Form Check: Two Common Misconceptions Of The Traditional Push Up
Updated: Nov 23, 2020
I used to get this wrong for years. I thought wide push ups was the best way to get a good stretch on the pec. I also spent a lot of time doing push ups in yoga with my elbow right by my side.
This isn't to say narrow or wide push ups are bad. But there are muscles I wasn't engaging and joint angles I wasn't aware of. Once I started cleaning up my form, I started dealing with less shoulder and elbow pain and I started feeling it more in my chest and even back muscles.
Push ups are one of the most universally used exercises in any gym, fitness class, or workout program. They are also the most commonly butchered, leading to shoulder pain, upper back pain, and even shoulder surgery.
There are two common misconceptions about push ups:
They are a beginner exercise
How push ups should be done
The first misconception is that push ups are beginner exercises that everyone can do. Here's why push ups are an advanced exercise:
A traditional push up on the toes is 64% of your bodyweight
A knee push up is 49% of your bodyweight
Elevating the hands on a 24-inch bench decreases the weight to 41% of your bodyweight
Elevating the feet on a 24-inch bench increases the weight to 75% of your bodyweight
This means for a 180lb man they are looking at the following weights:
115lbs @ 64%
88lbs @ 49%
73.8lbs @ 41%
135lbs @ 75%
Pretend you're on you back and imagine bench pressing those amounts.
For advanced lifters, that's no problem. You can progress with loaded drop sets, mechanical drop sets, or harder push up variations.
For beginners, these weights can be challenging, which is why it's important to start with lighter variations or start by pushing dumbbells in a floor press or bench press to build up strength.
The second misconception is how push ups should be done.
The three biggest mistakes made are:
Flaring of the elbows out wide like you would in a push up on a stationary bike
Rolling of the shoulders forward with the elbows coming back like in a yoga chaturanga push up
Excessive low back arch and butt sagging
A perfect push up should include:
The body is aligned from the heels to the head and remains that way for each rep. There shouldn't be any rotation in the body as you lower and lift. The shoulders are packed with the muscles behind the shoulder activated, stabilizing the head of the humerus.
The body should travel in a vertical plane the entire time. At the top of the push up, the shoulders stack over the wrists and the arms should be locked out. This protraction of the shoulders engages the serratus and allows the shoulder blades to glide around the rib cage.
During the lowering portion of the push up, the elbows should move away from the body at a 45-60 degree angle depending on the persons individual anthropometrics and body typing. At the bottom of the push up, the elbows should bend to 90 degrees with the option to go deeper for people that can control a deeper range of motion.
Throughout the movement, there should be tension throughout the body to help maintain a solid line. Squeeze the glutes to lock the pelvis in place. Pull your ribs to your pelvis to turn on the anterior core so your low back doesn't arm. Tuck your chin to your throat so you aren't looking up or lunging your neck forward.
Why Does This All Matter?
Shoulder injuries are one of the most common injuries in the gym. It is most commonly seen in the front side of the shoulder.
Because our posture is so anteriorly dominated, we round our shoulders in and forward into internal rotation.
Computers, TVs, cell phones, side sleeping, or even just sitting down. The common thread between all of these is that they roll our shoulders forward and in.
When we combine this with too much weight (misconception 1) or with improper form (misconception 2) we run the risk of driving our shoulders into even worse positions with weight and fatigue added to the equation.
One last thing to keep in mind as well. This applies to all horizontal presses, which is the movement pattern seen in all bench press variations.
If you can master the push up with proper alignment and mastery, then you can safely execute 1000s of other exercises with precision and feel confident that you'll avoid shoulder discomfort, pain, and injury.
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