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The Push-Up: Why is This So Hard?
Greg Everett  |  General Training  |  November 7 2011

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The Push-Up: Why is This So Hard?, Greg Everett,
One of the things in my life that continually mystifies me is how something as simple and pure as the push-up has become so confusing and impossible for so many people. This is like the exercise equivalent of every adult in the world suddenly forgetting how to walk (yet still wanting to do the triple jump).

This very issue is what caused me to add planks into every day of our introductory class series. I was embarrassed by the inability of people in the gym to do excellent push-ups and decided that the most pro-active approach I could take would be to train them from day one how to do it rather than trying to re-engineer them later down the line when they’re uninterested and just think I’m being a dick about it.

The priorities for the push-up as I see them are, in order: correct and rigid posture, including head position; range of motion; elbow orientation; resistance.

First and foremost, if someone can’t hold his or her body tightly in a straight line from ankle to shoulder, they’re unable to do proper push-ups. You can kick and squirm and fight this idea all you want, but you can’t escape it. You should be able to visually draw a straight line from the ankle, through the hip and through the shoulder at any point in the push-up, and the head and neck should remain in a neutral position—dipping the chin to the floor isn’t getting you to the bottom of the movement.

This rigid alignment should never change throughout the exercise. Don’t push your shoulders up and then later bring your hips up to meet them. This isn’t a push-up and it looks inappropriate.

Next is the range of motion. This shouldn’t have to be specified after saying “push-up” but there seems to be some confusion surrounding it. At the top, the elbows should be completely extended and the shoulder blades protracted. At the bottom, the chest should be in light contact with the floor (That is, the chest has reached and touched the floor but is not supported by it). Again, in both of these positions and everywhere in between, the body should be straight and rigid.

This full range of motion in my opinion should take precedence over the degree of resistance. That is, if you can’t complete a push-up to full depth from the toes, you need to modify it somehow, such as moving to the knees or elevating your hands. Remember when on your knees, you still need to maintain a rigid straight body—the knees simply replace your ankles in this case. The hands can be elevated on a wall, but the wall gets in the way of the face—you’re better off moving the hands to a plyo box or bench so the head can travel without obstruction and make the correct posture possible.

I encourage clients who can do a few standard push-ups to begin workouts with them and move to the knees when needed to maintain the range of motion. This can be difficult on the ego, especially for men, but the benefits are worth any potential embarrassment. No one loads a weight on the bar and benches it halfway down because it’s too heavy (well… excepting board pressing and the like); they start with a weight they can move through the entire range of motion and build up from there. Why the push-up (and pull-up for that matter) are viewed differently, I don’t know. Presumably because high-volume push-ups are commonplace in both bodyweight training and fitness testing, and we've all discovered we can do a lot more by doing a lot less.

I prefer the upper arms to be within about 45 degrees from the sides of the body. This allows the shoulder to move through that full range of motion more easily and naturally. Moving the hands wider and bringing the elbows farther from the sides will usually make push-ups easier for people, but it also limits depth for most people and starts tearing up the shoulders pretty quickly.

