Push Up Form: 6 Mistakes to Avoid

Written By: Todd Kuslikis
October 18, 2016

Ah, the trusty push up. Whether you’re a fitness master or a moody middle school P.E. student, they’re a staple in the world of exercise. But for all their popularity, are you doing them correctly?

Today we’re going to be focusing on correct push up form and the most common mistakes people make when performing this well-known exercise. There are countless videos online where someone claims they can do an exorbitant amount of push ups. But when it comes time to actually do them, the form is all wrong.

The problem here is, people get too hung up on the number of push ups they do without worrying about how good they actually are. If you haven’t been told this yet, let us be the first:

10 push ups done correctly is better than 100 the wrong way.

“Well,” you may be asking, “what exactly does ‘the right way’ look like?”

Great question! Here’s what a proper push up is supposed to look like:

Now, we’ll get into more specifics in a moment by identifying some common ways people get this exercise wrong. But as you can see, the body is straight and aligned, and there is full extension in the push up. This is how your standard push up is supposed to look.

And when you properly execute a push up, you’re working more muscles than you may think. Most people think of the push up as a chest exercise — and it is — but it does so much more than that! Take a look at all the muscle groups that benefit from doing a push up correctly.

And to a lesser extent:

Alright, so clearly there are a lot of benefits to executing a push up correctly. But you still may not be aware of the mistakes you’re making. So with that in mind, these are the six most common mistakes people make with regards to push up form. We’re going to tell you what you may be doing wrong, the consequence of doing it wrong, and how you can easily remedy this.

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A couple things to keep in mind: first, this applies to the standard push up only. If you’re doing a variation of the maneuver, it may require you to do one or more of these “mistakes.” So just remember, this is for the standard push up and not set in stone.

Also, we’re big proponents of pure movement (moving the body in unusual postures). A lot of people would say this is bad form, but it actually has a number of benefits. No one demonstrates this better than the great Ido Portal. So it’s just one more thing to consider. Yes, for the standard push up, you’ll want to avoid these mistakes, but don’t strike them from your movement regimen.

6 Mistakes that Ruin Push Up Form

1) Not full range (either way)

We’ll start here because this is the mistake people make most often when performing a push up. And it normally occurs when someone tries to do a lot of them. Basically, if you’re not using your arms’ full range of motion, you’re not doing a push up correctly. And anyone can be guilty of this if they’re not careful, even fitness experts and Disney villains trying to embarrass a tourist.

Consequence: While you may claim to be able to do a high number of push ups, you really aren’t getting the full benefit of the exercise. Without using your full range of motion, you don’t work all the muscle groups we mentioned above.

How to fix it: Slow down. Focus on using full extension. Stop worrying about the number of push ups you can do. Worry about how many you can do correctly. It’s about quality, not quantity.

2) Butt too high or low

We’ll lump these two issues together because they both mean the same thing: your back is bent. A butt too high in the air is a common problem for beginners, usually indicating you aren’t yet able to complete a push up with your entire body weight engaged. A butt too low can be seen when someone is running out of steam and doesn’t have much energy left to keep their back straight, but it can also suggest a lack of experience as well.

Consequence: Whether too high or too low, a bent back means you aren’t getting the full range of motion we just discussed. You’re also not engaging your core or glutes, which means you’re missing out on an opportunity to engage those secondary muscles. And if your butt is too low, that could cause some serious stress on your lower spine.

How to fix it: Squeeze your core and glutes. By tightening your midsection and your backside, you can make sure those muscles stay engaged throughout the exercise.

3) Hands rotated inward or outward

Now let’s focus on your hands. You may think it doesn’t matter what your hands are doing during a push up, since they’re just there for support. Well, that’s true, they are the foundation upon which your whole body is resting. So you should make sure it’s not going to hurt you.

Consequence: Too much strain on wrists. If your hands are rotated too far inward or outward, it places unnecessary strain on your wrists, which can lead to injury. It also causes your elbows to bow out of position, which means your form will suffer.

How to fix it: Keep your fingers pointed straight ahead. That will prevent your hands from going any wayward direction. Also, make sure your elbows are pulled in close to your body so there won’t be any flaring either.

4) Shoulder blades not protracted

Your deltoids (shoulder muscles) get a lot of benefit from push ups, but again, you’ve got to do them right. When your shoulders aren’t protracted, it means they’re bowed back and your shoulder blades are pushed together.

Consequence: Not protracting your shoulders can lead to pain in the neck and back because it’s too much pressure on the entire area. You also don’t get the full range of motion throughout the exercise, and you don’t engage your deltoids.

How to fix it: Push your shoulder blades toward the ground. This is what we mean by keeping them “protracted.” This will allow for a much better form and shoulder engagement as well as avoid unnecessary strain.

5) Hands out of position

Your hands should not be planted arbitrarily on the ground when you’re getting ready to do a push up. Even if you’re keeping your fingers pointed straight ahead like we mentioned earlier, your hands may still be out of position.

Consequence: If your hands are too far forward (i.e. near your head), you can’t get a full range of motion and you won’t be engaging all the muscles you should be. You’ll also likely have to bow your elbows out, which as we’ve discussed, is not good. And when your hands are too far back (i.e. near your ribs), that means you’re almost certainly “half-repping,” which is the classic move for a person who wants to do a crazy amount of push ups. Again, no full range of motion here.

How to fix it: Place your hands directly below your shoulders. If you’re doing standard push ups, It’s a simple rule, but it will keep your hand placement from wandering.

6) Neck out of alignment

Hey, we all want to occasionally steal a glance at our reflection as we exercise, if nothing else just to make sure our form is correct. This is kind of a catch 22 when it comes to push ups, because picking your head up is totally against proper push up form.

Consequence: When you pick your head up too much, you run the serious risk of straining your neck and causing a lot of pain. Both your spine and your neck muscles will be unnecessarily out of position.

Fix it: Keep your neck and back aligned. There’s a relatively simple way to make sure you’re doing this: take your regular household broomstick and have someone lay it along your back while you’re in push up position. If you’re doing it correctly, the broomstick should be touching your head, back and butt.

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Show/Hide Comments (6 comments)
  1. Damian

    Great article, we need more emphasis and coaching on ensuring proper form to achieve better results

  2. Philip gentile

    Proper form great article 100 a day keeps the doctor away .

    • Todd Kuslikis

      That’s absolutely right 😉

      – Todd

  3. Mike

    Great article. I believe in using correct form on all exercises. There is a time and place for cheating but you can never replace proper form.

    • Todd Kuslikis

      Well said, Mike.

      – Todd

  4. Ken

    What is your opinion of the rotating handles? I have been using Perfect Pushup handles for several years and find them useful.

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