You’re Probably Doing Push-ups Wrong. How to Fix Them (with Video)

health coach showing proper push-up formFor most people, the push-up seems like the simplest movement of all. You get down in the prone position and use your hands to push yourself away from the ground, then lower yourself until the chest touches, and repeat. Not everyone has the strength or technique to do them, but everyone pretty much knows what a push-up looks like. There’s no real mystery around it.

How To Do the Basic Pushup

  1. Assume the pushup position: elbows locked; hands about shoulder width apart, flat against the ground; toes on the ground; torso and legs straight, core tight; body parallel to the floor.
  2. Lower yourself to the ground, touching your chest to it.
  3. Push yourself back up, squeezing your pectoral muscles and completing the full range of motion.
  4. At the top, continue until your elbows are completely locked and your shoulder blades are fully protracted.
  5. Repeat.

But here’s the thing: most people are doing them wrong. Doing them wrong doesn’t just shortchange your results. It can also increase your risk of injury.

If you want to get the most out of your push-ups and come out of them stronger, healthier, and fitter, read on for some form fixes.

 

Be a stiff lever.

When you’re doing a push-up, you’re a single cohesive slab of human. You are a plank. You are a lever, and your toes are the fulcrum. To be a good lever, you have to tighten up everything: abs (all trunk muscles, in fact), lumbar muscles, glutes, quads. Everything. Make sure you maintain a tight, rigid body. Think of your legs, hips, and torso as if they formed a straight line (they should). Maintain that plank throughout the exercise; maintain the lever.

If you don’t stay tight throughout the movement, you’ll shortchange your results. You won’t generate as much power. Imagine trying to use a floppy crowbar to pry off a baseboard. It just wouldn’t work as well.

Mind your head position.

Rather than looking ahead, you should be looking down at the ground right in front of you. This places your neck in a neutral position and maintains the straight line from head to foot.

Don’t look ahead. Look down.

Elbows in, not flared out.

Flaring out your elbows places your shoulders in an internally-rotated position, which is a major cause of shoulder pain during the exercise. Your average person who claims “push-ups hurt my shoulders” is doing them with flared elbows and severe internal rotation.

Check your hand position.

A good cue for maintaining proper shoulder and elbow position is to externally rotate your hands when you place them on the floor so that your thumbs are pointing straight ahead and your fingers are pointing out to the sides. This forces your elbows to stay in against your body and protects your shoulders.

Protract your shoulder blades at the top.

At the top of the push-up, your shoulder blades should be fully protracted—moving your shoulder blades away from the spine. As you descend, they will retract—moving your shoulders blades closer to the spine, or “packed in” against the spine. This ensures full range of motion (and, again, healthy shoulders).

This is different from the bench press, where your shoulder blades stay retracted throughout the entire movement.

Quality over quantity.

Hammer this into your head until it becomes like breathing: Technique is more important than speed. Form begets function. The major problem people run into with push-ups is they’re chasing a number rather than chasing quality.

I’d take 10 good, hard, perfect push-ups over 40 sloppy, rushed, easy push-ups. The former will get you stronger. The latter will get you injured.

If you’re interested in making push-ups even harder, try thinking of your toes as a passive fulcrum:

Instead of “going down,” you rotate your body toward the ground around the fulcrum of your toes. This is a pretty subtle change, but it places an incredible amount of weight on your chest, triceps, and shoulders. It will feel like you’re “leaning forward” and your hands will feel “farther back” than usual. If you need another cue, imagine touching your shoulders to the ground.

Everything else still applies: stay in rigid plank formation (you’re a lever, remember?), press fully up, don’t do half reps, keep your elbows in, control your shoulder blades and move them mindfully.

The result is a legitimately difficult upper body exercise. You might not be able to bang out 50 pushups like this on a whim, and you’ll probably end up doing these more slowly than before, but I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised with the results.

Another benefit is they feel easier on the joints.

 

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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86 thoughts on “You’re Probably Doing Push-ups Wrong. How to Fix Them (with Video)”

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  1. Mark this is some good stuff. I’ve been referring out your e-book to as many people as I can. It’s funny how many people can’t do even a single push-up with good form these days.

    Keep up the good work =)

  2. how perfect! thanks for the how-to video clip. Helps alot for those of us starting or in the middle of the 100 push ups…

  3. Just when I thought the e-book was perfect, you come along and give extra explanation on it all! The only thing I was really wondering about was *where* to do a pullup? Should I really go into the forest and find some low branches? 😉

    1. Just like my book, The Primal Blueprint, and my cookbook, The Primal Blueprint Cookbook, Primal Blueprint Fitness will be a living, growing and evolving publication with MDA acting as an extension of its content. Expect to see more fitness-related material on MDA in the future!