The push-up is one of those things that when done well doesn’t draw much attention—it’s not a flashy feat of athleticism. However, in my opinion, how one performs a push-up is indicative of that individual’s athletic foundation, and possibly more importantly, how committed one is to excellence in movement and performance. Sloppy push-ups suggest to me a superficial interest in athleticism and a degree of laziness. Put a little attention and effort into the simple things and it will pay returns in the more complicated and interesting ones.
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Greg Everett is the owner of Catalyst Athletics, head coach of the national-medalist Catalyst Athletics weightlifting team, publisher of The Performance Menu, author of the books Olympic Weightlifting: A Complete Guide for Athletes & Coaches and Olympic Weightlifting for Sports, and director/writer/producer/editor/everything of the documentary American Weightlifting. Follow him on Facebook here and and sign up for his free newsletter here.
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25 Comments
Dave Corbin 1 | 2011-11-07
I love it... "Likely Incontinent"
maggie 2 | 2011-11-08
well said. there are always those people who want to shlep through the ugly push ups... this is a great explanation of why they shouldn't want to.
Jeff 3 | 2011-11-08
Can you explain the upper arm position being within 45 degrees from the sides of the body? I'm imagining a 90 degree angle formed by the body flat on the ground with the arms extended straight out to either side. Is the 45 degree position you mention the line that splits this 90 degree angle?
Greg Everett 4 | 2011-11-08
Jeff - Imagine looking down at someone's back from above. If their upper arm was flat against their side, that would be 0 degrees. If the upper arms were perpendicular to the body, that would be 90 degrees (in this position, there would be a straight line from elbow to elbow through the shoulders). So if I'm reading your comment correctly, yes - the 45 degree arm position would split these two extremes.
Sandy 5 | 2011-11-11
Great article. I've seen fellow crossfitters keep their hands wide and it was because they felt they didn't have to move as far to go up and down. Personnally, I like to keep my arms stacked in most movements so I place my hands just outside my shoulders. It was nagging me tho when I watched an older female place her hands so wide on her push-ups. I will def say something to her next week!
WildGorillaMan 6 | 2011-11-12
I'm brocrushing so hard right now. Fantastic article.
David Harms 7 | 2011-11-13
For those people who can't do push ups with proper technique, the Push Up bench enables almost anyone to be able to do push ups with correct form and full range of motion. Google it!
Adrian 8 | 2011-11-15
Excellent article. I rarely see people do pushups with prroper form, and when i do i am always surprised. I recently challenged my "i think i am fit" friend to a pushups challenge as he said he can crank 50 out no probs. so when i showed him proper form (as above) he struggled to do 20. FORM, FORM, FORM!
Tyler 9 | 2011-11-15
How many perfect pushups is a good benchmark to aim for? And when should one do knees instead and until? Thanks Greg!
Greg Everett 10 | 2011-11-15
Tyler - I don't think there's really a magic number, but I'd say any adult male should be able to easily knock out 10 perfect reps any time, women maybe 5. And the more athletic one is and the more time spent on push-ups, the higher that number should be. When one should modify to the knees or otherwise is covered in the article.
Randy Long, Reality Workouts 11 | 2011-11-17
I have several clients that I started on Angled Push ups (hands elevated), either on steps or on a support pin in the power rack. Most are making good progress. Have noted that, tell a female client to assume a "push up position" and 80% or more will place their hands significantly ahead of their shoulders, instead of under the shoulders. Never see a guy do this.
Drew 12 | 2011-11-29
Ahhhh this article rings so true.... This is why (to the dismay of many students... and even some parents) I have students spend considerable time planking. @Randy: You can be rest assured plenty of boys have the same problem you describe. I see it every day unfortunately.
Fanstaning 13 | 2011-12-10
Nice article and very healthy discussion! I've come across similar concerns regarding pushup form with clients I have trained. As a way to minimize/eliminate this challenge, I have them to perform the eccentric muscle action instead of the modified (knee) pushup when learning. If you Google "Eccentric Pushups" you will see my squidoo lens titled "Using Eccentric Pushups to Improve Your Strength" The eccentric pushup muscle action places the emphasis on learning the proper form while building muscular strength. While the modified version helps to increase muscular strength, it also encourages the lower back sagging once adequate strength has been developed. Another recommendation is to use the equipment that's used for Step Aerobic (can be found in most gyms) to perform the incline pushup You can maintain the proper pushup form (straight body posture) that Greg mentioned in this article while placing your hands on the step to perform incline pushups. To make the pushup easier, use the additional raisers until you are able to perform the pushup for your desired number of reps. Reduce the raisers gradually until you are able to perform pushups on the floor. To make the pushups more difficult, continue to use the raisers but now place your feet on them while placing your hands on the floor. If you would like to know the percentage of bodyweight supported during the various pushups, while on my squidoo lens, look up the article "How Much Weight Do You Lift In A Pushup" I also provide a demonstration using the Step Aerobic equipment with raisers. I hope you find the information to be of constructive value. Cheers!
Carlee Wallop 14 | 2013-09-19
Wow, I'm a girl that lifts weights and runs long distance, just looking for advice on how to do a push up correctly and understand why it can be so hard. Your article is from the point of an arrogant jerk, I'm really sorry that not every one you see can do a push up perfectly the first time like you did. Came looking for advice, not to be insulted.
Skittles 15 | 2014-05-05
I agree with Carlee. I run, lift weights, do pilates etc. my style of fitness hasn't included doing tons of push-ups and no, I don't like that I need to do girl push-ups so I googled to find out why they're so damn hard for someone who's relatively fit. The will is there - but I don't enjoy the phoney tough love approach. You wanna help me get better? Acknowledge push-ups and pull-ups are oddly difficult, offer me modifications and don't shame me for not having a skill 95% don't have and aren't even interested in mastering.
Greg Everett 16 | 2014-06-25
Carlee and Skittles - I encouraged and explained modifications to allow you to do push-ups more effectively at the initial stage you're in to help you get stronger and eventually get you to full ROM, excellent push-ups from the toes. The only shaming was of people who, rather than like you, who say you're working to improve, refuse to fix the problem. I'm sorry you've decided this was so offensive. Good luck with your quests to improve your push-ups.
Deb 17 | 2014-06-26
I am a fit woman who lifts weights and runs and is involved in many other activities. The advice in your article was excellent and I never once thought you were an arrogant jerk. Sad that some people can read a helpful article like yours and think it's derogatory.
Amy 18 | 2014-06-26
Thanks for the smack in the back of the head. Ego will be checked at the door for pushups from now on. Your insight/knowledge are always appreciated. ...I didn't think you were a dick. Sometimes the truth just plain old hurts.
Dean 19 | 2014-06-26
Can you explain what you mean by protracting the shoulders at the top, and how is this done? Thanks
Greg Everett 20 | 2014-06-26
Dean- As you finish the extension of the arms, push your shoulders forward a bit but without letting your upper back round. In other words, get as high as you can by straightening your arms, and then get slightly higher with the shoulders.
Melissa Hartwig 21 | 2014-06-26
Most people think push-ups are about chest and tricep strength, but I think it's all about core strength and stability. I've seen people (myself included) go from not even close to a push-up to multiple perfect form push-ups just by training lots of anti-rotational stability exercises, with no chest or tricep development at all. Thoughts?
Denver 22 | 2014-06-27
awesome article. i wish you had touched on hand position and external rotation. how do you feel about the idea of fingers close to 90 degrees (perpendicular to the body) and thumbs toward the head? just my opinion but i think this (external rotation) makes pushing the elbows back, towards the feet and keeping the arms in much easier/more natural. as for upper arm position, why 45 degrees and not 10-20 degrees? i would think that the closer one can keep the arms to the body the better. i am not contending that these are things you do not already know/have heard of/thought of, just curious what your opinion is.
Denver 23 | 2014-07-01
carlee and skittle- why? how the hell could this article offend anyone?!?!
Sophia Walsh 24 | 2014-07-02
Excellent article. When coaching at times I feel like the push-up Nazi. This helps me not feel so badly about it :)
Ant 25 | 2014-07-12
I really liked this article and feel inspired to train. Feels good to have some focus on correct form and not feel too disheartened by my current tally of maximum 3 perfect ones :) As another female reader I can't see anything offensive about anything you wrote at all. Thanks for the tips.
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