The pushup is one of those exercises that is often taken for granted in the fitness world. Like a bodyweight lunge, squat, or pullup, the pushup is a basic exercise that has been around forever and has been implemented in grade school physical education, bootcamp fitness, martial arts training, circuit training, and the military. In some or all of these implementations, the pushup is often done at high speed and high reps in a fatigued state while being mixed in among a circuit of other exercises. It also seems like such a simple movement that trainers fail to give any cues on how to do it properly. The truth is that the vast majority of pushups I see are done incorrectly and will lead to stagnation in the exercise as well as a number of problems down the road with the shoulder and elbow joints.
How to Perform a Proper Pushup
To get started, take a look at this video from Kelly Starrett and Carl Paoli from CrossFit San Francisco. Carl is a former gymnast and Kelly is a DPT (physical therapist) who has excellent training and intuition when it comes to how the human body should move correctly. They developed a series in the CrossFit Journal called ‘The Position’, which describes how the torso should be organized during the vast majority of athletic movements and fitness exercises. If some of their descriptions go over your head a bit, just keep watching and really look closely at Carl’s positioning during the pushup.
Some keys to focus on:
- Rib Cage and Ab Tightness
- The rib cage (chest) and abs need to be up and tightly locked in. When you’re in the starting plank position, picture pulling your navel and chest up tightly in unison towards the ceiling.
- Elbows Close
- The elbows should remain close to the torso throughout the movement. They should not fly out to the sides. One way to make this easier is to picture a clock face as you’re looking down at the ground below you. As you get in a pushup position, your left and right index fingers should be pointing at 11 and 1 on the clock, respectively. Most people will internally rotate their hands to the point where the index fingers are both pointing to 12 on the clock, which will exaggerate any elbow flaring.
- Shoulder External Rotation
- As they highlight again and again in the video, one of the big keys to stability is to externally rotate the shoulders during the entire motion. This will make the shoulder joint much more solid and keep it anchored as far back in the socket as possible. One way to cue this is to turn the elbow pits so they’re facing directly forwards at the top of each pushup. You can try this right now as you sit in your chair. First press your hands flat on your desk with your arms straight in a relaxed position. Your elbow pits will probably be facing each other. Now rotate them so they face the ceiling while keeping your palms flat. You should instantly feel your shoulders externally rotate and tighten up. This torque is what you need to remain stable during the pushup.
- Vertical Forearm
- As you descend into the pushup, keep the forearm as vertical as possible. This may feel strange at first since you’re probably used to the forearm being angled backwards. When you do it correctly, your torso will actually travel slightly forward as you descend and backward as you push yourself back up while posting on a vertical forearm. If you look at 3:23 – 3:27 in the video, you’ll see how Carl does this perfectly.
- No Sagging the Low Back
- At all times and especially on the push back up, keep the abs up and tight without letting the lower back sag. As you fatigue, the tendency to do this is nearly impossible to resist. For many people, you’ll see them do this on every rep. The reason this happens is that it’s simply easier to do a pushup when you let the stomach and low back sag. It lowers much of the body mass that’s being lifted, making it much easier to press out of the bottom. But it also puts your shoulder in a crappy position and lets your torso lose all tension, which will not do you any favors in the long run. The best cue to fix this problem is by squeezing the butt very hard throughout the entire set of pushups. Once you lose tension in the butt and the front abdominals, you’re guaranteed to sag.
I mentioned a few of the common faults when describing the key cues above, but the picture below is a good illustration of what good vs bad looks like.
The top picture comes from a Men’s Health article using a fitness model that is obviously lean and fit. The bottom picture is a still shot of Carl in about the same position in the video. After watching the video and reviewing the cues above, how many problems can you identify in the first picture compared to the second?
- First off, her midline is sagging because the rib cage and abs are not tightly integrated and pulled toward the ceiling. It may look like she’s tight because she has a lean, flat stomach, but there is a significant arch in her lower back. Another good cue is imagining a straight line drawn from head to toe as indicated by the blue line in each picture. Except for the very bottom of the pushup, this line should be dead straight and run from the head through the shoulders, abs, and legs. In the first picture, her shoulders are too high and both her head and abs are lower than where they should be. Carl, on the other hand, has a nice neutral neck position, perfect shoulder position, and a tightly integrated torso that keeps the blue line running right along the exterior of his abs.
- Her elbows are also flared, causing the elbow pits to face each other. By contrast, Carl’s elbow pits are facing forward, meaning he’s maintaining a very solid level of external rotation in his shoulders. This is a big reason why his shoulder position is right on the blue line, whereas the fitness model’s shoulders are loose and elevated.
- One last fault is her tilted forearm. Unlike Carl’s perfectly vertical forearm, hers is angled backwards. This will reduce stability and put more stress on the joint, not to mention involving the triceps much less effectively in the movement. Notice that forward body lean that Carl has that we talked about before. Feeling your torso move forward slightly on the way down will help you post up on that vertical forearm, whereas the fitness model is kind of slouching into her pushup without inclining forward.
The fact is that a lot of people will need to swallow their egos when learning how to do these correctly. The range of motion is greater to get to the floor with the tightly tucked chest not to mention the difficulty of doing high reps without sagging the abs and lower back. If your best effort produces pushups like the fitness model in the above picture, you’re better off going to a progression and working your way up the right way.
- Elevated Hand Position
- By placing your hands on a box, a bench, or a desk, the effective load of the pushup will be greatly reduced. All of the exact same cues apply except the movement is a little bit easier. Work up to 3-5 sets of 10 every time you train and really work on doing the movement correctly. If your abs are too weak to stay tight and integrated with the chest on regular pushups, you’ll get a nice ab workout by really fighting to maintain position during these sets. Slowly work your way down to the floor over the course of a few weeks or months depending on your fitness level.
- Ring Pushups
- Once you can do very solid sets of 15-20 on the floor, set up a pair of rings or TRX straps and work up to sets of 15-20. These will be much more difficult due to the stabilization required throughout the movement. Again, the same cues apply. Solid body tension will be even more important using an unstable piece of equipment like this. You can use these as an easier progression as well by setting the rings very high and keeping the feet on the floor.
- Weighted Pushups
- In addition to increasing the difficulty with ring pushups, you can also have a partner stack weight plates on your back during regular floor pushups.
- Handstand Pushup Progression
- Once controlled pushups on the floor and rings are mastered, you can continue to elevate the difficulty by working towards a handstand pushup. This is where a proper pushup progression is crucial. You can start with knees elevated on a box and then progress to feet on a box. Like the picture below, remember all your cues of a tightly integrated midline, external rotation in the shoulders, and a vertical forearm.
The basic pushup is an excellent upper body conditioning exercise that can be turned into a solid strength builder depending on how far you go with your progression. They key is to simply start the right way as Kelly and Carl describe in the video. Not only will this improve your pushups over time, but it will do a ton for your shoulder health over the course of your life.