Doing "Real" Push-Ups Without Pain? Ask the Trainers!

Lots of people, women in particular, would like to work up to "real" full-body push ups. They're a great upper body workout, and wouldn't it be cool to one day have such awesome upper body strength you get compliments like "wow, check out those guns?"



Er... OK. A tad too literal?

Well, as long as we're trolling around in public domain images (and hoping that Wikipedia is correct in asserting that an image which is "a work of a U.S. military employee, taken or made as part of that person's official duties" is indeed in the public domain, because who wants to piss off gals with guns?) lets just go with a classic.


There, that's better.

Anyway, despite the awesomeness of push-ups, many folks seem to have wrist or shoulder or other bio-mechanical issues that make them problematic.

We, (and by "we" I mean the entire imaginary Cranky Fitness Editorial Staff), asked four knowledgeable personal trainers for their advice.

How to do push ups without pain?

They also coughed up instructional pictures and videos, hooray!

And of course the least-expert fitness blogger on the planet had to weigh in at the end too. Let's start with the smart advice, shall we?



Dave Smith:


[Dave Smith is a personal trainer who specializes in quick and effective body weight exercise routines that can be done anywhere, anytime - Check him out at MakeYourBodyWork.com]



I see this problem all the time - Thanks for raising it as a question! Push-ups are a fantastic exercise that can be great for body-weight strength training. However, the vast majority of people (yes, women in particular) have a difficult time performing push-ups safely. Here are two points to keep in mind when aiming to do "real" full-body push-ups:

1. Set Up For Success. At the bottom of a push-up your elbows should line up directly above your wrists (see the pictures below). This requires quite a wide starting position, often wider than most people would naturally choose. A wide start reduces wrist stress because it aligns the forearm as you deepen into the push-up. The bottom part of the push-up is where the most resistance occurs, so proper alignment at this point in the movement is most critical.

Proper Alignment = Easy on Wrists




Poor Alignment = More Wrist Stress





2. Be Honest With Yourself. I regularly see exercisers who think they can do push-ups from their toes when in actuality they are not quite strong enough. Drooping hips or a bobbing head (as shown in the picture below) indicate that a modification is likely needed.




A bobbing head may make it feel like you're going deeper in a push-up but it really just adds an unsafe curve in the spine. This form usually indicates lacking strength in the shoulders, chest, triceps, or core.

If someone is not able to do perfect push-ups from their toes then they shouldn't be doing them! It will only be a matter of time before they experience an injury, often in their shoulders or low back. Push-ups are easy to modify by doing them from the knees or by placing your hands on an elevated surface like a bench. Perfect a modified push-up and then start adding a few reps from your toes as your strength increases!


Taylor Ryan:

 [Taylor Ryan is a certified personal trainer and nutrition consultant; check out her personal blog Lifting Revolution for tips, recipes, workouts and more!]


Teaching boot camps, I see this as an issue on an almost daily basis. A lot of times, it is easier to start a new push-up(er) on an incline. Meaning their feet are on the ground but their hands on on a bench or something even higher (the wall). This helps to remove some of the pressure placed on the wrists but also helps them to understand a straight body form.

For many people just getting into push-ups, there is a tendency to lift the butt into the sky to create a “tent”, this is one of the main causes for added shoulder stress. So with the incline, people are able to focus on keeping the tush down.

Another trick to help wrist pressure is to strengthen the wrists. Just like you want strong ankles and knees for running, you want strong wrists for push-ups. Of course simply by doing them, the wrists will gradually get stronger but to help the process along, doing moves like holding light weights (1-3 pounders) in the hands and curling the wrists in and out (towards the body) helps a lot. Soup cans are great for this!

If shoulder pain is the problem, first off always make sure there is not an underlying issue by talking with a doctor. If everything is in the clear, then focus on push-up range of motion.

When going down, keep the shoulders over the wrists, not behind them as this causes added stress. Stop when the elbows are at 90-degrees or a little higher. 90-degrees is what you’re working for but as a beginner going a bit short is okay. Going beyond and you will likely feel it in the shoulders.

Moves like dumbbell bench press can also help strengthen the stabilizer muscles that are used during push-ups.