      The branch worked for Grok! Seriously, though, be careful with branches. I’d hate to hear of a branch related injury. Remember law #9. Heck, a doorway pullup bar will do the trick, but something like this isn’t so bad either…

      Skip to minute 1:53…

      https://www.marksdailyapple.com/primal-blueprint-bodyweight-exercises/

      1. I’ve got a tree in my backyard that I use for pullups. Only problem is washing pine sap off of my hands!

        1. Before my husband bought a pull-up bar, we used to go to the playground 🙂

  4. The new Crossfit standard requires one to pick up the hands 6 inches at the bottom of the pushup movement. Obviously you are laying on the ground for a second. Makes the basic pushup far harder.

    1. That’s not true. At the CF Games the athletes were required to pick their hands up off the ground at the bottom of a push-up, for accountability purposes. It’s not the standard. Also….can anyone pick their hands up off the ground 6 inches at the bottom of a push up?? Not me!

      1. Hands off the ground is deadly– love it. It requires re-enganging the muscles between the shoulders at the bottom of the pushup.

    2. It’s just a way to eliminate momentum, similar to a dead hang pullup. You could simply pause at the bottom of the pushup, chest to hands, to similar effect.

  5. Mark,

    Any advice on a push-up substitute? I have a pretty serious injury to my elbow and can’t even lift any weight for a month.

    Would love to see more on injury rehab.

    BTW – thanks (at least in part) to the PB, my injury wasn’t as bad as it could have been, and the Dr’s commented on how strong my bones are (for a 48 year old female) since none of them broke!

    1. I can’t make recommendations for you personally not knowing more about your injury.

      Generally speaking, though, those that struggle with proper pushups should start with levels 1-3 in the pushup progression. The wall push is about as easy is a push exercise gets. Make it easier by reducing the distance your feet are from the wall.

      I’ll consider covering injury rehab in the future. Be well!

  6. What a beautiful location Mark! My only suggestion or bone to pick is in the orientation of the arms. I personally prefer to keep my elbows in tight to my sides, basically rubbing my sides on the ways down and up (military style). Doing this takes a lot of tension out of my wrists which has built up over the years of martial arts and working in an office on a computer. The only down side is that this method is significantly harder than the elbows out to the side method which Mark expertly demonstrated. This is mostly just my personal preference.

    I hope you make a series out of this post Mark! Show off some of that gorgeous West Coast flora.

      1. I used to live in Binghamton, and it can be a beautiful, bucolic setting for about 6 weeks out of the year.

        And the countryside and small towns outside of Buffalo, my birthplace, can be lovely in the summer.

        But now that I live in Southern California, I can’t imagine living anyplace more wonderful!

        1. Yea I live in Buffalo. We don’t have quite the beautiful scenery as you guys in Cali :-). Still waiting for nice spring weather, so I can enjoy walking around more and more outdoor workouts!

    1. My coach has us do them that way as well, “until you can do 20 in a row with perfect form.” It helps keep your back engaged and lessens the change of shoulder injury. Once you have built up sufficient strength you can experiment with variations (wide, diamond, elevated). It may seem harder, but in reality you will be able to do more work since you’re using the big muscles in your back rather than the small shoulder/tricep muscles that wear out quickly.

  7. greg-that is NOT the new crossfit standard. at the games, the hands had to just come off the ground each time. it was only the standard at the games to make the judging easier (hands can’t come off the ground if chest isn’t touching the ground).

  8. I still haven’t gotten the link to download the eBook, so I tried to re-register but it says that I’m already in your records… Any suggestions?

    1. ya, me too. But I think I get my weekly newsletters a day or 2 later, so I’m being patient, yet jealous of the others that got to read it already. Hang in there Christine!

    2. We just emailed you. Check your inbox. For all others that may have this problem, stay tuned. All future MDA weekly newsletters (sent out every Wednesday) will provide access to the eBook. Also, check you spam folder if you didn’t receive yesterday’s special email and you think you should have.

        1. wow Christine – we are synched! I can’t wait to read mine…
          Thanks again to the folks behind the scenes!

  9. The new Crossfit push up (hands off the ground) is a great variation to a push up. When you lift your hands you release the tension in your core as a result of your body resting on the ground.

    Your body goes from relaxed to a state of tension in the push. It’s unique because generally in a push up you have the negative (down) and then the push (up). However, you carry tension from the negative into the push and it gives you a rebound as you start your push up.

    By stopping and lifting your hands at the bottom you eliminate this little rebound and the push becomes very difficult.

