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Can't do a pushup? These 5 exercises will help you get there

You may think the pushup is all about the upper body, but doing it correctly depends on your core strength.
Young woman doing push-up
Pushups strengthen the shoulders, chest, triceps, abs and torso. TODAY Illustration / Stephanie Mansour

Pushups are one of the most common strength training exercises — and they also are one of the most intimidating. As a personal trainer for over a decade, I still feel intimidated by doing multiple sets of pushups in a workout!

It may seem like a simple move, but a pushup is so difficult because it works the entire body at once, especially the core and arm muscles. This is great for getting a lot of bang for your buck during a workout. But it also opens the door for injury. When done incorrectly, pushups can cause muscle strain in the back, neck, shoulders and even hips.

That’s why it’s so important to understand the correct way to do a pushup, and not jump right into the full move if you aren’t ready.

What does a pushup do for the body?

Pushups strengthen the shoulders, chest, triceps, abs and torso. Because pushups work a number of different upper-body muscles and your core, they’re great for improving overall strength and stability.

If you incorporate the move into your routine consistently, you may even notice your posture improve since pushups strengthen the core muscles that enable proper posture. Strengthening these muscles also reduces your risk of injuries to the lower back.

The common mistakes people make when doing pushups

I notice a lot of my clients letting their hips sag and lower backs arch when performing pushups. The move is meant to be done in a plank position, with your body in a straight line. Sagging at the hips is caused by decreased core engagement and can place undue stress on your back that can lead to back pain.

The reason so many people allow their hips to sag when performing the pushup is because they don’t have the core strength or they don’t utilize the proper core strength to stay in plank position. We tend to compensate for this lack of strength by sagging our hips and arching our backs. To correct this mistake when performing a pushup:

  • Stay aware of your body positioning, specifically keeping your hips square and you core pulled in tight.
  • Keep the shoulders over the wrists.
  • Reach the heels towards the back of the room and the crown of the head towards the front of the room, elongating the spine.
  • Make sure your hips are as high as your shoulders.
  • If you can’t keep your hips in this position, try a modified pushup on your knees.

How to do a modified pushup

There are a few different ways to perform a modified pushup that will help build your confidence and upper body strength to prepare you for the real deal. Modified pushups on the knees are one of the more popular modifications.

Start in a pushup position with your wrists directly below your shoulders and your palms pressing into the mat. Instead of being on your toes, rest your knees on the mat and cross your ankles in the air. Pull your navel in towards your spine, and ensure you maintain a straight spine from your neck to your tailbone. Begin bending your elbows slowly out to the sides, lowering your chest until your chin touches or almost touches the mat. Return to the starting position and repeat.

How to perform a pushup correctly

Performing a pushup correctly takes some practice and self-awareness. These step-by-step instructions will help you get there:

  1. Start by getting down on all fours with your palms on the mat a little wider than shoulder-width distance apart.
  2. Make sure your arms are straight. Reach your legs straight behind you, tucking the toes under to come into a plank position.
  3. Bend at the elbows, lowering your body until your chest almost touches the mat.
  4. Pause in this position for a few seconds, then press down into the ground to straighten your elbows and push your body back up.
  5. Return to starting position and repeat.

4 exercises that will help you do better pushups

If you’re still feeling your hips sagging and your back arching, these exercises will help you build the core strength needed to perform a full pushup correctly.

Elevated pushup

Using an elevated surface such as a chair or wall to place your hands on while doing a pushup will allow you to perform the same movement but with less weight. This helps you practice proper form and gradually build core and arm strength. The less you are inclined, the easier it will be. So start with a wall, then move to a desk or table, and finally a chair or step. Simply place your hands on the elevated surface, keep your body in a straight line, and perform a pushup. Repeat this 10 times.

Plank

Holding a plank in pushup position will help you develop the core strength needed for a regular pushup. Get into plank position with your palms on the mat and your arms and legs straight. Hold for about 10 seconds. Then, take a rest. Gradually increase the amount of time you can hold the plank until you reach one minute.

Oblique Twists

This exercise can be done with or without weights. Either way, you’ll be working your core. Start with your butt on the ground and your knees bent with your feet in front of you. Keeping both hands in front of your chest, twist your entire torso to the right so that your hands hover over the mat to your right side, then twist your entire torso left so that your hands hover over the mat to the left of your body. Perform 10 twists to each side.

Flutter kicks

Lie with your back on the ground and your arms straight down at your sides. Lift both legs off the ground and begin kicking up and down, alternating between the left and right leg. Remember to squeeze your core and keep your back on the ground. If your back begins to lift, put a slight bend in your knees to allow your low back to remain glued to the mat.

More ways to master the move: