The push-up is one of the first exercises we all learned to do. Whether your first exposure was from gym class or from being told you needed to do push-ups and sit-ups every day to stay in shape, it’s fair to assume the push-up has been part of your workout routine longer than any other exercise. Despite its longevity in people’s training programs, the push-up is still an exercise that is often performed incorrectly.
Because the push-up allows your scapula and shoulder joint to move more freely, it’s a much safer option than the barbell bench press, especially if you have a history of shoulder problems. Because push-ups tend to be something we’re taught at a young age, and because it’s recognized as a safer alternative to bench pressing, many will rush to performing push-ups on the floor. Furthermore, they’ll frequently add on sets and reps, and prioritize speed over form. If your push-ups just don’t feel right, or you don’t seem to be getting better at them, check to see if you’re performing any of these common push-up mistakes.
1. Lower Back Hyperextension
Maybe it’s because your abs are weak or you have poor control over your spine and rib cage, but overextending through your lower back can make it seem like you’re getting lower on your push-ups. However, rather than getting lower by moving through a good range of motion with your shoulder blades, you’re likely just moving your hips closer to the floor and arching through your lower back. You can see this happening in pictures 1 and 2 below.
To fix this, spend some time in your set up position. Feel your ribs move down towards your hips, feel your abs squeeze, and slightly squeeze your butt. Now you should have a straight line from your hips to your head. When going through your set, keep your abs engaged and visualize moving in a straight line while lowering your hips and shoulders together. If your abs are working hard by the end of the set, your lower back and ribcage are likely in a good position. You can see a much better lower back position in pictures 3 and 4 above.
2. Suboptimal Elbow Position
Elbow position usually falls into one of three categories. Suboptimal elbow position will happen due to poor scapular control. Moving your elbows too far up or too close to your body may make it seem like the push-up is easier, but it’s also creating unnecessary stress at the front of your shoulder. When your elbows are closer to 45 degrees and making an arrow, you’ll put your shoulder blades in a position to move better and take stress off of your shoulder joint.
Elbows Make a T=Suboptimal
Elbows Make an I=Suboptimal
Elbows Make an Arrow=Optimal
3. Not Finishing with Your Shoulder Blades
When lowering during a push-up you should have balanced movement between your shoulder blades and shoulder joint. The same balance of movement needs to happen on the way up during a proper push-up. However, it’s common for your shoulder blades to never fully protract or move away from each other on your rib cage. This may be because of:
Suboptimal elbow/arm position
Excessive thoracic spine extension
Inability to control scapula on your ribcage
Because your glenoid fossa (shoulder socket) is part of your scapula, not moving your shoulder blades to an ideal position while finishing a push up will compromise the congruency of your shoulder “ball in the socket” and may put extra stress on the front of your shoulder and rotator cuff.
4. Forward Head Position
If you’ve cleaned up your push-up technique with the tips above, often times your forward heading position will take care of itself. If it hasn’t, you should consider regressing to incline push-ups (you’ll see progression video below). This will make it easier for you to control your spine, ribcage, and abs. When your lower back over extends and your abs are weak, your head diving down to the floor first in a push-up can be common.
5. Choosing Quantity Over Quality
In the days of push-up challenges and high intensity training, it’s easy to opt for quantity over quality. When you become fatigued your motor control and coordination are compromised. Because of this, when you’re tired, your technique is more apt to breakdown. This is why athletes may get injured more often later on in games or when playing on short rest. If push-ups are becoming easy for you, choose a more challenging variation or add some external load before banging out a ton of reps. If you’re training in a class setting, make sure to stay focused on maintaining good technique even when you’re tired.
Progress to Doing Push-Ups on the Floor
Challenging Push-Up Variations
A well-executed push-up is a great way to train your upper body and abs, and is a more functional exercise option than the bench press because of the freedom it provides your scapula to move on your rib cage. Create good habits when first learning the push-up and it’ll be an exercise that you can always have in your training program, and because of the many variations, you can continue to challenge yourself in different ways to ensure that your push-ups never plateau.