There's a reason push-ups are a staple of gym class and military training alike. "When done with correct form, push-ups can help increase strength in your chest, triceps, back and core and improve overall shoulder strength and stability," says Rock Tate, certified personal trainer and co-owner of Intrepid Gym in Montclair, New Jersey.
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Doable virtually anywhere, push-ups can easily be scaled to suit beginners or test the fittest of athletes — but do 'em incorrectly, and they'll leave you no stronger than you were before (and maybe even injured). Correct these common push-up problems to make the most of the move.
1. Your Hands Are Too Wide
Place your hands out too wide from your chest and you force your shoulders into a vulnerable position, says Grayson Wickham, CSCS, doctor of physical therapy and founder of Movement Vault, a digital mobility and flexibility platform. Not only does this decrease your push-up power, but it also puts you at greater risk for pain and injury over time.
Fix it: Start with your chest on the ground and place your hands directly outside of your chest with your middle fingers pointing forward, says Tate. Then, push up off the ground into a plank position. Now, you're ready to go.
Read more: Proper Push-Up Technique
2. Your Hands Are Too Narrow
If you can already churn out tons of push-ups no problem, taking a more narrow stance with your hands (say, two or three inches apart) can be a good way to turn up the burn for your triceps, says Wickham.
However, "while this is an OK position from a pain and injury perspective, it does decrease your ability to produce power and force," he says. The result: You can't perform as many reps as you would in a standard position.
Fix it: If you want to light up your triceps, keep your close-hand position and adjust your reps as needed. To work on your traditional push-up game, keep those hands just wider than your chest.
3. You Don’t Modify When You Need To
"If your goal is to bench press 225 pounds but you can only lift 135 pounds, you wouldn't continually load the bar to 225 and struggle every day until you finally get it, would you?" asks Tate. "No! You wouldn't, shouldn't and couldn't!"
Same goes for push-ups: To make safe progress, leave your ego at the door and start with whatever version you can do properly. Otherwise, you just set yourself up for discomfort and injury down the line, says Wickham.
Fix it: Start with push-ups from your knees or incline push-ups with your hands on a box, bench or the wall until you can successfully perform 10 reps. Then, have a go at standard push-ups. Remember: "Increasing strength is not a sprint, it is a marathon of proper form," Tate says.
4. Your Lower Back Sags
In a proper push-up, you maintain a plank-like position from your torso to your toes, meaning you keep those core muscles engaged, Wickham says. Otherwise, your lower back sags and you put more strain on your shoulders and spine. (Typically, this means you either just aren't conscious enough of your form or don't have the core strength to support full push-ups.)
Fix it: First, check your body position at the top of your push-up. Is your back flat, belly button tucked and core tight? If you can then do a push-up while maintaining that firm core, you're good to go, says Tate. If not, switch to elevated push-ups so you can practice and build your core strength safely.
5. You Don’t Protect Your Wrists
"Push-ups put a moderate demand on the wrists, because you perform them with your wrists in a fully extended position," says Wickham. If you have any wrist injuries or mobility issues, this can make push-ups uncomfortable or downright painful.
Fix it: If modifying your push-ups and taking some of the weight off your wrists doesn't bring relief, try performing push-ups on closed fists or doing dumbbell pushups, which allow your wrists to stay in a more neutral, comfortable position, says Tate.
6. You Don’t Protect Your Shoulders
If you have shoulder issues, lowering your chest all the way to the ground in push-ups (which puts your shoulder joints in a risky, extended position) can just worsen your injury, Wickham says. Not worth it.
Fix it: Protect your shoulders by decreasing the range of motion of your push-up, and lower only halfway to the ground instead of all the way down, says Wickham.
7. You Skip Push-Ups Because You Hate Them
"Push-ups are hard," says Tate. "Not just for you, but for all athletes, regardless of their strength and ability." The difference between being able to knock out 25 reps without missing a beat and barely being able to push through two? Consistent practice. "In order to increase your strength and reap the benefits of push-ups, you have to actually do push-ups," Tate says.
Fix it: First of all, cut yourself some slack. Then, evaluate where you're at. "Start with knee push-ups to work on proper form," Tate says. "From there, work on planks with your hands beneath your shoulders and tight hips, back and core." Once you've built up some pushing strength and nailed that strong top position, start working on full push-ups. You'll be ripping through 'em in no time.
8. Your Head Is in the Wrong Position
Keeping a 'neutral neck' is critical for pretty much any move you do in the gym, push-ups included.
"When push-ups get hard and we still want to get that full range of motion, many of us stick our heads out closer to the ground — and end up straining our necks," says Tate. "Or, we kink our necks up to look straight out in front of us." You carry enough tension in that part of your body as it is! Keep that spine aligned.
Fix it: Tuck your chin and imagine you have a string attached to you, from your heels to the top of your head, Tate says. Keep that string as straight as possible.
9. You Don’t Move Through the Full Range of Motion
"One of the biggest mistakes I see people make is avoiding full range of motion with their push-ups," says Tate. This happens when you either don't bring your chest all the way to the ground at the bottom of the move or don't lock out your elbows at the top (or both). If you want to get stronger at push-ups, half reps lead only to half gains, Tate says.
Fix it: No matter where you are in your journey to push-up paradise, scale the movement so you can do 10 full-range-of-motion push-ups and build from there.
10. You Don’t Engage the Right Muscles
Though you might think push-ups are all chest and triceps, you need to keep the muscles around your shoulder blades (yes, in your back!) engaged, too, says Wickham.
Fix it: Engage these muscles (called your scapular muscles) by thinking about pinching the muscles between your shoulder blades throughout the movement.
11. You Force Extra Reps at the Cost of Form
"It is OK to push yourself to failure," Wickham says. "As long as 'failure' means whenever your form gives out." Not a single rep after that. White-knuckling through reps with poor form just sets you up for pain and injury — and does little for your gains.
Fix it: When your form goes, either call it a full set and take a break or modify your push-ups so you can continue with proper positioning.
Read more: The 30-Day Push-Up Challenge
12. Your Elbows Flare Out Too Wide
If your upper body looks like the letter 'T' when you perform push-ups, you put your shoulders in a sub-optimal position and recruit fewer of the muscles you want to use during the move, says Tate.
Fix it: Adjust your upper body so you look like an upside down 'V' or an arrow. "When your elbows are drawn back at the correct angle, you recruit the correct muscles, which leads to faster push-up progress without any pain," Tate says.