Push-ups are one of the most fundamental and widely recognized exercises for building upper body strength and overall fitness. However, even the simplest exercises can be marred by mistakes that, if left unaddressed, can hinder your progress and potentially lead to injury. You’d be surprised how many people, even seasoned gym-goers, commit these common push-up mistakes.
Our goal is to learn what NOT TO DO during push-ups to correct our technique to get stronger efficiently while preventing unnecessary injuries.
By the end of this article, you won’t be making silly mistakes that the average person generally makes when doing push-ups.
How to Do Push-ups: Form Review
- Begin in a high plank position.
- Lower down with control until your chest touches the floor.
- Push back up to the start.
- Straight bodyline posture at all times
- Elbows tucked into your body
- Shoulders depressed and scapula retracted
- Hands are around shoulder-width apart
As you can see, push-ups are simple. It’s a highly effective upper-body exercise for your chest, shoulders, and triceps. A 2019 study even demonstrated that it has muscle activation and kinematics similar to the classic bench press, making both exercises effective when intensity and loading are matched. It’s a crucial exercise that should be included in your upper body program, especially if you’re following a beginner workout.
However, no matter how popular and simple the exercise is, people still tend to make mistakes when doing push-ups. Here are some common causes why people perform push-ups incorrectly.
- Not prepared for push-ups – If you’re doing a push-up variation that’s too hard for you, chances are you’re performing them with poor technique as well.
- Presence of weak links – A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. In push-ups, it’s usually the scapula stabilizers and the core.
- Lack of body awareness – It’s crucial to take videos of yourself to check your form. You might not know you’re committing some of these.
- Lack of awareness of the mistakes – Some people just don’t know the mistakes.
But you don’t have to worry about these if you know the push-up mistakes and how you’ll actively take steps to correct them.
10 Common Push-up Mistakes
Small Range of Motion
One of the most common mistakes people often make when doing push-ups is performing it with a limited range of motion. What I mean by this is cutting it too short in the bottom or top half of the exercise.
Limiting the lower half
At first glance, the video above seems like a full range of motion with a good lock-out at the top. But if you look closely, you’ll notice that my chest is not touching the floor. This subtle, almost seemingly insignificant, practice can add up in the long run. After a course of sets, it can rob you of maximizing strength and muscle gains. I’ve noticed those who don’t don’t perform the full range of motion have a hard time executing push-ups in full range.
Limiting the upper half
Next up is a much more obvious error. Not completing the upper range of motion is equally problematic. A common issue is not getting that lockout at the top range and only working on the bottom and middle range strength. This removes the potential for strength gains in a full range of the joints.
Straight-arm strength is crucial in calisthenics, especially when it comes to more advanced calisthenics exercises such as the planche, ring-pushing exercises, and more. You want to avoid bad habits from the start with a missed lockout.
From the starting position of a push-up with lock-out elbows, lower down until your chest touches the floor, then push back up to the starting position. Repeat this for each and every rep. Similar to the results of a bench press study, full range of motion > partial range when building strength.
Next up is the flaring of the elbows. This is a big no-no. The average person has a limited range of internal shoulder rotation, and this flared-out technique causes shoulder discomfort in most people. We don’t want to aggravate for no reason. And this elbow flaring causes rotator cuff tendon irritation.
Remember: we only have one body. We only have one set of rotator cuffs. Take care of them, and they will last a lifetime. So perform push-ups with good technique.
To fix this, keep your elbows tucked in close to your body. Find an elbow orientation that suits your individual shoulder anatomy. Always go for comfort when it comes to exercise.
Lower Back Position
Errors in the lower back position are much more prominent compared to the range of motion mistakes. We’ll see three common mistakes here.
Arching lower back
The first mistake is a result of a disengaged core when the lower back is held into extension passively. Uncontrolled, forced extension under fatigue can produce back pain in some people. You can easily notice this mistake when the hips are sagging and the groin and chest make contact with the floor at the same time.
Inconsistent back position
The next mistake is when you’re looking good with a stabilized core and plank-like posture going down but lose that connection on your way up. Notice the slacking from the hips down and the hinging motion on the upper body on the way up.
If your form looks something like this, with two motions happening instead of one solid flow, then you’re obviously not engaging your core enough.
Hips too high
Lastly, when it comes to lower back technique, we often see beginners do push-ups with their hips high up and back.
It’s a small technicality, but we want to achieve a good posture when performing push-ups. This teaches us good habits that can transfer to many other calisthenics exercises.
There’s just one simple tip to fix these three errors: follow a plank-like posture and tilt the hips backward. This position should be a standard in every repetition and range of motion of the push-up.
If you can’t maintain or hold this position, identify your weakness. It can be from a lack of general pushing strength, which means you need to move to an easier push-up progression or a lack of core strength.
Take note that many push-up variations have a good amount of core activation, as demonstrated in a 2015 EMG analysis study.
Upper Back Position
When doing push-ups, people don’t generally consider what’s going on with the upper back. A rounded-back push-up will result in harder push-ups without any merits to any targeted muscle groups. Our shoulders cannot function properly with a hunch. Correct shoulder positioning is crucial to get the most chest activation possible from push-ups.
Avoid hunching and use a proud chest position with an extended thoracic instead.
But you might ask, “But Daniel, how about push-ups for planche?”. We’ll cover this mistake later on the scapula position, but to give you a heads up, a rounded back doesn’t equate to scapula protraction.
Moving to the 5th common mistake, the forward neck, AKA gooseneck, AKA ‘I wanna make my push-ups easier neck’.
