Are You Doing Pushups Correctly?

Pushups are simple, effective and inexpensive exercises you may use to build a strong core and upper body strength. Over the years, the pushup has also become an ongoing means of measuring strength and endurance.

The basic military physical fitness test in the Air Force includes performing at least 45 pushups in one minute.1 The Army, Navy and most law enforcement organizations have similar, but not equal, standards. One thing is clear: The pushup is a common measurement against which physical fitness is compared.

The pushup is also somewhat unique in that you may accommodate the exercise to your current level of fitness. Whether you're a beginner, or find the standard pushup too easy, there are ways to increase the effort as you gain strength or to kick it up a notch for greater challenge.

Like most exercises or movements, when done with improper form you may suffer an injury that can sideline you for weeks. However, unlike many other exercises, you may also increase the challenge over time and experience greater rewards, when done correctly.

Not Just a Chest and Upper Arm Exercise

Pushups are one of the best full body exercises, as they are a compound exercise working multiple joints and muscles with each movement. You'll want to consider incorporating pushups into your routine.

I find doing several sets throughout the day, as opposed to doing all sets at one time, increases the benefits and helps incorporate movement during the day.

Moving your body up and down, with nothing but your feet and hands supporting your body weight, activates many of the muscles in your chest, core and legs. Major muscle groups are used to support your body and stabilize your movement.

Interestingly, while the pushup does rely on muscle contraction, it also helps to stretch your upper back and bicep muscles. As you push yourself upright, contracting your triceps, you are stretching your biceps, which improves flexibility and helps prevent injury.2

The pushup helps improve the strength of your abdominal and back muscles, responsible for good posture. It also helps to build better balance between muscles as your body has free range of motion during the exercise, unlike the bench press that restricts your shoulder blades.

And, as the pushup is a body weight exercise that places stress on the long bones of your upper arms and wrists, it helps to reduce the risk of osteoporosis and fractures.

Poor Pushup Form May Result in Injury

However, while pushups are one of the better all-around exercises you can do without equipment, you may have a potential risk of injury if you use poor form. There are several common mistakes you may make doing a pushup that increases your risk of rotator cuff injury, lower back pain or wrist injuries.

Some of the more common mistakes you may make while doing pushups may be corrected using the strategies outlined below. These mistakes include poor hand and elbow positions, sagging hips and relying on gravity to lower your body, which creates a muscle imbalance in your upper back, chest and arms.

Pain in your wrists may also result from being in a position you use only for pushups. It is important to stretch your wrists between sets by getting on your knees and hands with the backs of your hands on the floor and fingers pointing toward your toes, stretching muscles often contracted during a pushup.

Another way to stretch the muscles in your wrists between sets is to interlace your fingers with palms touching. Keeping palms together and fingers intertwined, roll your hands clockwise and then counterclockwise for 15 to 30 seconds in each direction.3

Even if you separate your sets throughout the day as I do, it is still important to stretch your wrists after each set.

The same is true for the rest of the contracted muscles in your body. Tension in your muscles during the pushups builds strength in your core, back and legs. However, when not released, it may also lead to injury. A simple fix is to do a bridge stretch over a Swiss ball after your final set.4

Place your head and upper back on the ball while stretching your arms perpendicular to your body. Let your hips relax toward the floor and hold this position for up to one minute.

Standard Pushup Position

Pushups begin using a standard position that may be modified as you need greater physical challenge.

  • Begin on the floor, knees and hands shoulder width apart and palms flat to the floor.
  • Rise on your toes, elbows straight but not locked. Knees, hips, back and shoulders should be in a straight line. Hands remain palms to the floor with fingers pointing forward.
  • Bend your elbows until your chest is an inch or so from the ground. Keep your head in neutral position, looking no more than 6 inches in front of your body with your chin tucked.
  • Straighten your elbows, pushing your body back into the start position without locking your elbows, all while keeping your knees, hips and back aligned and straight.

Proper Hand, Elbow and Shoulder Position

Your upper body placement determines the muscles involved as you raise and lower your body. First learn the placement of your body for the standard pushup before increasing the physical challenge with wide or narrow hand placement.5

Your hands should be shoulder width apart and slightly behind your shoulders, toward your feet. Fingers are facing forward.

Your elbows will bend to approximately a 45-degree angle with your fingers widely spaced. By opening your hand, you increase the work of your lower arms and access more strength to lower and raise your body.

You want to keep your elbows close to your body as you move through the exercise. Keeping your elbows close gives you more leverage to raise and lower your body. Imagine squeezing something between your armpits and your body to keep your elbows aligned.

Your elbows should stay above your wrists at the bottom of the movement, making a 45-degree angle at the elbows. If your elbows go past your wrists or flare to the outside, it increases your potential for experiencing an elbow overuse injury.6

Your shoulder position also plays a role in the muscles used in your upper back and chest. Many automatically tense the shoulders, making them rise up toward your ears. Instead, draw your shoulder blades and shoulders down toward your feet to properly place your hands and elbows, and work your upper back muscles.

With your arms and shoulders placed correctly, you work your triceps muscles,7 or those muscles that often sag as you lift your arm to wave goodbye. These muscles are usually underused and underappreciated, and thus are often weaker. An imbalance between triceps and biceps may make doing everyday tasks, like mowing the lawn, more difficult.

Keep Your Back Straight and Use Full Range of Motion

Keeping your back straight during a pushup actually starts at your heels and ends at your shoulders. Your entire body line should stay straight to get the most out of the pushup and reduce the possibility of lower back pain from the stress of your body weight. Start by contracting your quadriceps muscles, or the large muscle group on the front of your legs. Doing this will straighten your legs from foot to hips.

Next, contract your gluteal muscles, or tighten your buttocks, and contract your abdominal muscles as well. If you've done this correctly, with your hands in the right position, your body will be lifted off the ground, in a modified plank position.8 From here you can pushup to the starting position.

It is also important to go through a full range of motion with your shoulders and elbows. In other words, going just halfway up or halfway down doesn't work all the muscles involved in a standard pushup, and won't give you the benefits you're likely looking for.

If you feel stress or tension in your lower back it's probably the result of a deeper lumbar curve than normal, placing stress on the lower back. You can correct this, and reduce the potential of back pain, by tucking your pelvis forward as you contract your buttocks. When you do this you'll experience relief in your lower back during the pushup.

Modifications to Build Strength and Prevent Injury

If you're new to pushups and exercise, doing a standard pushup with proper form on your toes may not be possible. Test whether your core is strong enough to maintain a straight back by holding a plank position for at least one minute. You may have the shoulder strength to do pushups, but if your hips sag, you'll increase your risk of lower back pain.

The goal is to increase your core and upper body strength using pushups, but sometimes one of those areas is stronger than the other. Once you can hold a plank for at least one minute, start doing standard pushups as long as you can maintain proper form. To quicken the pace of how many pushups you can do if your core is weaker, do planks each day as well.

Starting with knee pushups will not help you do standard pushups any quicker, since you're likely bearing weight on your knees and not your core, and you're working your chest and upper back muscles at a different angle than a standard pushup.9 A better position is a bent knee pushup, also called a Bear Crawl pushup.

In this position, with your weight on your toes and hands, but your knees bent, you're working your chest and upper back at the correct angle. Continue to do Bear Crawl pushups and planks to strengthen your core until you are able to do a full set of 10 standard pushups.