Updated: Jan 28
Drop and give me 50! Loved and hated by military personnel, martial artists and fitness enthusiasts thanks to its prolific use as an upper body strengthening exercise and form of punishment, the push-up is a full body bodyweight exercise which primarily works the pectoral (chest), anterior deltoid (front of the shoulder) and triceps (back of the upper arm) muscles. It can be traced back to early yoga practices (1) and may have originated from the Zoroastrian practice of kneeling and saluting the sun (2). People have been practising yoga for more than 5000 years, so it is likely the push-up has been performed as an exercise for a long time! (3)
What is a push-up?
A push-up is a closed kinetic chain exercise where the hands and feet do not move as the body moves in space. The starting position is flat on the floor facing down with hands beside the chest before the elbows straighten to push the body up and the elbows bend to lower the chest back down. It is a functional exercise and one of the fundamental human movements as it is part of the movement required to stand up from lying flat on your front. There are many variations which place different demands on various muscles - we will go in to some of these at the end of the article!
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The Difference Between Good & Bad Technique
The incorrect push-up
The most commonly seen push-up. The lower back arches and drops towards the floor, the elbows point sideways and the head and stomach reach the floor first. This variation is useless for anything other than injury! Unsurprisingly, many complain of back and shoulder pain when performing push-ups like this.
The correct push-up
The hands are placed slightly wider than shoulder-width and the elbows are positioned 45 degrees from the body. The hips are tucked under the body, the belly button is drawn in and the whole abdomen is strongly braced ready to take a punch (it should feel like you are hollowing out your midsection), the shoulder blades (scapulae) retract and protract fully in every repetition and the chest moves right up and back down to the floor. A proper push-up requires whole body rigidity, a very strong core and complete control of ones scapulae; this can take a long time to develop, thus, many people struggle when first performing them.
The push up may have originated from the Zoroastrian practice of kneeling and saluting the sun
How to perform
Feet, knees and hips
The legs play an important role in core stability. In a push-up, the feet and knees press together to activate more stabiliser muscles in the legs for better core stability. Hold as much bodyweight as possible over your hands by coming on to your toes and shifting your weight forwards. The glutes (buttocks) should squeeze forcefully to “tuck” the pelvis underneath the body. If you feel your hips sag towards the floor and you are either unaware of, or unable to correct this, regular core stability work must be performed until you are aware of how to adopt the correct position and fit enough to maintain it through out.
The core plays a vital role in lumbar safety during the push-up. Lower back pain occurs when the abdominals fatigue and the lower back starts to dip. An important cue for this is to "draw your belly button into your spine" and "clench to draw the rib cage closer to the pelvis". This enables the pelvic floor muscles to engage properly to prevent damage to the joints, namely the spine. Core stability involves the entire body from the shoulder girdle and arms to the torso then the hips and legs, not limited to the abdominals - any muscle which inserts, originates or acts upon the hips or lower rib cage can technically be classified as a core muscle - so whole body rigidity is important to maintain a strong core and protect the lumbar region.
For most variations of the push-up, the shoulder blades should protract (separate) on the upwards portion of the movement, and retract (squeeze together) on the downward portion. When using Olympic rings and parallettes it is important to keep the shoulders protracted through the entire movement - this is advisable ONLY for the experienced trainer with strong rotator cuff muscles. Two good cues to keep your elbows from splaying outwards are
- imagine you have an orange in each armpit that you are trying to squeeze at all times
- flatten your hands and 'spread' the floor with them
Ideally, the forearms remain as vertical as possible through out - especially in the lower portion of the exercise when more tension is placed along the tendons of the elbow. This may take some experimentation with hand and torso positions so use a mirror and play around to find your perfect position. As a rule of thumb, aim to move your body forward slightly on the downward portion of the movement and keep ‘squeezing those oranges’!
The hands should be flat with the palms pressing strongly into the surface your hands are on. The fingers should be spread outwards as much as possible and the middle fingers should point straight forwards.
If you have an injury that becomes aggravated by one variation then do not be afraid of attempting a different variation or changing position. Below are some common issues with the push-up and how to fix them:
Wrist pain - if you experience wrist pain you may find that turning the fingers outwards so the middle fingers point to 10am and 2pm relieves them of pain. It is also advisable to warm the wrists up by clasping your hands together and doing wrist rolls/figure of 8 as well as wrist/forearms curls and other drills before doing any push-ups.
Shoulder pain - shoulder pain when protracting (separating) the shoulder blades during the upward motion could be indicative of weak serratus anterior muscles. Simply (retracting) pinning the shoulder blades back the entire time can improve stability and prevent pain. If you experience pain at the front of your shoulder(s) in a push-up it could be indicative of insufficient retraction of the shoulder blades or incorrect hand position. Ensure the shoulders come together on the downward portion and adjust your hand position so it is wide enough. Practising the scapula push-up/shrug will also help to drill movement patterns.
Lower back pain - a weak or fatigued core can lead to back pain. Programme push-ups before abdominal work when the muscles of the core are fresh and practise a proper plank by adopting a push-up position and following “the core” cues in the “how to perform” section above.
When you are able to perform the full movement slowly for 2-3 rounds of more than 10 reps with a 90s rest period between them, you should be strong and mobile enough to experiment with your body in many other positions.
If the push-ups are too hard then begin by performing push-ups with your hands on a surface at hip height before reducing the height gradually. Your hands do not need to be flat but make sure they are stable. Avoid knee push-ups if you can unless there is no elevated surface for your hands to hold, in which case, brace your entire body but ground your knees and aim to keep your hips moving forwards towards your wrists, not backwards and forwards.
When knowledgeable and fit enough, the true versatility of the push-up will be experienced. A common variation is the triceps push up:
The triceps push-up works the triceps muscles more than the pectorals and the anterior deltoids because the arms remain closer to the body and the hands are placed close together, sometime touching and making a W (less risky) or diamond (more risky) shape with the thumbs and fingers, other times the hands are kept close to the body and hands at shoulder-width. Either way, this leaves the pectorals in a biomechanically disadvantaged position. There are many nuances when it comes to a correct and safe triceps pushup. Consequently, many often find these unnecessarily difficult.
In other variations the hands can hold rings, be placed on parallettes, medicine balls, swiss balls or dumbbells. Resistance bands can be placed under the hands and around the body to create extra tension on the way up. The feet can be raised, placed on medicine balls and swiss balls or against walls. Push-ups can be done on knuckles, wrists and fingers. Training partners can push down on your shoulders or sit/lie on you for additional resistance. Animalistic shapes can be created such as the Judo and scorpion push-ups. Many calisthenic push-up movements also become possible such as the clap and Aztec push-ups.
Have a lot of fun with this movement but don't increase the difficulty too soon. Now drop down and give me 50 more!!
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ABOUT THE AUTHORS
John Maitland is the co-founder of 'The Evolved Way.’ A personal trainer with over 10 years’ experience, he has worked alongside a wide range of leading CEOs, entrepreneurs and medical professionals. John is a keen athlete and holds a black belt in Shaolin Kung fu. A fan of the great outdoors, he can often be found exploring the British countryside and mountains...or breaking pine boards with his fingers.
Co-founder of 'The Evolved Way', and experienced personal trainer, Samson practices what he preaches. His own healthy lifestyle, which informs this site, is based on understanding the right way to eat and exercise, not excluding of course going out and enjoying life knowing you can still feel and look good.