The push up is a great closed chain bodyweight exercise that’s often forgot about and underutilized by the human population, especially your average gym rat. Some advanced trainees claim it’s an exercise for the weak, where other people are scared to even attempt them. What I noticed is that no matter how much of a beginner or professional you think you are, it’s an exercise that’s very commonly butchered. Its hard to believe one of the most popular old school “easy” exercises can be performed “wrong” (using this term lossley) by so many people.
The goal of this post isn’t made to brag about how much a push up can do for you or to explain how most people do them wrong, but to give you a resource to refer back to so you understand you are doing them with good technique. As a bonus, besides using them as part of your workout or as a finisher, they can also be used as a fantastic assessment tool and a corrective exercise as well.
Before I start, and just like every other exercise, I understand there are many ways to tweak the push up technique I mention below. I actually recommend you do so according to your goals. With the form mentioned below, I am just showing you the safest most efficient way to perform the exercise.
Let’s get to the correct push up form.
It’s NOT a T it’s an arrow:
Don’t keep the arms at 90 degrees but tuck your elbows in to about 45 degrees.
You will notice if you have your arms bent at 90 degrees you will feel a ton of pressure on the anterior part of your shoulder. That’s because when you perform push ups this way it causes unneeded and unwanted stress on the glenohumeral joint. If you look like a T, (like in the picture below) change your set up to looking like an arrow. It’s a lot easier on the shoulders, and you will be able to use more muscles you wouldn’t normally like your lats as well.
(Bad position elbows flared) (Good Position)
Your instinct wouldn’t be to push something or someone with your elbows flared out would it?
Having the elbows flare out is one of the most common flaws I see just like in the bench press as well. The strongest and best bencher pressers in the world don’t flare out the elbows, so neither should you with the push up. Cutting this discussion short, it’s the same concept.
Keep the wrists and elbows in line:
Your elbows should never leave the position above your wrist. For more safety, efficiency and a more successful overall keep the elbows and wrists in line.
If your elbows flare outside your wrists you are making this and elbow dominant movement, which in turn puts a lot of stress on the elbow and makes it a triceps dominant exercise. You want to make this a total body exercise for a more efficient push up. If you are unaware and or do decide to flare your wrists outside the elbows, I can almost guarantee your elbows won’t be happy with you in the long run.
(Elbows Flared Outside the Wrists)
If you cant see this in the picture, my elbows are are jumping towards the camera, out of line compared to my wrists.
They elbows and wrist should track just behind the shoulder:
After getting the wrists and elbows in line, this should fall into place. Simple stated there should be about a 90 degree angle at your elbow. Look at the pictures to “eye” what I mean:)
Don’t turn the hands in:
Have the hands neutral or slightly turned out.
(Hands in) (Hands Neutral) (Hands Out)
It all starts at the hands. If the hands are turned in, it causes the shoulders to internally rotate more, and the elbows flare out which as we already know is not very healthy for the shoulders. Do yourself a favor and keep the hands neutral or rotate them slightly out. Keeping the hands straight and screwing the ground creates torque and extra strength and stabilization as well.
Neutral Head Positioning
Poor head position can be defined as either a sagging or forward head, or a head looking up. Keeping your head and cervical spine in neutral alignment results in better posture and keeps you further away from creating more muscle imbalances.
To get in a proper set up simply tuck your chin and lead with your chest. To correct this, a great couple cues I have learned and came up with are to either imagine the floor closing in on you, pull yourself to the floor.
Not just the cervical, but entire spine should stay in neutral alignment:
Having a sagging back or rounded back is bad. In short when you round, you are taking your core out of the movement and putting yourself into an excessive kyphosis, when the hips sag you are putting yourself in lumbar hyperextension and also a common deformity we see a lot in the U.S. today, anterior pelvic tilt.
To fix this tighten everything!:
- Tighten your glutes: In other words pinch the penny. This will help take you out of the anterior pelvic tilt mention above.
- Squeeze your legs together. If you’re having trouble doing this, put a towel, pad, or something between your legs and actively squeeze them together to keep the pad there. This will help you “get” what this adductor squeeze feels like.
- Tighten your abs: Yes you have abs, even if they are being covered right now.Imagine someone is punching your stomach while you are doing this. I guarantee if they were you wouldn’t let your low back sag or round at the hips.
- Squeeze your quads: In other words pull your knee caps up, and lift your knees off the floor.
Another solution to correct any poor alignment described above could be with the use of a pvc pipe, light pole, bar, or dowel rod etc.)
