Push-Upalooza

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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.

Push-Up Kickthrough

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.

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  • Rozin

    I’ve been pushing push-ups on BB.com for ages now. Some people just don’t appreciate it. They insist that they’re difficult to load or they’re limited but I love them.

    I have a question regarding the scaps, though. When you go down, you retract and depress but, going up, would you do it similar to protract?

    • Aravind Sithamparapillai

      Actually I wouldn’t mind knowing about scap protraction here too, I was told once that both retraction and protraction were vital and many people have problems properly actively protracting their scaps through a full range push up.  Thoughts?

      • Anonymous

         Definitely agree.  What I should have said is to focus more on retraction on the way down, and protraction at the top.  Sorry for the confusion fellas.

  • Mike Richards

    already did my feet elevated band resisted pushups this morning!  

  • Brett

    Great article Tony, the kick through looks like a good variation that I will have to try. I havnt benched since I was 19, but I recently started doing ring push ups and inverted rows on the rings daily, and within weeks my elbow pain had stopped, my shoulders feel better, and the mobility my chest now has that I’ve gained from isometric pushups in the bottom position on the rings is just amazing.

  • P. J. Striet

    Great stuff Tony. This is always a boatload of fun too:

     http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YeU0MX7m5ro&feature=plcp&context=C4694f32VDvjVQa1PpcFO5PpPkXIOhKklODzUZvOmWfLIFV6uh5Ek%3D

  • Barath

    I do T-push-ups (just bodyweight!) with my feet separated like they would in an ordinary push-up. But I see that your feet are spread out – is this deliberate?

    • Barath

      Oh, and no love for clap push-ups?

      • Anonymous

        Like I said, there are a million and one push-up variations, and I’ve highlighted several others here in the past.

        Nothing against clap push-ups at all. Definitely a viable option, but one I feel that’s a little advanced for a lot of trainees.

    • Anonymous

      I’m not as badass as you Barath. I did so so that I would be a little more stable. With the added load of the DBs, I had to widen my stance so that I wouldn’t rotate my spine.

      A simple progression with these would be to bring the feet in closer…..;o)

      • Barath

        Badass? Me? This from a guy who deadlifts 570 lbs!! Stop mocking your readers Gentilcore :)

  • Natalie

    You’re not even going to comment on the elephant in the room??!!!  Katy Perry was blasting at CP???!!!  What’s happened since I left?!  

  • Penny

    Ahh the push-up!  They’re the reasonI found your blog about a year ago.   A member asked me a question about push-ups so I Googled “push-up form” to bring up some images.  Your blog was the only one that brought up a picture of Miranda Kerr.  Male or Female I think anyone would click on that, right? The rest is history.  Thanks for taking me down memory and providing some new push-up ideas.

  • Dale M

    I love band resisted push-ups. Instead of holding the band in my hands I stretch it across the bottom pegs of a squat rack and then wiggle underneath it into a push-up position. I get much more resistance and feel it more in my chest. I have progressed to the blue band and the results have been fantastic.

  • RS

    Tony,

    I’m AMAZED at how few guys I see (a) trying pushups and (b) even fewer doing them correctly. 
    Maybe it’s just me, but it just looks BAD for someone to have a great bench but cannot do one.real.pushup.

    RS

    • Barath

      I guess the reason why people don’t do them at gyms is because they want to take advantage of the equipment when they are there. Unless programmed in for the day, I don’t do push-ups in the gym either – I do ‘em in the convenience of my apartment. So that may be a reason :)

  • Russell Demczak

    Great post, always great to see the ol’ push-up getting some love. I stopped benching a few years ago and haven’t looked back since. Liberating to say the least. I still maintain that unless you are a competitive powerlifter there really isn’t a great reason to spend time benching, many of the reasons for which have been outlined here. I champion the overhead press for those with sufficient mobility along with the endless push-up variations available to us. Personal favorites include feet elevated band resisted pushups with 2 perform better 1/2 inch superbands, 50lb. Mir weighted-vest feet elevated pushups with one hand on the floor and one on a basketball or the like, and feet elevated clap pushups going both up and down and side to side hopping over a 25lb. plate..  

  • Stephane Robert

    Excellent article as usual Tony!

    It’s good to see an article that deals with proper push up form (along with variations etc…).  It’s sad to say but just about everyone considers themselves a push up expert yet it’s extremely rare to see proper execution of this great exercise. 

    As an example, this year I tested a couple of thousand individuals specifically on their push ups (since I work for the military) and only 6 actually had good technique.  This is not an exaggeration at all but the sad truth.

    On a side note, I personally find push ups to be an excellend assessment tool!

    • Anonymous

      Thanks for the kind words Stephane – always appreciated coming from another professional as yourself!

      It definitely doesn’t surprise me that so few individuals you tested has such poor push-up technique. It’s the same way at CP, and, like you, I find them to be an EXCELLENT assessment tool.

  • Peter Caisse

    What about one arm pushups?

    • Anonymous

      Yet another great push-up variation! Might be a little too advanced for my tastes in terms of practicality, though, for most trainees.

  • Emily

    Great article Tony! I wrote a piece back in the late summer on this same topic….I have gotten great results from using these techniques.  And you know…..my ladies can “out push up” my guys. Any day. :-)

    Here is the link if you would like to check it out….http://fivex3.com/2011/09/05/everybody-can-do-a-great-pushup-heres-how/

    Thanks!
    Emily

    • Anonymous

      Thanks for sharing Emily! And, kudos goes out to you and your ladies……;o)

  • Stephen Bergeron

    This might be one of your best intros of all time lol.  

    • Anonymous

      Well, I try…..;o)

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