Often when we can’t do a move like push ups, we think that there is just muscle weakness we need to address.

So we start doing more strength work for those muscles like our chest or maybe shoulders or triceps.

But even doing this strength work, we can feel like we’re getting no where.

It’s because bodyweight exercises like the push ups are about muscular coordination not just strength. It’s about that mind-body connection.

The correct muscles, recruited in the correct order, to the correct extents.

It’s like an orchestra playing together…you don’t want one instrument playing too fast or too loud. Everything has to work together to make the song sound fabulous.

This is why improving your push ups is about more than just strength. You need not only your chest, shoulders and triceps working together but also your abs engaged correctly so you move efficiently as one unit and even your quads and glutes engaged to create that tension through your body.

It’s full body control and coordination.

Which is why I mentioned the importance of your BACK when it comes to push ups.

I’ve had clients with killer bench presses that can’t bust out 5 push ups in a row.

And I found out this “secret” when actually retraining myself to do push ups properly years ago.

I thought I rocked at push ups. I could bust out 20 easily from my toes.

And then…I saw a video of myself actually doing them.

I realized my push ups were FUUUUGLY.

So I put my ego away and regressed them till I could perform them with perfect form.

I had to modify off an incline to start to feel the correct muscles working, otherwise other areas would compensate.

No wonder I’d had some shoulder and neck aches over the last few months! I was overusing muscles not meant to carry the load.

And what hurt my ego even worse than modifying was the fact that push ups now felt HARDER! I couldn’t do near as many in a row!

It’s because the correct muscles were actually working.

When we first get everything engaged and working correctly, moves can actually feel HARDER as we retrain those movement and recruitment patterns.

As I built back I then realized the missing piece to a powerful press up was my upper back and scapular control.


Core strength is key – the push up is a moving plank.

But the often overlooked area of our body that is so essential to that powerful push is our upper back and the ability for our shoulder blades to move correctly.

When you set up for a push up, you should be engaging your back to unshrug your shoulders with your hands outside your chest. You will even feel your shoulder blades slightly pulled forward as you press the ground away.

Then as you lower down in the push up, your shoulder blades should draw together toward your spine, engaging your upper back. This allows you to efficiently load your chest and support your shoulders to then power the press back up while maintaining that perfectly straight line with your body.

As you press back up, your shoulder blades should move away from your spine.

This movement of those shoulder blades is key to help you achieve that full push up from your toes while also helping you avoid neck, upper back and shoulder aches and pains.

Here are the two moves I’ve found so essential to activate your upper back to improve your muscle coordination and movement efficiency so you CAN do push ups.

First is the Scapular Wall Hold.

Honestly, this move is a must do whether you want to improve your push ups or simply your posture.

This isometric is a great way to learn how to engage your upper back to support and stabilize your shoulders while even stretching out your chest.

It’s key to include simply because you’re doing a ton of pressing work even as you’re building up those push ups.

With this move you’re using the resistance of leaning back into the wall to challenge you to engage your upper back.

But you want to think about keeping your shoulders locked down with the sides of your back as you draw your shoulder blades toward your spine to open up your chest.

Don’t arch your lower back or try to walk out further from the wall to try to advance it.

Really just focus on the engagement of your upper back coming from you mentally trying to engage those muscles harder as you draw your shoulder blades together.

Just be conscious your shoulders don’t elevate as you do.

But this stabilized position is a great way to learn how to engage that upper back to power your press.

It will even help you learn how to get that proper engagement to start the push up at the top so your shoulders aren’t shrugged and your elbows don’t want to flare out into that T position during the press back up. 

Second is the Scapular Push Up To Dolphin.

By doing this scapular stability work from a plank position, you get the added benefit of core work, which is so key for the push up from your toes as well.

This is the perfect time to train that set up in the plank, driving back through your heels to create the tension up your legs.

Like you would for the push up, you want to unshrug your shoulders when you set up from the plank off your forearms, pressing to even almost drive the ground away with your elbows.

Holding that straight line with your body, you’ll pinch your shoulder blades together without shrugging.

This is the same movement of those shoulder blades as when you lower down in the push up. You’ll then press the ground away to separate your shoulders kind of like they would separate as you push back up in the push up.

Then at the top, lift your butt up and extend your shoulders to push back into almost a downward dog position from your forearms. This is a great spinal mobility drill, but the real bonus is learning how to re-engage your upper back when moving back into plank for the scapular push up.

This engagement helps you learn to really support your shoulders with your back to power your push ups!

If you find you struggle with this move to start as it is easy to try and cheat and drop your hips to think you’re making the scapular movement bigger than it is, you may want to modify off an incline.

Like I had to, you sometimes need to regress to progress and take ego out of it.

If you’re still finding yourself not able to engage things optimally from an incline, you may even want to perform a single arm scapular push up off the wall to start.

This does take some of the core work out of it, but it can be key if you do have any imbalances or a previous injury on one side. It makes sure both sides are working correctly without one taking over.

It can even be a great variation to mix things up in your activation work!

I recommend including both of these moves as part of your activation series in your warm up before any push up work or even your upper body workouts that include pressing.

Include them for 1-2 rounds of 10-15 reps each.

They help you make sure you’re able to engage your chest, shoulders and triceps efficiently.

And for not only form cues, but how I modified the push up to rebuild for picture perfect push ups, check out my Can’t Do Push Ups, Just Do This video.