The Push-Up is a great movement to build strength and power. Like with any movement, it is often performed with poor form.
Here are the Most Commonly Seen Push-Up Mistakes!
1. The Modified Push-Up
There are not many movements I tell everyone NOT to do, but this is one of them. There is no benefit to performing the modified push-up. There are numerous drawbacks such as:
-Poor Core Position/Lumbar Spine Position
-No carryover to other movements
-Poor Scapula Position
The list goes on! The Modified Push-Up is also referred to as “The Girl Push-Up.” This is another reason not to perform it! No movement should be classified by gender. With that being said, if someone cannot perform a push-up with proper form on the floor, then regress the movement!
Perform it with their hands elevated.
By performing it elevated, it still allows the client or athlete to focus on good scapula and core/lumbar spine position. It also makes the person feel like they aren’t being ostracized by doing the modified push-up.
If you want to hear more about why I’m not a fan of the “modified push-up,” check out a previous blog post of mine here.
2. Lumbar Spine Position
Many times, the most challenging part of the push-up isn’t arm strength. When you watch someone’s form start to deteriorate, the lumbar spine position is typically the first position to falter.
The lumbar spine will either begin to go into extension:
Or they know this is going to happen and will hike their hips above the normal push-up position to continue performing the movement.
That being said, core strength or stability is usually the issue here. If someone can perform rep after rep of a push-up and then as they fatigue, their hips start to drop/rise OR their low back starts to arch, try cueing them to maintain a neutral spine.
Cues such as:
“Bring your belt towards your chin.”
“Tuck your Tailbone.”
“Squeeze your Butt and Your Abs.”
Sometimes these can do the trick and clean-up technique. If someone starts off with poor technique, then using these cues can also help.
Also, placing a dowel on someone’s back and maintaining 3 points of contact between the head, thoracic spine, and sacrum is another good tactile cue.
If none of these cues or positions improve push-up technique, then the movement needs to be regressed. Instead of keeping someone’s hands on the floor and performing poor rep after poor rep, elevate their hands to a barbell in a squat rack or to a box or bench.
2. Scapular Position
Another common issue with push-up technique is scapular position. Some people are taught that they should “pin” or lock down their scapulae during the push-up.
During the push-up, there is no particular benefit in maintaining a static position with the scapulae. The scapulae are meant to move. If someone is performing a bench press, squat, deadlift, etc., then YES, it is ideal to have a stable and strong upper back when lifting massive amounts of weight. In this scenario, we don’t want the scapulae to move.
With the push-up, if the scapulae DON’T move, then muscular imbalances can start to form and can decrease performance and increase the risk for injury. If the scapulae aren’t allowed to move, it can place them in a position of downward rotation.
By constantly keeping them “down and back” or in a retracted position, this can cause issues when a client or athlete needs to go overhead in the gym or in their daily lives. If the scapulae isn’t allowed to upwardly rotate (the opposite of maintaining a “down and back” position),
then it can cause pain, irritation, and other orthopedic issues if not addressed.
So, when performing a push-up, we want to allow for scapular retraction and posterior tilt on the eccentric portion and protraction and upward rotation on the concentric portion.
By allowing the scapulae to move, it helps to promote upward scapular rotation by Upper Trapezius, Serratus Anterior, and Middle Trapezius. These 3 muscles all work together to facilitate moving the scapulae upward to accommodate the humerus when going overhead.
3. Forward Head
Head position is another common area that usually needs to be corrected when performing a push-up. There are 2 typical head positions we see when performing a push-up:
Position #1: Cervical Extension
Position #2: Cervical Flexion a.k.a “Forward Head”
The concern with either of these two areas is that it can placed increased stress on the cervical spine. There is nothing inherently wrong with going into cervical flexion or extension, but when done either under load or for rep after rep, it can create imbalances at the cervical and thoracic spines as well as the shoulder.
Usually, if someone is performing these particular technique flaws, they can be cued out of them. In some cases, there could be a strength or motor control issue causing the poor position, but for the brevity of this post, we will discuss how to correct these positions with cueing.
To improve a position of cervical extension, instruct the athlete or client to just “look at the ground.” You can also position them in a neutral cervical spine position and instruct them not to move their head upwards.
To improve a position of cervical flexion or more specifically a forward head position, instruct the athlete or client to “make a double chin.” By doing this, it can place them in a more neutral cervical spine position.
If that doesn’t work, instruct the client to think of bringing their “chest towards the ground, not their face.”
Typically, this cue will do the trick.
4. Elbow Position
The last area that is usually a concern is elbow position.
When I instruct a client on performing a push-up, I typically will have them perform push-ups with their elbows between 30 and 45 degrees of shoulder abduction. This places the humerus in or near the scapular plane of the shoulder and is a little more “shoulder friendly.”
If the arms are abducted upwards of 60 degrees or less than 30-45 degrees, this can place increased stress on the anterior aspect of the glenohumeral joint. It can cause irritation to the biceps tendon and supraspinatus as well as increased laxity to the anterior capsule as well.
The elbows can also go too far past the plane of the body and the arms can go into shoulder hyperextension if the elbows are too close to the body.
To help alleviate this position, instruct the client to “pull themselves towards the ground.” What is meant by this cue is that the client or athlete wants to think of “rowing” themselves or retracting their scapulae as they descend towards the ground.
By retracting the scapulae, it places the shoulders in a better position, decreases strain on the shoulders, as well as places the athlete or client in a more powerful position to press from when they return to the starting position.
I heard of this cue from Tony Gentilcore. "Imagine like there is a tennis ball in your armpit" can help put the client in the proper elbow position. This cue can provide the ideal amount of space to be in the scapular plane.
There are various areas where the push-up can go wrong from lumbar spine position to cervical spine position, but the push-up is a great way to build strength and power when performed correctly.
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