How to Do the Perfect Pushup

When was the last time you did a pushup? Choose the most applicable answer:

A)   “Gym class, sixth grade.”
B)   “Why would I ever do a pushup?”
C)   “Yesterday.”

Scoring: If you answered A or B, you’re like most men. If you answered C, you probably work at Men’s Health.

Most guys abandon the pushup for the bench press sometime around puberty. That’s a shame—pushups have a lot going for them. You can do them anywhere. They don’t require any equipment. And they’re more effective at building rippling muscles than you probably realize.

In fact, researchers recently discovered that performing pushups as quickly as you can is one of the best ways to build explosive upper-body strength, according to The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. This pushup method was more effective than doing plyometric pushups (think: clapping between each pushup), and fall pushups, where you drop from a kneeling position and try to push your way back up to the starting position.

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Why is quicker better? Take a look at a vertical jump: “If you do a quick knee bend before jumping, you’ll always jump higher than if you don’t,” explains N. Travis Triplett, Ph.D., one of the study’s researchers. The same type of action occurs when you do pushups as fast as possible. Dropping your chest toward the ground and pausing ever so slightly enhances the motion of pushing yourself back up—and ultimately helps you build more explosive strength, says Triplett.

You won’t be able to maximize your strength if you don’t perform the pushup correctly, though. Here’s the right way to perform the move:

  1. Get down on all fours and place your hands on the floor so that they’re slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Straighten your arms and legs. Your body should form a straight line from you head to your ankles.
  2. Brace your core and squeeze your glutes. Hold these contractions for the entire exercise. This keeps your body rigid and doubles as core training.
  3. Next, lower your body until your chest nearly touches the floor, then push yourself back up to the starting position as quickly as possible. Don’t let your hips sag at any point during the movement. If this is too hard, you can place your hands on an elevated surface, such as a step, bench, or even a counter (picture below). This reduces the amount of your body weight you have to lift. The higher the surface, the easier the exercise becomes.

There’s no reason not to include pushups in your workout routine. “You can train your core, pecs, front deltoids, and triceps at the same time,” says Men's Health fitness advisor Bill Hartman, P.T., C.S.C.S. “Plus, they’re great for shoulder health.”

To achieve the benefits seen in the study, Hartman suggests doing 3 sets of 6 to 8 repetitions at maximum speed, resting 3 minutes between sets. (You can do a lower-body exercise—such as lunge—while you wait.) Do this one or two times a week, which is all you need for boosting upper-body strength and power.

Of course, you might have other goals in mind. Example: "Pushups are a great way to judge how strong you are relative to your body weight," says Martin Rooney, P.T., C.S.C.S., author of Ultimate Warrior Workouts.

Test yourself by doing as many pushups as you can in 3 minutes. Rest whenever you want, but keep the clock running the whole time. Fifty-five is average, but if you can't reach 75—what strength coaches consider "good"—then you need to either gain strength or lose weight. (Our 14 smart pushup variations will help you do both—simply weave them into your daily workouts to build strength, power, and sleeve-busting muscle.)

Or maybe you just want to be able to do more pushups. In that case, try this simple ladder routine, from Men’s Health Fitness Director Adam Campbell. Time how long it takes you to do as many pushups as you can. Then rest for the same time period, and repeat the process two to four times. So if you do 20 pushups in 25 seconds, you’ll rest 25 seconds, and repeat. Let’s say on your next round, you complete 12 pushups in 16 seconds. You’d then rest 16 seconds before your third set. And so on. Use this method once every three or four days to quickly raise your totals.

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