Trying to improve your strength at home? The push-up is one full-body move that requires no exercise equipment or pricey gym membership. Plus, the move can be modified or progressed, making it accessible for people of all fitness levels.
But if you're performing your push-ups with faulty form, the push-up can go from being your favorite move to a pain-inducing exercise. Like any type of strength-training exercise, form is key and you'll want to avoid making some of the common push-up mistakes.
How to Prevent Push-Up Pain
While it's a great exercise to incorporate in your workouts, the push-up is far from easy. If you want to stay pain-free after a few sets of this exercise, you need to devote some time and attention to your form. Follow these steps for the proper push-up, provided by Sam Becourtney, physical therapist at Bespoke Treatments in New York City.
Proper Push-Up Form
- Begin in a high plank with your core and glutes engaged. Your shoulders should be stacked over your wrists and your hips should be in line with your head and heels.
- Bend at the elbows at about a 45-degree angle from your torso and lower your body toward the ground.
- On the way down, squeeze your shoulder blades together.
- When your chest hovers just above the ground (or however far down you can go), press into the ground and push your shoulder blades apart to return to the starting position.
Depending on your current fitness level, you may need a modified version of the exercise. If you can't do a push-up with good form, drop down to your knees, Becourtney says. Or you can also perform them on an incline, placing your hands on a desk or couch. Look for an incline that's at about a 35-degree to 75-degree angle from the floor.
"[This] is a great way to transition from kneeling push-ups," Becourtney says. "The form/technique should remain the same as described for the push-ups, however, they will be easier than traditional push-ups because you are no longer parallel to the floor and therefore gravity has less of an impact on the movement."
Before progressing to full push-ups, you should be able to do at least 10 kneeling or 10 incline push-ups with great form. This will ensure you have knowledge of proper form to carry over to more advanced variations of the exercise.
Is It Pain or Soreness?
Every now and again, we all experience some soreness — it's a natural part of the muscle-building process. But pain and soreness aren't the same thing, according to the Mayo Clinic. Harmless muscle soreness should go away on its own within a few days.
But if you feel lingering muscle pain for several weeks (or pain that hinders your day-to-day movement), it could be a bigger issue, and you should consult a doctor or physical therapist.
Why You May Be Feeling Push-Up Pain
If you're feeling achy or stiff after your push-ups, you're probably making one of the following mistakes. That's where your phone can come in handy. During your next set of push-ups, whip out your camera and record yourself. This can help you pinpoint the mistake you're making, which you can then adjust, Becourtney says.
1. Your Elbows Flare Out
One common area you may experience post-push-up pain is the shoulders, especially in the front part of these muscles, Becourtney says. This is most often caused by lack of rotator cuff stability or improper elbow placement.
If you're experiencing shoulder pain after your push-ups, take a look at your elbows in the mirror. If your elbows are flare out wide to the sides, you'll feel increased pain due to compression of the joint.
To fix this flaw, keep your elbows tucked closer to your sides (aim for a 45-degree angle from your body) as you lower and rise, Becourtney says. Also emphasize the squeezing and separating of the shoulder blades.
2. You're Overarching Your Lower Back
Pain or stiffness in your lower back after push-ups, may mean you're not be controlling your core and hips properly, Becourtney says. "If you are doing push-ups and you find the front of your hips contacting the ground first before anything else and you appear to have an excessive arch in the lower back, you may start to feel [pain] there."
To correct this error, think about keeping your ribs stacked over your pelvis with a posterior pelvic tilt. This means you want to keep your core engaged, glutes squeezed and tailbone tucked. Maintain this posture throughout the entire movement. If you fatigue too quickly, stop doing your reps and try a modified version.
3. You're Keeping Your Eyes Up
Another common pain point post-push-ups is the neck, Becourtney says. You may feel a pinch in your neck if you try to look up at a mirror for too long or overstrain through your upper trapezius (the muscle around your neck).
When you're doing the exercise, keep your neck long and extended, in line with your body. In other words, keep your gaze focused straight down at the floor below your face (not at your hands or too far in front of you).
4. You're Leaning Forward Too Much
The wrists are small, sensitive joints that can feel stiff or achy for a variety of reasons, especially where push-ups are concerned. If you don't have a previous injury, you may start to feel wrist pain during push-ups. In some cases, you may also be leaning your body too far forward, pulling the wrist into an extended position.
To avoid overuse and fatigue in the wrists, you can start by just taking longer rest periods between sets. Or even taking a day or two between push-up sessions. You can also perform some exercises to strengthen the wrists and forearms like holding a plank or tabletop position (on all fours).
Also, think about keeping your chest in line with your body as you move vertically up and down. This can help minimize excessive strain on your wrists caused by moving too far forward on the way up.
5. Your Hand Position Is Off
Improper hand position is another culprit that may be causing pain in either your chest or shoulders. Placing your hands either too far apart or too close can be problematic. The goal is to keep your hands about shoulder-width apart.
6. You're Progressing Too Quickly
Single-arm push-ups, Superman push-ups and plyo push-ups are cool on social media, but if you can't do these challenging push-up variations properly, keep them out of your workout, Becourtney says.
These tricks are fun to test, but if you struggle to do several 10-rep sets of push-ups in one workout, they can easily lead to excessive soreness at best and injury at works, so it's best to build up your strength first and save the more challenging variations for when you're ready.
Soreness is normal after an intense workout, but prolonged, persistent or severe pain isn't. If your pain is accompanied by a rash, shortness of breath, fever, extreme weakness or swelling, you should consult a medical professional as soon as possible, recommends the Mayo Clinic.