If you want to seriously improve your upper-body strength, sculpt your shoulders, and chisel your core with just one single move, it’s time you start doing the pushup. I don’t just say this because I’m a fitness editor and by default a true believer in functional, fundamental exercises, particularly the hard ones that most of us put off. I say this because I did pushups—just one set of 10—every day for a month, and I saw these changes. (I swear!)
That said, I struggled in the beginning. What makes pushups so effective is precisely what makes them so difficult: They work your entire body. Even if you have pretty strong arms, if you aren’t used to using all of your muscles to hoist your body weight up and down with control, you’re going to be humbled. It took me a solid two weeks tomaster the pushup, but once I did, I actually found myself looking forward to them.
My knowledge, now yours—so you can learn to love these guys too.
You can bring them in closer if you want to better target your triceps (a tweak research supports), but if it doesn’t feel comfortable, or doable, keep your hands wide. I found that narrow pushups aggravated my left elbow (I don’t know why—but it made a cracking noise and throbbed a bit), so I skipped them entirely. And I still came out with some definition I didn’t have before.
Before I started my challenge, I spoke with one of my all-time favorite guys in the biz, certified strength and conditioning specialist Tony Gentilcore. He told me to ground every knuckle into the floor when setting up each pushup, and my gosh, did that help. Pushups used to bug my wrists, but this tweak definitely helped. And as I got stronger, I could feel my muscles do the heavy lifting, sparing my joints the added stress.
My first set of pushups took me an embarrassingly long five minutes to finish. That’s because my arms would quiver halfway through, as they were doing all the heavy lifting, and so I’d stop to let them recover. Or my hips would drop and my back would arch, making the pushup totally ineffective (and worse, dangerous). Well, turns out, I wasn’t engaging my core or glute muscles nearly enough—pushups should feel just as much a core exercise as an arm one, Gentilcore says.
Lots of people drop their head and don’t even realize it, but that’s bad, bad technique, Gentilcore says. (I kept dropping mine, ironically, to check my form.) For every rep, actively think about lowering your chin, not your nose, to the floor.This will keep your spine in neutral position (and your neck out of the equation), preventing unwanted aches and injuries.
Want to turn up the burn? Bring your feet together so your weight is less evenly distributed between your four limbs. Want to make pushups easier? Separate those tootsies so you have a bit more stability when going up and down. I opted to keep mine together for the added challenge since I couldn’t play with my hand placement too much (see lesson number one).
Keep your elbows around 45 degrees from your body, Gentilcore says. You don’t want your elbows flaring too far out from your body, because that decreases stability in your shoulders. And you definitely don’t want your elbows too close, or your shoulders will roll forward. But don’t go crazy overthinking the exact angle of your elbows—practice this placement enough and your elbows will fall there naturally, I promise.
If you really want to see the fruits of your labor, try to lower your body closer to the ground before pushing yourself back up. I must have gotten at least two or three inches lower between Day 1 and Day 30—a true testament of my improved upper-body strength. Have a friend take pictures of your pushups day by day to see your progress, or peek in the mirror if you must (keep it brief—remember, you want a neutral spine). And keep working on getting lower until you literally run out of space. Boobs to the floor (though not on the floor), as I like to say.