    Worth attempting if you’re advanced

  10. What are you thoughts on the so-called “power pushup” where you push off with maximum force and clap your hands before coming down again?

  11. Mark,

    Another thing that I see all the time is people dropping the crown of their head down. It limits the range of motion and makes it impossible to for you to touch your chest and nose at the same time. You are better off doing less reps properly than a bunch of reps at 50% of the range of motion.

    David

  12. The awesome thing about these progressions is that it is fairly easy to advance to the next exercise – even for women. I have some people who come to bootcamp who laugh at the kneeling push up but within 1 month they are doing a few decent push ups on their toes. I love seeing that! They become so proud of their accomplishments!

  13. I’m so excited about some new posts involving exercise! All the biorhythm, hormone, mobility, etc stuff was really interesting, but it’s great to get back to the basics!

  14. One thing that I tell people and seems to help is that the push-up is mainly a chest exercise and arms are secondary. I believe too many people struggle with push-ups because they try to use their triceps as the primary muscle, which creates unneeded tension and strain. Use the big muscles and the smaller muscles will go along for the ride.

  15. Any article or post that mentions the beauty and importance of the serratus is a favorite of mine. excellent breakdown. Thank You! I shared it on my fb fan page!

  16. Mark I feel it would be remiss not to mention that your upper arms should be at an angle of less than 90 degrees with your torso. Doing them with your arms straight out (perpendicular to your torso) can cause impingment of the rotator cuff between the acromion process and humerus. Most people will naturally assume such a position, as it is more comfortable, but some beginners make that mistake.

    1. Do you mean we should have our arms wider than shoulder width apart? Wouldn’t that be an angle of more than 90 degrees? Sorry, I just didn’t quite get what you meant and I want to get this right =)

  17. Should one do pushups with a rotator cuff problem. When I was trying to do the 100 pushup challenge, I wasnt getting pain doing them, but my rotator cuff was definitely worsening so I stopped.

    1. Yes, absolutely, as long as it’s not completely torn. If that’s the case you most likely will need surgery to repair it.

      But push ups are an excellent exercise to strengthen the rotator cuff muscles. Just start with the most basic progression and work your way up as you build strength.

    2. protect your shoulders but having your elbows point toward your feet not flared. Flared elbows = hurt and overtrained shoulders.

  18. I second the recommendation regarding positioning of the elbows. The push-ups demonstrated on the videos are slightly too flared for my taste, as it seems you can see the shoulders start to shrug up towards the head on the way down. Start with a 45 degree angle from the body and find your sweet spot from there.

    As you appraoch 90 degrees you significantly increase your risk of shoulder/rotator cuff pain and/or injury.

    1. Do you have a link to a video that shows this? I’d like to be totally sure I understand.

        1. Doh, just realized I pasted the same link twice. The first link (good arm angle) should be:

      1. I apologize for the confusion. I’ll see if I can get a link up. I can probably find a vid on Eric Cressey’s site somewhere.

        But..

        Hand position isn’t all that important, there are many variations of hand positioning to tweak the exercise. Narrow, shoulder width, etc.

        For The standard push-up hands would be shoulder with apart – or more precisely the inside of your hands as you look at them on the floor should be under the outside or lateral head of your shoulders.

        The 45 degree angle I spoke of refers to the angle of your elbow in relation to your torso as you go through the range of motion. Most people often have their elbows flared out similar to a scarecrow – this is the WRONG way. They should be much closer.

        Again it’s hard diagnosing from a video and not in person, but in Marks videos it looks as though I would instruct him to keep his elbows slightly closer to his torso – especially on the way down.

        Hope this helps. I’ll go check for a vid.

    2. Sorry, this seems important and I just don’t get it. Which angle should be 45 degrees? Are you saying the hands shouldn’t be directly under the shoulders? Where should they be? Or are you saying to not go all the way to the ground but start with arms straight and only go down half way? Sorry to be so dense.

      1. See the above reply. You still go all teh way to the ground provided you have orthopedic restrictions.

  19. Love the video but as a Military man, who has literally performed thousands upon thousands of push-ups, I have to say your form needs some tweaking. Keep that head tilted up a little to ensure proper alignment but I’ll still give you a solid A-.

  20. Mark,

    Great post. Glad you emphasized proper technique because pushups are way more effective when performed correctly. Looking forward to reading Primal Blueprint Fitness.

    Alykhan

  21. This is something that a lot of people will find useful. I guess women should pay more attention to this. A lot of women I have come across seem to think that the push up is only for men. Yet they do not realize the beneficial effects that they will attain from it. Another point I want to make is that those who are not able to do a full push up most likely have a weak core. While the arms play a part, the core is also equally important for performing the perfect push up.

