As runners, we’re usually focused on logging long runs and pushing through tough speed workouts. In the gym, it’s easy to gravitate toward squats and lunges because we want strong legs, but let’s face it, runners have notoriously weak upper bodies, so building that strength can be intimidating. Enter: the push-up.
Push-ups are beneficial in many ways: they work your chest, triceps, and shoulders—all important muscles for your arm swing and proper running form, explains Kara Miklaus, NASM-certified trainer and co-owner of WORK Training Studio in Irvine, California. Having a strong upper body can actually help you run faster, more efficiently, and longer. And while push-ups don’t require knowledge of the weight room or even access to a gym, there are a few things to know before dropping down and pumping out a set on your own or when your friend calls on you in an Instagram challenge.
That’s because push-ups can be tough if you’re not used to doing them regularly, and it’s easy to do them incorrectly. Sacrificing form can lead to injury and will make the move ineffective. Common mistakes Miklaus sees include:
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- placing your hands too wide (outside of the shoulders)
- allowing elbows to flare out too wide
- dropping your head and straining your neck (like nodding “yes” rather than lowering chest to floor)
- piking hips in the air or letting hips dip toward the ground
- half-repping or not lowering the torso down low enough to engage the proper muscles.
To avoid these mistakes, here’s everything you need to know to do a proper push-up, plus how to work up to one if you’re just starting out. And, once you’ve mastered a push-up, try one of the progressions below.
[The best runners don’t just run, they hit the gym. The Beginner’s Guide to Strength Training will teach you all the fundamentals to get the most out of your weight session.]
How to Do a Proper Push-Up
Start in a high plank position and place your hands shoulder-width apart or slightly wider with shoulders stacked directly over wrists. Spread your fingers wide; fingertips should point straight ahead. Engage your core and glutes to keep hips level; your body should form a straight line from head to heels. Be sure to draw your shoulder blades back and down so your shoulders aren’t rounded forward.
Inhale, then bend elbows to lower your chest to the floor. Your elbows form a 45-degree angle with your body. (While this is the standard recommendation, every one will be slightly different based on shoulder mobility and strength so start there and adjust to what feels most comfortable to you as needed.) Keeping your core engaged and hips in line with the rest of your body, exhale, and push back up to the starting position. Repeat.
For any variation of a push-up, tuck your hips slightly to ensure your pelvis is neutral. This will help you avoid arching your lower back to prevent back pain, Miklaus says. And, keep your gaze forward rather than looking down.
“When we look down, we have a tendency to drop our heads toward the floor, and not our entire torso,” Miklaus says. “This strains our neck, it doesn’t work our core or arms.” Slowly lower your body as close as you can bring your chest to the floor, then drive through your palms to come back up to the starting position.
How Do You Make It Easier?
There are several ways you can modify a push-up to make it slightly easier. There’s no shame in any of these variations—in fact, if you can’t do full, clean reps in standard form, it’s best to modify in order to build the proper strength you need and prevent injury.
Start against a wall.
Stand facing a wall and place your hands directly in front of you on the wall, wrists in line with shoulders, hands just wider than shoulder-width apart. Take a step back—the father your feet are from the wall, the harder it will be. Bend at the elbows so elbows form a 45-degree angle with body and lower chest to wall. Keep neck neutral and core engaged. Push back up to starting position. Repeat.
Move to a chair or bench.
Once you can successfully perform 10 reps on the wall, move to a chair or bench. Start in a high plank position with hands on the edge of a chair or bench, shoulders over wrists, core, glutes, and legs engaged. bend elbows to lower chest to the floor. Your elbows should point back at a 45-degree angle. Keeping core engaged and hips in line with the rest of your body, push back up to return to starting position. Repeat.
Or drop to your knees.
Start in a high plank position, shoulders over wrists, core, glutes, and legs engaged. Place knees on the floor, which will take approximately half of your bodyweight off. Bend elbows to lower chest to the floor. Your elbows should point back at a 45-degree angle. Be sure to keep core engaged and hips in line with the rest of your body—don’t bend from your hips to lower. Push back up to return to starting position. When you master at least 10 reps, then progress to a standard form push-up.
What are the benefits of push-ups?
Push-ups increase core stability, build strength in your chest, triceps, shoulders. and improve mobility through the shoulder joint, says Miklaus. By building a strong upper body and stable core, you’ll be able to power through runs more efficiently and be a more well-rounded runner.
How often should you do push-ups?
Because push-ups are so versatile, they can be used in a warm-up or in the actual workout, depending on the intensity of the push-up and the number of reps, Miklaus explains. Adding push-ups into your workout at least one to two days per week will help strengthen the muscles you’re recruiting in the movement (triceps, shoulders, and chest) and improve strength over time.
What push-up variations can you do?
Once you master proper push-up form, there are tons of variations you can do, Miklaus says. You can add these variations in to your workout or sub one in your circuit in place of a regular push-up.
How to do it: These push-ups are done with your hands directly under your chest, with the pointer fingers and thumbs touching respectively, so that hands create a diamond shape. This variation works your triceps and chest, but it also challenges your shoulder mobility so it’s extremely important to make sure your diamond is directly under chest (not your neck or chin as that will put too much strain on the shoulders). Bend elbows to lower chest to your diamond. Keeping core engaged and hips in line with the rest of your body, push back up to the starting position.
Hand Release Push-Up
How to do it: Start in a high plank position with wrists under shoulders, core engaged so body forms a straight line from head to heels. Bend elbows to lower chest slowly all the way down to the floor. Lift hands up, place them back down, then, keeping core engaged and hips in line with the rest of your body, push back up to the starting position
How to do it: Start in a high plank position, with shoulders over wrists. Move right hand forward one hand length, and left hand back on hand length, keeping core, glutes, and legs engaged. Bend elbows to lower chest to the floor. Your elbows should point back at a 45-degree angle, then push back up to starting position. Switch hand positions and repeat on the other side.
How to do it: A plyo (short for plyometric) push-up is one in which your body, whether it be your hands or both your hands and feet, will come off the floor. Think: a clap between push-ups, or exploding during the up motion of a push-up and using the momentum to lift feet and hands and extend arms forward, before landing back in starting position.