Experts Explain What Push-Ups Do—and How to Do Them the Right Way
Push-ups have developed a reputation for being one of the best upper bodyweight exercises you can do. They also don’t require equipment, making them accessible for all.
But for all the hype surrounding push-ups, you’re not born knowing about them—or even how to do them properly. With that, it’s understandable to have questions like, “what muscles do push-ups work?”
“When you do a push-up properly, a lot of muscles in your body are engaged,” says Albert Matheny, R.D., C.S.C.S., co-founder of SoHo Strength Lab and advisor to Promix Nutrition. “You have to maintain tension throughout your body to do push-ups.” Of course, some muscles are targeted more during a push-up than others (more on that later).
Sure, you can simply go through your strength training routine while reaping the benefits of push-ups without knowing all the details of what muscles they work and why you’re ultimately doing them, other than to achieve better overall fitness. But learning more about this go-to move and its perks can help you ultimately put together a more well-rounded fitness routine, allowing you to emerge stronger than ever.
Whether you’re considering adding push-ups to your workout agenda or simply want to get a better understanding of why there’s so much buzz around them, here’s what you need to know.
What muscles do push-ups work?
There are a lot, actually. “When performed properly, push-ups primarily engage the chest, triceps, shoulders, abs, and lower back,” says Doug Sklar, a certified personal trainer and founder of New York City-based fitness training studio PhilanthroFIT. Push-ups can even work your glutes (aka your butt muscles), Matheny says.
However, it’s a little more specific than that. These are the muscles push-ups work the most, according to Matheny:
Pectoralis major. Your pectoralis major is the thick muscle that spans across your chest and is found under your breast tissue. It’s the largest muscle in your chest wall.
Pectoralis minor. The pectoralis minor is a thin, triangle-shaped muscle that’s in the upper part of your chest. It sits behind your pectoralis major.
Triceps. Your triceps, aka triceps brachii, is a large muscle in the back of your upper arm. It has three heads that connect to your scapula and humerus.
Deltoids. Deltoid muscles cover the front, side, and back of your shoulder, and look like an upside-down triangle. They help stabilize your shoulder, as well as allow you to raise your arms to the side, forward, and back, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
Abdominal and core muscles. There are a lot of muscles that make up your abs and core, including your rectus abdominis, transversus abdominis, internal obliques, external obliques, and pyramidalis. All of these are engaged when you do a push-up, Matheny says.
Again, even more muscles can be engaged when you do a push-up, but these are the main ones.
How to do a push-up properly
It’s important to get proper push-up form down to lower your risk of injury, Matheny says. Here’s how to do a push-up the right way:
Get into a plank position. Your arms should be straight, and your back, shoulders, and hips should be aligned. Your feet should be hip-width apart. “Imagine a straight line starting at your ears and passing through your shoulders, hips, knees, all the way down to your ankles,” Sklar says. “This is the proper body posture you should aim for when performing a push-up.”
Bend your elbows. Maintaining your alignment, bend your elbows, flaring them at an approximately 45-degree angle between your shoulders and hips.
Go down until your chest reaches the ground. You’ll want to maintain tension in your arms throughout, but you should try to have your chest touch the ground or your thumbs touch your armpits. (Note: It may take time to get your push-ups this deep.) Your gaze should be in front of your hands.
Push back up to your starting position. Then, repeat as desired.
Common push-up mistakes
There are a few common push-up mistakes to keep in mind while working on your form.
Jutting your chin forward. “You should aim to keep your head—and your whole body—in the same alignment as if you were standing up straight,” Sklar says.
Dropping your hips. Having your hips sag or arching your lower back puts unnecessary stress on your back and increases your risk of injury, Matheny points out.
Fanning out your elbows. Think of it this way: Your elbows should make an A shape; not a T shape. Having them in a straight line out from your shoulders “places excess stress on your shoulders and will likely lead to issues in the future,” Sklar says.
How to modify a push-up
You might not be able to drop down and crank out 20 push-ups right away, and that’s completely fine. There are push-up modifications you can do to help you work up to a traditional push-up. Those include:
Knee push-ups. This simple modification has you doing the same movement as a traditional push-up but balancing on your knees instead of your toes, Sklar says.
Angled push-ups. These push-ups use the same alignment as traditional push-ups, but with your hands placed on an elevated, stable platform like a bench, table, or countertop, per Sklar.
Wall push-ups. These are similar to angled push-ups but have you “fall” towards the wall and use your hands to push yourself back up, Matheny says.
“Each of these modifications significantly decreases the percentage of your body weight you will be pushing,” Sklar explains. “This will make it easier to focus on proper form and allow you to build up to performing standard push-ups.”
How to build up to more push-ups
Again, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to work your way through a ton of push-ups when you first start doing the move. But the great thing about push-ups is that you can build on the strength you develop.
“Start with some of the modifications mentioned above,” Sklar says. Then, continue to work on our push-ups to build strength, moving to harder modifications and traditional push-ups as you go. “Be consistent with your training,” he advises—more strength will follow.
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