  22. Great video! What I did when I was starting to get into pushups, was to do it against the bathroom counter. I could get a good angle, to get a good amount of resistance, and I could also see myslef in teh mirror, to ensure good form.

  23. Quick burst of exercise (lift heavy things, sprint once in a while) BUILDS muscle. Chronic cardio DESTROYS muscle. I love to surf, but when I surf often in the summer I lose a little strength and muscle. I’m ok with this because I have all winter when the water is cold to get it back in the gym.

    But it makes me wonder about pushups. At what point do you think they cease to be “lift heavy things” that BUILD muscle and enter the realm of “chronic cardio”? If you can eek out 10 reps and that’s your max effort that’s probably building muscle. But what about 20 reps? What about 40? What about 60? At what point is it not helping build muscle?

  24. CORE STRENGTH IS THE SECRET TO IT ALL.
    PLANK AND INCLINE…UNTIL YOUR STRONG ENOUGH TO DO PUSH-UPS.
    LOWER THE BAR AND PLANK AND LEAN FOR PULL UPS.
    HOLD A SMALL BALL BETWEEN YOUR KNEES TO
    LOCK YOUR LOWER BODY TIGHT DOING PUSH-UPS AND PULL-UPS.
    IT WORKS WONDERS ON THE INNER THIGHS/GLUTES/AND HAMS.GROK ON….

  25. That was incredibly helpful, Mark. Nobody has ever explained the pushup like this to me before. I was just supposed to “do” them and they’ve never exactly been good for me. But now I can proceed with confidence! Thank you!

  26. Thanks. I liked the wall pushup & work my way up. Loved how ez you make it seem too. This is just what I needed. 😀

  27. Key to a good pushup is having the elbows tucked in and not flared. Elbows tucked in and pointed back protects the shoulders. Check out Steve Maxwell on Utube for perfect form.

  28. The elbow angle is recommended to be at 45 degrees, but what if you want to concentrate more on your chest. Can you have a wider hand position?

  29. I was just reading about how this exercise requires more force at the lower end of the movement. It would seem that the push up benefits the pec more the longer you are able to hold the position near the bottom of movement rather than just cranking out a lot of reps. Or, to be fair, maybe it’s just one more variation.

  30. Dear Mark,
    I have been trying to progress in the push-up scale, but I have a problem in my wrists. I think that by doing pushups i strain them too much and they hurt. I dont think I have any injury, maybe its jus weak articulations? (I have had problems of pain in my knees and ankles while running- ive stopped running now).. if this is so, could you please give me any advice?

  31. Wonderful and thanks- the best, simplest and easy to understand videos- I loved it.

    Thanks Mark, thanks for your help.

    Kan

  32. I’m confused on the arm position in a the push up. My trainer told me the wrists need to be under the shoulders and close together. Not as you demonstrate with arms wide out and not under the shoulders. She said this was WRONG!!!

    I was doing them as you demonstrate. What is the proper arm position?

  33. So the shoulder blades must protract (separate from each other)? I thought when bench pressing we werent supposed to separate our shoulder blades from each other. Was i wrong?

    Thanks

  34. I have to say that PBF fitness is right up there with the best body weight manuals. It’s very detailed and really complete. The progressions are top notch and easy to follow. Full scapula motion is very important for proper push-up technique and unfortunately not covered a whole lot. Well done Mark!!! Even though I can’t completely do the diet, I try hard and I am still getting amazing results from PBF. Amazing!!!

  35. I have done the progression, but have seemed to hit a wall with my push-ups. I can do about 25-28 of the essential primal movement at a time, but the goal is 50. What can I do to “push” through the wall?

  36. Thanks for this! So many exercise plans just assume everyone can start with lots of pushups a day, but these variations will be great for people who can’t yet do full pushups and don’t know how to get there.

  37. Yes, this information made to do 10 pushups where i was struggling to do even one because of my arms weakness!

  38. Thank you! This really helped me to do 10 pushus in a day where i was struggling to do even one because of my arms strengthen was really less!

  39. This post would be funny if it weren’t so sad (for me).
    I have looked at so many helpful videos, books, how to do
    it stuff from trainers, other professionals, etc. I’ve had many years to try and practice all the good advice…..nothing wrong with the advice. I simply cannot do a single pushup, have never been able to do one. I’ve been trying since I was a teenager. I’ve tried everything from the old “girl style” adage, to the “wall pushups” Mark illustrates. All good stuff, but I still cannot do one single pushup on the floor, the way this post shows. Forget about form…..I’ll never have to worry about that, at this rate. How can one person’s upper body strength be so lacking? Back, abdomen, legs all strong. Can do an infinite number of crunches/sit-ups, lunges, even pretty good with planks. What on earth to be done???

