Back To Basics – Pushup

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Photo’s by Ariana at Ariana Eve Fitness

The push-up is probably one of the simplest exercises to build both upper-body and core strength. It’s a compound exercise that uses muscles in the chest, shoulders, triceps, back, abs, and even the legs. It’s also an exercise that closely resembles the Bench Press.

There are several regressions (easier) & progressions (harder) modifications so beginners can start with easier versions and work up to the standard push-up, while you can find a challenging variation if you are advanced. You can do the push-up as part of a bodyweight exercise session, a circuit training workout, or a strength workout.

What Muscles does it use?

The upper body muscles that come into play in the push-up are the deltoids of the shoulders, the pectoral muscles of the chest, the triceps and biceps of the upper arm, and the erector spinae of the back. The abdominal muscles used to hold the body rigid during the push-up are the rectus abdominis and the transversus abdominis.

What are the benefits?

In daily life, you will often need to push against objects, from doors to shopping carts. The functional fitness you develop with push-ups will make your life easier. Working the stabiliser muscles around the shoulders can help protect you from rotator cuff injuries. Push-ups are also a measure of overall fitness, allowing you to assess whether you need to be doing more to keep your body in good working condition.

  • Get on the floor on all fours, positioning your hands slightly wider than your shoulders but in line with them.
  • Extend your legs back so that you are balanced on your hands and toes. Keep your body in a straight line from head to toe without sagging in the middle or arching your back. You can position your feet to be close together or a bit wider depending on what is most comfortable for you.
  • Before you begin any movement, contract your abs and tighten your core by pulling your belly button toward your spine. Keep a tight core throughout the entire push-up.
  • Inhale as you slowly bend your elbows backward about 45-degrees and lower yourself until your elbows are at a 90-degree angle.
  • Exhale as you begin contracting your chest muscles and pushing back up through your hands to the start position. Don’t lock out the elbows; keep them slightly bent.

Repeat for as many repetitions as your workout routine requires. If you have to pass a fitness test (such as a Military Physical Fitness Test) you can use a few simple strategies to build your strength and endurance to do more push-ups. One popular strategy is the “one more push-up a day” approach. This is when on day one you do one push-up, then on day two you do two push-ups, and so on.

Common Mistakes

Although a Push-up is a simple exercise, it is easy to start making errors if you are getting tired or if you haven’t built enough core strength. Look for these and switch to an easier variation if you can’t maintain the best form.

Sagging in the Middle

The most common problem is sagging in the middle, caused by not properly bracing the core and keeping braced throughout the movement. This is not only bad form, but it can also cause back pain. You can practice with a modified plank exercise to build your core strength. Once you master that, try doing a push-up on your knees, practice keeping your core braced.

A High Butt

The next most common problem is the opposite of the sag, having your bottom in the air. This occurs due to a weakened core, where you raise your bottom so you don’t rely on your core to support the move. This position moves the workload from the chest to the shoulders, often resulting in sore shoulders.

Neck Alignment

Your neck should be in neutral alignment with the head in a straight line with the spine, eyes to the floor, and the top of your head pointed at the opposite wall. If you point your chin up or drop your head so you much that you can see your toes, you are out of alignment.

Locked Elbows

Locking your elbows at the top of the movement is a mistake you might make as you fatigue and want a little rest. But this places too much stress on the joints and can lead to strain or injury. Always keep a slight bend in the elbows. If you are becoming tired and fatigued, it’s time to take a rest before doing another set.

Hands Too Far Forward

If your hands are farther out from your body than your shoulders you are placing more strain on your shoulders. While you can vary how close your hands are together to get different effects, they should be under your shoulders.

Limited Range of Motion

If you are only going down partially with most of your push-ups, you aren’t getting the full benefit. It is better to switch to an easier modification (such as knee or incline push-ups) that you can develop your full range of motion.

Modifications and Variations

Whether you are a beginner or you need more challenges, there is a push-up for you. One of the great things about the push-up is that by varying the exercise you can change the stimulus on your muscle. Beginners can build the strength they need to work up to standard push-ups while advanced exercisers can work their muscles in new ways.

Need a Modification?

Try these regression variations if you struggle with a standard push-up:

Incline Push-ups: If a standard push-up is too difficult, you can start by doing push-ups against a table or bench. Stand about 1 metre away from the object. Use the same technique as a standard push-up to lower yourself until the elbows are 90 degrees, then raise back up. Keep your core tight the whole time.

Bent-Knee Push-ups: This is a modified version of the standard push-up performed on the knees rather than on the toes. Be sure to keep the knees, hips, and shoulders all in a straight line. Do not allow yourself to bend at the hips and stick your bottom in the air.

Up for a Challenge?

Try these push-up progression variations for increased difficulty and to work your muscles in different ways.

Stability-Ball Push-ups: Add core stability work for increased difficulty and effectiveness. Make sure you can do about 20 basic push-ups before trying these.

Push-up Lat Row: This variation adds alternating dumbbell lat rows to the top of each rep. This modification increases the intensity of the exercise, activates the core stabilisers, and engages the latissimus dorsi (back) muscles.

Medicine-Ball Push-up: Perform a standard push-up with one hand on top of a medicine ball. This works the shoulder in a slightly different range of motion which increases shoulder stability.

Alternating Medicine-Ball Push-up: This variation adds core stability as well as a modified range of motion during the basic push-up movement. Roll the medicine ball between each hand after a rep and add a new balance challenge.

Decline Push-ups: This is a more difficult push-up, performed with the feet raised on a box or bench. You can adjust the box height to increase or decrease the resistance using just your body weight.

Diamond Push-up: The diamond push up is done with your hands close together and the index fingers and thumbs of one hand touching the other hand and making a diamond shape. You then do push-ups with your hands touching the centre of your chest and elbows close to your sides during each rep.

Clapping Push-up: This is a plyometric exercise in which you push yourself up with enough power so that your hands come off the floor and you clap in mid-air. This variation is not for the novice, you can very easily injure yourself if you haven’t worked up to it.

Safety and Precautions

You should not do push-ups if you have a shoulder, wrist, or elbow injury. Talk to your doctor or physio to see if this is an appropriate exercise. If you want to protect your wrists, you can place your hands on dumbbells or push-up bars to keep them in a neutral position. If you feel shoulder pain during the push-up or hear a clicking noise in your shoulder, end the exercise.