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So you think you can do push-ups??

February 22, 2013

Push ups are awesome! I’ve always had a soft spot for bodyweight exercises performed with perfect integrity, and I feel like push-ups don’t get near the recognition they should get! Used correctly, they can be a huge asset to any fitness program. I love seeing someone perform a good set of proper, chest to ground push ups!  And there are so many variations you can do with push ups to target different muscles and increase or decrease the difficulty level.

Sadly the push up seems to be one of the most commonly butchered bodyweight exercises I see on a regular basis. A lot of people do half-range, sloppy push ups with bad form. In many cases, it’s not that they can’t complete full-rang push ups, but rather they just need to change up a few things up, maybe incorporate a few cues to help set themselves up properly first. Other times they need to work through some push up progressions before they can progress to full proper push ups.

Some people may need to let a bit of their ego go, and instead of doing 20 half-range push-ups, start from the basics and learn to perform a single legitimate, full-range push-up properly. Like I said in my post on perfecting pull ups, the best way to train is to make learning good form a priority from the start with any exercise. If you don’t learn proper form from the start, faulty movement patterns will set in, which can cause all sorts of postural and compensation problems in your body, and it will be more difficult to correct later down the track. The pushup is a great exercise that will produce good results, but the problem is it frequently isn’t done in a way that will give people the results they’re seeking.

There are so many benefits to doing proper push ups with good form. Here are 3 of my favourite reasons:

1. You can do push ups anywhere!! It only requires your body weight. That’s it!

2. Secondly, it’s an awesome compound, pushing movement. When performed correctly, push ups engage countless muscles in the pelvis, abs, lower back, and upper back region (serious core work anyone?), and then of course they target the chest, shoulders and triceps. After working on and fixing people’s form on push ups, I’ve had many clients tell me they feel it in their abs and are often sore the next day in their abs. When you do proper push ups you are giving your core an amazing workout.  

3. Thirdly, there are so many variations you can use. You can make it a beginners’ exercise, or a very advanced exercise depending on which variation you choose to do.

In this post I’m going to discuss common technique errors, talk about some corrective exercises to help gain better strength and mobility for push ups, and I’m also going add progressions.

Common Technique Errors:

Technique Flaw # 1: Worming Push ups (hips sagging down)
The first flaw (and the one that I probably see the most, even with a lot of male clients, who are technically “strong enough” to do proper push ups, but have a weak core) is what I call worming push ups. This is allowing the hips to sag resulting in anterior pelvic tilting and lumbar hyperextension. This is where the person lacks the proper “anterior-posterior” engagement of the core and the hips and lower back sag to the floor (the body should form a completely straight line from head to toe, remaining stiff as a board).

A lot of people are stuck in anterior rotation due to tight hip flexors and erector spinae and don't have the muscular strength in their abs and glutes to override this tightness during the push-up, so their hips and lower back sink in. Other times people can’t get their chest all the way to the ground so they sag to "pretend" they're going deeper, since their hips will touch the ground before their chest, thus creating the illusion that they are using the full range of motion.

Remember during a properly executed push-up, the only parts of your body that should touch the ground are your hands, your feet, and your chest.  So, if your legs/thighs/waist/hips are touching the ground, you're not quite there yet. This is the worming push-up.  If you can’t do a push up without worming you should probably go back a step or two and try a progression push up. If you have the upper body strength, but you are still worming, it might be a good idea to incorporate some core work, hip flexor stretches and mobility work to help with proper stabilization (see below for more on this).

Technique Flaw # 2: Half Range Push ups
This one is pretty self-explanatory. If you can’t go all the way down and use the full range of motion, then you should start with a variation that allows you to use a full range of motion. You will get more out of your push ups if you go all the way down with your chest to the ground, even if it means doing a variation, rather than doing half-rep or partial rep push ups on your toes. I have a list of  progressions below, which will be good to start with if you aren’t able to reach the range of motion yet.

Technique Flaw # 3: Excessive Elbow flair (Placing your arms too wide):
Many people do push ups with their elbows making a 90 degree angle with their torso. Proper push ups should aim to have your elbows tucked in at approximately 45 degrees. Don’t listen to people who tell you that placing your hands wider will give you better chest development! It’s not true. All it will do is place more strain on your shoulders. Studies show that having a narrow based push-up position involves much higher muscle activation in both the triceps and pec muscles, which will = greater muscle growth.

Technique Flaw # 4: Positioning the hands too high up
Often people will position their hands too high and wide, making a “T” shape with their body. What you should be aiming for is an arrow shape. No matter which variation of push-up you're performing, always set up in the "arrow shape." Keep the palm of your hands under your shoulders. When you place your hands too high, this puts too much pressure on the shoulders and not enough pressure on the triceps/chest.