    1. Take it easy on yourself here! I started out at the same point. Pushups are hard movements!
      Start with wall pushups (or pushouts). Stand right up against the wall, with your hands on the wall right in front of your shoulders. Step back one step. Holding your hands against the wall, push your back out so that it is rounded between your shoulders. Holding that roundness, lean in, and push out. Do a set of 20, rest, and do another set. Do these 3 times a week for a month. THEN try the same move from your knees on the ground. If you can’t do it, continue the wall pushouts for another month, then try it again. Lather, rinse, repeat. Eventually you will get there. I did!!

      1. thanks Marge. I’ve done wall pushups lots of times, but
        after reading your message, I think I didn’t do enough of
        them and didn’t stick with it long enough. Thanks for
        your kinds words of encouragement. I’m going to try it
        again.

        S. May

        1. My guess is that, if you’ve truly tried all that you claim, you’re taking the progression too slow and not challenging yourself enough.

          I would agree to keep trying the progressions that Mark and Marge have recommended but, first and every day, lie prone like in the “down” position of a push up and try to push up to the “up” position – just once each day, then move on to the progressions. Like the reverse of a negative in a pull up progression.

          As soon as you can do one of those, shift to a full (single) push up before continuing with the other progressions. You’ll soon get bored of the progressions and just start doing push ups.

          You absolutely can do it. It’s just picking yourself up off the ground, just with a little more form and not nearly as high.

  40. Wow! Thank you! I guess I have been doing my pushups wrong for years!! I will begin working on the different movement Turning my hands out was a key tip…

  41. Please explain to me how the 45-degree angle is ideal.

    Arms parallel is a much more physiologically-sound approach and, despite the ROTC video someone posted above, is more in keeping with actual military standard (FM 7-22 6-94: “The hands are directly below the shoulders with fingers spread… plenty of other references I’m too lazy to look up) which has always called for such.

    Testing standards haven’t always been so strict, thus, you see people doing push ups with their arms at varying angles up to 90-degrees as an acceptable count while not being perfect. It should go without saying, the army has concerns that preclude individual perfection (such variations don’t count at higher-level assessments).

    Pushing up with the upper arms parallel to the spine not only mitigates the dangers of shoulder impingement (something that is not truly accomplished with the shoulder abducted 45-degrees from the spine), it also removes the ambiguity of what is truly an acceptable form versus one that relies on muscle imbalances over real body alignment.

    It’s the difference between actually adjusting your sites or relying on Kentucky windage.

    1. Incidentally, the new army standard with the ACFT requires that the hands are placed below the shoulders. It also demands that the hands be lifted off the ground with each repetition (it keeps changing as to whether one must simply lift their hands or extend their arms in a T shape).

      I can’t speak for others, but I personally find either variation easier to maintain than simply performing a standard push up repetition for reps/time (though my total reps are lower simply because it takes longer to execute the full motion).

      At one point, decades ago, the grader would place a clenched fists below one’s chest to ensure the push up reached full flexion. For many legitimate reasons, this fell out of favor. Lifting the hands is less ambiguous than trusting individual graders to eyeball whether or not the upper arm reached parallel to the ground.

      Granted, CrossFit, MDA, and the various branches within DOD (and various other services/communities with a fitness aspect) are not the same and will develop their own standards – but I see absolutely no reason why having the arms abducted 45-degrees from the spine should ever be a part of that.

  42. poiting your thumbs in 12 o’clock direction to force your elbows in seems like a very unnatural position to me, it also seems to expose your shoulders in an unnatural way. The more natural position would be your ring fingers pointin at 12 o’clock, fingers spread out and you need to get tension in which will force your elbows in without compromising your shoulders.
    you achive this by “spreading the ground” with your hands – i.e. you are “screwing” the ground as if you were trying to open it. This will create tension and force your elbows in whilst mainating a natural position for your hands.

    Another thing not mentioned is breathing. before lowering your body, you want to take a big breath and brace your core and clench your bum to achieve tension from top to toe.

    Deep quick breath, hold your breath, “spread the ground” with your hands, clench your bum, lower your body, bring it up, breath out. Repeat.

    I have a rotator cuff injusry and pointing your thumbs 12 o’clock really messes with it and is pretty painful, exposing the incorrectness in this advice.

  43. My manubriumhas really started hurting after doing this technique. Anyone else have this problem?