Ask most fitness experts for the move they’d pick if they were limited to just one for the rest of their lives, and a whole lot would opt for the push-up. And why not? It’s a full-body multitasker that doubles as a zero-equipment workout. Plus, there are so many variations—all of them effective.
And yet for all its simplicity, it’s also a move that’s surprisingly easy to get wrong—which at best means simply not reaping the maximum benefits, and at worst means possible injury. (Ouch!) So we tapped Christi Marraccini, head coach with Tone House (i.e., the hardest workout in New York City), to walk through the perfect push-up, step by step.
For all its simplicity, it’s also a move that’s surprisingly easy to get wrong.
For this how-to, Marraccini focused on the standard push-up—which uses the whole body, working the arms, core, chest, and even engaging the hips and legs—though there is also a wider variation (to target more of your chest and shoulders) and a narrower option (to really get your triceps in on the action). But first, the most basic.
Here’s Marraccini’s four-step guide to the perfect push-up.
Step one: Start in a high plank with your hands slightly outside your shoulders
If a full-on plank (without dropping to your knees) is too difficult, Marraccini says it’s better to remain linear and take your push-ups against a wall or ballet barre—or even to safely elevate yourself on something like yoga blocks. “When you [go to your knees], you’re really taking out a lot of body weight,” she explains, “and the ultimate goal is to use your body weight to really engage your core fully.”
Step two: Move down in a controlled motion
Keep your arms tucked in and your back straight as you lower, constantly scanning your body to make sure your hips don’t start to sag or pop up too high. Really envision staying in that perfect, engaged plank the whole way down.
Step three: Continue down until you’re about a fist’s distance from the ground
That’s roughly two to three inches Marraccini says. Obtaining a full range of motion is essential when it comes to engaging all of your muscles. “Some people think, ‘I can do 50 push-ups,’ but if your chest isn’t going all the way down, you’re not fully engaged,” Marraccini says.
Step four: With control, slowly push back up
Keep going until your arms are straight, but take care not to lock out your elbows. Then…repeat! “Ten perfect push-ups is a good baseline,” she says. “But everyone is at a different level.” And ultimately, two awesome push-ups are way better than ten lousy ones, Marraccini says.
Marraccini’s bonus tip: To make sure your form is really on point, either do your push-ups in front of a mirror or enlist a friend or family member to take a quick video of you. And know that the day after, you should feel all that hard work in your core. “It should be sore just like your upper body,” she says. If not, it’s a good idea to revisit your form.
At Well+Good, we’re always looking for genius hacks to make healthy living a cinch. From the kitchen to your beauty bag, we’re bringing you easy fixes to the most common quandaries every week so that you have a few extra minutes to enjoy your smoothie or savasana.
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