At one time or another we have all attempted a push-up. Either as a kid in gym class, in the privacy of your own home away from public scrutiny, or at the gym on your quest to get stronger or toned up. Some people, but certainly not the majority, can do one or more push-ups from the toes with good form. However, most people avoid push-ups altogether because they do not like them – mostly because they are difficult or people are unsure if they are doing them correctly. This may be why so many clients often state that one of their main strength goals when first starting a strength training program is being able to complete at least one push-up from the ground on their toes with proper form and technique. So, how can someone build their strength in a logical manner to achieve this feat?
Basic Technique 101
First, what does a proper push-up look like? (Watch the video below to see Len being
cued). At the top of the push-up (when your arms are straightened), the hands should be
slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Your body should be aligned with a straight line from
the ear, shoulder, hip to ankle bone (i.e. neutral spine posture).
From start to finish, and all points in between, the spine should always be in this neutral position (this is where core strength is required!). Think of the body being held in a plank position throughout the movement. At the bottom of the motion (where your elbows should be at a 90 degree angle), the thumb and first finger should be aligned with the armpit. This will ensure the head is far enough out in front of the shoulders to create a triangular shape with the head and hands.
At this 90 degree elbow position the forearms will be vertical and the legs will be engaged (slight squeeze of the quadriceps and glutes) with the toes and balls of the feet planted firmly into the floor. To maintain proper shoulder stability, during the ascent, you should drive your hands into the floor and imagine “screwing lids onto jars” with both hands moving away from the midline of the body. This will create external rotation through the shoulder; therefore, generating more stability and power. Lastly, the shoulder blades should move towards the spine on the descent and drive away from the spine on the ascent.
Strengthening your Weak(er/est) Links
As the body needs to maintain a plank position throughout the push-up, you need to consider your overall core strength. An easy and efficient way to determine your core strength and endurance is to perform a plank from the forearms and toes. In this position, if the core is unable to support the spine in the neutral position, the core is too weak to complete a push-up.
In this scenario, the person could work on their core strength by performing a plank from the knees and forearms and then progressing to a plank from their toes once the former is relatively “easy” and a progression is required.
Besides the core needing to be strong, other major muscle groups needing strength are the pectorals (chest), deltoids (shoulders) and triceps (back of the arms). These muscle groups can be loaded through an array of exercises beside the push-up. For example, a dumbbell chest press (which is the exact same movement as the push-up) would work all three of these areas with the benefit of being more selective with the exact amount of weight being lifted. A few of the many possible exercises that would work on the muscles required for pushing include: dumbbell front raises (front deltoids), chest flyes with a band or dumbbell, and tricep extensions.
To improve your push-up, one needs to practice push-ups!
Here is a logical progression to reach the goal of successfully completing one perfectly
executed, standard push-up from your hands and toes:
1. Incline push-up from the toes – Hands are elevated so the body is more upright rather
than parallel to the ground. A great way to objectively track improvement is to set the
bar in the Olympic rack or on a Smith machine at a given height and, over time as you
get stronger, keep lowering the bar notch-by-notch. If you are working out at home,
using a staircase is a good alternative.
- Gravity is your worst enemy when trying to perform a push-up, but, every muscle in our body is stronger when it is lengthening.
- Here’s how to make gravity your ally: Bring one foot forward to the midline of your body and use it as a ‘helper’ during the pushing phase (against gravity), but on the down phase (with gravity) don’t use your front foot as a kickstand
- Using this technique, you ultimately press ‘up’ less weight with greater ease and ‘lower down’ more weight with greater control
2. At a certain point the incline push-ups from the toes will become easier allowing your hands to be placed on a lower level as your strength improves, but there will be a point where your front foot ‘kickstand’ will no longer physically work, but…
- Dropping straight to the ground and pushing-up from the knees may be too difficult. Therefore, slightly elevating the hands by placing them up on a step or stable object (think a couple of inches) and performing a push-up from the knees will be the next challenge.
- Next step: Push-up from the knees with the hands on the ground – the body is now getting closer to parallel and therefore increasing in resistance and difficulty.
- The next step in the kneeling push-up continuum is to elevate your knees while keeping your hands on the floor. A steeper angle with the chest being lower than your knees helps gravity help you with added resistance.
3. Starting the push-up from the toes and lowering to the ground, but then dropping to the knees for the press back up to starting position. During the lowering phase of the push-up our muscles are lengthening (the eccentric movement) and are stronger relative to when our muscles are shortening (the concentric movement) when we are pushing ourselves back up.
4. After step 3 is achieved for multiple repetitions, the last stage would be to execute the push-up from the toes on the ground.
There are endless ways to increase your upper body strength to aid in the capacity to be able to perform one or more perfect push-ups. The key, is to understand your starting point and to work through a logical progression of exercises that minimally, but effectively, put enough demand on the body to elicit a positive adaptation over time. If you apply patience and persistence and follow each progression, you will eventually complete the ultimate goal – the perfect push-up!