No matter how many years you’ve spent mastering the perfect push-up, the minute you get tired, your form starts to go out the window. Your hips start to sink, your arms get all shaky, and it feels like you can’t make it through another rep without collapsing. But according to Shelby Smith, an exercise physiologist and health coach based in Rhode Island, the best way to combat all of this—and get things right until the very end of your set—is to focus on the placement of your elbows.
According to Smith, you’ll be able to tell when your form is starting to slip simply by queuing into the way your arms are moving as you make your way toward the floor. “The most common mistake people make when performing push-ups is allowing their elbows to flare out,” she says, noting that you’ll know your elbows are too high if they’re in line with your shoulder joint when you’re descending. This creates too much stress on the anterior deltoid—ahem: the front of your shoulder—which can keep you from reaping the full benefit of the move and leave you with post-workout pain in your upper body.
“You really want your pecs doing most of the work and your triceps doing the assisting work,” she says, which means you shouldn’t be relying on your shoulders to keep you moving. The fix, according to Smith, is to make a few small tweaks to your up-and-down movements to ensure that your elbows never go beyond the recommended 45-degree angle when you hit the bottom of the move.
First, check that your hands are slightly wider than your shoulders, and fan out your fingers (which should always be facing forward, never inward) so that you’ve got a nice, solid grip on the floor. “When lowering to the floor, imagine you’re twisting a mason jar with the palm of your hands, twisting outwards, which helps lock your elbows in at 45 degrees and think about ‘pulling down’ toward the floor,” says Smith. “Then, when you push back up, think about pushing the floor away from you.” Of course, you’ll also want to be sure that you’re firing up your core and squeezing your quads and glutes, which will help your body move in a straight line and prevent those elbows from flaring.
And if you still feel that form starting to slip? You’ve got full permission to drop to your knees and finish the set from there—as long as you keep your elbows tucked and strong.