Push-ups can be bad for your rotator cuffs if you do them with poor form or if you have a pre-existing shoulder condition. However, when performed correctly, push-ups can help strengthen the muscles around the shoulder joint, including the rotator cuffs. By placing your hands in line with your shoulders during push-ups (rather than using a narrow or wide grip), you’ll reduce the risk of rotator cuff injury. It’s also essential to prevent your shoulders from flaring outward, resist the urge to shrug your shoulders, and maintain a straight spine throughout the push-up motion.
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How Do Push-Ups Affect Your Shoulders?
Push-ups recruit the anterior deltoid muscles of the shoulder. These are the muscles on the front of your shoulder. Developing these large shoulder muscles helps to stabilize your shoulder joint and prevent rotator cuff injury. So, proper push-ups actually increase rotator cuff health.
- Proper push-ups build strength and muscle in your anterior deltoids.
- Stronger shoulders from push-ups help you resist rotator cuff injury.
- Make sure to build the muscles in the sides and rear of your shoulders to encourage overall shoulder health.
- Perform shoulder stretches after upper body workouts—flexible shoulders are less likely to be injured.
It’s important to note that push-ups aren’t the only tool that is great for preventing rotator cuff injuries. It’s essential to use other workouts to target your anterior deltoids, such as overhead press. It’s also very important to work the muscles on the sides of your shoulders (lateral deltoids) and the back of your shoulders (anterior deltoids). Lateral raises work the sides of your shoulders, while face pulls are great for building strong anterior delts.
5 Push-Up Mistakes That Can Injure Your Rotator Cuffs
There are a few mistakes people often make when doing push-ups that increase the risk of rotator cuff injury. Here are the most common errors and how to avoid them.
Incorrect Hand Placement
Although some push-up variations require you to place your hands very wide or close together, these hand placements put more stress on the shoulder joint and increase the risk of injury. The best way to start with push-ups is by placing your hands directly in line with your shoulders—not wider or narrower. Your hands should be positioned lower than shoulder height. Your fingertips should be level with the tops of your armpits. This way when you push up you won’t put unnecessary strain on your shoulder joint.
- To limit the risk of a shoulder injury, perform push-ups with your hands shoulder-width apart.
- Wide and narrow hand placement during push-ups puts angled stress on the shoulder joint, which can cause injury.
- As you build strength and familiarity with push-ups, you can experiment with different hand placements, if you want.
Wide-grip and close-grip push-up variations are not always harmful to your shoulders, but I typically only add them to workout routines for intermediate to advanced athletes. Shoulder-width hand placement is also the best way to avoid reaggravating shoulder injuries. So, if you’re a beginner or have a history of shoulder injury, stick to shoulder-width hand placement for now.
Allowing your elbows to flare outward during the upward motion of a push-up puts a lot of stress on your shoulder joints. Athletes who perform push-ups with their elbows flared to 90 degrees are much more likely to suffer a shoulder injury. Keep your elbows closer to your body. Practice push-ups with your elbows angled outward at a 45-degree angle.
- If your elbows move outward toward 90 degrees during push-ups, you may injure your rotator cuffs.
- Keep your elbows at a 45-degree angle throughout the push-up.
- Do not tuck your elbows too far in—this can also put strain on your shoulders and elbows.
Tucking your elbows too far inward also puts strain on your shoulders. So, make sure not to overcompensate by tucking your elbows to your sides. Remember a 45-degree angle outwards is great for shoulder health. It also promotes pectoral engagement to build a stronger chest.
Raising your shoulders towards your ears while doing push-ups can lead to shoulder pain and injury. During push-ups, focus on keeping your shoulders down and away from your ears. Instead of tensing your shoulders to complete the push-ups, concentrate on your chest muscles to power through the movement.
- Tensing your shoulders and pulling them upward transfers the stress of push-ups to your rotator cuff.
- Pull your shoulders down and back to prevent shoulder injury during push-ups.
- Flexing your elbows slightly towards your body during the push motion helps to keep your shoulders down.
If you’re having difficulty keeping your shoulders down, you can use my favorite push-up trick. As you push up, focus on pulling your elbows slightly inward. This not only helps me keep my elbows at 45 degrees, but it also prevents me from shrugging my shoulders.
Improper Head and Neck Position
Looking up or tucking your chin in while doing push-ups can strain your neck. This leads to tense shoulders and shoulder injury. Many of us learn to do push-ups with our eyes facing forward, but this form is a common cause of injury.
