The 6 Mistakes You’re Making During a Pushup

(Above) A proper pushup. Photography and graphics by Angie Hilsman.

Pushups, when done correctly, are a great full-body exercise. The pectoral, shoulders, triceps, abs, and butt should all be activated during a proper pushup, says Carmen Sturniolo, owner of Ambitious Athletics. Here are the six most common mistakes he sees among his clients, and tips to get your pushup in tip-top form.

1. Are you moving your neck instead of your body?

Sturniolo demonstrates common mistakes he sees, starting with the head bob.

Sturniolo calls this a head bob, and no, it does not count. Fix: Keep your chin tucked, align your ears with your shoulders, and bend at the elbows. Fix your eyes ahead to keep the neck in proper position.

2. Do you know what internal rotation is?

Internal rotation—or turning your extremities in towards the center of your body—puts the majority of the work on your upper back, which can lead to rounded shoulders. You want to use joint mechanics to your advantage, says Sturniolo. Fix: Line your elbow with the center of your wrist, and the wrist with the center of your hand. “The closer you keep things to the center of your body, the more power you have,” says Sturniolo.

3. Which direction do your hands point?

Turning your hands inward puts pressure on your knuckles and fingers and forces your elbows outward. You should be able to press through the heel of your hand, says Sturniolo. Fix: Point your middle fingers toward 11 and 1 o’clock.

4. Does your pushup resemble an upward dog?

Letting the hips fall into a concave position is a dead giveaway that your core needs help. Fix: Tighten glutes and abs to keep the hips stable and in line from head to toe.

5. Are you shoulders up by your ears?

(Left) T-shape; (right) Arrow shape

You should be able to lock the muscles around the shoulder (including your larger back muscle and shoulder blade) to pull yourself toward the ground, rather than resisting gravity. “The more muscles you can engage in your body, the more stable you’re going to be,” says Sturniolo. Fix: Lower your hands in front of your chest, keeping them shoulder-width apart (so that your body resembles an arrow shape). Avoid creating the T-shape caused by keeping your hands spread out by your shoulders.

6. How low can you go?

All of the above will cause an incomplete pushup (a.k.a., a partial rep) because of the stress on your joints. But even after you’ve mastered the positioning, you need to lower yourself correctly (or else it still doesn’t count as a full rep). “You should be able to touch your sternum to the ground and get back up,” says Sturniolo.

Want to perfect your pushup?

Sturniolo suggests starting with a standing pushup (angled against a tabletop or wall) to perfect the movement. When you’ve mastered the technique, move to the floor and try six sets or four, then five sets of five, then four sets of seven. Challenge yourself.