With a forward neck, the range of motion of your push-ups will be stopped before your chest can touch the ground. This makes the exercise much easier as you don’t need to go deeper in the range of motion. We want to get the most benefits that the push-up has to offer.
Another mistake is cranking your head forward and up. Your nervous system output is controlled by the level of the spine cord and the brain. If you excessively extend the neck, you’ll experience some degree of power reduction as a result. Performing a number of push-ups with your neck cranked up will increase your chances of injuries.
Just keep your head in a neutral position. This allows you to focus more on the important aspects of the exercise and prevent any neck-related pain.
Some people might disagree with me on this. Hear me out. This will DEPEND ON CONTEXT.
Fast push-ups can be a mistake if you don’t have enough push-up experience. I find when you’re doing push-ups too fast in a set, people tend to break down their form.
What I mean by this is that people generally tend to have inconsistent forms. Their range of motion will vary from rep to rep. Some reps are going to be full lock-outs. Some won’t. Other reps are going to be in full range of motion with the chest to the ground. Others won’t be.
There might be some arching of the back. Sometimes, the hips might rise up. It’s going to be a combination of different mistakes if we’re using a speed too fast for our current skill level.
A quick fix for this is to slow things down. Focus on the movement and find the connection of the body in each movement.
For most people who want to improve their general pushing strength and muscle using push-ups, this is what you want to be doing. Train for the awareness of what your body is doing.
When Should I Use Fast Push-ups?
Fast push-ups are best used for two options:
- If you’re aiming to increase the number of push-ups in a set time. Maybe this is for a military test or gym class.
- If your goal is to do fast and explosive push-ups.
Just keep in mind that if you’re going to do this technique, be sure that you already have mastered slow and controlled push-ups first.
Wrong Exercise Progression
I’m just going to say it: kneeling push-ups are a mistake for beginners.
For those who are just starting out, kneeling push-ups are a poor exercise choice because it’s almost impossible to have a good lower back and hip alignment. Not to mention that kneeling push-up is equivalent to pushing around 49% of your body weight. This is not immediately possible for beginners.
In addition, notice that in kneeling push-ups, your scapulas are jammed in an uncomfortable position, and they can’t move organically like they normally do in regular push-ups.
A better alternative is to do incline push-ups and/or eccentric push-ups.
An incline push-up is a great option to scale back the push-up to less equivalent body weight push-up so that beginners can progress in a more efficient and safer manner. Also, this variation has more transferability to the full floor push-ups because of the same body alignment.
Eccentric is a fancy way of saying to simply lower yourself down into the position of an exercise you’re trying to do.
If you want to know how to progress from incline push-ups to floor push-ups, check out this article: Beginner Push-up Tutorial: Finally Get Your First Push-Up
This section is one of the most important parts of this article. We’re going to cover the correct scapula positioning to optimize your push-up gains. Whether you’re a beginner or have been doing push-ups for years, I really want to focus your attention on here.
If your push-up looks something like this with shrugged shoulders, you need to work on better scapula positioning.
The shrugged shoulder technique unnecessarily strengthens the scapulae elevators, which include your upper traps and levatus scapula. This can contribute to poor shoulder function, and they tend to be strong in people already.
Maintained Retracted Scapula
This is a big misconception in the fitness world that the scapula must remain glued into retraction throughout the movement.
First of all, your shoulders should be depressed at all times. Push them down away from your ears as much as possible.
Secondly, let your scapula move freely from retraction to protraction. The correct push-up requires you to retract or squeeze the shoulder blades together as you lower down, then protract or push them apart as you go up. Doing so keeps your shoulders at an optimal position for chest activation.
For those performing maintained protracted scapula, this variation is commonly partnered with a forward lean. Also known as the pseudo planche push-up, this exercise is specific for shoulder strength, which translates to planche training. Consider this option for general shoulder strength and future planche goals.
Training with Pain
This mistake is something we might all have been guilty of and can happen to everyone. As I’ve mentioned before, we only have one body. Pain is a signal to our body that there is something wrong.
Instead of pushing through pain like an absolute hero, grab a pair of parallettes or flat even dumbbells and do your push-ups with a neutral grip. The handles allow us to be in a more neutral wrist position with less wrist extension.
If you’ve got any wrist pains to begin with or started to get wrist pains during push-ups, it’s best to check with your local specialist in person.
Adding Only Reps
This is for the people who aim to become bigger and stronger.
Adding only reps will focus more on endurance. Yes, the 2019 study by Schoenfeld and colleagues supports that high rep ranges, if used at a higher effort, can still build muscles. However, it no longer develops strength, especially in trained individuals.
Just adding more and more reps is only a good idea if your goal is to add more push-ups.
Now, I understand most of the community wants to grow stronger and build muscle more efficiently.
Using a harder bodyweight exercise variation is the key. For example, here’s the archer push-up if you’re working towards the one-arm push-up or finding normal push-ups too easy.
With bodyweight training, you have a huge amount of exercise selections to choose from.
Here are also other push-up variations you might be interested in
8 Best Beginner Push-ups
7 Best Intermediate Push-ups
Push-ups are easy… until you do them right.
You can watch the summary of these mistakes in the video below:
Always keep in mind these mistakes when doing push-ups. Once you’ve been doing a ton of push-ups with good form, the correct technique will be second nature, and, of course, your progress will be much faster.
I hope this article will help you build a stronger foundation for push-ups. This is a fundamental calisthenics exercise that every bodyweight practitioner should master. Once unlocked, push-ups open the doors for higher-level training.
Remember that it’s important to train according to your goals. Aim for progress that matches those goals. Find the perfect program so you can meet your goals by taking the short quiz below.