For some reason, our culture is very resistant to the idea of individual boundaries.

If something hurts, you’re supposed to push past it. If you can’t achieve a position, you’re supposed to work harder. No limits!!

This is a motivating and empowering philosophy that has led to an awful lot of injuries. Not to mention a lot of ineffective training and wasted gym hours if your goal is to build strength and burn calories rather than to stretch your ligaments and grind your joints into pulp.

Planks, push-ups and downward dogs are a great example of this. Relatively few people are capable of doing any of these very similar exercises in a way that doesn’t cause injuries, particularly to the arms and shoulders. We just aren’t strong enough in the right places, plus most of us don’t know what to look for to correct the problem(s).

This series of posts will troubleshoot the most common issues most people have with these positions, which all have a lot in common when it comes to arm and shoulder mechanics. And I’ll suggest some modifications that will allow you to respect your limits and build up to doing the full exercise/pose in a way that doesn’t damage your tissues.

Today: Arm placement!

You need to get your wrists, elbows and shoulders in a straight line, perpendicular to the floor. This allows your muscles to work instead of relying on your ligaments to hold you up. Why is that a big deal? Two reasons:

1) When your ligaments are loaded too long or too much, they stretch. Unlike muscles, once a ligament is stretched, it stays stretched. And that means it’s no longer very good at doing its job, which is to stabilize your joint. So the more you stretch your ligaments, the more unstable your joints are likely to become and therefore the higher your risk of injury.

2) When you load your ligaments, you’re not loading your muscles. This means you’re not getting the benefits of muscle strengthening, which include improved performance, better cellular health, sexier arms, and burning calories.

I want my muscles to do the work! So that means no wrists forward of your shoulders (super common) and no elbow hyper extension.

This is elbow hyper extension:

Can you see how my lovely model's elbow is out in front of her shoulder and her wrist?

Can you see how my lovely model’s elbow is out in front of her shoulder and her wrist? Her hands are a bit too far forward too.

Not everyone is a hyper extender – check to see if you are by getting down on your hands and knees in front of a mirror and noticing whether your elbows can bend past 180 degrees like you can see in the picture above.

If you’re not a hyper extender, then just work on making sure your wrists are directly below your shoulders.

However, if you are a hyper extender, then you need to put a mini-bend into your elbow. At least, it will feel like a mini-bend to you but what it will look like is a straight arm:


Much better! She feels like she is bending her arms but really they are just straight. Now all we need to do is back her wrists up about an inch and she’s all ready to go.

When you have added your mini bend, notice what it feels like – you’re probably having to work a lot harder than before. This is good – it’s the muscle-building, calorie-burning part of the whole affair.

Once your arms are nice and straight, you can also fix your hands – get your middle fingers to point straight ahead and work to push the floor away with your palms and especially the corner of your hand that lies behind your index finger.

This should give you lots to work on until the next part of this series: External Rotation!! I know, super exciting, right?! 🙂

Note: If you are trying to improve your push-up, and you are a hyper extender, it will be easy for you to go too far and end up in hyper extension at the top of the motion. Try slowing down and watching yourself in a mirror, or practicing in plank, until you really get the feeling of what a non-hyper extended arm means to you.

Extra motivating bonus points of awesomeness: Getting on to your hands and knees is great for building bone density in the wrists (a key site for osteoporosis) (you want max bone density because osteoporosis=loss of bone density). Do it every day!

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