How To Modify Push-Ups To Prevent Injury and Build Strength

Push-ups are the nemesis of many who pursue fitness.  Whenever I’m teaching a class and announce that it’s time for push-ups, there’s usually an array of various groans from around the room due to people not really wanting to do them.  The reason a lot of people don’t want to do push-ups is because, well, they are hard to perform with great form, especially if you are a beginner with fitness.  Heck, even people who consider themselves very fit can perform push-ups totally wrong.  I’ll see it all the time at the gym.  Guys who lift heavy weights will drop down for push-ups, only to move at lightning fast speed while making grunting noises, and letting their head hang too low while their arms aren’t properly aligned with their body.  In my classes I see a lot of “belly flop” push-ups getting performed.  I’m here today to break down the push-up and offer you modifications for helping make yours better and more effective (and safe!).

A push-up is not something that needs to be performed on your toes.  If you ARE going to perform them on your toes, however, make sure that your plank pose is stellar.  If you can’t hold plank, you shouldn’t be attempting a push-up from your toes, because your core strength isn’t strong enough yet to support it.  Below is an example of what your push-up should look like from the starting point.  The hands are aligned directly below the shoulders (you can make your hands wide, standard, or narrow… just make sure the wrists are still aligned under your shoulders from the side view as shown), your fingers are spread wide and gripping the floor (because if you let your hands relax then guess what gets the brunt of your weight?  Your wrists!  Ouch!), you are drawing your core muscles in and keeping them tight to protect your back, your heels are driving back, and you are gazing your eyes out about a foot in front of your finger tips on the floor.


(I can’t do anything without my cat trying to get in on the action!)

As you lower into your push-up, the only things that should be moving are your elbows, shoulders and shoulder blades.  Everything else is still a solid plank!  The chest should stop about a foot from the floor (basically, when your elbows hit a 90 degree angle) and be aligned over approx. your thumb.

There are many ways I see people positioning themselves for a push-up that make my back hurt!  Below are a few examples of what your body should NOT look like when attempting a push-up.  If you find your body going into this position in plank, or during any of the down/up phase of the push-up, I want you to suck it up and modify your push-ups using one of the ways I’m going to show you.

DON’T… Let your core muscles loose allowing your belly to flop (putting a lot of pressure on your lower back), or let your head hang low (pulling on your neck)…


DONT… Let your head hang low (putting strain on your neck) even if your core is tightened…


DON’T… Let your booty sit up high, when you do this you aren’t going to learn how to properly engage your core muscles…


DON’T… have your hands way out in front of your shoulders.  This could cause potential strain on your shoulder joints.


Now, a couple of those can likely be adjusted as long as your core is strong.  If you have the core strength but are lacking with arm and neck alignment, try working those from a standard push-up and correct your form.  Use a mirror.  However, if you find yourself belly flopping or lifting your booty up in the air, methinks you should highly consider modifying.  Remember, modifying is nothing to be ashamed of.   Modifications are SMART to use, especially if you want to build your strength and avoid adopting bad habits that could eventually lead to injury.

Here are progressive ways you can build your way up to being able to perform a full push-up from your toes.


If you are a beginner with exercise, and your arms and core are still working on building strength, you may want to consider starting with wall push-ups.


Once you’ve graduated from wall push-ups, the next thing to do is to do push-ups off a counter top.  By putting your body at more of an angle, you will be forced to use your core muscles more.  Just remember, no belly flopping!  Keep those core muscles tight to avoid any arching in the lower back that could cause strain.


Once you have counter top push-ups down, move to beginner knee push-ups.  Even though you have your knees and hips bent to a 90 degree angle, you still need to engage your core muscles so that you don’t over arch in to your lower back.  Make sure, when doing this type of push-up, to put as much of your body weight as possible forward into your arms so that you work on building the strength to progress.


This is the last step before moving to push-ups on your toes.  For this version, you move your knees farther back so that you are forced to use the core muscles more.  Even with this version, I see people belly flop a lot.  So, keep those core muscles tucked in and focus on leading that chest down and up while keeping your abs firm!  You can do it!  Once you are able to do 20 reps like this, try doing a couple on your toes and build your way up! 🙂


I hope that, with practice, you’ll learn to become a push-up lover and will start to feel the benefits in your chest, back, arms and core! 🙂

  • Find Melanie Online

  • Recent Posts

  • Recommended Links

  • 645 Available Now!

  • Save an additional $20 off packages in October!

    Challenge Pack with Shakeology

    Challenge Pack with Beachbody Performance

  • Frollie’s Fitness Follies

  • Follow Frollie, the calico colored Panda, on his journey to lose weight and get healthy in this adorable web comic!