Troubleshooting the push-up part 1: the core

The push-up is one of those quintessential exercises that has probably been around since we humans had enough leisure time (or military need) to play around with strength training. 

A good push up will develop upper body pushing strength, core strength, and improve posture.  Done well, the movement  develops tone in the shoulders, chest, arms, abs and glutes.  

It is highly portable, effective, scalable and yields terrific results when practiced appropriately.  It is also an exercise that is often performed in a way that fails to maximize the benefit of the movement to the whole body.  

Let’s take a look at what a solid push up consists of, and then work out some of the typical “kinks”.  

Here’s an example of a good push up from a side view: 


As we see here,  Marcela starts the movement from a familiar position: the plank.  In this case, she’s on her hands, rather than her forearms, but all the same rules apply.  Check out our post on the plank to take a deeper dive into that exercise and the impact on safety and effectiveness of maintaining a neutral spine throughout the movement. 

From the push-up position plank, Marcela does a great job of “winding up tension” in her shoulders, torso and legs before the descent phase of the motion.  

Throughout the push up she maintains the following: 

  • a neutral spine and good posture
    • spine is neutral 
    • hips are in line with ankles, knees, shoulders and ears
  • an appropriate distance between her ears and shoulders
    • shoulders stay down and away from ears
  • an appropriate distance between her upper arm and torso
    • elbows are 20° – 45° away from body
  • a nearly vertical forearm
    • forearm moves very little during the push up and stays nearly vertical throughout

So, let’s take a look at some of the common movement “errors” are in the push up, starting with the most common.  These errors roughly fit into two categories: 

  • spinal faults
  • arm position faults

Lets dive into the spinal faults first: 

The core “sags”:

In this case, you’ll see the spine “arching” or sagging throughout the push up.  This is a result of a lack of engagement of the anterior core (a.k.a. the abs!) or a failure to set up in a neutral spine from the beginning of the movement.

At best, this version of a push-up leaves us getting less of a return on the abdominal development.  At worst, it will place unnecessary strain on the back, and spine itself.  

Head moves farther than the body:

This is one of the most common push up “errors” we trainers see.  As is easy to see above, this version of the push up shows the head moving farther than the rest of the body.  The head and neck are, in fact, part of the spinal column, and as such, should remain in a generally straight line throughout the movement. 

When we see this variation, we know that the core isn’t doing the work it should as a single solid unit.  You may also notice, that the depth of the push up is much less in this variation.  The head moving so far forward actually prevents one from descending fully.  

This variation places undue stress on the neck, upper back and arms.  It leaves the abs, back and chest under-recruited (and thus underdeveloped!) 

Hips too high in the push up:

This variation on the push up places more emphasis on the arms than the shoulders, chest and core.  Importantly, this variation often happens when there is not enough stability generated by the “lower core”: the lower abs, pelvic floor and glutes.  The correction is relatively easy and simply requires a better set up position when starting the movement and more tension in the abs and glutes during the push-up. 

Correcting these three “faults”

Correcting these three “faults” often requires repositioning during the setup and practice keeping the head in line with the rest of the body.  We trainers often use a PVC pipe or dowel along the back like we use in the deadlift post to help our students (or ourselves!) maintain a neutral spine.

Those are the three most common variations on the push-up that involve leaving the “core” under developed. 

Appropriately performed, the push-up is an outstanding total body, muscle toning exercise that can be done just about anywhere.  Follow the guidelines laid out in this and part two of the push up series and you’ll be on your way to getting the most out of a classic strength movement!

If you’re curious to try it, but don’t have a workout buddy, we’d love for you to send us a video of yourself doing a pushup. We’d be happy take a look and let you know if you’re on the right track!

~Mark Reinke

They’ve given me the title Personal Training Director, but I really just love to help acac members and give my team the tools they need to do the same.  I graduated with a B.S. in Human Physiology and Biology from the University of Oregon and M.A. from Willamette University. I have over 15 years experience personal training and have also taught anatomy, physiology and biology. I love spending time outdoors and growing, cooking and eating great food.  Learn more about me and read more of my blogs on our website


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About Mark

I am a busy guy; husband, father, coach, mentor, gardener, outdoors man and cook are the primary hats I wear. To be the best of these I can be, I stay physically prepared for all those pursuits, and feed myself in a way that allows me to keep up the pace. I can help you to take the next manageable step in fitness and wellness to get you closer to your ideal self.