If you’ve performed any sort of physical activity in your life you will know that there are many ways to perform a particular movement.
The push-up is no exception. Modifications to the standard push-up are made for a myriad of reasons: different experience levels, changing the primary muscle group being targeted, or possibly matching a particular training style. Despite the many variations and modifications that can be made, there is in fact a proper way to perform the standard push-up and get the most bang for your buck out of each repetition.
I think it’s safe to say that fitness professionals across the board cringe at the sight of an incorrect or underperformed movement.
I don’t want you to be that person! That’s why I’m here to guide you through performing a perfect push-up.
The depth of the push-up plays a heavy role in how effective the movement will be.
Performing the movement perfectly requires a full range of motion. This is achieved by starting in a plank position with the arms straight and the muscle fibers in the chest contracted. You will lower your body by bending at the elbow and wrist joint until your chest nearly touches the floor. Yes, a full range of motion for the perfect push-up requires you to nearly touch your belly, pelvis, and thighs to the floor. Notice how I say nearly. Don’t go full penguin on us and lay there.
The need for a full range of motion is two-fold. It will increase the time that the muscle is under tension putting more stress on the muscle. Additionally, it will maximize the stretch of the muscle fibers.
An increase in stress on muscle fibers and the elongation of muscle fibers are two components that contribute to muscular hypertrophy, or muscular growth.
The minimum depth that you’d want to achieve to make your push-up worthwhile is not clearly defined. However, I would argue that a sufficient depth would be when your humerus (the top bone in your arm) is parallel with your torso. At this depth, you will be recruiting all of the necessary muscle fibers in your pecs, triceps, rhomboids, and trapezius muscles. Any depth less than this significantly decreases the amount of muscle utilized.
Aside from the range of motion, proper positioning of your body throughout the movement is highly important to maximize the benefits of the movement and prevent injury.
Here are the five points for a proper setup and execution:
(1) Keep your head raised high enough that it won’t impede your range of motion at the lowest point of the movement.
(2) Keep your back flat through the entire motion. You can achieve this by rotating your pelvis forward, squeezing your glutes, and tightening your core.
(3) Place your palms flat against the ground directly below your shoulder joint and pectoral muscles with your hands slightly wider than your shoulders. Widening your hand position will recruit more of the pectoral muscles while narrowing your hand positioning will recruit more of the tricep. Both are acceptable variations.
(4) Allow your elbows to travel backward towards your hips as you lower your body rather than allowing them to flare out to the side. Flaring the elbows to the side is one of the most common pushup mistakes. If you are flaring your elbows your hand positioning may be too wide.
(5) At the top of the movement push down towards the ground with your shoulders causing your shoulder blades to separate (protraction). Additionally, focus on keeping your shoulders shifted back towards your torso (depression) rather than sucked up towards your neck. As you lower your body, allow your shoulder blades to come together. Then, push up with force and finish the push with your shoulders causing your shoulder blades to separate once again.
If you are having trouble with performing push-ups at any capacity there is a very clear progression that you can follow to improve your strength over time and become a push-up pro.
The progression is as follows:
Start performing push-ups against a wall. Progressively move your feet farther away from the wall to increase the difficulty. You are ready for step two when you can perform 10 wall push-ups with your feet as far from the wall as they can be without sliding or bumping your forehead into the wall.
Get in the kneeling position on the floor behind an elevated platform like a bench. With your knees on the ground and hands on the bench, begin your push-ups. As you get stronger, decrease the height of the platform. Eventually, you will be able to perform your first set of kneeling push-ups. Advance to step three when you can do 10 perfect kneeling push-ups.
Start in the standard pushup position and attempt your first few standard push-ups. When you can no longer perform a standard push-up, immediately drop your knees and finish the set of ten pushups from the kneeling position. Try one extra standard pushup with each new attempt, finishing the set of ten with kneeling push-ups each time. Eventually, you will be able to perform ten standard push-ups. Your friends will be impressed with your new accomplishment.
As a health professional, I’d be remiss not to mention that the pushup is a potentially dangerous exercise if not performed correctly. So, let’s make sure we have good flexibility, mobility, and enough muscle before we push our way into standard push-ups (I hope you caught that pun).
One simple way to figure out if this is a suitable exercise for you is to simply move through the exercise progression mentioned above. Only move to the next step when you can perform 10 push-ups with the proper form discussed earlier. However, if you find that you experience pain or discomfort during or after the exercise beyond normal muscular fatigue I’d advise that you see a medical professional before continuing your pursuit of becoming the push-up pro.
If you want my opinion, I think push-ups are a convenient and highly effective movement for nearly everybody to include in their routine.
You can perform them whenever, wherever, and however you would like to meet your specific needs. There aren’t many exercises that allow that level of versatility. Unfortunately, if you didn’t want my opinion, you’ve read too much. I apologize for PUSHING that on you (pun intended again). I think I’ll end our pushup discussion with that dad joke and a big ol’ thank you for reading. Enjoy your day.
Written by Coach Kris Zizzo