The push-up—there is no more fundamental or universal exercise. It is the first one taught in elementary PE and one still utilized daily by our most elite fighting forces. Push-ups are a staple of every fitness program since ancient Greece and for good reason. The push-up is far more than a horizontal press for the chest, shoulders, and triceps. It requires stability and coordination throughout the entire body.
Neck, back, erectors, abdominals, quads, and glutes all must become integrated and tense in order to maintain position throughout the movement. Like all good training, every muscle has a job and despite its essentiality, most people’s push-ups could use some cleaning up.
I train hundreds of youth athletes every year. They can make phenomenal progress over four years, but not until they fix their push-ups. All training is just progression. Mastery of the bodyweight essentials must precede loading the body with heavy weights or the weak links in the chain will be revealed, either through injury or compensation patterns.
Anyone who refuses to confront faulty push-ups severely limits their progress down the road. High school boys, especially, are frothing at the mouth to get to bench press, but this exercise is entirely irrelevant until they can do 10 good push-ups. If it isn’t because of a need for more intensity, why trade an exercise that plainly demands the entire body works for one where you lay down on a bench and push?
Despite my insistence on this admittedly unsexy message, I can confidently say that most athletes I encounter cannot execute a push-up by the start of their freshman year. It is the same with general population clients, but this is very correctable and always worth it.
Perfect the Push-Up
Good push-ups start at the core. We must first master the push-up position plank (PUPP):
- Hands directly under shoulders. The crown of the head through the heels should be in a straight line.
- Take your eyes up to a point about a foot away to keep your neck in a good position.
- The core should be tight like you are preparing to take a punch.
- The glutes should be tightened like you are trying not to fart.
- Think about pulling your knees up and you’ll get more quad activation.
Once you have perfect stability in the PUPP, you can move to the push-up:
- Start the same, with hands directly under the shoulders, core, glutes, and quads activated, and a perfect line from the crown of your head to your heals.
- It is very important to understand that you will keep this perfect line the entire movement. A push-up is a moving plank.
- At this point, slowly and evenly lower your body towards the ground with your elbows tracking by your sides.
- Elbow path is very important. From an aerial view, you would look like an arrow, not a T. This may be more challenging, but it utilizes more muscles and is a far safer path for shoulder health.
- Holding a rigid plank push through the floor, extending your elbows and locking out.
All training is just progression. If you can execute the movement at the prescribed tempo and do more than the prescribed number of reps, you can move to higher intensity (more weight, a harder variation,). If you cannot execute the prescribed work, you must regress.
The easiest way to regress push-ups is to just take hands higher. I prefer this to knee push-ups because the same foot to head plank is maintained. Take hands as high as you need with benches, boxes, chairs, etc. just be sure to maintain the plank. A push-up is a moving plank.
There are three common faulty patterns that I tend to see. Often these are subtle:
- Face Down, Ass Up: The push-upper begins the movement by pushing his/her butt to the sky and dropping the face towards the floor as elbows come back but without the rest of the body. Clearly, the entire plank has fallen apart. Without a plank, there is no push-up.
- The Seal: The push-upper lowers the chest by depressing the scaps and lowering the hips. He/she doesn’t maintain the plank and his/her elbows don’t bend proportionally to the lowering of the body.
- The Worm: The push-upper tends to drop to the bottom very fast, in order to hide weaknesses. At the bottom position the hips are usually slightly higher than the chest. He/she then subtly goes through a wave type motion, unevenly worming to the top position. This is the hardest to detect.
All of these are best corrected by regressing to a hands higher position and doing the push-up pattern ridiculously slowly. To correct the pattern, we must own every millimeter of the movement. This reveals all. It is also tremendous core work.
For some people, it is best not to go through the full range of motion yet. People with a worm fault will be the most certain they are doing everything right. They’ll lower themselves slower (but not slow) and then drop disproportionately fast in the final few inches.
For the first few sessions when I am introducing proper push-ups to a group I will do the following:
- Elevate everyone’s hands to a bench
- Work at very slow tempos
- Begin with only 3/4 range of motion push-ups to avoid the compensations and force perfect form
I like to pair up my groups and go through the following push-up games/circuits:
- Elevator: I have most athletes start with hands higher so participants won’t tire as fast. Again, the push-up is a moving plank. Picture your body as being the flat floor of an elevator. Locked out is level four. Elbows at 90 degrees are level 1. I then have them all show me a level 2 and 3. From there the game is simple. I call out a level and the athletes move their body there. If they aren’t at the right level, their elevator is broke and they are out. If the elevator isn’t flat, the floor is breaking and they are eliminated. The goal is to last longest.
- Descending Tempo Circuit: Each round is one push-up. Partners simply alternate doing one push-up on my command tempo. The first round is 10 seconds down, 3 seconds isometric pause, and 10 seconds up (10-3-10). The next round is (9-3-9) and we work all the way down to (1-3-1).
- Ascending Tempo Circuit: This is the exact same, but we start at the (1-3-1) and work to a (10-3-10). I like this better because there is less cheating in the first round and you can turn it into a game, like the elevator, where participants are eliminated when form breaks as it might in later rounds.
- Ascending and Descending Tempo Pyramid: Like the above circuits, but you start at (1-3-1), work up to (5-3-5), and then back down to (1-3-1).
Put In the Effort
The temptation within all these drills and all push-ups is to break form in an effort to do more or to work at too hard of a progression. Push-ups must always cease when form breaks, otherwise, you are reinforcing a bad pattern. If form breaks the fix is always hands higher and slower reps. I recommend videoing yourself or your athletes. This can be very revealing.
There are a lot of exercises out there, but few more essential than the push-up. Rather than pushing forward to accumulate as many complex exercises as possible, why not get really good at the foundation? Why not get really good at the push-up?