If you’re like me, you feel really strong and capable throughout your entire workout—and then you get to push-ups. It’s like strength just deflates the second you start doing them. While push-ups aren’t complicated, they do require strength and engagement from many different parts of your body.
They challenge our pecs, our triceps, and shoulders, and require a good understanding of core and hip stability as well. A push-up is a moving plank. So your core plays a huge role. And you can’t discount the power of the mind-body connection. A lot of times there is the mental component.
In other words, if past experiences have convinced you that you can’t do push-ups, it may become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
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What does correct push-up form even look like?
Thinking about a push-up as a moving plank is actually really helpful. The correct setup for a standard push-up is:
- To position your hands shoulder-width apart, or a little bit wider.
- As you bend your elbows and lower toward the ground, your elbows should be at about a 45-degree angle to your body.
- Your fingers should be splayed, with your middle fingers pointing toward 12 o’clock.
- While arms out at a 45-degree angle is considered a standard push-up form, the angle that’s most comfortable for you may be slightly different so it’s fine to adjust—keeping your arms in a tad closer to your body or bringing them out a little wider—based on how your shoulders and arms feel.
It’s hard to tell people exactly where they need to be, because it depends on different factors like shoulder mobility and where you’re strongest. So use 45 degrees as a starting point, but make sure to listen to your body.
It’s important to think about keeping your core engaged and back flat, so that your body is in one straight line from the top of your head to your heels.
Why do push-ups feel even harder when my hands are closer together?
Bringing your hands in slightly closer together and letting your elbows skim your body as you lower turns it into a triceps push-up. The triceps are much smaller muscles than the pecs and chest and shoulders, so when you isolate them, you will be putting a lot more work on them.
Do I really need to lower all the way to the ground?
One thing the trainers agree on is that bending your elbows halfway (or less) isn’t going to help you work up to the full thing. If you don’t train in a full range of motion, you won’t be strong in a full range of motion, and who the heck doesn’t want to be strong in their full range of motion?
Instead of thinking about getting your chest to the ground, think about getting low enough that your elbows are in line with your shoulders. That would be considered a good range-of-motion push-up.
Of course you should only go for the full range of motion if you have the mobility and strength to do it properly. If you push yourself too far before your body can really get into position safely, you risk getting injured.
So, when you do try to get low, make sure you’re not straining your neck or rotating your shoulders forward to try and get closer to the ground. This can put extra pressure on your neck and shoulders and over time, can lead to pain.
What’s the best way to modify a push-up?
Push-ups on your knees don’t fully translate to performing them through the full range of motion. When you’re on your knees, you don’t need to worry about the waist down. When you’re in the full position you’re holding a plank, so there’s a lot more demand on your core—it just really isn’t the same position. Start with incline push-ups instead.
Start with your hands on a bench or a box that is as high as necessary for you to complete a proper push-up through a full range of motion. Every few weeks, lower your incline a little bit. After a couple weeks of doing a combo of incline push-ups and other core exercises, someone can usually can get a push-up in.
Push-ups are fine—as long as you do them with proper form. You have to think of it as a modified plank position. Modified planks are hard if you do them right—butt tucked, hips forward. Start in a regular high plank, squeezing your core, glutes, and quads.
When you drop to your knees, keep the same muscles contracted, and relax your shoulders so you’re not over-engaging your trap muscles (the muscles that run between your shoulders and neck).
You can also modify push-ups with drills that focus specifically on the lowering movement and then the pushing movement. Lower from a plank to the point that’s the hardest for you, that point that’s your sticking point where you feel you’re not going to make it up from there.