And last tip... keep your hands at shoulder width apart. Women have a tendency to open the hands up too wide which will place more stress on the shoulders and less on the chest (which is what the main muscle being worked should be).

I also have SEVERAL push-up videos on my youtube page which might help.


Chris Kelly:



[Chris Kelly is a fitness writer and personal training studio owner. He specializes in quick and effective workout routines to fit fitness/nutrition in to a busy schedule. Check out his blog at Peak Wellness online.]


Due to the increasingly sedentary nature of the American lifestyle, wrist and elbow issues are often times the product of too much computer time.

Wrist and elbow pain is something we almost universally see with new clients at our facility but while you may stretch/mobilize your hips, chest or shoulders when they are sore and tight when was the last time you did anything for the wrist and forearms? If your response is greeted by the sound of crickets in the background, chances are you need to re-evaluate this strategy.

Much like any other joint, the wrist falls victim to the same muscle imbalances and inflexibility as any other joint in the body and should be dealt with as such.

The first step in this equation is figuring out what motions are restricted in your wrist and performing the appropriate stretches and mobilizations to improve these limitations. I also recommend soft tissue work for the fore arms as well as the shoulder as these areas are directly connected and often associated with mutual dysfunction.


Here is a video of a fantastic wrist assessment and mobility suggestions to work on this area.


In terms of the push up, what we often find is a turning out of the hands as an indicator of a lack of wrist mobility. The issue here is that a normal push up requires a great deal of wrist extension as the trainee sinks to the bottom. If you lack this mobility, pain is the inevitable outcome.

Performing a push up with the hands on dumbbells or handles of some kind puts the wrist in a more neutral position and is good substitute for individuals limited in this area.


Adria Ali



[Adria is a personal trainer with 3 certifications and a Bachelors of Science in Kinesology. She's been training full time for over 12 years and running Fit Tip Daily.com for the last 5 years.

There are several things you can do to work your self up into a full push up. Bio mechanical issues usually stem from improper muscle balance. This is usually due to poor posture and repetitive movements.

For wrist issues, there are 2 things that can be done.

Use supportive weight lifting gloves with wrist straps

Use push up bars OR dumbbells (as push up bars). Of course these would be the hex dumbbells that won't roll away.

Shoulder issues usually arise when the muscles in the chest are overly tight and the rhomboids and lats are too weak to maintain proper posture. This creates rounded shoulders and a hunched over look.

In order to remedy this, you need to strengthen the back muscles and stretch the chest. Also try to practice proper posture through out the day.

My recommendation for strengthening the body (as a whole) in preparation for a full push up is working on the plank exercise. Holding the pose for as long as possible 3 times and doing this 3- 4 times a week. This will build up the abs, the tendons, and the muscles of the back and shoulders.

*Trainer Fitness Fact - The tendons of the joints MUST grown with the muscles. Injury happens when "Jane" the desk worker decides to go back to the gym after 10 years. She decides to do what she used to "back in the day." She attempts her usual exercises but injures herself. It's not that she couldn't lift the weight but rather that her joints / tendons were not conditioned to carry the load.


Push -up progression

Ball Push-up

Start with the ball high on the thighs and move it down 3 inches every week until you get to your ankles. Do 12- 15 reps 3 sets if possible.

You can also view an animated modified pushup.

Bar Push Up




And go here for an even more challenging push-up version!

Crabby McSlacker




I remember years ago the frustration and ego-deflation of having to resort to the knees down "girls" push-up.

I was too young to actually injure myself doing full-body push-ups, but had I been middle-aged when I used my dumb-ass approach of leaping to "guys" push-ups and soon as possible using horrible form just to assuage my ego-driven desire to get off my knees, I'm sure I'd be nursing yet another chronic injury.

Not that I'm particularly careful about form now, either.  But YOU should be because I'm an idiot.

Anyway, so I totally agree with the trainers above that (1) it's best to pay attention to form and work up gradually to full body push-us; and that (2) there are other modifications that do not require the knees-down position, for those of us who find that weirdly humiliating.

What do you all think of push-ups as an upper body strength move?

Photo: Gals with guns

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