Can't Do a Push-Up? Here's What Your Body Is Trying to Tell You

Ah, push-ups. This oldie-but-goody exercise has been around a very long time, and it isn't going anywhere any time soon. The perfect multi-purpose move, push-ups engage your muscles from head to toe all at once. That's why you find them as staples in both bootcamp workouts and elementary school gym classes.

Push-ups are challenging, but with practice, you can master them. (Image: Klaus Vedfelt/DigitalVision/GettyImages)

How easily you can perform a push-up can say a lot about your overall fitness, since the move requires serious body control, strength and muscular endurance. In fact, you have to be strong enough to lift between 50 to 75 percent of your body weight when you do a push-up, according to Harvard Health Publishing.

Because they involve full-body strength and recruit many muscles, push-ups can be particularly challenging. But if you're struggling with this demanding move, don't throw in the towel just yet. Rather, try to notice where you're experiencing the most difficulty. Listen to your body — it'll tell you where your limitations lie.

Once you pinpoint your weaknesses, you can work on improving them. Here, Geoff Tripp, CSCS, certified personal trainer and head of fitness at Trainiac, shares some of the most common signs to look for, plus tips to help you hammer out push-ups like a drill sergeant.

If You: Can’t Keep Your Midsection From Sagging

You Might: Need to Strengthen Your Core

When your butt and hips are drooping during a push-up, your core's likely the culprit. "A weak core is like an anchor sinking a ship," says Tripp. "It pulls your body out of proper alignment and places additional stress on your shoulders, wrists and elbows." If you don't have the core strength to maintain proper form, your joints will carry the weight and take on the brunt of the work.

To conquer your push-ups — and avoid injury — focus on strengthening your core. Since push-ups are essentially moving planks, Tripp suggests nailing your high plank form first. Practice on engaging your core, squeezing your glutes and keeping your body in a straight line without letting your hips sag.

Once you master this form, move onto a more challenging plank progression like plank up-downs (moving from high plank to forearm plank one arm at a time) to build even greater strength, which will prepare your body for the work it'll do during a proper push-up, says Tripp.

If You: Experience Wrist Pain

You Might: Need to Work on Mobility and Stability

When your wrists hurt during push-ups, it's tough to find a comfortable position for your hands. So what's going on? "Most weak wrists issues stem from tight forearm muscles and poor shoulder stability," says Tripp.

Forearm stiffness usually develops over time through performing repetitive tasks like typing or using a mouse. Since most of us spend hours slumped at our desks each day, stiff wrists and forearms are pretty common. Luckily, there are easy ways to combat tightness with some simple mobility work, according to Tripp.

For starters, be aware of your wrist position when typing. Try to keep your wrists neutral, i.e., straight with no creases in your skin. An elbow-to-wrist forearm massage helps too. Find stiff spots while doing wrist circles and rub the tight tissues. Next, add moves that increase grip strength, like squeezing a tennis ball.

"To work up to a full push-up, you can use a pair of dumbbells or push-up handles that position your wrists in a neutral position as you build strength," says Tripp. Once you feel comfortable, you can progress to an incline push-up against the wall, followed by a full push-up with your palms flat on the ground.

On the other hand, unstable shoulders — which can throw off your form and put pressure on your wrists — can result from a number of things including rotator cuff issues, lack of scapulohumeral rhythm (the coordinated motion of the scapula and humerus during shoulder movement) or tightness in your chest or back muscles.

"We see clients that have a mobility issue in relation to their upper push and pull muscles," says Tripp. "Usually the push muscles are short and tight, placing stress on the pull muscles."

By doing mobility drills, you can correct this imbalance and improve your weak shoulders. Tripp recommends chest stretches and scapula (shoulder blade) retraction exercises to enhance muscle activation and mobility, which will help prepare you for push-ups.

If You: Feel Fatigued

You Might: Need to Practice Your Breathing

Even though you're not jumping around, doing push-ups gets your heart pumping and can make you short of breath. If you find yourself winded, you might just need to get more oxygen to your muscles. Proper breathing is critical when you exercise, but unless you're engaged in an activity like yoga, which emphasizes breath, it's usually overlooked.

Holding your breath when you're focusing on a difficult exercise is a common mistake. But without enough oxygen, your muscles will fatigue faster. That's why learning how to breathe efficiently is an essential component of performing a successful push-up, says Tripp.

So what's the correct way to breathe during a push-up? Inhale as you lower — this builds diaphragm tension and helps with core stability, Tripp says. Then at the end of your range of motion, exhale as you press yourself back up during the most challenging part of the move.

If You: Feel Strain in Your Neck and Shoulders

You Might: Need to Work on Your Form and Strength

To do a proper push-up, you need good posture and a straight body. If you cheat your way through the move to make it easier, you might stretch your neck forward to reach the ground or roll your shoulders inward. After a while, this bad form will catch up to you. (Hello, neck and shoulder pain!)

That's why proper alignment with your wrists, arms and shoulders is paramount for performing push-ups correctly. "When we put our joints in odd angles (hands turned in, shoulders forward, etc.), we can't create the needed torque at a joint to make it stable," says Tripp, who adds a stacked, stable joint is a strong one.

One of the most common form faults is placing your hands too close. "A narrow hand position leads to poor recruitment of your upper body's pushing muscles (pecs, deltoids, triceps)," says Tripp.

But if you adjust your hands accordingly and still have issues, your bad form may result from lack of strength. Essentially, you'll need to build a base of muscular strength before cranking out a bunch of push-ups.

Tripp recommends incorporating incline push-ups, chest presses and shoulder stabilization moves into your workouts. "The main point is to work as close to the actual movement you are trying to improve, so these multi-joint exercises are key when building up to a standard push-up," he says.

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