Don’t Let Push-Ups Wreck Your Shoulders

Perpetuated by P.E. coaches, bootcamp instructors, personal trainers, and semi-fit college roommates…

the push-up is a key culprit that’s destroying shoulders.

Which is unfortunate because the exercise is awesome! It targets the arms, chest, back, and core, all with zero equipment needed. No one should ever head to the beach without a few sets.

But the problem with the push-up is that it gets no respect! Form is too often neglected for the sake of more reps. Or it’s assumed that basic bodyweight exercises are a god-given right—and don’t need modifications or any amount of prerequisite strength.

But this mindset hinders results and sets the shoulder up for injury.

It’s time to “Make push-ups great again.”

Start Position

Every push-up article ever written will say the head, back, hips, and heels should align— don’t lift or sag the hips.

This is very true, but “core strength” is not always the problem. While the core muscles do support the back alignment… Shoulder stability is more often a bigger part of the problem!

Because even the strongest table top, needs sturdy legs to support it, or else it is still a junky table.

To create shoulder stability protract the scapula! This means driving the shoulder blades around the sides of your body.

Notice the saggy low back in this demo. Every coach and trainer in the world would scream about tightening the core. But the root of the issue is poor protraction:

Here the protracted scapula cleans up the alignment:

Try this out yourself by holding a plank on the hands and toes. Squeeze the shoulder blades back and together and notice what happens to the back. Now protract the shoulders and notice the immediate strength improvement.

Shoulder Position

It’s key to performance and shoulder health that the elbows stay tucked during the move. Fortunately, there is no shortage of stock photography of fitness models demoing this push up problem…

You can see from the photo above the elbows moving away from the body—this is bad!

First, think about giving someone a push like this, it’s assured that the opponent is not falling over.

But regardless of the ability to produce force, it puts the shoulder into impingement. This means the space in the shoulder narrows and compresses tissue. Add in a workouts worth of repetition and it’s a recipe for shoulder pain, and over the course of thousands of workouts it’s rotator cuff disaster.

The below picture is optimal.  Not flaring up, but not too close to the body either (this would limit the involvement of the bigger chest muscles).

(This is how far your arms should be from your body when performing push-ups.)

Vertical Forearm

I will share a strength secret… press with vertical forearms.

That goes for bench press, shoulder press, and all variations between; with dumbbells, barbells, or any other weight.

Keep the weight stacked over the elbow, this optimizes mechanics for a stronger press.

This is the same for push-ups. Putting the hands too narrow or too wide, will impact strength and proper mechanics. So find a hand position in which the forearm stays almost completely vertical to the floor.

Depth

A perfect push-up should touch the chest to the floor. A half rep push-up not only limits training results, but it’s not great for shoulder health either.

Bad shoulder position or hand position (discussed above), is one reason for partial reps. For example, imagine the shoulder contortion needed to go any lower in the push-up pictured below?

Otherwise, strength is the primary factor limiting the depth of push-ups.

I understand that everyone has to start somewhere! But doing only half reps never progresses to full reps (which we will have a solution for shortly).

And partial rep are also hard on the shoulders!

First of all, stopping the body halfway down, and then reversing direction causes a lot of shoulder strain. Think of the force needed to stop a rolling car and then push it the other direction.

By doing a full rep push-up there is a barrier to help stop your forward momentum. And then reorganize to push the other way. I’m not saying it’s an easier rep, but there is less stress on the supporting tendons.

There is also no strength limiter on one’s ability to bang out partial rep push-ups. Check out Michelle Obama and Ellen bang out some partial rep push-ups…

If the only push-up rule is bend the elbows, both Michelle and Ellen would continue to rep out their “push-ups” by shortening their range of motion.

Therein lies the problem…

By “cheating” movements, it’s easy to add a ton of volume on top of already weak mechanics. Thus the motivation to do more reps, rather than better reps, is usually what results in pain and injury.

Better Push-Up Plan

Here is a plan to build better push-ups. This means doing better push-ups, even if that starts with 1 rep and using modifications.

1. Start by working on the plank position. On the hands and toes, shoulders protracted, with the glutes, core, and shoulders tight.

2. The next step is a modified push-up. There are 2 ways to do this:

Elevating the torso decreases the strength required to complete the rep. As strength progresses, lower the angle for more difficulty.

Or without an incline, press up from the knees. But then lift to a full plank (on toes) and lower on the hands and toes.

3. Now it’s time for the real deal. Lower the chest all the way to the deck. Take a second, brace the abs, tighten the hips, and then drive the floor away to the perfect plank that started the movement

4. Once you’ve got full push-ups, start building them with time rather than reps. A conversion of 2 seconds for every 1 rep is reasonable.

Example: A workout class or program has 25 reps prescribed (but you’ve only got 5 good full depth reps). Rather than doing 25 half reps, convert the reps to 50 seconds, and work for that long. Rest as needed between reps to make each one good. As strength progresses, more reps will get done in the time you’ve got.

Following these guidelines, will save your shoulders from crappy push-ups, and do much more to make you strong.

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