Why Can't Some People Do Push-Ups?

Fit young woman doing push ups on exercise mat with her personal trainer. Fitness woman exercising with fitness trainer in gym.
Modify a push-up on your knees. (Image: jacoblund/iStock/Getty Images)

Push-ups are so ubiquitous that it's hard to believe some people find them impossible. However, many people struggle with this strength move. Reasons for the challenge include joint pain, strength deficiencies and insufficient training.

If you struggle with push-ups, you have options to strengthen your chest -- by being patient with strength development, honing your form or choosing alternative exercises.

Joint Issues

Osteoarthritis, tendinitis or joint injuries to the wrist, elbow and shoulder make push-ups painful for some people. In these cases, it's best to not work through the pain, unless your doctor advises otherwise.

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Shoulder pain can make push-ups impossible. (Image: Wavebreakmedia Ltd/Wavebreak Media/Getty Images)

Sometimes, these joint issues are the result of overuse, poor exercise technique or an accident. In these cases, rest and care for the joint, such as icing, will help you heal so you can do push-ups again in the future.

If, however, you have a permanent condition -- including osteoarthritis or a labrum tear in the shoulder -- push-ups may be out for the long term, or forever. It's OK -- strengthen your chest with moderate-weight dumbbell presses, chest flyes and the pec deck machine, provided they don't cause you pain.

Weight Distribution

Push-ups are often recommended as part of an exercise routine to lose fat, but it's possible to be too overweight to perform one. In some cases of morbid obesity, your large body simply gets in the way. Holding up your body weight as you press up and down could also create just too much resistance for your joints to bear.

People who have an abundance of fat centered in their middle sometimes find push-ups impossible until they slim down. Part of good push-up form is contracting your abs and keeping your back straight and flat. A great distribution of weight in your belly may cause your back to sag so that your push-up has such poor form, it offers no benefit.

Options to train the chest, shoulder and triceps muscles still exist for those who are too overweight to do a full push-up. Wall push-ups and cable presses are a few options.

Insufficient Training

You must develop upper-body and core strength to do a full push-up. If you simply drop, especially without any previous strength-training experience, and try to crank out a set of 10 to 20 push-ups, you'll likely fail.

Start with wall push-ups, in which you lean into a wall to push up and back, and move on to lower inclines -- perhaps a kitchen counter, coffee table and, finally, a single stair step. Eventually, you may work yourself toward to the floor.

Build strength in the muscles required for a push-up with supplemental exercises, too. Dumbbell chest presses and flyes, front arm raises, triceps extensions and plank holds help you build upper body and core strength to eventually do a full push-up.

Beautiful athlete performing press ups in white studio
Build your core strength with a forearm plank. (Image: SanneBerg/iStock/Getty Images)

Even if you find the full push-up eludes you, modified push-ups -- performed by using your knees for support -- still offer benefit to your upper body and core.

Poor Form

Flared out elbows, domed hands and sagging hips make push-ups harder than they need to be. Poor form also makes push-ups ineffective, even possibly injurious. If a push-up seems impossible, consult a fitness professional to evaluate your form. A proper push-up has your hands just slightly wider than your shoulders and elbows bent at a 45-degree angle with your trunk at the bottom of the move. Your core, or torso, should stay rigid as if you're pulling your belly button to your spine.

Women's Upper-Body Strength

Women are more challenged in doing push-ups compared to men for one simple reason: they are muscularly challenged. This isn't a knock on women; it's a fact of biology. Women, on average, have just 50 percent of the upper-body strength of men because they have smaller muscle fibers and less of their musculature distributed in the upper body, according to research published in 2014 in the International Journal of Exercise Science.

Attractive young woman working out with dumbbells in gym, handsome muscular trainer helping her
Dumbbell presses are an alternative to push-ups. (Image: GeorgeRudy/iStock/Getty Images)

That's not to say that women can't ever do a full push-up. However, it may take serious work and strength-building to get there. Women who are willing to put in the work, have patience and modify can eventually do a push-up.

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