The push-up is a basic, bodyweight exercise and one that works multiple muscle groups, particularly those in your upper body. In fact, the push-up effectively targets the triceps, pectorals, anterior shoulders, as well as some muscles in the upper back. The forearms, wrists, and hip flexors also chip in to help stabilize the body. We love exercises like this since they burn more calories and help us get in shape faster. Unfortunately, not everyone uses good form when they push their body off the floor. As a result, these folks don’t get the full benefits of the exercise They also increase their risk of injury when they use improper form. How many of these push-up mistakes do you make?
Letting Your Back Drop
One of the most common mistakes people make when doing push-ups is letting their back and hips sag. To do the movement correctly, your body must be in a straight line throughout the exercise. One reason your hips sag is because your core muscles are too weak. Work on strengthening those muscles by doing planks and other core-focused exercises. Learn to do a plank properly without letting your hips drop and it’ll improve your push-up form as well. Also, concentrate on tightening your buttocks when you do push-ups. This will help keep your hips from sagging. When you let your hips and buttocks sag, you don’t get as much benefit from the exercise. That’s because you reduce the amount of weight you have to push up. It’s cheating! So, break this bad habit.
Letting Your Elbows Flare
Another common push-up mistake is letting your elbows flare when you push your body up. To do a push-up correctly, your elbows should be tucked close to your body. By keeping them close and not letting them flare, you reduce the stress on your shoulder joints. That’s important for injury prevention. When you let your elbows flare, you also reduce muscle activation and don’t get as much benefit from the exercise. If you’re having problems with flaring elbows, point your hands slightly away from your body to help keep your elbows in a tucked position.
Not Going Down Far Enough
Another word for not going down far enough is cheating and that’s what many people do when they do push-ups. You don’t get the full benefits of the exercise if you only go down part of the way. Some people shortchange themselves, so they can say they did another rep. When you do this, you train your muscles to only do a superficial push-up. Don’t cheat and miss out on gains!
If you’re not going down far enough, do an easier push-up version until you build up more strength. Place your hands on an elevated surface to make it easier or do push-ups from your knees. But, make sure you’re progressing toward doing them on your toes. No excuses! When you drop to your knees, you’re pushing up 49% of your body weight while you’re lifting 64% when you do them on your toes.
Too Fast of a Tempo
If you’re doing push-ups at warp speed, you’re probably not going down far enough and not getting the full benefits of the exercise. Plus, you might be damaging your elbows. A study published in the Journal of Medical and Biological Engineering used EMG to measure muscle activation when 14 healthy males did a push-up at various speeds.
The speeds they used were, fast (7 push-ups in 10 seconds), medium (5 push-ups in 10 seconds), and slow (4 push-ups in 10 seconds). What they found was the shearing and compressive forces on the elbows was 1.23 to 1.35 times greater in the fast group relative to the slow group. Muscle activation of the biceps, triceps, and posterior deltoids was also higher in the slow group.
The take-home message? Slow down the movement to protect your elbows and get the most out of the exercise. You can even challenge yourself by doing a “super slow” push-up. Slow the tempo to 4 or 5 seconds for the downward portion and 4-5 seconds for the upward movement. It should be considerably harder, but you’re placing lots of mechanical tension and metabolic stress on the muscles and this helps the muscles grow.
Not Doing Push-Up Variations
The problem with push-ups is you can’t easily increase the resistance for progressive overload as you’re working against your own body weight and that’s fairly stable. But you can still make them harder by doing tougher push-up variations. Work your shoulders and chest harder by raising your feet onto a platform when you do a push-up. The higher the platform, the more you’re activating your shoulders and chest and the harder the exercise will be.
You can also change the focus of the exercise by altering where you place your hands. Positioning your hands wider than shoulder width switches the focus away from the shoulders and triceps and onto the chest. Narrow stance push-ups target the triceps and shoulders more.
If you place your hands on an unstable surface, it puts more emphasis on your core muscles and helps with stability and balance. If you do this, slow down the tempo as doing the movement quickly will increase your risk of injury.
The Bottom Line
Push-ups are a “must do” exercise that works multiple muscle groups. But, it’s an exercise that it’s easy to do wrong. If you’re unsure about your push-up form, make a video of yourself doing push-ups and see if you’re making any of these common mistakes. Doing them incorrectly will limit the gains you achieve from this compound exercise. An incorrect form will also increase the risk of injury. But push-ups are an exercise that can deliver many returns if you do them properly.
Journal of Medical and Biological Engineering, 31(3): 161-168.
American Council on Exercise. “Medicine Ball Push-ups”
Harvard Health Publishing. “The rise of push-ups: A classic exercise that can help you get stronger”
Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: January 2015 – Volume 29 – Issue 1 – p 246–253. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000000589.