Back to basics: Push-Ups

My military athletes MUST be good at push-ups for fitness tests, and I design their training to include pre-run push-ups and push-up variations in the gym. I’ve been present at many PT tests where some push-ups were not counted because of poor form. I ensure my military athletes perform push-ups with correct form, but also have the strength and endurance to meet minimum standards and beyond.

However, EVERYONE can benefit from push-ups! Don’t let ego get in the way; use all the variations of push-ups to build overall strength.

The key to any push-up is form.

  1. Set your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Hands should be slightly lower than the shoulder, thumbnails in-line with the nipples.
  2. Feet should be set up to feel balanced. For some, that means feet touch. For others, that might be shoulder-width apart.
  3. Visualize your body as one straight line: ankles, knees, hips, shoulders, and ears. The butt should not be sagging or sticking up in the air.
  4. Engage glutes and brace the core, as is preparing to get punched in the gut. You are essentially holding a plank through the entire movement.
  5. Head should be looking slightly ahead, not straight down. In the lowered position, the chin would touch first, not the nose.
  6. Elbows should bend about 45* away from the body, not perpendicular to the body. From the top, you should look like an arrow, not a letter T.
  7. Breathe throughout the entire set! Inhale when lowering the body. Exhale as you push up.

Keep things interesting by playing with tempo, the speed at which you perform any exercise. Begin with a 4-2-1 tempo (4″ lowering, 2″ hold, 1″ return to start) and keep the reps lower. As you build strength and endurance, change to a 2-2 tempo. My military athletes will then progress to a repeating tempo to mimic the AMRAP (as many reps as possible) within the time guidelines.


It is OK to switch between variations within a session to maintain proper form. I’ll take less push-ups of high quality versus more push-ups of crappy quality.

Stephanie Harboe is a RRCA-certified running coach and NASM-certified personal trainer.

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