As a tall, muscular kid, I always crushed pretty much any activity we did in P.E. class—well, with one major exception: pushups. Even today, despite being a certified personal trainer, avid powerlifter, and general strength-training fanatic, I still can’t bust out more than eight reps—and I’m certainly not alone (at least that’s what I’m told by the audible groans I hear every time pushups are called for at group workout classes).
So why is the struggle so real with pushups? Turns out, we might be approaching this (seemingly) ultra-simple strength exercise the wrong way.
Here, certified trainers Holly Roser, C.P.T. and Ridge Davis, C.P.T. spotlight some of the key form mistakes that mess with your pushup skills, how to remedy them, and why pushups are absolutely worth working on.
Surprise, Surprise: Pushups Are A Perfect Strength Exercise
When it comes to all-around upper-body strengthening exercises, it doesn’t get much better than pushups. “Pushups are a safe but challenging alternative to dumbbell or barbell bench presses,” explains Davis. “They are instrumental in building a strong upper body, specifically the chest and triceps. They’re also a great core workout.” Bonus: They even fire up your anterior deltoids (the front of the shoulders) while indirectly targeting your leg muscles (as long as you keep them engaged).
Plus, since pushups are foundational for performing popular HIIT moves like burpees, nailing them can help you build up your overall exercise repertoire, Davis adds.
They’re also great for your ticker: One 2019 study published in JAMA Open Network found that the more reps of pushups a person can bang out, the lower their risk of heart disease.
5 Form Mistakes You Might Be Making During Pushups
And now, for the bad news: Despite how much can go right with pushups, a whole lot can go wrong, too, Roser and Davis agree. Here are some of the top form mistakes each trainer sees often, and how it undermines the benefits you reap from the move.
1. letting yourself fall to the ground instead of lowering with control
Although the name might lead you to believe the main action involved in a pushup is the part when you actually push your body up off the ground, it’s not the only important piece. “Many people let themselves fall into their pushup,” explains Roser. “Remember: Lowering yourself into your pushup is just as important as pushing yourself back up.”
To give both parts of the exercise the attention they deserve, she recommends lowering to a count of two and pushing back up for a count of one.
Your breath can support you in this: “On the way down, inhale and create tension in the belly,” Davis suggests. “On the way up, exhale explosively to drive the belly button up.”
2. Your hands are in the wrong place
At the start of a perfect pushup, your hands should be directly beneath your shoulders, your fingers splayed out slightly, and your elbows locked, Davis says. Too often, folks position their hands incorrectly.
Roser agrees: “Watch out for your hands being too far out in front of your body,” she notes. “Putting your hands out too far puts more tension on your shoulders and potentially causes injury.”
3. The angle of your arms is off
Pushups are a particularly versatile exercise, with a few slight form adjustments resulting in different outcomes. If you want to target your chest, for example, ensure your upper arms form 90-degree angles with your torso as you bend your arms, Davis says. To really hit your triceps, keeps your elbows nestled up alongside your torso.
Too often, Davis sees individuals do an ineffective mashup of chest- and tricep-focused pushups, which means they don’t truly reap the benefits of either.
4. Your shoulders are hiking up
No joke here: Pushups are hard. But the second you start using a body part other than your arms, chest, and core to power the movement, you’re missing out on the exercise’s potential perks, says Davis.
One common mistake is allowing your shoulders to hike up towards your ears. “It’s essential to keep your shoulders pressed down and away from your ears throughout the entire pushup,” Davis says. “This allows the chest, as opposed to the shoulders, to do the majority of the work.”
5. Your hips sink
Speaking of slacking, quick-sinking hips are another of the most common pushup form no-no’s people get stuck in.
“I often see people’s hips hitting the floor first,” Roser explains. In pushups, keeping your body in a straight line from head to heels is essential, so if your hips sag, start with an incline pushup against wall or pushups on your knees to build strength in that straight position, she says.
One tip that’ll help you with this: “Keep the glutes pinched together [throughout the movement],” Davis adds. Think about squeezing your butt and your hips will stay in line.
5 Exercises That’ll Help You Get Better At Pushups
Form tweaks aside, a handful of other exercises can also help you build the chest, arm, and core strength needed to properly sail through pushups. Complete the following exercises two or three times per week to really build your upper-body strength game.
1. Chest press
Why: “A chest press is an excellent way to strengthen your pectoralis major and minor [chest muscles], which will help prepare you for pushups,” Roser explains. “Do this exercise with dumbbells at weights that are comfortably challenging.”
Reps/sets: 2 to 3 sets of 10 to 12 reps
Why: A pushup is really just a moving plank, according to Roser, so holding a plank fires up all of the same muscles.
Reps/sets: 2 to 3 sets of 45-second holds
3. Cable rope triceps extension
Why: If you’re doing (or want to do) triceps-focused pushups, strengthening those back-of-arm muscles will help you maintain control throughout the descent.
Reps/sets: 2 to 3 reps of 10 to 12 reps
Why: “These are great for developing postural muscles that keep your shoulders down and away from your neck in a pushup,” says Davis.
Reps/sets: 2 to 3 reps of 30-second holds
5. Hollow Hold
Why: Similar to a plank, hollow holds fire up your core muscles in a static, isometric contraction, resulting in stronger stability (a.k.a. a straighter line from head to heels) in an actual pushup, according to Davis.
Reps/sets: 2 to 3 reps of 30-second holds