Push-ups are one of the best overall drills for the human frame: upper body strength-endurance, core endurance, spinal stability all in one drill.
And the push-up looks simple.
Just get down, hands on the ground, straighten your body and away you go. Right?
Done improperly, you increase risk of injury to the shoulder, neck, and low back, and get less value out of the drill.
The Top Three Push-Up Mistakes
Hand Position- Hands high and wide = mistake
A lot of people place their hands high and wide forming a “T”.
This reduces the workload on the triceps and pectoralis muscles but uses the passive restraint tissues (joint capsule, ligaments) of the shoulder to create stability instead of the muscle system.
The upper arm (humerus) is actually in what’s referred to as an “impingement” position. The very small amount of space that provides clearance in the shoulder for the rotator cuff tendons is reduced by the angle of the humerus. So, it feels easier to do a push up in this position but the risk to your shoulder is greater.
Depth- Arms past the mid-line of the trunk = mistake
A lot of trainers and coaches will tell you that the best push-up is one where the chest hits the ground.
When the chest hits the ground, your upper arm (humerus) is positioned behind the trunk or in an extended position. This places a lot of load on the front of the shoulder and is often a cause of anterior shoulder pain. The argument for taking your chest to the floor is to stress all of the muscle fibers so you get maximal muscle contraction and development. I understand that but what you’re doing is sacrificing safety for vanity.
You’ll get plenty of muscle work by stopping the motion when the arm is lined up with the middle of the trunk (so the upper arm will be parallel to the ground). And you lower the risk of injury substantially.
The other problem with taking the chest to the floor is that the arm is fixed. It can’t rotate in and out like it does when you throw a punch. So again, as the arm moves past the trunk, the shoulder will move into more of an impingement position (this is much more the case when the hands are flat on the floor than in the image with the hands on handles but I still would stop the motion at the trunk midline).
Going too low isn’t the only issue with depth. It’s pretty easy to crank out a hundred push-ups if you move about three inches. Yes, lower risk of injury but you’re kidding yourself into thinking you’re stronger than you really are.
Sagging- The spine and head sagging out of alignment = mistake
When you’re not strong enough to manage the push-up, your spine and/or head will sag toward the ground. This increases stress in the spine and even into the shoulders. So, if you find yourself drooping, it means the drill is too hard.
And guys seem to have an enormous amount of trouble feeling okay about doing push-ups on their knees. I’ve heard things like, “I’m not doing girlie push-ups!” Please. Get over yourself. It’s a push-up with less load. That’s it. If it makes you feel better, strap a performance band around your chest, anchor it high in the door and let the band help you by reducing the load. Same thing. Easier on your ego though.
Avoid making these three common mistakes for the push-up and reduce your risk of injury while getting the most out of a great drill.
My core health philosophy is simple: life is movement. When you can’t move freely or in a way you need or want to, suddenly your life seems a lot smaller. So, I promote movement through the fundamentals first: know your abilities and weaknesses, work on the weakness, build your stability, balance and endurance, then your strength, then power, then stamina.
If you’ve tried just about everything under the sun to get healthy & fit or are fed up with programs that leave you feeling worn out, frustrated with lousy results or worse, injured, then I’m your guy – Fusion can help you.
Why? I make complex, sometimes even contradictory, health & fitness concepts dead simple to understand and use.
Doug Kelsey PT, PhD
Fusion Performance Training
By Doug Kelsey
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