Technique Flaw # 5: Chicken necking/loose upper back
This one is a little harder to notice. It’s just an overall “looseness” in the neck and upper back. You can notice it often when someone’s head juts far forward (chicken necking), hitting the ground before their chest makes contact with the ground (the chest should touch the ground FIRST in a perfect pushup). This is usually due to a loose upper back and lack of proper scapular retraction. When this happens it looks like someone is dropping to the ground instead of intentionally “pulling” their body to the floor. The upper back, scapulae, traps and lats should all be switched on and activated. Nothing should be left hanging. When the upper back is loose, your head just flops forward and there’s no scapular retraction (think: pinching a pencil between your shoulder blades). This is essentially just letting gravity drop you to the floor. You want to control the entire movement, not let gravity control your body.

Technique Flaw # 6: Hips up in the air!
This is where the butt sticks up in the air. It’s another compensation pattern (similar to the worming push ups) that people tend to slip into when they don’t have enough core strength to keep their body straight like a plank and effectively resist the pull of gravity throughout their entire body. I see the bum-up push ups a lot especially when people are using knee push ups variation. Remember, hips down, bum tucked in, abs switched on!

Push ups variations and progressions!

Wall or Incline Push ups
If a standard push up is too difficult for you to perform with a good range of motion straight off the bat, you can start by doing push ups against a wall, or consider inclined push-ups, where you put your hands on something raised like a table or a sturdy chair. Stand several feet away from the object you are using and use the proper technique to lower yourself until your chest is touching the object, then raise back up. (See pictures below)

Bent Knee Push Ups
This is a modified version of the standard push up performed on the knees rather than on the toes. Be sure to keep the knees, hips and shoulders all in a straight line; most people have a tendency to bend at the hips, as though you are “taking a bow”, but this is incorrect technique. I personally prefer people to use the incline progression and then work their way to a lower and lower progression until they are ready to do toe push ups on the floor.

All the technique points above apply to wall and incline push ups. Remember keep you core tight the whole time.

Again, just to reiterate, if you don’t have the adequate upper body strength yet to get your chest right down to the ground, you are better off doing one of the variations, rather than doing half-rep or partial rep push ups on your toes. If you do partial reps on your toes, you won’t progress so you will always be stuck doing partial rep push ups. If you get really good at bringing your chest all the way down with wall push ups, then move to incline push ups, and then lower the incline till you can do regular chest-to-ground push ups, you will progress quickly.

A few postural and biomechanical points:

 Fixing your anterior pelvic tilt.
Remember with push ups that it’s important to perform variations that allow you to keep your core stable and prevent excessive anterior pelvic tilt and lumbar hyperextension.

As I mentioned with the worming push ups, even a lot of men who technically have the upper body strength to do regular push ups, lack the core, pelvic and postural stability to do them. Sometimes, as with all the technique errors, it’s just a matter of switching it on their mind to fix the problem and making that mind/muscle connection. In other cases though, they actually have a postural issue which is holding them back. That is when I would suggest corrective exercises and core work, until we get their posture a bit more aligned and their core muscles switched on and working for them.

If you tend to produce an anterior pelvic tilt or have excessive lordosis (See the picture above; it’s the kyphodic-lordotic one) during your planks or push-ups, then focus on holding your posture in more of a posterior pelvic tilt (look at the "ideal" picture). Spend time each day actively working on your posture. Performing corrective exercises and stretches will make a big difference as well, and as you feel your posture improving, then move up gradually through the push up progressions.

Here are some great stretches to incorporate in if you do suffer from a kyphodic posture and/or and have an excessive anterior tilt, and you are having a hard time stopping the hip sag when you do push ups.


Fixing a loose upper back:
The other postural error that I find which is often something that needs extra strengthening and fixing, rather than just being able to fix with a few cues, is the “loose upper back”.

Generally the problem here is that they need more scapular retraction when the upper back is loose. Proper scapular retraction, along with scapular depression are 2 basic movements that provide the foundation for shoulder health (more about this in an upcoming post!). You need stability and control of these muscles in order to do perfect push ups (and many other upper body exercises) without injury or compensation.

Here is a video showing a simple retraction movement you can do in a push up position to help you “switch on” and notice these upper back and shoulder muscles, know when you are tightening them and when they are loose.


My favourite push up cues in pointer form:

* Hands under shoulders or just outside shoulder width, and the elbows tucked at 45 degrees (or less) to the torso.
* “Pull” yourself down to the ground, actively engaging the scapular retractors and essentially the entire upper-back musculature, don’t just let yourself drop into the movement.
* Your chest should touch the floor first, not your hips, thighs or head.
* Activate your abs and glutes. Keep them tight throughout the entire movement.
* Your whole body should be in perfect alignment, you should remain straight like a board.

And here's a video for the more visual type of learners:


I hope all of these points were helpful. Remember, at the end of the day people who don't care about getting their form right, are only cheating themselves out of all the gains they could be making if they bothered to learn how to perform the movement correctly. Cheating on range of motion or on form won’t get you much closer to your goals. If anything, it will probably take you further away from reaching your goals as you’ll end up injured or start creating muscular imbalances in your body.

I’m going to be doing another post soon, in which I’ll be talking about some push up variations you can do to make them harder and increase the intensity. Stay tuned for that! But for now, make it a goal to only ever perform perfect push ups.

Now, get down and give me 20! :)



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