A common concern when doing push-ups is that people feel them in their shoulders rather than their chest. When this is the case, you may be missing out on both muscle growth and strength progress, as well as increasing your potential for injury.
So, why do you feel push ups in your shoulders? The reasons you feel push ups in your shoulders rather than your chest are that (1) you are getting too vertical by raising your hips, (2) you are not controlling your shoulder blades, (3) you have flared your elbows too much, or (4) your hand placement is too wide.
At the end of this article, you will understand how to target your chest more within the push up.
I will cover:
- The role of the shoulders in the push up
- The reasons why you feel push ups in your shoulders
- If it is bad if you feel push ups in your shoulders
- Push up variations to target your chest more
Table of Contents
The Role Of The Shoulders In The Push Up
Similar to many other upper body pressing exercises, the push-up recruits and trains the chest, shoulder and triceps muscle groups.
How you perform the push-up will vary in how you activate each of these muscle groups.
The role of the shoulders in the push-up is to stabilize your scapular (shoulder blades) and to contribute to the pressing movement itself, especially in the bottom and mid-range of motion (not so much in the lock-out).
How much you feel the shoulders, chest, and triceps in the push-up is largely down to how you execute them.
There are several key reasons that you may feel the push-ups more in your shoulders.
4 Reasons Why You Feel Push Ups In Your Shoulders
The 4 reasons why you feel push-ups in your shoulders are:
- You are getting too vertical
- You are not controlling your shoulder blades
- You have flared your elbows too much
- Your hand placement is too wide
Also feeling your lats get sore after performing push-ups? Read our article Why Do You Lats Get Sore After Push Ups?
You Are Getting Too Vertical
The more vertical you get, the more load you will be shifting to your shoulders.
When I say “vertical”, I’m referring to a position that mimics a handstand push-up.
While you might not be doing a full handstand push-up,
If you are performing push-ups with your feet elevated (on a bench) or have raised your hips higher than your shoulders, then this will be the reason you are feeling your shoulders to a greater extent.
Try bringing your hips in line with your torso (like a planked position) and keeping them there throughout the movement.
If you are still feeling your shoulders predominantly rather than your chest, look to perform these in an inclined position by placing your hands on a bench or box.
You Are Not Controlling Your Shoulder Blades
The shoulders also act to stabilize your scapular and the pectorals will function best when the position of your shoulder blade is consistent.
It is common to allow the shoulder blades to move excessively and stay elevated (a shrugged position). This can cause the shoulders to work harder throughout the movement, both to stabilize the shoulders and to press you back up.
Aim to keep your shoulder blades pulled back (retracted) and down (depressed) in order to load the chest more.
You Have Flared Your Elbows Too Much
By flaring your elbows too much, moving them away from the midline of the body, you can further shift load from your chest to your shoulders.
This can also link into the above by causing your shoulders to elevate.
Instead of having your elbows out towards 90 degrees away from the body, aim close to 45 degrees.
This will help you feel the push up more in your chest, rather than the shoulder.
Your Hand Placement Is Too Wide
By selecting a grip that is too wide you reduce the stability of your shoulders, the ability to maintain the correct angle of the arm and in turn shift the load to the shoulders.
Start by taking a grip between shoulder width and 1.5 times shoulder width, track your elbows about 45 degrees away from the body and aim to have your elbows over your wrist in the bottom position.
Elbows further in than your wrists is an indicator that your hand placement is too wide.
The push-up allows for absolute freedom of movement, which is a great thing from an exercise perspective, but also requires more from you in terms of figuring out your setup.
You would set up a machine, dumbbell press or many other exercises to ‘stack’ your wrist and elbow and track your arms at around a 45-degree angle to target the chest more, so you want to replicate and carry over these principles to the push-up.
Trial and adjust the above until you find hand placements, shoulder positions and body angles that enable you to shift the load from your shoulders and predominantly back to your chest.
Is It Bad That I Feel Push Ups In My Shoulders?
Feeling the push-up in your shoulders is absolutely normal and not a bad thing.
The shoulder is one of the three main muscle groups worked, alongside the chest and triceps.
However, most people use the push up to target the chest muscles.
So in this case, feeling the push up more in your shoulders than your chest is not good.
The chest should be the prime mover in the push-up, and if your goals are to target and develop your chest size and strength then feeling push-ups in your chest rather than your shoulders is important.
There are several push-up variations that can help you to target the chest more and ensure that you are getting the most of your training with them.
If you are looking for exercises that directly target your shoulders, read our article How Do Powerlifters Train Shoulders? for a definitive guide on which exercises to be doing.
4 Push Up Variations That Target The Chest More
These 4 push up variations will help you target the chest more:
- Incline Push Ups
- Block Push ups
- Paused Push Ups
- Tempo Push Ups
Incline Push Ups
This is the easiest variation to target the chest more without making the movement itself harder.
Rather than placing your hands on the floor, elevate them on a box, bench or plates and press through this range of motion.
Much like getting more vertical targets the shoulders more, making your push-ups less vertical reduces the focus on the shoulders and shifts more load to the chest.
These are typically easier than a standard push up too are great for beginners, but more experienced lifters may want to add load.
Block Push Ups
A similar setup to the incline press-ups, but instead of using a solid block, use two separate ones to allow for your body to go deeper and your chest to work through a larger range of motion.
Much like training any other movement or muscle, we often look for ways to increase the range of motion we are moving through.
By doing this you can get the benefits of an incline push up, but also the increased range of motion to further target the chest more.
Related Article: Do Push-Ups Help Bench Press? (Yes, Here’s How)
Paused Push Ups
Paused push-ups are just that, pause in the bottom position before pressing back up again.
This pause will make the movement more difficult, but also allow you a second to ensure you are pressing through your chest and are in the right position at the bottom of each rep to do so.
Tempo Push Ups
Similar to paused push-ups, we are increasing the difficulty of the movement and focus on which muscles you are loading.
Take 3 seconds during the descent, a 1-second pause at the bottom and then a normal speed upward phase.
This extra time allows for you to ensure you are loading the chest rather than the shoulders, increases the time under tension and is also a great way to progress the difficulty of your push-ups as your training develops.
For more exercises to train your chest, read our article How Do Powerlifters Train Chest? for 3 example training sessions.
While feeling the push-up in your shoulders in normal, you want to predominantly feel this exercise in your chest.
Ensure that you are not rising your hips and stay in a planked position, have a hand placement between 1 and 1.5 shoulder width and are tracking your elbows around 45 degrees away from your body and over your wrists to target the chest more.
Push-up variations can also be used to target your chest more, such as incline, block, paused or tempo push-ups.
What to Read Next:
- Is It Better To Do Push-Ups Fast or Slow?
- Is It Better To Do Push-ups With Handles?
- Diamond Push Up: How To, Benefits, Muscles Worked
- 12 Best Bodyweight Tricep Exercises (At Home & No Equipment)
About The Author
Jacob Wymer is a powerlifting coach and PhD Candidate in Biomechanics and Strength and Conditioning, researching the application of barbell velocity measurements to powerlifting. He is involved in powerlifting across the board, from athlete to meet director. Jacob runs his coaching services at EST Barbell. You can also connect with him on Instagram.