WORKOUT WEDNESDAY: How to Do Proper Push-Ups and Pull-Ups

by: Emily Wheeler

Ahh the classic pull-ups and push-ups. These simple and traditional upper-body exercises are beloved by some and dreaded by others, but most of us have been acquainted with them since elementary school gym class. Like many things we have known how to do for a long time, it’s easy to get sloppy with these exercises and to start losing proper form and doing them incorrectly. That’s right, there is a specific proper form for push-ups and pull-ups!

Here is a reminder of how to do them with the form that will protect your muscles and joints from damage while giving your body the maximum workout possible!


  1. Start by positioning your hands and feet. Hands should be either shoulder width apart of slightly wider than this. Feet can be together or apart, whichever is most comfortable or stable for you.
  1. The KEY to a proper pushup is that your body needs to stay in a straight, solid line (plank position) the entire time! Whether you’re pushing up or lowering down, your bum should not be sticking up so that you look like this (^) and your hips should not be sinking down to the floor. It should take legitimate effort just to hold your body in this position before you ever start actually doing the push-up part! If you’re having trouble knowing if you’re in a straight, plank position, ask a workout buddy to check for you or practice in front of a mirror at the gym where you can see your form. If you don’t have either of these options, just get into what you feel is a solid plank position, and then make it even better by tightening your glute muscles and engaging your abdominal muscles. You’ll be feeling the work almost immediately.
  1. For your first push-up, begin to lower down and pay attention to your elbows: are they sticking way out to the side? Try bringing them in closer to your body and the push-up will feel more difficult. This is because you’re doing it the right way, therefore getting your maximum workout! If your hands are directly under your shoulders, keep the elbows hugged in so tight that they brush against your sides as you lower down for an excellent triceps workout!
  1. Don’t keep your chin tucked down and stare straight at the floor beneath your hands. This is not a great position for breathing or blood flow, as you might notice if you find yourself holding your breath without even noticing it and feel your face getting hot. Think about holding your head so that your chin would be the first part of your face to touch the floor if you lowered all the way down instead of your nose touching first. This should open the airway, making it easier to breath and for blood to circulate, as well.
  1. Try to lower until you get your arms to form angles (with your elbow as the vertex) that are 90 degrees or less. If you can only do 5 push-ups when you lower to 90 degrees but you can do 10 push-ups if you just don’t lower down so far, it’s still better to just stick with the 5 push-ups that you can do with the best form. This will increase your strength, and even if you only add one push-up at a time, you’ll clearly see yourself progressing as you can do more and more per set.
  1. It’s fine to start with push-ups with your knees on the floor as long as you still keep your body from the knees up in a tight, straight line. Allow your feet to lift off of the floor as you lower down with your knees on the ground, because otherwise your arms aren’t supporting much body weight at all.



A proper pull-up should be an exercise primarily targeting your arm muscles, right? Actually, no! Pull-ups are targeting the back muscles when done properly, not to mention the fact that anyone looks pretty impressive if they know how to do them right.

  1. A proper pull up has an overhand grip on the bar and hands spread wide.
  1. Elbows don’t need to stay super close to the body, but they do need to be controlled. Keep those guys under the bar at all times!
  1. Before you even start your pull-up, become familiar with what it feels like to have your shoulder blades pulled back and together, like you’re trying to hold a pencil by squeezing it in the upper middle of your back. You want to reset to this retracted position before every pull-up to activate your back muscles. This means that you won’t be stick straight and vertical because there will be a slight arch in your back if you’re doing it right. That’s ok, because if you stay completely straight you’ll feel like your chest is coming up into the bar before you pull all the way up and you’ll be using your arm muscles more than your back.
  1. Reach your full range of motion by fully extending your arms straight every time you finish a rep. Don’t keep that partial bend in your arms or, once again, you’ll be relying on your arm muscles more than working your back. Yes, it makes it harder because you have a longer distance to pull up per rep, but doing half-reps is cheating if you’re trying to make some progress here.
  1. You might want to consider crossing your ankles and keeping a slight bend in the knees. This keeps your legs from feeling awkwardly heavy and dangling wildly beneath you.
  1. Personal pet peeve: Doing “momentum pull-ups” is also cheating. If you’re using your arms or legs to swing or pop yourself up every rep, you’re not doing proper pull-ups. Proper pull-ups are not done at a rapid pace; they use controlled, paced movements. If you can do twenty-five pull-ups because you’re heaving your legs up to your chest every time to gain momentum on your upward pull, it’s still less impressive that the person who did three of them using pure muscle effort.


That being said, learning how to do proper pull-ups is extremely difficult because you’re literally lifting your whole body weight against gravity! If you don’t regularly lift weights, this is a huge feat! The first time I tried, I could barely do one of them. I was taught that to work your way up to being able to do a few proper pull-ups, you can use the assisted pull-up machine in the weight room (which offsets some of your body weight with the amount that you set on the machine), or simple looped resistance bands along with your pull-up bar. Simply loop the resistance band around the pull up bar and pull one end through the other end of the band so that you have a sturdy loop around the bar and one end of the band is dangling downward. It has to be a band that makes a continuous circle, so that you can put one knee in the loop that is hanging down. Now, as you try to pull up, the resistance band will give you a little lift as it shrinks back to the length it prefers to be once you pull up! Gradually decreasing your assistance level will have you on your way to doing an extremely impressive pull-up before you know it!

Now you’re on your way to strengthening your whole body with proper form and control. Even with the simplest exercises, don’t forget to learn the form and precautions you should use when doing it before you decided to go for it regularly!

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