- Craning your head to look forward or toward your toes can cause shoulder injury.
- Focus on keeping your neck and spine in a straight line while doing push-ups.
- Your eyes should be focused on the floor during a proper push-up.
Throughout your push-up sets, keep your head and neck in a neutral position, in line with your spine. This is the same position your head and neck would be in if you were standing up and looking straight forward. It may seem strange to look at the floor while doing push-ups, but it will help prevent injury.
Lack of Core Engagement
A strong core helps maintain a stable push-up position. If your core is not working to keep your spine straight, it will throw off other elements of your form and put additional strain on your shoulder joints. If your back sags downward or arches upward, you’ll transfer unhealthy force to your rotator cuffs.
- Allowing your back to sag or arch during push-ups can transfer stress to your shoulder joint.
- Engage your core to maintain a straight back through each push-up rep.
- Do not allow your back to sag when you are in the downward motion of a push-up.
To prevent shoulder injury, engage your core during both the upward and downward motion of the push-up. This will help to maintain a straight back the entire time. If your back begins to arch or sag as you get deep into push-up sets, lower yourself until your chest touches the floor at the bottom of each push-up. Relax your core, breathe deep, then re-engage your core for the next rep. This will ensure proper form throughout your workout.
6 Quick Tips for Protecting Your Rotator Cuffs During Push-Ups
In addition to the common push-up mistakes and fixes we discussed above, there are a few more tips that can help you prevent shoulder injury when doing push-ups. They are:
- Before starting your push-ups, warm up your shoulder joints with some light mobility exercises.
- Practice your push-up form with the help of a personal trainer or instructional video.
- Have a friend or workout partner watch your form during push-ups—they may be able to spot flared elbows or an arched back.
- If you’re new to push-ups or recovering from an injury, start with modified versions, like wall push-ups or knee push-ups.
- If you feel pain or discomfort in your shoulders while doing push-ups, stop immediately and consult a healthcare professional.
- Stretch your shoulders after push-up workouts to improve mobility and prevent injury.
Proper push-ups almost never result in shoulder injury or chronic shoulder pain. However, if this does occur, speak to your doctor about a referral to a physical therapist. Not only can a physical therapist teach you stretches and exercises that alleviate pain, but they may also even be able to help you with your push-up mechanics.
Alternatives to Push-Ups for Rotator Cuff-Safe Workouts
If you’re concerned about push-ups and rotator cuff health, there are plenty of alternative exercises that can help you strengthen your shoulders without putting too much strain on the rotator cuffs:
- Resistance band external rotations: This exercise targets the rotator cuff muscles and can be done with a resistance band or cable machine.
- Scapular push-ups: These focus on strengthening the muscles around your shoulder blades, which can improve shoulder stability.
- Side-lying external rotations: This exercise isolates the rotator cuff muscles and can be done with a light dumbbell.
- Dumbbell shoulder press: This exercise targets the deltoids, which support the rotator cuffs, and can be done sitting or standing with a pair of dumbbells.
- Face pulls: This exercise focuses on the upper back and shoulder muscles, promoting shoulder stability and overall shoulder health. You can perform face pulls with a cable machine or resistance bands.
During almost all upper body exercises, it’s a good idea to focus on keeping your shoulder blades down and back throughout the full range of motion. Properly retracted shoulders keep your back straight and help prevent shoulder pain.
Do Push-Ups Cause Rotator Cuff Injuries?
If you are experiencing shoulder pain after doing push-ups, consider these facts about the effect of push-ups on your rotator cuff:
- Proper-form push-ups are not known to cause rotator cuff injuries.
- If you have a history of shoulder injury, push-ups can aggravate these conditions.
- Place your hands shoulder-width apart during push-ups.
- Do not allow your elbows to flare outward during your push-up motion—keep your elbows angled at 45 degrees from your body.
- Pull your shoulders down during push-ups instead of shrugging.
- Maintain a neutral spine and straight neck during each push-up.
- Engage your core to keep your back straight during push-ups.
- If you experience repeated or long-lasting shoulder pain from push-ups, consult your doctor.
With a little patience and practice, you can do push-ups without risking shoulder injury. This way, you can reap the benefits of this exercise and use it to build a stronger chest, triceps, and shoulder muscles.