Troubleshooting the push up part 2: arm position

Push-ups can be one of the most effective exercises around to help “tighten up” the back of the upper arms, and the back of the armpit area.  This is one of the often cited areas that people want to improve muscle tone in by strength training.  In order to get the most out of the push-up for this area, as well as improve the safety of the exercise, proper positioning of the shoulders and arms is critical.

As mentioned in part one of troubleshooting the push-up, here’s what we look for as far as alignment is concerned: 

  • 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

In part one, we covered the areas concerning postural alignment and activation of the core musculature.  Here, we’ll cover the details of shoulder and arm position. 

The position of the upper limbs during the push-up can make a big difference in what part(s) of the body get the most development.  Appropriate positioning also helps to enhance the safety of the exercise for the neck, shoulders, elbows and wrists. 

Let’s have a look at shoulder and arm position during the push-up:

Here is an example of maintaining safe and effective position with the upper limbs during the movement:

It should be clear to see that the shoulders stay in place during the movement; down and away from the ears.  The forearms stay nearly vertical and the upper arms make an “arrow” shape with respect to the torso.



Keeping the upper arm at a small angle away from the torso helps to assure that the contribution from the chest, shoulders, back and core are maximized while the stress on the neck, wrists and elbows is minimized.   

Here’s a “fault” of arm position we often see which leaves a disproportionate amount of work to the arms themselves.

 It shows the elbows too wide in the push-up

With the arms out at a 90° angle from the body, the stress on the arms may be maximized, but far fewer reps will be possible (at least in the long run) and the position can cause undue stress on the wrists and shoulders. 

How to clean up the elbows too wide push up

Often, when we see this variation of the exercise, we cue the student to “corkscrew their arms into the floor” during the setup.  This rotational tension helps to keep the shoulder in the safest position possible, and maximizes the contribution from the core and back.  

We’ll also often have a student practice the movement while facing a mirror to see and feel where their upper arms are during the movement. 

Here’s another common fault we see in the push-up; shoulders get closer to the ears during the descent. 

The shoulders “shrug” during the push-up

Often, it is the result of over-recruitment of the arms and “traps” (the upper back muscles between your neck and shoulders) and under-recruitment of the bigger muscles of the trunk (abs, lats and other core muscles).  

How to clean up the shoulder shrug:

When we fitness professionals see the shoulders shrugging, we cue the student to “pull the shoulders down and back” throughout the push up.  Often, we use “tactile” cues (tapping or “drawing” on parts of the body to encourage muscle activation) to help the student get the “feel” of different patterning.   This helps maximize the beneficial effects of the push up and prevent excessive strain on the neck.  

 Often, we’ll move to an incline push up (doing the push-up on a box or elevated bar) to practice “patterning” the movement before returning to the floor.  

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 one of the push up series and you’ll be on your way to getting the most out of a classic strength movement!

We’d love for you to send us a video of yourself doing a pushup so we can 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.