One simple movement can go wrong in so many ways. Make these small changes to see big results.
The pushup is one of the best bodyweight exercises for a reason: It strengthens just about everything, including your shoulders, triceps, chest, core, glutes, and even your back and legs.
There’s a big but: You have to perform the move correctly to see the benefits, says Pete McCall, C.S.C.S., a personal trainer and author of Smarter Workouts.
Unfortunately, even the most seasoned pushup warriors have a bad habit of butchering the move. Bottom in the air, back bowed, shoulders hunched—there’s a lot that can go wrong, he says.
The good news: Improving your form—and getting much more from the exercise—is actually pretty simple.
Start with mastering the basics of an incline pushup. Once you feel comfortable, it’s time to drill down on the little things that will improve your form and maximize the strength benefits. Consider this your checklist for turning your so-so pushups into the transformative total-body move they were meant to be.
As always, safety is key. The exercises here may be different or more advanced than those you’ll experience in a SilverSneakers class. If you have a chronic condition, an injury, or balance issues, talk to your doctor about how you can exercise safely.
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The Basics of an Incline Pushup
First, let’s review the steps of an incline or elevated pushup. You’ll need an exercise bench, a kitchen counter, or even a wall. Why it’s great for beginners: It’s easier than a pushup on the floor. The taller the object or the more upright you are, the easier the move.
How to do it: Stand facing a bench, counter, or wall. Place your hands on the edge of the bench or flat on the wall, slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Move your feet back until you are at a comfortable angle, keeping your arms straight and perpendicular to your body.
Engage your core muscles for stability. Bend your elbows to slowly lower your chest toward the object, pause, and then press back up to straighten your arms. That’s one rep.
Got a hang of the basics? Let’s upgrade your form.
Pushup Hack #1: Squeeze Your Butt and Thighs
You know in theory that your bottom shouldn’t stick up in the air or droop down when performing a pushup. But in reality, it can be hard to get into and maintain that straight line.
The solution: Squeeze your butt and thighs, McCall says. Doing so will automatically put your body in a straight line, while bracing the muscles that control and stabilize the spine and hips.
Not only will you help your lower body get stronger, but you’ll decrease the pressure on your back and core.
Pushup Hack #2: Press into Your Hands
Don’t just rest your hands on the surface you’re using—really drive them down and “grab” the surface with your fingertips.
“Your hands are your link to the shoulders, and actively using your hands will help activate muscles all the way through your arms and into your shoulders and upper back,” McCall says.
Bonus: This gripping action actually makes pushups much easier on your wrists.
Pushup Hack #3: Slow Down
Speeding through your sets? It’s one of the top strength training habits you should break. Fast pushups are actually far less effective at building strength than slower ones performed under control and without momentum, McCall says.
He notes that it is especially beneficial to perform the lowering phase of pushups slowly. This helps make sure your muscles are maxed out for the entirety of the move, not just the part where you push up.
Pushup Hack #4: Keep Your Shoulders Away from Your Ears
If your shoulders are scrunched up mid-pushup, you’re not putting your body in a position to get the most strength benefits for your lats, your upper body’s largest muscle group, McCall says. Your lats are located in the middle of your back, and they’re essential for good posture as well as pushing, pulling, and other basic movements.
Try this: During each rep, check in with yourself. If you feel those shoulders creeping up toward your ears or rotating inward, think about pinching your shoulder blades down and back.
Pushup Hack #5: Keep Your Upper Arms at a Diagonal
Your last cue on positioning: As you bend your elbows, think about pointing them 45 degrees away from your torso. So, between the 4:00 and 5:00 positions on a clock on one side, and between 7:00 and 8:00 on the other. That will help keep them in the sweet spot—not too close to the body, not too far away.
Prioritizing this elbow positioning, McCall says, will take a heap of stress off your shoulder joints. It’ll also help you recruit the muscles in your chest and back.
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