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How to do a push-up, the benefits, and the modifications to try

a photo of a strong man
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Whether you’re avoiding the gym right now, or just looking for ways to boost your arm strength from home, learning how to do a push-up correctly can make all the difference to your home workout routine. 

Although strong arms are often built by lifting heavy weights, if you’re short on equipment or space, push-ups are one of the best bodyweight exercises you can do to build your arm strength. In fact, a study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research (opens in new tab) found that when compared in resistance, push-ups and weighted bench presses have similar muscle gains. (That said, if you are looking for weights to strength train at home, we’ve found the best adjustable dumbbells here). 

Push-ups are an effective way to build upper body strength using just your body weight.  When done correctly, a push-up will work the triceps, pectoral muscles, and shoulders. They can also work on your abdominal muscles, as well as strengthen the lower back. 

Here’s everything you need to know about mastering the push-up, and the modifications to try to make the exercise more challenging. Looking for more workout inspiration? We’ve found the best ab workouts you can do for free, an exercise that’s better than squats at building your glutes, and one of the best ab exercises when it comes to sculpting a slimmer waistline.

How to do a push-up

To do a push-up, start by getting into a plank position, with your weight underneath your shoulders and your palms flat on the floor, shoulder-width apart. Straighten your arms and engage your abs, thinking about sucking your belly button into your spine.

You should have a straight line from your heels to the crown of your head. Slowly, with control, bend your arms and lower your chest to the floor, pause, then raise back to your starting position. 

What are the benefits of push-ups? 

When done correctly, push-ups work the pectoral (chest) muscles, the deltoids (shoulders), and the tricep muscles (back of your arms). They also target your abdominal muscles. To see the effects of push-ups, you’ll need to do more than a couple of repetitions, but if you’re new to the exercise, start by trying to do 20 push-ups, and build up from there. 

a photo of a woman doing push ups in the gym

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

How can you make push-ups easier, or harder? 

If you struggle with a push-up, start by trying these three modifications:

Wall push-ups: Put your palms flat on the wall, arms outstretched, and slowly lower your torso to the wall, pause, then push yourself back up to the starting position. 

Incline push-ups: For this exercise, you’ll need a block, bench, table, or chair. Put your palms on the surface and extend your legs out straight behind you. Keep your body in a straight line, and your elbows into your body, and perform the push-up at an incline. 

Knee push-ups: Alternatively, you can make push-ups easier by lowering your knees to the floor during the exercise. From the high-plank position, drop to your knees, but ensure you roll onto the top of your knees for the entire exercise. Engage your core, bend your elbows, and lower your chest to the floor, before raising back to your starting position.

You can also try this TikTok hack on mastering a push-up using a resistance band

If you’re really looking for arm gains and find the traditional push-up too easy, here’s how to make the move harder: 

Diamond push-ups: Diamond push-ups work your triceps harder than traditional push-ups. To do a diamond push-up, simply make a diamond shape with your two hands, rather than keeping them shoulder-width apart during the exercise. 

Raised push-ups: By changing your center of gravity, you automatically increase the intensity of the exercise. Raise your legs onto a chair, step, or the couch, and push up from there. The higher your legs are, the harder the push-up will be. 

One-armed push-ups: This one is really challenging, and definitely not for beginners. From your plank position, put one hand behind your back and complete the push-up using just one arm. Alternatively, raise one leg off the floor as you push up to make things harder. 

Weighted push-ups: Last, but certainly not least, add some weight. You can do this by using a weighted vest (here's what happened when a TG staffer worked out with a weight vest for a week), or if you’re in the gym, a weighted bar plate that you can get a friend to put on your back. 

Jane McGuire is Tom's Guide's Fitness editor, which means she looks after everything fitness related - from running gear to yoga mats. An avid runner, Jane has tested and reviewed fitness products for the past four years, so knows what to look for when finding a good running watch or a pair of shorts with pockets big enough for your smartphone. When she's not pounding the pavements, you'll find Jane striding round the Surrey Hills, taking far too many photos of her puppy.