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  • Writer's pictureDr. Bonnie Verhunce

The Perfect Exercise: How to Get Push-Ups Right

Updated: Oct 2, 2019

Many fitness experts think that it might just by the perfect exercise. What are we talking about?

The humble push-up! It doesn’t require any special equipment or a pricey gym membership, but it can do wonders.

What’s so special about push-ups?

Push-ups engage the whole body, and research has shown that being able to perform push-ups well is a good indicator of your ability to maintain fitness as you age. Scientists have also noted that doing push-ups can provide seniors with the strength and muscle memory necessary to break a fall. But did you know that push-ups are particularly good for building your core strength? And that building your core strength is one of the keys to preventing low back pain?

For most people, it’s not really as simple as it looks.

While it’s true that doing push-ups may have lots of benefits, it’s also true that it’s very easy to do push-ups incorrectly. Not only can this reduce the benefits, it can actually lead to pain in your shoulders, back and wrists. Metabolic trainer B.J. Gaddour, C.S.C.S. says “Unless they’ve had instruction before, I’ve never seen someone off the bat do a push-up perfectly. I see 99.9 percent of people do it wrong.”

What makes a good push-up good?

Good push-ups have a few things in common. Here’s what to work on if you’re trying to master the perfect exercise.

Be sure your hips don’t sag or stick up. Your head, shoulders and hips should all be in a straight line as you perform your push-ups; neither drooping nor sticking up in the air. If your hips droop, it could cause lower back pain and you will not gain as much core strength as you would if you kept head, shoulders and hips aligned. To help keep your body straight, tighten your gluteal muscles (the buttocks) and your abdominal muscles as you perform your push-ups.

Keep your elbows close to your sides. If you look like a “T” from above, with your elbows splayed out like wings, you could be causing damage to the rotator cuff of your shoulder. Although this is how many of us were taught to do push-ups in school, it’s not the right way to do it. If you have trouble keeping your elbows close to your torso, try doing push-ups on your fists, with the back of your hands facing out. This helps to keep your elbows from splaying.

Go as low as possible. Ideally, your elbows should be at somewhat less than a 90-degree angle when you are at your lowest point in the push-up. If you have trouble doing this initially, put a block or similar object beneath your chest as a reference point. Then gradually reduce the height of the object as you develop the strength to go lower.

Start off easy. When first starting out, many people simply don’t have the upper body or arm strength to do even a single push-up on the floor. When this happens, they’re often tempted to resort to so-called “knee push-ups.” Don’t do it! Unfortunately, knee push-ups won’t help you build the strength you’ll ultimately need for regular push-ups, and your body (especially your core) won’t benefit as much from the effort. Instead, you can begin by doing push-ups against a wall, countertop or staircase and then gradually work your way to progressively lower (more horizontal) positions until you’re able to do a push-up on the floor. This is a great milestone!

Stretch your wrists. Putting all your upper body weight on your wrists can hurt after a while, since most of us are not accustomed to doing it. Give your wrists some relief by stretching them. While on your knees, place your hands palm-downwards, with your fingers pointed back toward your knees, lightly putting pressure on them to stretch them out. This will allow them to support more weight for your next set.

Remember, everything starts somewhere! If you’re struggling to maintain proper form or can’t do very many push-ups for the first few weeks, don’t give up! The combination of strong effort and good bio-mechanics will eventually pay off. The idea is to improve over time, and you shouldn’t expect great performance right off the bat. If you’d like to track your progress, there are several good smartphone apps on the market that make it easier to do.

As a chiropractic doctor, Dr. Bonnie Verhunce, is especially interested in her patients’ overall musculoskeletal health. In addition to providing in-office manual therapies such as spinal adjustments, mobilization and trigger point treatments, she can also design at-home strengthening and stretching programs to help you meet your own goals, whether they’re related to rehabilitation, injury prevention or performance. If you or someone you care about has concerns or questions, please call our office or visit of website by clicking here.

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