Monday, September 9, 2013

The Push Up - Considerations Beyond the Basics

The push up is a simple exercise.  But that simplicity shouldn't discount it's value. Like anything, in doing a push up well there is much more going on then the simple drop and give me 20!

Don't overlook this movement because of it's simplicity.

As we discussed in a previous post the push up is a Primal Movement.  It also serves as a transition movement, a foundation for many other movements of Functional Fitness.  Many of the techniques presented here work equally well for the bench press, ring dip and all pushing movements.


Push ups can be done anywhere and anytime, require no equipment and can be modified using leverage to any level of strength or skill.  See our post on Bodyweight Training for ideas how to use leverage to almost infinitely modify body weight movements and provide progressive overload.

Similar to other multi joint exercises the push up engages a wide range of musculature, including the following areas:
  • Core - Stabilizing the mid section while in a plank position.
  • Arms - Triceps, forearms (more than you might think)
  • Chest - Pecs
  • Shoulders - Anterior Delts and entire rotator cuff musculature (For stability).
Proper Form/Technical Aspects

Although the push up is a simple motion, from what I see in practice many people do them incorrectly.  Even advanced exercisers may improve their technique with some of the tips below.  Tray to always work to improve your technique, even on the apparently simplest movements. As gymnastics expert Coach Dusty Hyland would strive for virtuosity in all of your movements:
"Virtuosity, in gymnastics, means going above and beyond - exceptional movement, performance, and position. Dusty's videos will teach gymnastic movements for fitness and CrossFit, focusing on progressions and the concept of virtuosity".
- Dusty Hyland 
  •  Hands should be directly under the shoulder. This is the safest and most mechanically efficient placement.
  • The push up begins with your arms extended and your body in a full plank position.  Yes I said a plank.
  • Contract your abs and glutes, tighten your core by drawings the belly button inward toward the spine.
  • Elbows should not be flared (out to the side).  The should be angled back approximately 45 degrees (closer to your body, not straight out to the side.  This will save your shoulders.

File:Push up (PSF).png

  • 'Screw your hands into the ground'.  This common cue helps to put the arm in external rotation, stabilize the shoulder joint in the glenoid cavity(shoulder joint), retract the scapulas and helps to develop torque throughout the movement (see Kelly Sterett, Becoming a Supple Leopard). We will cover external rotation in much more detail in a future post as it applies to a great many movements and joints.
  • The chest touches the floor.  I can't tell you how many times I see either a partial lowering or a partial extension of the arms in the gym.  If you are going to do something (and don't have a physiological reason to limit range of motion) do it right.  Full lockout at the top to full chest to ground on the bottom. 
  • Toes should be together.  Spreading the feet has the effect of limiting the range of motion and making the movement easier, don't do this.  Feet together and heels up and together.
  • As you come down keep your forearms as vertical as possible. Lower yourself downward  as you inhale.

The Push Up is Repeatable and Testable
Test yourself now.  Do as many pushups as you can in 3 minutes. Rest whenever you want, but keep the clock running the whole time. Fifty-five is average, but if you can't reach 75—what strength coaches consider "good"—then you need to either gain strength, lose weight or look at your technique.

Also look at how many push ups you can do unbroken, without stopping, or your form breaking down.

Make note of both of these in your log (you DO keep a log don't you?) and repeat each month.

Progressions TO a full Push Up

If you can't yet hold a full plank for at least 45 seconds.  Work on planks.  Don't go overboard 90 seconds is plenty,

If you modify the plank to the knees down position, get a foam roller and begin by positioning it at your knees.  Work to hold a plank in this position for 60s.  As your ability increases gradually(over weeks move the roller farther down you shin.  Eventually you will work the roller down to you ankles, and you'll be  ready to do a full plank.

A few notes on the plank:
Tighten your glutes, yes, squeeze your but.
Maintain a perfectly straight position.

If you modify the push up from the knees use the foam roller in the same way to work toward a full push up.

Wall Push up
Inclined Push ups

Progressions Beyond a Basic Push Up

Declined Push ups - Elevate your feet on a bench, wall or whatever you have.  This puts more weight on your hands making the exercise harder.

Hand Release Push Ups - When you get to the chest-to-ground position, raise you hands from the floor.  This eliminates the stretch reflex action (the subject of a future post) and makes the push up more difficult. In effect you are starting each push up from a dead stop, similar to the dead stop starting position of the deadlift.

Finger Push Ups - Done on the fingers.  Great for building grip strength.

Deficit Push Ups - Use yoga blocks, plates or parallets under the hands to extend the range of downward motion.  Lower you chest through the added supports.

Ring Push Ups - This is possibly my favorite modification.  The stability requirements and benefits when done with rings are phenomenal.

Clapping Push Ups: 

See: Push-ups: The Perfect Primal Exercise, Marc's Daily Apple, By Al Kavadlo for MANY more.

Additional Resources and Reading

Push-ups: The Perfect Primal Exercise, Marc's Daily Apple, By Al Kavadlo

Most Popular Articles of August (Top 5)

Sep 6, 2013, 
Sep 7, 2013, 
Aug 22, 2013, 

Contact Form


Email *

Message *