Most guys learn to do pushups in the fourth grade. Ever seen a fourth-grader do a pushup? It’s not pretty. And unfortunately, few people ever get better.
“Unless they’ve had instruction before, I’ve never seen someone off the bat do a pushup perfectly,” says metabolic training expert B.J. Gaddour, C.S.C.S., creator of the follow-along DVD series Men’s Health Speed Shred. “I see 99.9 percent of people do it wrong.”
But performing pushups incorrectly can make your lower back ache, hurt your shoulders, and keep you from getting the most muscle-building benefits out of the exercise.
Here are the top pushup mistakes—and Gaddour’s fast fixes.
Mistake #1. Your elbows are flared out
If someone took a bird’s eye view picture of your body, would your upper arms form a “T” with your torso? That wouldn’t be surprising—after all, that’s how they teach fourth graders. But it’s not the best approach. That’s because it puts a lot of stress on your rotator cuff, which can lead to injuries. Instead, keep your elbow tucked as close to your body as possible. Now think of pushing through your armpit, Gaddour says. You’ll not only engage your chest and triceps, but you’ll also rely on your lats, traps, and even your biceps, while protecting your shoulders.
Trouble retraining yourself? Perform pushups on your fists with your knuckles facing outward (palms facing each other), while keeping your wrists straight. You can also hold onto the sides of a box or a low step. Flaring your elbows out will feel extremely unnatural in either of these hand positions. For more new moves from top trainers, sign up for the Exercise of the Week newsletter.
Mistake #2. Your hips are sagging
Your head, upper back, and hips should all be in a straight line during the entire pushup. If your hips drop below that line, you’re not getting the full core benefit out of the movement, and could cause lower back pain. The fix: Tightly squeeze your glutes (butt muscles) during the exercise. Here’s a drill Gaddour uses with his clients: Set up in a pushup position with your feet against a wall. As you do a pushup, press your heels into the wall. You’ll feel yourself tighten your butt—and that’s exactly how you should feel any time you do a pushup.
Mistake #3. You rely on gravity
Don’t just drop to the floor. As you lower your body down, drive your palms into the floor and use your arms to pull your body to the ground. “Think of doing a row on the way down,” Gaddour says. This engages your upper back muscles, giving them more of a workout. It also makes you stronger instantly, since the elastic energy you create by lowering your body down makes pushing up easier.
Mistake #4. You’re not stretching your wrists
Do a lot of pushups, and your wrists will probably start to hurt. There’s a simple reason why: You don’t typically bend them that way. To find relief, stretch your wrists in between sets. Rest on all fours with the back of your hand on the floor and your fingers pointing toward your toes—so that your wrists are bending the opposite way that they flex during a pushup. Another drill: Clasp your hands together with your fingers interlaced and your palms completely touching. Roll your clasped hands clockwise and counterclockwise for 15 to 30 seconds in each direction.
Mistake #5. You do incline pushups or knee pushups
If you’ve been doing knee pushups forever and can’t seem to make the leap to full pushups, there’s a good reason for that: “Elevating your hands or pushing on your knees takes the load off your body, but you’re working a different angle on your chest muscles,” Gaddour says. “You’re not hitting the same muscles to the degree you will when you’re flat on the floor, so it won’t get you ready for a floor pushup as much as you’d like.” A better way to work into full pushups is the Bear Crawl Pushup (also called a Bent-Knee Pushup.) Start in the position below, then do a pushup while keeping your knees bent.
As you become stronger, move your feet out farther and farther until you’re doing a standard pushup.
Discover how Gaddour shed fat and build muscle—and how you can, too—with the new Men's Health workout, The Incredible 82-Day Speed Shred.