeed for the long-term. When you integrate all of the above components into the pushup exercise, you ensure that ongoing improvements can be made over the long term because you’re practicing optimal technique. If you’re using a less efficient technique or if you’re neglecting one or two of the components, then you put a limit on your performance right from the start. Train smart and watch your performance skyrocket!

More Information:

5 Steps to Master the Front Spinal Wave Exercise

Sophisticated Pushups Using Elbow Rotation

Are Pushup Handles Really That Great?

The Pushup Board: Review of the Pros, Cons, and Alternatives

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CST Coach, CST-KS
Health-First Fitness Coach

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12 Responses

  1. Awesome points, man. A lot of them are helping me in so many ways.

    Question: What about the dozens of other pushups where the shoulders are NOT aligned with the elbows/hands? Like dive-bomber & diamond pushups? Do they put unhealthy strain on your shoulders or joints?

    • Mitsu (and Mike),

      It’s not necessarily that alternate hand/arm positioning puts unhealthy strain on the joints (unless there is already a pre-existing condition), but that it’s a less efficient platform to push from. As always, my advice is to monitor your level of discomfort in each exercise you do, and pay special attention whenever an exercise deviates from an optimal movement pattern, which puts you at greater risk of over-use injuries.

  2. Great break-down of primary points to address for efficient & effective pushup technique. I’m also curious about your point of view on how shoulder to elbow/hand alignment changes when performing alternative pushing movements.

  3. I noticed my elbows are usually very far from my body when I do pushups. I tried to keep them more closer to torso and now the pushups feel way more difficult. Why could this be? Also I noticed some pain in my right wrist, should I worry about this?

    • Steven,

      This is totally normal, and it’s simply because you’re essentially trying an exercise you’ve never done before. The strength will come back with time. If I were you, I’d pay special attention to the pain in your wrist – or ANY pain that develops during training. If it helps, you can try doing your pushups on parallel bars, or pushup handles, which may take the strain off of your wrists (I would guess the pain is from extending the wrist backwards). Good luck!

  4. Craig Pendergast

    Thanks for the tutorial John. I recently discovered your website and this particular instruction on push ups. I am able to do a standard push up with my arms pushing out as I move down however these new ones are impossible! I can barely do one before my arms collapse. It feels like my triceps are being worked and some light pain is developing around the back of my elbows. Definitely an exercise to aspire to. Thanks for the advice!

  5. How does leverage affect body weight training like incline and decline push ups because of leverage? Also what does destability and lifting clubbells with a displaced center of mass have to do with getting tremendous core strength.

  6. There are way too many videos and advice columns about how to do pushups.
    It seems like almost all of them teach the same tired tropes without explaining the rationale or WHY in depth.

    John, you do a good job explaining your rationale, but in my opinion, your logic is flawed.

    An inefficient form means that you are working muscles harder for the exercise. If you want to exercise your muscles, inefficient exercises are not a bad thing.

    I would suggest cross your ankles when doing pushups. It helps reduce stress on your lower back.

    Hands out wide uses your upper back muscles more. Hands and elbows in give you a stronger triceps workout, but puts a lot more strain on your shoulder joints/rotator cuffs.

  7. Hi John. I recently discovered your website and I must thank you, it is very educational.
    I’ve been trying to do pushups your way for a week now, and I’m slowly (but surely) getting the movement right. I used to do around 25 pushups with my elbows flaring to the sides, now I’m at 16 with your technique.

    I have a question though. Is it okay to rotate my fingers to the sides? I’m having trouble fully turning my elbow pits (I’m doing Intuflow to fix that ;)) and I feel like it would be easier to keep my elbows tight against my ribcage if my hands were turned. But I’m not doing it right now, as I feel it could be dangerous for my wrists.
    I’ll try to do pushups on my knuckles for the moment, because I feel like I can turn my hands without it being a problem.

    (I also used to do 2 chin ups, thanks to your tutorial I’m up to 4 chin ups, in just a week or so :))
    Thanks again!

    • Hey Arthur, Thanks for the kind words. You can turn your hands out if it’s not causing any pain or strain at your wrists – shouldn’t be a problem. And like you pointed out, that’s the same direction used in knuckle pushups (just with your hands extended) – also the same for pushups on parallel bars. So, if extending your hands back in that position is A-OK, it shouldn’t be a problem while you restore the mobility. And if it does cause some pain/strain, you can always go with knuckle pushups or use a set of p-bars or pushup handles, etc. And btw, doubling your pull-up numbers in a week is very impressive! Keep up the good work.

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