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pushups are killing your gains, don't make this push up mistake

how important is correct form for pushups?

Ok, I know what you’re thinking. You thought I actually LIKED push-ups as an exercise!


But, there’s one thing that 90% of people mess up with push-up form and it’s a big negative game changer.

The sad truth is, every day hundreds of thousands of push-ups are done in gyms everywhere, and unfortunately many of those reps are wasted. As a physical therapist and strength coach, it hurts to see it.

Even I have been guilty of making this same mistake, but when I forced myself to break this bad habit, the results I got were so much better!

Every day hundreds of thousands of push-ups are done in gyms everywhere, and unfortunately many of those reps are wasted.

I’m going to show you the biggest mistake people make when performing standard pushups and how you can easily and instantly fix it for better results.

This may feel like a punch right between the eyes, but it’s a good thing, because it will force you to get honest about the way you’re doing the exercises you’re doing. AND start getting more out of them!

So we’re on the same page when we’re talking about push-ups, below is an image of which muscles this exercise is responsible for targeting.

pushups muscles worked anatomy including pectoralis major, triceps brachii and anterior deltoid

what is proper pushup form?

Do me a favor and check out the clip below of me doing a regular pushup. 

There’s something I’m doing here that’s not in line with proper push-up form, and it’s holding me back from the potential benefit that I should see from this exercise.

Can you spot what it is?

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can you tell what mistake i'm making in the pushup?
Can you spot the pushup mistake I’m making?

Now, the next question I would ask you is: how many pushups can you do?

If you have an answer to that question, it’s another indicator that you’re likely making the same mistake I’m referring to. If you are, that could be killing your gains in the pushup and in many other exercises!

The pushup is one of those number-based exercises.  Everyone wants to talk about the number of reps they can do.

We tend to miss the fact that this can be a quality exercise if quality reps are performed, and that the number of reps we can do is unimportant.

That’s the mindset I want you to get to.

When most people perform push-ups, they set a target number in their heads or at the very least, concentrate on counting the reps as they perform them.  Unlike most other exercises, pushups become one that has the counting of the reps as the major motivator. Some people believe that more of them you do the more you get out of the exercise.

But that couldn’t be further from the truth!

Let’s take another look at the pushup I was doing.

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this is the wrong way to do pushups

A lot of you might be thinking, “That doesn’t look so bad. Maybe he’s doing them a little too fast.”

I can tell you that the mechanics of the pushup are being done with correct form. I’m starting out in proper push-up position. My hands are wider than shoulderwidth apart and feet shoulderwidth apart. My body is in a strict plank position in a straight line from the head down, with core tight.

However, there is one mistake I’m making here that is keeping this from being perfect push up form. What I’m actually doing here is shortening the range of motion at the bottom of the movement. I’m shortening it by an inch or two!

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here I am shortening the range of motion of the pushup by not going low enough
You can see that I was shortening the range of motion by a couple of inches at the bottom of the movement.

I’m also shortening the range of motion at the top of the movement.

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here I am shortening the range of motion on the pushup by not going high enough
I was also shortening range of motion by a couple of inches at the top of the movement.

When we’re busy trying too hard to move quickly and make our numbers go up, the range of motion used on the basic pushup exercise becomes shorter and shorter.  Even if the range of motion is shortened by just an inch or two at the top and bottom of the pushup, the impact this has on the effectiveness of the exercise is significant.  You can be doing everything else right in the starting position of your upper body, engaging your core muscles, and even performing slow deliberate reps. But if you’re not paying attention to proper range of motion and are worried about counting reps instead, you’re just not going to get the most out of standard pushups.

So what is the correct range of motion to get the most out of the pushup?

Even if the range of motion is shortened by just an inch or two at the top and bottom of the pushup, the impact this has on the effectiveness of the exercise is significant.

At the bottom part of the range of motion of these standard push-ups, I want to bring my chest to touch the floor without disengaging.  I do need to make contact with the floor.

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chest touching the floor is the correct bottom position for the pushup
The chest touching the floor is the correct position for the bottom part of the pushup movement.

When I come back up to the top it’s important to come to full lockout of the elbows.

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full lockout of the elbows is the correct top position for the pushup
Full lockout of the elbows is the correct position for the top part of the pushup.

The correct motion is down, touch the floor, up, full lockout. The cadence should be slower than what you’re probably used to doing. Slowly lower your body down, keeping your core and glutes engaged.

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this is the correct complete range of motion for pushups
This is an example of complete range of motion for the pushup and the correct cadence.

When we do pushups with a complete range of motion and perfect pushup form, automatically this exercise becomes a whole lot harder. That’s a good thing because I don’t care about the number of reps you can do.

I’m not interested in how high you can count.

What I am interested in is making the reps you do, count! That means doing them slowly, with a complete range of motion and proper pushup form. Doing them this way makes them one of the best strength building exercises around!


