By Kim Duke, NETA & AFAA Certified Trainer 

As a personal trainer, I can attest to the fact that the push-up is one of the most underrated exercises in existence. Not only would I place the push-up over any single arm exercise out there for sculpting great arms and toned triceps, but it is also a killer total-body move.

The problem is that most people aren’t getting the full push-up payoff for one simple reason: they are not getting a full range of movement.

Whether this is due to people resting their knees on the ground or using their head and neck as part of their push-up, their form and range of motion are hindered. A lot of people feel the inability to do a push-up is due to a weak chest and triceps strength, when in reality the core control, or lack thereof, is the real culprit. Bent-knee push-ups only target the chest and triceps, not the poor core control. So they are not getting you much closer to doing the full-on thing.

First and foremost, if someone can’t hold his or her body tightly in a straight line from ankle to shoulder, they’re unable to do proper push-ups. You can kick and squirm and fight this idea all you want, but you can’t escape it.

You should be able to visually draw a straight line from the ankle, through the hip to the shoulder at any point in the push-up.  The head and neck should remain in a neutral position, but dipping the chin to the floor isn’t getting you to the bottom of the movement. This rigid alignment should never change throughout the exercise. Don’t push your shoulders up and then later bring your hips up to meet them. This isn’t a push-up and it looks inappropriate!

Next is the range of motion. This shouldn’t have to be specified after saying “push-up,” but there seems to be some confusion surrounding it. At the top, the elbows should be completely extended and the shoulder blades protracted. At the bottom, the chest should be in light contact with the floor. That is, the chest has reached and touched the floor but is not supported by it. Again, in both of these positions and everywhere in between, the body should be straight and rigid.

This full range of motion, in my opinion, should take precedence over the degree of resistance. So if you can’t complete a push-up to full depth from the toes, you need to modify it somehow, such as elevating your hands. The hands can be elevated on a wall, but the wall gets in the way of the face. You’re better off moving the hands to a plyo box or bench so the head can travel without obstruction and make the correct posture possible.

I prefer the upper arms to be within about 45 degrees from the sides of the body. This allows the shoulder to move through that full range of motion more easily and naturally. Moving the hands wider and bringing the elbows farther from the sides will usually make push-ups easier for people, but it also limits depth for most people and starts tearing up the shoulders pretty quickly.

The push-up is one of those things that, when done well, doesn’t draw much attention—it’s not a flashy feat of athleticism. However, in my opinion, how one performs a push-up is indicative of that individual’s athletic foundation, and possibly more importantly, how committed one is to excellence in movement and performance. Sloppy push-ups suggest to me a superficial interest in athleticism and a degree of laziness. Put a little attention and effort into the simple things and it will pay returns in the more complicated and interesting ones.