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How To Do a Perfect Push-up Every Time, According to a Pro Trainer

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Many know Clarence Hairston as one of the more motivating Tempo  coaches, leading seven or eight live fitness classes each week, as well as a few goal-focused programs a month designed to build strength and lose weight. But before all that, the 32-year-old PT stud was just a lowly Air Force recruit in boot camp looking to prove himself at push-ups. “I thought I was the coolest guy ever, and in 60 seconds, I was able to do 12,” Hairston, from his home in Alameda, Calif., tells The Manual. But rather than washing out and returning home with his head hung in shame, he began to work in earnest, striving to get better every day. By training’s end, he could do 30 — a modest improvement compared to his capability now, but proof of the payoff that comes with consistent and careful work. Now, when clients come to him with the mistaken belief that he came out of the womb a fully formed push-up god, he quickly corrects them. “It’s a process,” he says. “Trust the process.”

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Hairston was like many men are now: convinced of the value of the push-up but severely deficient in its application. While it’s thought of as being all about body weight, which suggests more cardio than muscle-building, it’s actually just the opposite, of huge benefit to just about everything from looking good with your shirt off to increased performance in any sport or activity. “It’s an all-purpose exercise,” he says, citing its practice among triathletes and bodybuilders alike.

So what do you have to do to climb from a push-up neophyte to the Olympus that Hairston and others inhabit? As he tells it, all it takes is time. He’s broken down its movement into easily understood parts so that you can start today.

Step 1: The Rule of Thumbs

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Everything begins in the high plank, Hairston says, so start right: with your hands following “the rule of thumbs.” Plant your palms in underneath your shoulders top to bottom, with their width just outside your shoulders. If correctly positioned, you’ll be staring at your thumbs. Wiggle them to say hello.

Step 2: Table Legs

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“If a table had two legs really close and two legs really far apart, that’s not a sturdy table,” Hairston says. The point is that your hands, positioned under you and just wider than your shoulders, maybe perfectly placed, but if your feet are together, you’re going to be more wobbly than an Applebee’s four-top. Instead, “Think about trying to make a rectangle with your hands and your feet,” he says. This will create a solid platform on which to build.

Step 3: Mission Impossible

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Bad news, you who can scratch your kneecap without bending over: The longer your arms, the farther it is to the floor, and that’s where you’re headed. Once your arms and feet are in place, you’re going to slowly lower to the point where your chest is juuuuust above the floor. How close is close enough? Closer. “Think Tom Cruise, Mission: Impossible,” Hairston says, your nips floating just above.

Step 4: Elbow Angle

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And on that lowering, what happens to your elbows? Tight to your ribs? Flared out? Hairston recommends somewhere in the middle, at 45 degrees between the ribs and straight out from the shoulder. Think of yourself making a V-shape. This will not only help you maximize your strength but will also prevent wrist pain over time.

Step 5: Reengage

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You’ve seen them: those videos of guys bouncing their chests off the floor as they bob during push-ups. Don’t be those guys. Instead, after you complete each rep, stop at the top of the movement, reengage your core, and ensure you haven’t shifted your hands or feet. Then lower again. There’s little benefit to poor form and only increased risk of injury, so don’t flop.

Step 6: The Return

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We all want to be like Hairston: a push-up stud carved out of wood. But if you’re coming back to push-ups after an extended layoff, there’s no point in trying to rush into a hundred from the gun. “People want to jump right back in where they left off, and unfortunately that’s just not how the body works,” he says. “I mean this wholeheartedly: Let’s start with one rep.” Yeah, you read that right: a single, solitary push-up. Maybe that’s all you can do on day one. Come back tomorrow and go for two. Progress, he continues, is more important than overdoing it. “Step by step, page by page, just work on doing a little bit better every single day.”

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Jon Gugala
Features Writer
Jon Gugala is a freelance writer and photographer based in Nashville, Tenn. A former gear editor for Outside Magazine, his…
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