The Greatest Push-Up Article in the History of Ever
Today’s guest post is brought to you by strength coach and current Cressey Performance intern, James Cerbie. I first met James last year when he came to observe for a few days at the facility, and then again late last summer when he attended mine and Dean Somerset’s Boston Workshop.
Note: Dean and I are in talks at bringing our little “show” to several other destinations in North America later this year, as well as London.
By that point I believe Star Wars will already be filming in the U.K’s Pinewood Studios, which basically means I’ll be packing my movie quality Chewbacca mask for the trip. And my Jedi cloak. And I might as well bring my vintage Empire Strikes Back lunchbox while I’m at it. OMG – it’s going to be awesome! NINTENDO 64!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Nonetheless, stay tuned for more info coming soon.
Crap, this is about James, not me.
James is a former collegiate baseball player and up and coming strength coach in his own right. I’m excited to have him on the site today, and I hope you enjoy his contribution.
My good friend the push up seems to get no love these days.
He’s been degraded in many circles to mere punishment, and often gets overlooked by gym goers for being “too easy” or not as sexy as the bench press.
Well I’m here to take a stand for my good friend the push up. He’s plenty sexy and deserves your attention.
What Is A Push Up?
That may seem like a stupid question, but most people don’t know the difference between a push up and the bench press. At least they don’t know the difference from an anatomical standpoint.
So a push up is a closed chain horizontal press (distal end of extremity is fixed), while the bench press is an open chain horizontal press (distal end of the extremity not fixed). Here’s why that’s important:
An open chain movement “allows any one joint in the extremity to move or function separately without necessitating movement of other joints in the extremity,” while in a closed chain exercise “movement of one joint cannot occur without causing predictable movements of the other joints in the extremity.”[i]
In plain English, this means open chain exercises tend to isolate one segment of the kinetic chain and closed chain exercises work the entire kinetic chain.
For an easy example of this just consider what happens to your scapulae while performing either of these movements. In the bench press, your scapulae are pinned (at least they should be) and don’t move. While in the push up, however, your scaps move freely on your rib cage and go through retraction and protraction as you move up and down, respectively.
From an athletic standpoint, that’s why closed chain exercises can be more beneficial: it forces you to coordinate movement throughout the entire kinetic chain, as opposed to isolating part of the kinetic chain.
Here are a few other reasons why the push is so awesome:
1. Teaches you to posteriorly tilt your pelvis by activating your glutes and core.
2. Teaches you to maintain a posterior tilt and “neutral” lumbar positioning because you’re basically holding a moving plank.
3. Reinforces proper head posture via making and holding a double chin.
4. Teaches proper scapulohumeral rhythm as you retract and protract your scapulas in coordination with your humeral head.
5. And much, much more.
Ultimately, this is why you’ll see people who can crush the bench press struggle with push ups, and vice versa. They are similar movement patterns but vastly different from the principle of specificity.
Like everything else, an exercise is only as good as its technique: bad technique = bad exercise.
For example, my friend in the picture below (she’s not really my friend) is getting pretty much nothing out of these push ups:
Does that mean we can’t have her do push ups? Absolutely not. It just means we have to find the right variation for her.
Well what’s so bad about her form anyways? To answer that question, let’s go over the initial set up:
Feet: Can be together or slightly apart
Lumbopelvic region: Butt squeezed, core tight, and pelvis posteriorly tilted.
Shoulder/thoracic region: Engaged and actively pressing the ground away from you.
Hands: Underneath shoulders or out slightly wider than shoulder width.
Head: Making a double chin.
Once the set up looks good, you’ll want to execute a rep in the following manner:
Keeping your head back and pelvis posteriorly tilted, actively pull yourself down to the ground by activating your upper back. Once your chest and nose hit the ground at the same time, then press the ground away from you as hard as you can.
To help tie all that together, check out this video on how to do a push up properly:
Where To Start?
As awesome as it would be if everyone could drop down and start banging out push-ups like Sylvester Stallone in Rocky, we all know that’s not the case.
A lot of people struggle with push-ups and need to regress the movement to set themselves for success.
As opposed to doing push ups on your knees, which I personally think is a waste of time, either of the following variations will be a great place to start if you’re a beginner.
1. Elevated Pin Push Up
This is usually my first go to on the regression front, and I’ve found it works really well. For starters, it keeps the kinetic chain in tact by having the contact points be the feet and hands. This allows people to train the movement pattern as similar as possible to the real thing.
Also, this regression actually allows people to see results (#winning). For example, if someone starts off doing push ups on the 15th pin whole week 1, but moves to the 10th pin whole by week 4, we know they are making progress.
2. Band Assisted Push Up
This is a great option for someone who’s right on the edge of doing real push ups because it gets them all the way down to the ground. It can also be adjusted in a snap by changing the band tension.
Where To Go?
“But James, I’m already like super awesome at push ups. What should I do?”
Don’t worry, I once made the mistake of thinking I was too cool for push-ups too, but I’ve got you covered.
Here’s how to progress push ups in a way that would make Chuck Norris proud.
1. Add Chains or Bands
Wanna make anything harder? Add more resistance. It’s that simple.
Throw some chains on your back or wrap a band around yourself and go to work. Please note: you can use chains and/or bands for every variation I’m about to go over.
(apologies for the dreaded Iphone vertical youtube video)
2. Elevate your feet
By changing the angle you completely change the movement and its demands. Feel free to elevate your feet for any of these variations. It’s a quick, simple, easy and effective way to make things harder.
3. 1 Leg Push Up
By taking away one base of support you make the movement much more challenging. In particular, you introduce a rotational component, as you must resist the urge to let your hips rotate, drop or move out of position. Like the two options before this, changing to a 1 leg stance can be used with pretty much any and every push up variation around, so don’t limit yourself.
Now it’s time to go rapid fire. Here are 7 other variations to challenge your push up prowess with:
4. Embrace Your Inner Spiderman
5. T Push Up
6. Yoga Push Up
Side note: awesome option for people who are working on getting upward rotation out of their scaps.
7. Bodysaw Push Up
8. 1-Arm Pin Push Up
9. Reverse Ketllebell Push Up
Side note: please don’t be that person who tries to load these up like crazy and breaks their wrist. If you do, however, be sure to video it because it would go viral on youtube in a second.
10. Plyo Push Ups
Well that’s about it for today kiddos. I think there should be enough there to keep you busy for a while.
A few things I hope you’ve taken away would be:
- Push-ups are a closed chain exercise and different than the bench press.
- Your scapulae should move nicely on the rib cage throughout the entire range of motion.
- You should think about pressing the ground away from you when pressing yourself up.
- It’s really just a moving plank
- Push-ups can be as hard or as easy as you want. It’s all about using your imagination and finding ways to challenge yourself.
- On the programming front, I personally like being in the 3-5 set range and using between 6-10 reps.
If you have any questions please post them below, and I’m sure Tony would love to see some videos of people doing it big (if he doesn’t then I do).
About the Author
James Cerbie is a certified strength and conditioning specialist, Precision Nutrition level 1 certified, USA weightlifting sports performance coach, and CrossFit Level 1 certified.
He has been blessed to work with athletes from the middle school to professional level, powerlifters, olympic lifters, and CrossFit athletes alike.
At the end of the day, James gets no greater enjoyment than seeing people improve, succeed, and achieve their goals. He’s the owner of Rebel Performance and currently works as a strength and conditioning intern at Cressey Performance.
[i] Thompson, Clem W., and R.T. Floyd. “The Kinetic Chain Concept.” Manual of Structural Kinesiology. 14th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2001. 103. Print.