Pushups. A foundational movement that, when done correctly, is one of the most challenging and effective upper body movements. But the problem is that many gym-goers either 1) don’t perform pushups correctly or 2) they don’t do them at all.
When done incorrectly, the most common mistakes include flared out elbows, lack of depth or zero scapula movement. Form can also be shaky and unstable. When people aren’t doing pushups at all, however, it’s either because they think they’re too easy or that they don’t deliver results, I will be sure to write up a second "advanced protocol" post for those people. For today, let’s go into each of these issues, and then we’ll explore some exercise regressions to help you achieve that perfect pushup.
Mistake: Elbows flared out from the shoulder
This mistake puts more pressure across the shoulder joint than is necessary, increasing chance of injury and shutting down most of the muscles that should be worked with a pushup (chest and triceps).
So what’s the point?Imagine looking down at yourself in pushup formation from above. Is your body in the shape of a “T”? That’s poor form. Instead, your body should be shaped more like an “arrow”, allowing your arms to externally rotate, scapula to move properly, muscles to contract optimally. Check out the examples below.
INCORRECT: “T” Shape
CORRECT: “Arrow” Shape
Pay attention the next time you do a pushup—take note of how your arms are positioned. If they’re sticking straight out from your shoulders, reposition yourself, aiming for a 45 degree angle.
Mistake: Lack of depth
This mistake is likely a result of the first mistake (flared out elbows). When you lack depth, there’s less stretch and tension across the muscle leading to little benefit or progress. If elbows are in the right formation and depth is still an issue, your focus is likely more on the QUANTITYof reps rather than the QUALITY(please, stop that now). Either way, you’re just not getting it done.
So what’s the point?When doing a pushup, you are about 25% stronger on the lowering phase, or eccentric contraction, of the movement. To ensure proper depth, use that extra strength his to your advantage and focus that portion of the movement with a slow count eccentric pushup.
To begin this movement, set up in the top portion of the pushup position, arms fully extended. Slowly lower yourself down (the key here is SLOWLY—aim for 3-7 seconds each rep) into the bottom phase of the pushup (make sure your elbows are in the arrow position). Once completely lowered, set your knees down and reset at the top. Repeat the movement for 3-6 repetitions. Once you can get 3-4 sets of 7 second descends, you should be ready to pop off a couple nice looking full pushups. (Modification:If you’re not yet strong enough for the full plank eccentric, start with your hands on a bench, and follow the same process. Progress to the floor as your strength increases).
If that doesn’t light your fire, try a Band-Assisted Pushup. I got this idea from Mark Bell’s Sling Shot—if you don’t have a Sling Shot, then double up a super band and slide it across your upper arms—it works the same.
Once set up, start your pushups. The band will force proper arm placement and will assist in the bottom phase of the movement (where you need it most). The band will stretch and “pop” you out of the bottom of the movement, helping you gain body awareness of how everything should feel (control at the bottom) and allow for a few extra reps.
Mistake: ZeroScapular Movement
Don’t think of the pushup as solely an anterior-side movement. The scapula and the musculature attached to and surrounding it are very active in the pushup.
So what’s the point?By allowing the scapula to protract and retract along the ribs, you keep extra strain off your shoulders and you get better depth, ensure elbow positioning, increase serratus control and strength, and get a higher quality lockout. What does all that mean? Better chest contraction. Increased strength. Better pump.
The “Scap” Pushup will help you with this. Begin in a pushup plank position (arms locked out). Keep the arms locked out and retract the scapula together and then protract them back to the starting position. Do all of this without moving the elbows,
This movement teaches quality control over the lockout position while isolating and strengthening the musculature around the scapulae (primarily rhomboids, subscapularis, serratus anterior, middle/lower traps). Overall, this leads to a more stable shoulder girdle and more powerful pushup.
(Advanced Moderation: Add a band across the back to create more tension in the lockout position, and create better control over the eccentric (lowering) phase of the scapula portion of the movement.)
This is primarily a core problem. But it can be corrected. So what’s the point?Think of a traditional plank. These, like pushups, are often done incorrectly with little to no tension being held throughout the anterior side of the body, causing a severe anterior pelvic tilt. When you add a dynamic movement (the pushup) on top of an already-unstable starting point, your pushups will suck.
Let’s fix it. Start by placing the hands straight down onto the floor, directly below your shoulders. Then “screw in” your shoulders by externally rotating the upper arm into the socket. Then set your feet and suspend yourself up. Focus on keeping tension through the front of the hips towards your shoulders, emphasizing a more posterior tilt of the hip then HOLD. That’s it. Build up to 60-90 seconds of hold, and that stability should carry over to your pushups.
Band Modifications:There are lots of ways to modify the plank to increase benefit.
Try adding resistance with a band across the back through different angles of force; this will give you biofeedback as to where you lack stability.
Add a mini-band around your wrists and shoot for sets of 20-45 seconds for multiple sets. This will add more tension through the scapula, serratus, and deep core musculature, emphasizing tension and proper breathing mechanics.
Plank against a band (frontal plane resistance/ one arm) for 20-30 sec per side for 2 sets.
Plank against bands (in front of hands).
Incorporating it Into a Program
In the warmup: Frequency is the key to mastery. Add pushups (or the component(s) needed to address any issues listed above) to every warmup. Keep the sets lower (1-2 sets) and the reps moderated.
In a superset with a larger movement: This will increase frequency of the proper stimulus for the adaptation to happen and can serve as a complimentary movement when used with the larger compound movements, increasing overall neuro signaling in the core.
A1- Deadlift 5 reps
A2- Plank with bands anchored in front of hands 20-40 sec
In a superset with core flexion or rotational movement: Thisallows for more “feel” during the flexion movement through higher muscle recruitment of the core during stabilization exercises.
A1- Plank with bands across wrists 30 sec
A2- Dumbbell High Crunch
And there you have it. Pushups. Pinpoint your form issues and fix them. Perfect this underrated foundational movement and show it the proper respect it deserves.