By Brandon Richey
If you are struggling with your push-ups then there’s a chance you could be butchering the movement without even realizing it.
In my 17 year career of being a strength coach I have evaluated hundreds of people and the push-up exercise is always a movement that stands out because so many people assume they can perform this movement.
The reality is that the majority of the population really do not understand how to perform this movement and today’s article is going to outline some of the more common problem areas people face performing it.
Think of this article as a checklist—even if you’ve been practicing push-ups in your workouts for years. Over time, it’s easy to inadvertently slip into poor form. I make it a point to check my form for all movements for this very reason.
These tips are also applicable for when you’re doing plank holds, whether in the top push-up position or on your elbows.
1) Improper hand placement
For a your basic, standard push-up, you want your hands placed the way the man in the photo above has his placed.
The first step in performing a push-up correctly, or any exercise for that matter, involves proper set up. If you fail to place your body into the correct position before you even start a given movement then you’re just setting yourself up for failure.
With the push-up this starts with proper hand position.
As you get your body into an upright push-up position you want to place your hands in direct line below your armpits with your wrists parallel and inline with your body (hands not rotated in, or rotated out).
Most people who do this incorrectly will place their hands too wide, or out from under their armpits causing their body to be overextended while in the upright push-up position.
2) Failing to flare out your fingers
Flaring out your fingers like the person in the photo is doing gives you stability.
When it comes to the push-up your hands are going to be the most direct point of contact. Because of this the force that you generate from the push-up is directing through the hands up your arms and into your shoulders for the movement.
If your fingers are closed tight together when performing the push-up you’re going to bleed power because you’re not able to displace more of the force that will be generated through your hands, shoulders, and the rest of your body.
The cat is in complete control of its body and it starts with where it makes contact at the ground.
This involves the same thing concerning your hand placement during the push-up. You want to make sure you’re flaring your fingers like you’re trying to palm a gigantic basketball which in this case is the ground.
3) You fail to brace your body
You want to avoid collapsing your body the way the woman is.
When performing the push-up many people tend to think of the movement as strictly being an upper body movement. Sure a great deal of the movement is created with the upper portion of your body, but the reality is that the push-up is a more total body movement.
When getting into the upright push-up position your body must maintain complete tension and rigidity.
Imagine your body as a bridge or span, and that you have a stiff rod shaped like a Y running from your upper chest, down through your torso, then splitting into two separate rods through your legs.
Each end of your body with your hands and feet are the grounded ends of that bridge and the middle of your body isn’t supported by any columns. Because the middle section of your body doesn’t have the support of any grounded column, you must create the support by maintaining a tight rigid torso and legs.
If you’re relaxed then your hips may sag towards the ground causing a break in the push-up technique.
Maintain tension and to keep your body rigid during the push-up. If you’re unsure as to whether or not you’re holding your form correctly, practice in front of a mirror or have a friend take a picture of you holding yourself in the top push-up position.
When you are certain you are holding it in the correct form, focus on how each muscle in your body feels and memorize it.
4) You’re “roostering”
Have you ever seen a rooster walk around bobbing its head moving its neck back and forth? If you can visualize this then this is another physical mistake phenomenon that I refer to as “roostering”: when people incorrectly perform the push-up.
I know you’ve seen this mistake in other people before and if you haven’t then now that I’m telling you about you’ll be aware of it, especially if you happen to be guilty of it yourself.
Although the video below is for beginners, it’s a good one to watch for any level of push-up experience as it’s always good to review.
Roostering occurs when a trainee lowers themselves in the push-up and then allows their shoulder blades to relax collapsing their spine at their neck. This causes their head to drop towards the ground more than the rest of their body. As they ascend back up in the upright push-up position their head and neck snaps back into place.
To prevent this, you want to push the ground away from you keeping your shoulder blades tight as you lower yourself into the base of the push-up. Your neck should maintain alignment with the rest of your spine.
5) Improper elbow traction
The proper elbow traction is a happy medium between being too wide or too tight to your body.
If you’re watching me from a top down view perform a push-up you should see my elbows point straight to towards the ceiling (or sky) when I’m in the base of the movement.
When in the base of the push-up if my elbows are pointing out (away from my torso), or pointing back (elbows tight to my body) then I’m not tracking properly.
I realize there can be several variations of push-ups that can change the angles of hand and arm placement, but today I’m only addressing the mistakes associated with the standard push-up.
With that being said, improper elbow traction is another problem people tend to have when butchering the push-up movement.
Improper elbow traction can be spotted when a trainee forces their elbows too wide, or forces their elbows to be too tight during the descent of the push-up.
If you want to avoid butchering the push-up movement, then make sure you’re not making any of these technical mistakes. If you can correct these mistakes then you’re well on your way to executing some strong push-ups and you’ll see you numbers skyrocket.
Which one of these mistakes are you guilty of committing?
How often do you include push-ups into your training program?
Post and share in the comments below.
If you want to step up your push-up strength along with every other aspect of your training make sure you visit me at my website, Brandon Richey Fitness.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
SEALgrinderPT coach Brandon Richey is a certified strength and conditioning coach, author, and founder of Brandon Richey Fitness.
He has worked with thousands of athletes over his 17 years of experience, developing fitness training programs for beginners to professional and D-1 level collegiate athletes at the University of Georgia.
He also trains MMA and Muay Thai athletes, both professional and amateur.
QUESTION: Hi, Coach. I’m struggling with push-ups. I haven’t done any since maybe high school 20 years ago. How can I get better?
ANSWER: Check out this article: 3 Tips to Improve Push-Ups for Beginners.
QUESTION: I’m having trouble staying on task. Work and home stuff. It’s like I don’t have much of an attention span anymore. Do you have some ways I can get back on track?
ANSWER: Yes; check out this article on How to Improve your Mental Focus.