How to Do Push Ups for Desk Jockeys

This post could also be named “How To Do a Push Up Without a 7-Day Headache!” 🙂

I’ve rarely seen it discussed anywhere, but I know I’m not the only one who suffers from this problem. I’m talking about how difficult it is to increase your upper body strength – in my case by training for military push ups – without igniting a week-long headache in the process.

I have had the same problem for ages and it has prevented me from effectively increasing my upper body strength. It was a big problem when I was still doing ashtanga yoga – I couldn’t stay long in downward dog (flexibility was no problem), not to speak of chaturangas – without my upper back neck and neck muscles knotting up in agony.

I suppose this is mainly a problem for desk jockeys who typically have tight pectorals and weak upper back muscles (and no core control).

In my case, every time I do push ups, the muscles in my upper neck tighten painfully and in the worst case, cause headaches or migraines. I perused my anatomy books yesterday and came to the conclusion that the culprit is probably the upper trapezius muscle that attaches to the skull – though why it gets overworked when I try to do push ups is a beyond me.

Is my upper trapezius muscle trying to do the work of some other muscle group? Talk about muscle imbalances!


I have tried several approaches to doing push ups. Jolie Bookspan recommends you should train for push ups by starting with staying in the push up position (i.e. doing planks), but that was too much for me.

The approach I’ve adopted for now is starting very easy by doing wall push ups first, while being hyper careful I’m using the correct form.

It means that

  • I try to tuck my chin in to avoid the forward head position
  • I aim for feeling the muscles around my scapula working
  • I tuck my pelvis to prevent my back from sagging.

It’s surprisingly difficult to do push ups in the correct form. I can’t help noticing that doing push ups is much more about core strength than merely upper body strength.

I’m going to progress to incline push ups only after I’m sure I’m strong enough to do it without compromising my form.

So far I’ve been doing pretty well. My upper neck muscles do tighten a bit, but it’s nothing I couldn’t deal with some diy trigger-point therapy and Feldenkrais.


BTW, below is a great video describing the most common push up technique mistakes – flared elbows, sagging lower back etc. And for those who are bored with ordinary push ups, see a short video featuring the incredible flying push ups!


As frustrating it is for me to struggle increasing my upper body strength, I guess my push up challenge might actually be a blessing in disguise: it forces me to deal with my lack of muscular and core strength once and for all.


  1. Here’s hoping you find a solution, Satu

  2. Marion says:

    Hi Satu! I think: Do whatever works and keeps you doing pushups. <<That's what counts.

    🙂 Marion

  3. Lori says:

    Just keep practicing and they will come. I worked at chin ups for 6 months before I could do one. Of course, now I don’t know if I can do one at all since I haven’t worked at them in months!

    • Satu says:

      Glad to hear it just takes persistence! My middle is heavy like a sin and sometimes I find it hard to believe I’m ever going to be able to do real military push ups.

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