Push-ups are like the Rodney Dangerfield of the fitness community – they get no respect.
Often deemed a waste of time, or worse, “too easy,” push-ups are generally an after-thought with regards to exercise selection. I mean, who has time to do push-ups after four sets of bench presses, seven sets of incline presses, and 14 sets of decline presses? Dude, everyone knows you have to hit all the angles!
What’s more, if you really want to blast the pecs, you can’t forget dumbbell flies, cable flies, and the pec dec!!11!1
Sarcasm aside, it’s readily apparent that push-ups aren’t quite as “sexy” as their bench press counterparts, and aren’t considered a high priority for most trainees when it comes to getting their pecification on.
Heck, they’re not even in the same stratosphere as the bench press. I mean, when was the last time you walked into your gym and saw someone rocking some legit push-ups? Let alone perform them correctly, or with any external load?
Yeah, I thought so. You’re more apt to see a Real Housewife win a Pulitzer.
Nevertheless, if I were to make a top five list of exercises that give you the most bang-for-your-training-buck, push-ups would easily make an appearance. For starters, most people can’t do them correctly, let alone do them for reps, so that alone means something.
Ironically, people have a tendency to do what’s easy and what they’re good at. Push-ups, for all intents and purposes, are considered “easy” by most standards…
….but not a lot of people are good at them.
Most of the time you see the following: for the visual learners in the crowd, refer to the picture to the right.
1. Head juts down
2. Excessive lumbar curve
3. No scapular retraction (or protraction)
4. Abs “sag” (rectus abdomimus picks up the slack for woefully weak external obliques)
5. Limited range of motion (it looks more like an epileptic seizure than a push-up)
While I’m not going to break it down joint by joint and cue by cue, here are some standard things to focus on when trying to perform a proper push-up:
- Keep chin tucked – don’t poke it towards the ground
- Abs should stay tight or braced (sometimes I’ll gently tap the stomach to help the trainee engage their core)
- Squeeze the glutes (provides more posterior pelvic tilt and keeps people out of lumbar extension)
- Hands/elbows should be directly underneath the shoulders.
- Likewise, hands should be around shoulder width apart
- Knees should be locked and legs in a straight line.
- The backside should make a straight line. Here, I LOVE using a PVC pipe to place on people’s backs so as to teach them what a neutral spine should feel like. There should be three points of contact – the back of the head, in between the shoulder blades, and the sacrum*** Photo courtesy of elitefitblog.
- Elbows should NOT flare out during the set. Instead, they should stay tight to the body, or at a 45 degree angle.
- Chest touches floor on every rep
NOTE: For those interested, you can check out THIS post where I discuss some push-up variations for women (and men) who can’t yet perform a standard push-up from the floor.
Moving on (because I don’t want to make this a “how to” post), compared to the bench press, push-ups are a closed chain exercise, which offers a gulf of advantages, particularly with regards to scapular kinematics and overall shoulder health.
In short, when you’re lying on your back performing a bench press, your shoulder blades aren’t able to move – they’re stuck in place.
Conversely, with a push-up, the scapulae are now able to move more freely, which has huge dividends towards overall shoulder health.
It’s not uncommon for someone to walk into the facility complaining of debilitating shoulder pain (in no small part to the amount of benching they do), only to realize that they can perform push-ups pain free.
Thirdly, push-ups offer a lot of variety. Whether I’m working with an elite athlete, a newbie, or with someone who has a bum shoulder, push-ups offer me a lot of leeway, and I can make them as easy (or challenging) as I want. Literally, the options are endless.
Lastly, and arguably most important of all, from a anterior-posterior perspective, push-ups are a fantastic way to train the core in a more functional manner, as you have to learn to “engage” all the stabilizers in the lumbo-pelvic-hip area to achieve better pelvic alignment.
With this established, the prime movers now appear stronger because the stabilizers are doing their job and force is more easily transferred.
Suffice it to say, I really feel that push-ups should be a staple in everyone’s programming, and it’s unfortunate that they’re often dismissed altogether.
That said, while the first step is to make sure that everyone can perform a push-up correctly (see points above), lets be honest, they can be about as exciting as watching paint dry. Sometimes we need to kick it up a notch, and with that in mind…..it’s not uncommon for us to make them more challenging by adding things like bands, chains, etc.
When those aren’t an option, here are some other variations I like:
T-Push-Ups (with DBs)
The first point to consider is that DBs aren’t necessarily mandatory here. For some, just using body weight alone will be challenging enough.
Even so, the key thing here is to make sure that the body is locked into place. A HYYYYYOOOOOGE mistake I see is when trainees tend to rotate with their lumbar spine first and then with their upper torso.
Instead, what should happen is that the rib cage should be locked into place with the lower back so that the entire body moves in unison.
From there, I generally shoot for anywhere from 4-5 reps/PER SIDE.
1-Arm Bodysaw Push-Up
This is definitely one of the more advanced push-up variations we implement at Cressey Performance, but one that’s definitely popular amongst our athletes and clients.
Obviously, having access to a slideboard is useful, but not mandatory: purchasing a ValSlide or even a pair of those furniture glider thingamajigs would be advantageous (not to mention cheaper).
Here, all of the same rules apply with regards to push-up technique, but with the addition of the slideboard, there’s a definite increased challenge on core stability (especially with the increased range of motion). Additionally, there’s a bit of a unilateral component which is unique and something I feel is important to consider.
Again, much like the t-push variation above, I like to implement sets of 5-6 reps per side.
Admittedly this is a variation that I’ll only typically use as part of a metabolic circuit, but it’s still kind of badass (despite the Katy Perry playing in the background).
The premise is pretty standard – perform a push-up, and then bring the contra-lateral knee towards the opposite elbow – maintaining a neutral spine as best you can, of course.
I prefer to do this version for time (20-30s) as part of a circuit, but you can certainly shoot for a standard # of reps per side, too.
And that’s it. While I could easily sit here and plow through 20 more variations, those are just a few (hopefully) new push-up variations you can start to incorporate today. Just so we’re clear, though, I still feel it’s imperative that people learn to do REGULAR push-ups correctly. Once that’s in the bag, the options are endless.