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Bend your elbows properly to avoid pain in the shoulder.
Adam Gault/Digital Vision/Getty Images
The pushup seems easy enough - after all you've been doing them since P.E. in grade school. Poor form, though, could undermine the pushups' potential to improve your body and strength. When you lower your body toward the floor with flared elbows, you risk injury to your shoulder's rotator cuff. Examine the position of your arms during the pushup and make changes to the angle of your elbow to ensure the exercise is effective and safe.
Use proper pushup form, angling your elbows 45 degrees from your trunk, to protect your shoulders from injury.
Use Proper Form
You may naturally point your elbows directly out to the sides of the room during the pushup, but this puts undue stress on the shoulders. To do a pushup properly, get into a plank position - balanced on your toes and hands, with your hands just slightly wider than your shoulders. Bend your elbows slightly toward the side and back of the room - so they make a 45-degree angle with your trunk - to lower your torso toward the floor. Extend the elbows to return to the starting position. Keep your abdominal muscles engaged and your torso rigid during the entire exercise.
Target Your Pecs
When you bend the elbows at a 45-degree angle, the pushup's ability to target the pectoralis major - the large fan-like muscle of the chest - diminishes slightly. To ensure you fatigue the chest, do three to five sets of pushups to failure with short 20 second rests between each set. Proper elbow position ensures you still engage the triceps, fronts of the shoulders and core as stabilizers.
Work the Triceps
An alternative pushup variation has you place the hands directly under the shoulders with the fingers facing foward. When you bend your elbows, keep them hugged in toward your ribs, rather than flared out 45 degrees. This puts more emphasis on the triceps at the back of the upper arm and can further reduce stress on the shoulders.
Consider Your Wrists
Properly positioning your elbows during a pushup alleviates shoulder pain, but it doesn't help with wrist pain. If you do find your wrists hurt too much to permit you to crank out even a few pushups, try using your fists, rather than your palms, as a base. This modification may take some getting used to - especially for tender fingers. You may also place your hands on weights or pushup handles or bars which neutralizes the bend at the wrist joint and may make the move more accessible to you.