I have been ignoring wide-arm push-ups for years — due to the (false) assumption that this particular hand positioning was ineffective.
So, when my workout instructor randomly called out wide-arm push-ups the other day, I admittedly had no idea if I was performing the challenging variation the correct way. If anything, the tenseness I felt in my upper body was signaling no.
Looking for more general info on the move (the pros, the cons), I reached out to NASM-certified personal trainer Kara Liotta.
First, let's dissect the differences between wide-arm push-ups and narrow push-ups — which Liotta says are the two main hand positions in a push-up. "A wide push-up means that you set up with your hands wider than shoulder-width apart," Liotta explains. "A narrow push-up means that you set up with your hands much closer together and slightly closer than shoulder-width."
Much to my surprise, Liotta says one position isn't better than the other, but thanks to differences in form and alignment, each push-up position targets different areas of the upper body. For example, wide-arm push-ups focus on the chest and anterior deltoids, while narrow push-ups target the chest, too, but focus more on the triceps.
While I was hyperfocussed on where my hands were placed, Liotta says what's really important in each variation — in order to avoid injuries and unnecessary pressure on your shoulder joints — is to focus on the proper shoulder position.
"In a narrow push-up, your shoulder blades can hug together in a retracted position. But, in a wide push-up, your shoulder blades should actually slightly wing outward, so your elbows flare out at a back diagonal," Liotta says.
Wide-arm push-ups are often performed incorrectly, and therefore pressure is placed on the shoulder joints — according to Liotta, that's actually why some struggle with executing them. "It is important to remember that the alignment of your shoulder blades should be different than in a narrow push-up. Think, 'wide push-up, wide shoulder blades.' This allows space for your shoulders to function properly."
Liotta personally prefers wide-arm push-ups to narrow "because it feels easier for me to keep unnecessary pressure out of my shoulders." And as long as you maintain control in your core and focus on slightly opening your shoulder blades, Liotta notes they can be a fantastic exercise for building strength in your upper body.
But mastering push-up form takes time, so always take modifications when you need them! Liotta suggests placing your shins down in a modified plank position. "Just remember that your hips must still be low and supported by your core, instead of turning it into a tabletop position."