Throwing it back to when you were a kid, you’ve probably done some form of push-up in your elementary school P.E. lesson. And, let’s face it, you might not have used perfect form, right?
Here’s the thing, most people have the strength and are capable of doing push-ups. However, many are unaware of what to do with the rest of their body, and thus their form suffers. Not only does this increase the risk of injury, but it could also target the wrong muscle and create a false sense of progress through cheated reps.
As a calisthenics coach, I have seen many people practice bad form when doing a push-up and the majority share the same mistake such as not engaging their glutes and core, which creates an arched lower back. Therefore, by the end of this article, you will make far fewer mistakes than the average person would when doing push-ups.
The push-up is a fundamental bodyweight exercise that develops upper-body and core strength. This exercise primarily targets the pectoralis major, triceps, and shoulders. When performed with correct form, they also work core and lower back muscles by contracting the abdominal muscles.
Push-ups are a great way to advance your pushing strength and build muscle, which will help to improve your everyday functions such as closing a door, pushing a trolley, or inserting a plug into the socket. Moreover, this exercise will have a positive carry-over effect on other pushing movements such as bodyweight dips and the bench press.
Research suggests that those who can perform more than 40 push-ups are significantly less likely to incur cardiovascular disease compared to those who can perform fewer than 10 push-ups.
Proper Push-up Form
Let’s dive into how to do a correct push-up so that you can maximize the effects of this exercise.
- Begin in a plank position with your arms extended shoulder-width apart. Your palms are flat, fingers pointing forward and shoulders stacked directly on top of your wrists. Your legs are extended, feet are together, resting on your toes. Engage your glutes and core to keep your back flat.
- Inhale as you lower your body until your elbows are at 90 degrees (if possible, you can go lower). Keep your elbows close to your torso rather than flaring out, and maintain tension in your core throughout this movement. Lock your chest and pelvis together, and lower them as one unit.
- Exhale as you push back up the complete one rep. Make sure to lock your arms out fully before performing the next rep to ensure a full range of motion. Take two seconds to go down and one second to go up.
- Repeat this movement between 5-12 reps.
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Arched Lower Back
This is the most common mistake that people practice when doing push-ups. During the lowering down and rising phase, the lower back and hips sag down. This means that you are not stabilizing your midsection.
To prevent this, you should keep tension in your core, glutes, and quads. Think of two things during the movement: chest and pelvis. Simply move them down together rather than moving them in segments. Try recording yourself, and focus on the lower back. If it’s arched, this means you’re doing the push-up inefficiently!
Elbows Flare Out
Letting your elbows flare out to form a “T-shape” with your arms and torso will create unnecessary stress on your shoulders and irritate the rotator cuff tendons. This places them in a compromised position which could lead to injuries. According to research, flared-out elbows will create less chest and tricep activation, along with less strength, likely due to the lower range of motion.
Instead, you should use a grip that is approximately shoulder-width and tuck your elbows in toward your torso when executing a push-up rather than flaring them out. The optimal angle between your elbows and torso is 45 degrees.
Small Range of Motion
Using a reduced range of motion when doing bodyweight exercises such as a push-up is not efficient as you will not be getting stronger through the entire joint range of motion.
The solution to this is not to cheat each rep. Go all the way down (until your elbows are at 90 degrees angle), and go all the way up, locking your arms out fully before doing the next rep. You will get stronger by progressively increasing time under tension on the targeted muscles. Say this to yourself when doing push-ups “All the way up, all the way down”.
This is a very overlooked element in a push-up. In the starting position, you should keep your scapulars fully depressed and in a neutral position. If your scapulars are elevated (shrugged shoulders), this is wrong as it puts more emphasis on the shoulders rather than the chest and triceps.
The scapulars need to be able to move freely when performing a push-up. The correct form involves your scapulars being fully depressed and in a neutral position. As you lower down, retract your scapulars (your shoulder blades come together), and protract your scapulars (your shoulder blades move away from each other) as you push up.
Push-ups Hurt Wrists
Push-ups are great for developing upper body strength, core stability, and strength, and posture. However, they can give you pain if you lack wrist mobility, as they place lots of strain on the wrists due to greater wrist extension and compression of the joints in the wrists.
In this case, the ideal solution is to use a pair of dumbbells or parallettes and perform push-ups using a neutral grip. This will ensure an ergonomic position during movement, reducing wrist extension and, therefore alleviating wrist pain.
Pushups Hurt Shoulders
Another common problem when doing a push-up is dealing with aches and pains in the shoulders. So, what is the cause of this? More often than not, the root of the problem stems from poor form and compromised posture which causes muscles and the surrounding area of the shoulder joint to become inflamed. To fix this, you will need to correct your push-up form:
Perfect Pushup Form
- Plank position, arms at shoulder-width, shoulders on top of the wrists. Shoulders are depressed and in a neutral position. Your feet are together and your core, glutes, and quads are engaged. The body is at a 180-degree angle between legs and torso.
- Lower down and retract your shoulder blades together, elbows should be roughly at 45 degrees angle with your torso (this reduces stress on the rotator cuff muscles).
- Push up and return to the starting position. Engage core, glutes, and quads tight throughout this movement to maintain a straight line.
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