What Muscles Do Push-Ups Work? Here's How to Do Them the Right Way

Hint: You probably shouldn't be doing them on your knees at all.

Working out at home has become the new normal, thanks to people practicing social distancing to help stop the spread of coronavirus. So it’s no surprise people have turned to fitness challenges on Instagram to add a little excitement and connection to otherwise solo workouts.

One of the most popular of challenges right now—see 10, do 10, give 10—is all about push-ups. The Instagram trend shows people doing 10 push-ups, and tagging their friends to do the same. Seems easy enough—until you actually have to drop and give 'em 10 (properly done push-ups are hard!).

The move is clearly a great addition to any workout, but what muscles do push-ups even work? And how does the move benefit your overall fitness? Here, Charlee Atkins, CSCS, New York City-based trainer and founder of Le Sweat and Le Sweat TV answers common push-up questions, including the best way to modify or amplify the move, and why your body will thank you for pairing push-ups with a few other exercises.

What Muscles Do Push-Ups Work and What Are the Benefits of the Exercise?

First off, to do a push-up you need to move your body from the top of a straight-arm plank, down to the floor and back up again—all while keeping your body in one straight line. As you do that, you’re working your chest, shoulders, back, core, and arm muscles, says Atkins. You’re also primarily working the shoulder joint, she adds, which is why it takes upper body strength to move down and back up, and your midsection fires to maintain that straight-line body position as you go.

You can also categorize almost any exercise as either a push or pull movement. The push-up (obviously) falls into the push pattern—a function we perform in daily life, says Atkins. “The push-up challenges all pushing motions, including pushing yourself out of bed in the morning, moving furniture or other items around the house, pushing a cart at the grocery store, lifting something heavy off our chest, or to the moms out there, lifting your baby overhead at 45-degree angle,” she explains. The stronger you get at the push-up exercise, the easier all these daily activities become.

How to Know if You’re Doing a Push-Up Properly

To make sure you’re maxing out the benefits of a push-up, you want to check your form. For starters, make sure your elbows point back 45 degrees into an A shape, rather than a T. “The direction of the elbow determines what’s happening at the joint, and if your elbows are in the shape of a T, you’re wreaking havoc on your rotator cuff [the muscles and tendons that surround the shoulder joint] due to the extreme internal rotation,” says Atkins. Also, if you’re pulling your elbows in toward your sides, forming an I shape, you’re doing a triceps push-up. This isn’t necessarily wrong, but you’re not recruiting the chest and back muscles as much as that 45-degree angle, Atkins explains.

Next up, focus on your core. If your hips drop or you’re bringing your butt to the sky, that means your middle isn’t engaged enough to maintain a strong plank. “Tuck the tailbone [slightly forward] to put the pelvis in a posterior tilt to help protect the lower back,” says Atkins.

To keep that straight line even straighter, you also want to make sure your neck stays in neutral alignment. Don’t let your head bobble or your chin tuck toward your chest, which can create tension in the neck and shoulders, says Atkins. Take your gaze to the front of the mat or in front of your hands.

As for your arms, make sure your shoulders stay right over your wrists to keep your body stable and maximize those pushing mechanics. Atkins says to shift your weight slightly forward as you lower down to keep this position. Your hands should also be slightly wider than shoulder-width apart—your thumbs should touch your armpits at the bottom of the move.

Finally, remember that the closer your feet are together, the more challenging the push-up. The farther away they are from each other, the more stable your body. Atkins suggests keeping them hip-distance apart as you train.

The Best Way to Modify or Intensify the Push-Up

You’ve probably seen people who can’t quite get all the way to the ground in a push-up or have trouble maintaining a plank, drop their knees to the ground to modify the move. But Atkins says to skip that variation. Instead, put your hands on a couch, chair, table, or bench and perform push-ups at an incline. “When you drop to the knees, you completely eliminate half of your body weight and train improper body mechanics,” says Atkins. “A very crucial part of having the ability to do a push-up is maintaining a strong core. The goal of a push-up is to have the ability to press the equivalent of your body weight away from you.” By taking it to an incline instead, you still maintain that straight line and get used to moving your entire body. As you get stronger, simply bring that incline lower until you can maintain strong plank form while doing a push-up on the ground.

“The way you train the body is the way it’s going to respond. If you always do push-ups from the knees, eventually you’ll come up off the knees and the mechanics will feel foreign, so it’s best to begin doing push-ups with the body in a straight line—like you would, and should, do in a proper push-up,” says Atkins. “The incline decreases the amount of bodyweight or load put on the arms and shoulders, but as you progressively lower, you progressively add load to the upper body in a manageable way.”

For those who breeze through regular push-ups on the ground, Atkins suggest upping the challenge by reversing the incline and putting your feet on yoga blocks, your couch, a chair, or a bench. This ups the challenge on your upper body. You can also switch up the tempo to make a push-up more difficult. Try pausing for a count of three to five at the bottom or lower to the ground on a count of six. "The goal is to increase the time under tension, which is another way to change up your push-ups," says Atkins.

The Best Exercises to Pair with Push-Ups

While it’s OK to do push-ups every day (as long as you maintain proper form, of course), you want to make sure you’re working the opposing muscles, too. “For all the pushing exercises out there—planks and all their variations, push-ups, chest presses, mountain climbers, even riding an indoor bike—you need to train the ‘pull’ muscles, primarily those of the back, to counterbalance all of our hunched-over activities,” says Atkins.

For some options to add to your regular routine—test 'em out after your see 10, do 10, give 10 challenge—Atkins suggests inverted rows (with a TRX or hold onto the edge of a heavy table if you can get a good grip on it), bent-over rows with dumbbells, renegade rows with dumbbells (in a plank position), superwomen, pull-ups, or locust pose for the yogis in the room. These all work your pull movement pattern and the back of the body, helping you maintain good posture and 360-degrees of strength in the upper body.

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