Proper Pushup Mechanics for Shoulder Health with Greg Carver
Greg Carver
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Upper Body
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Proper Pushup Mechanics for Shoulder Health with Greg Carver

Pushups are a staple of bodyweight strength and fitness. A military favorite, they can be done by anyone with proper scaling and instruction, and can be performed almost anywhere.

As with any bodyweight exercise, having proper mechanics is important. Pushups can strain the shoulders if not done correctly, leading to problems further down the road. Wrist strain and elbow pain are other common complaints, especially when you are doing high rep ranges.

Here are some tips that can help:

When you are in the plank or support position, keep the weight near the base of your palms and slightly towards the outsides of your hands. Your grip should be shoulder-width and your shoulders should be aligned over your knuckles.

Keep Your Shoulders Down

Depress and slightly retract your shoulders. Force your chest out, pinch your shoulder blades together and push your shoulders down away from your ears and towards your feet. 

With your palms on the floor, slightly rotate your upper arms so that your elbows point behind you and your “elbow pits” face forwards. This action recruits the lats and packs the scapula -- all of which help take pressure off the shoulders.

Actively pull yourself down from the support position by engaging the lats. Engaging the antagonist muscles of the lats and rear deltoids will help you get a stretch reflex at the bottom of the pushup. Be sure not to exert yourself too much on the negative; you want the muscles turned on but not fully working. The trick is to keep the right muscles engaged and active so you can take advantage of the elastic rebound at the bottom, all while protecting your shoulder girdle.

Tighten Your Core and Flatten Your Back

Ensure that your glutes are engaged and that your butt is slightly tucked under (posterior pelvic tilt). This will keep your lower back safe and make your pushups look tight. Resist the urge to sag when you fatigue, and keep your head neutral with your spine.

If you experience wrist strain, the use of a Lebert EQualizer bar will help as it acts as a set of pushup handles that automatically put your wrists in an ideal neutral (straight) position. This should alleviate any stress or pain. Alternatively, you can use a pair of hex dumbbells on the floor, or even try doing them from your fists (prizefighters are noted for training this way to improve punching power).

Synchronize Your Breathing

Use one breath per rep, inhaling on the negative and exhaling as you press back up into the support position. It helps to visualize your breath going into your shoulders, pecs and arms; do not underestimate the power of visualization and your breathing as it relates to performance.

Optimize Your Pushup Position with an EQualizer Bar

If you use a set of Lebert EQualizer bars as handles for your pushups, you’ll find that your shoulder mechanics are easily optimized. Your palms will automatically be in the neutral position (palms facing each other) which in turn facilitates better external rotation, depression of the shoulders and scapular retraction. Activate your lats, pull yourself down, get that stretch rebound at the bottom and press your way back into the support position.

Watch your depth when doing pushups on the EQualizers. While it’s true that you can do deeper into the pushup with your hands slightly elevated, you’ll want to ensure your mechanics are good throughout the entire range of motion. If your triceps go much below the plane of your torso, you run the risk of stretching your shoulder capsule and that could lead to discomfort or injury down the road. Make sure you’re working within your own capabilities and limitations.

Pushups can be trained regularly and should be a staple of your fitness routine. If you’re doing high repetitions, be sure to back off every now and then and substitute low-rep strength work as an alternative. That will help protect your shoulders and elbows from overuse injuries and will get your muscles used to a specific adaptation before you shock them with a new training protocol for a fresh stimulus.

Let’s hit the deck!

Greg Carver