Simply get in a push up position and have someone place the rod directly in the middle of your spine. It should be kept in contact with the occiput (back of the head), in between the scapulae (shoulder blades) and on the sacrum or in other words the tailbone. If it isn’t, you are out of alignment.
As soon as you start to fall out of alignment the set is over.
IMPORTANT NOTE: If you cannot get yourself into any of these positions with proper cuing then you may have muscle imbalances, weaknesses, or tightness that may need to be addressed. This article isn’t about corrective exercises, or what ones should be included in your program to fix areas like this. If you have any specific concerns get an evaluation from a skilled professional.
Use full range of motion:
If you cannot lower yourself all the way to the ground keeping everything in the lower and upper body tight and stable, then you are not ready for a full push up. If I get enough interest I will cover progressions to a full push up in the future.
Inhale through the nose and take a big breath in (not forced) with the lowering portion of the push up. Then on the way back up keep that breath in until you reach just about near the top to maintain core stability (the ability to lock the core, torso and pelvis in a neutral position and maintain that alignment while resisting movement imposed). When finishing the exercise, blow out air through your mouth near the top of the push up upon reaching lockout.
Try to spread the floor apart as you lower yourself down:
Obviously your hands will stay put, but imaging yourself doing this as you are in the eccentric or lowering portion of the push up. This will help activate the lats even more, aid in total body tightness, and increase the quality of your push up.
To get the feel of this wrap a band that is tight around your wrists, but not to tight that its impossible to spread your bring your hands apart. Also again act like your screwing the ground (outward) with your hands.
Perform a perfect push up:
Proper Push Up Form
Poor Push Up Form
No it doesn’t have to be the gadget you see on TV, but get set up right, stay tight, lower your body down and then push up with the form mentioned above.
Some Common Bloopers of the Push Up
Forgetting to keep the ENTIRE BODY TIGHT: Look at the tips above under “tighten everything”. Squeeze the glutes, quads, and legs together while tightening at your stomach.
Looking up: You should be tucking your chin and staring at the floor below you. If you are looking up you’re hyper-extending your neck which is faulty spinal alignment. Always keep your neck in line with the rest of your spine.
(Head Up, Bad Form, and Uncomfortable)
Sagging your head. Don’t lead with your head, its just poor posture. This could lead to all sorts of problems like spine injuries, tight muscles, and promote poor postural habits. Instead, imagine the wall closing in on you, or try pulling yourself to the floor.
(Sagging Head, Bad Form, and Uncomfortable)
Letting the hips hit the ground before the chest: Lead with the chest. This is what should touch the ground first before your next push up, not anything else the push up isn’t the worm.
Having a sagging back or rounded back: Again, to fix this, look at the tips under “tighten everything” and also the dowel cue above. If you can’t do it, you may need to work on some modifications and corrective work first.
(Rounded Back) (Sagging Back)
Flared elbows: I don’t want to sound redundant if you flare the shoulders it can cause impingement of ligaments between the shoulder capsule and the head of the humerus. This is where some people will say they feel weakness or pinching. Save your shoulders and push up in the 45 degree angle mentioned throughout the post.
Not using full range of motion: For the most part, do NOT use partial reps. As I have said a bunch of times in this post already, if you cannot do a full range of motion push up you need to work on some modifications and progressions.
I saved this one for lastbecause it’s going to be a little long winded. Scapulae winging is a condition in which the shoulder blade, protrudes from a person’s back in an abnormal position.
(If you notice this its not normal)
If you present with this, it may be preventing you from lifting, pushing, pulling, and carrying things on a daily basis. You are most likely having a winged scapulae because you have a weak serratus anterior, or because you have serratus anterior paralysis which is typically cause by damage to the long thoracic nerve. If you have serratus anterior paralysis, it is often a treatment for an occupational or physical therapist.If you have a weak serratus anterior, it can often be improved by performing some serratus strengthening exercises. If you notice winging presents I recommend getting evaluated by a professional who has that scope of evaluation and treatment.
We all know there are a million different variations, modifications and progressions, but you shouldn’t start any of them unless you have proper push up form. Just because this is an old school standard exercise doesn’t mean that your form is correct automatically correct.
You are now ready to form a love hate relationship with your chest, shoulders, triceps, serratus anterior, back, core and more. If you have read this and are ready to comply, you will have LESS pressure in your wrists, shoulder and other unwanted areas. You now also have the correct technique of a push up that leads to improved scapular stability, better overall shoulder functioning and much more without having to use any equipment. Have a blast in a glass and take this form and apply it too different push up variations of your choice.