The push-up is one of my favorite exercises. It’s portable, equipment-free, and offers works your chest, shoulders, arms, back, and abs all in one simple movement. But there was a time when just a few reps left my shoulders and wrists aching. It took me awhile to figure out why—and what to do about it so I could keep doing the classic move that I love.
Turns out, shoulder and wrist pain during push-ups have different causes and, therefore, different solutions. Here's what's likely causing your discomfort, and some exercises that can help prevent it from happening in the future.
While wrist pain signals a lack of mobility (more on this later), shoulder pain signals a larger issue: bad form.
“People make the shoulders bear too much of a burden,” Doug Kechijian, D.P.T., of Resilient Performance Physical Therapy in New York, tells SELF. “Push-ups should be regarded as a total-body exercise, not a chest or shoulder exercise.” While the pushing motion is initiated primarily by the chest, shoulders, and triceps, your entire body has to remain stable as it moves up and down. This means your core has to work overtime to keep everything aligned throughout the motion.
But according to Albert Matheny, M.S., R.D., C.S.C.S., co-founder of SoHo Strength Lab in New York City and advisor to Promix Nutrition, most people lack the overall strength and core control to do a proper push-up, and many try to fake their way through it. When you try to complete an exercise without the strength and control needed, your joints and ligaments take on the brunt of the work. “If you don’t have the muscular strength to perform the motion, your body’s default is to still move in a pattern that allows the action to occur,” Matheny explains, “even if you’re putting your joints in a compromised position.”
Many people cheat their way through a full push-up by straining their neck forward to try to reach their face to the ground, and simultaneously rotate their shoulders inward. This creates an angle that loads the shoulders with a lot of stress, Matheny says. Over time, all that stress catches up to you, leaving the front of your shoulder joints twinging with every rep.
According to Kechijian, experiencing shoulder pain during push-ups doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve caused damage. “It could just be a warning sign,” he says. “It’s kind of like your body’s way of saying, ‘Hey chill out. Don’t do as many of these, or do it in a different way.’”
To avoid shoulder pain, you need to spend time building up a great base of strength before hammering out full push-ups. And when creating a strong foundation, the principle of specificity, or the idea that your body adapts to the specific demands that are placed on it, applies. In other words, “If you want to do a push-up, do things that are similar to a push-up,” Matheny says. Or, modify the push-up to make it more manageable. Here are a few options:
- Start at the top of a push-up position with your hands underneath your shoulders.
- Keep your back flat and your body in a straight line.
- Keep your core engaged to maintain a straight torso and hold for as long as you’re able to maintain proper form.
- If you get wrist pain with the hand plank, perform a plank while holding onto a pair of dumbbells. Or, elevate your hands on a bench or box.
- Place your hands on a box, bench, or step.
- Step your legs out so your body is at an angle where you can comfortably perform a push-up.
- Keeping your body in one long line, bend your arms and lower yourself as close to the floor as you can.
- Don’t let your hips or upper back sag, and make sure to keep your elbows close to your torso throughout the movement.
- Push back up to start.
If wrist pain is keeping you from nailing a full push-up, mobility could be your issue.
Push-ups—and planks for that matter—pull the hand back, extending the wrist at to the end of its range of motion, says Kechijian. If you lack wrist mobility, that extension can be more painful for you, even if you're doing the moves right.
A short-term fix is to perform push-ups with closed fists or on parallel bars.
- Start in a high plank position with your hands in fists, about shoulder-width apart, wrists under shoulders.
- Keeping your body in one long line, bend your arms and lower yourself as close to the floor as you can. Your elbows should be at about a 45-degree angle to your torso.
- Push back up to start.
Long-term, you’ll want to improve your wrist mobility so that extension is no longer painful, says Kechijian.
The best way to accomplish this is to put pressure on the wrists in a similar, though less stressful, position as the push-up. To increase wrist mobility, perform this drill before every workout:
Quadruped Wrist Extension and Flexion Stretch
- Start on all fours, with your shoulders over your hands.
- With your palms flat on the floor, pivot your hips in small circles around your hands.
- Spend 1 to 2 minutes loosening up your wrists.
- While in the same position, flip your palms up and rock back and forth in your hips for another 1 to 2 minutes.
- Increase the size of the circle as your mobility improves.
It’s worth noting that even if you have great wrist mobility, you can experience pain if you try to do too much too soon. Kechijian compares it to increasing your running mileage: “Even if you run with good form, if you went from zero running to running 80 miles in a week, something is probably going to hurt,” he says. Ease into push-ups and back off a bit if the mobility drill doesn’t resolve your wrist pain. If pain still persists, it might be worth seeing a physical therapist to see what's up.
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