A lot of you may think I’m exaggerating the importance of those couple of inches. 

“How can that be so significant?  That’s just Jeff being Jeff.  He’s always about the detail.”

But the details do matter.

And when it comes to proper push-up form, the devil is in the details!

Not sure you believe me?  Fair enough.  Try it out for yourself.

Do some of the pushups I just put on display for you with perfect form, and do a nice steady cadence from the first rep to the last. Touch your chest firmly to the floor (without letting go of the tension completely) and come back up to the top into full elbow lockout extension. The second you notice a decrease in rep velocity it ends your set, as if you couldn’t complete the rep at all.

Do them like this and you’ll prove to yourself that they’re a lot harder and a lot more effective this way.  Because your chest muscles are going to feel the difference. And that number you had in your head before of how many pushups you can do is going to drop by about 60%.

I’m not kidding.


Because those extra two inches matter that much.

The proof this works is in the pudding, which is exactly why there is such a significant to the drop off in ‘performance’ when you perform your reps this way!

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performing pushups correctly will decrease the number you can do but make them more effective

If you think this is an isolated incident, it’s not.

Look at the pullup.

How many of us don’t go all the way down when we do pullups?

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many people don't extend all the way down when doing pullups
Most people don’t go all the way down when they do their pullups. Instead they leave a slight bend in the elbow.

It might look small, but when you slightly bend your elbows and lower the rest of your body down, it’s preventing you from having to employ a lot more work and effort to get up to the next rep.

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this slight bend in the elbows on the pushup makes them less effective
This slight bend in the elbow at the bottom point of the pullup makes the exercise much easier to do than lowering down completely.

As soon as I disengage the lats and let the elbows go fully straight, the likelihood that I’m going to get up for another rep has just been dramatically decreased.

It becomes a lot harder.

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doing pullups with the elbows straight is a lot more difficult
Doing the pullup with the elbows completely straight at the bottom of point of the movement makes it significantly more difficult to push out the next rep.

Why do you think our bodies naturally want to prevent us from going into full extension? They know it’s a lot harder.

The same thing happens with a squat. It’s just a matter of two inches, but they make a huge difference. You can approach parallel, or you can break parallel.

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squatting close to parallel is easier but less effective
Squatting close to parallel is much easier than going beyond parallel, but you don’t get as much benefit from it.

Going beyond parallel requires much more effort than getting to parallel.

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squatting at parallel is harder but more effective
Breaking parallel in the squat is much more of a challenge and works the muscles more than stopping short of parallel.

The pushup can be a great exercise for developing the chest, triceps and shoulders.  You’ll get much more out of it in a shorter period of time if you trade in chasing reps for some intensity.  I saw a humbling drop from about 100 reps of pushups to 40 just by implementing the changes I showed you here, but I’ve become a lot stronger for it!

As you can see, even with the most basic of exercises, each and every rep is important. It’s not about how many reps you’re doing but HOW you’re doing them. If you’re looking for a complete step by step program that focuses on the details when they matter, knowing how much faster you can see results when you do, then check out our ATHLEAN-X Training Programs.

Program Selector ==> See which program best fits your goals
AX1 ==> Train at Home With Dumbbells and Minimal Equipment
XERO ==> Train at Home With No Equipment


  1. Put simply, the standard pushup has the potential to be one of the best body weight upper body exercises for chest, shoulder, arms and even core strength!
  2. There is one big mistake that most people make with correct form of the pushup that is seriously limiting their gains in this exercise.
  3. Most people like to talk about and pay attention to how many basic pushups they can do, but it’s not the number of reps but the quality of the reps that determine whether you get benefit from this powerful body weight exercise.
  4. This focus on reps causes a lot of people to not complete the full range of motion at the bottom or top of each repetition, greatly limiting the work the upper body muscles have to do.
  5. The best way to do a proper push-up is by bringing your chest to the ground (without disengaging) and coming all the way up into elbow lockout at the top. You will see that this is significantly more difficult to do, and will cut the number of pushups you can perform by about 60%. However the gains you will see from doing pushups this way will be significant.
  6. There are many other exercises that this principle applies to including the pullup and the squat.
  7. Once you stop chasing reps and start using full range of motion for these exercises you’ll begin to really reap the benefits in strength.

Watch the YouTube version of this article
Jeff Cavaliere Headshot

Jeff Cavaliere M.S.P.T, CSCS

Jeff Cavaliere is a Physical Therapist, Strength Coach and creator of the ATHLEAN-X Training Programs and ATHLEAN-Rx Supplements. He has a Masters in Physical Therapy (MSPT) and has worked as Head Physical Therapist for the New York Mets, as well as training many elite professional athletes in Major League Baseball, NFL, MMA and professional wrestling. His programs produce “next level” achievements in muscle size, strength and performance for professional athletes and anyone looking to build a muscular athletic physique.

Read more about Jeff Cavaliere by clicking here

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