So you think you know the push-up?

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Photo taken from Gold Medal Bodies.

If you view the above picture as proper and ideal push-up form, then I unfortunately have to tell you that you are misguided in your ways.  The push-up you think you know might lack proper technique which is not properly utilizing the proper muscles and/or could lead to injury.

Here’s a good video on how NOT to do a pushup.

Common Push-Up Mistakes

  • Hips tend to sag
  • Elbows are flared out
  • Not full range of motion (ROM)
  • Body is not in a straight line
  • Head hits floor first

Push-ups are a great total body workout – shoulder, chest, triceps, core, legs… pretty much everything.  They are simple to perform as the require no equipment except yourself.  However, it is one exercise that is performed incorrectly a lot.

How to perform the push-up with proper technique

Hands should be shoulder width apart and fingers pointing forward (not pointed in or out), directly below the base of support which are the shoulders.  A good way to remember this is to place your hands besides your nipples.  if you place your hands way in front or below shoulder height, you only make the push-ups more difficult on yourself.

Now that you have your hand placement down, let’s talk about the body.  Imagine your body as a straight line like an ironing board.  Your hips should not sag, your head should not be looking up (like in the above picture) or protruding forward on the downward motion of the push-up – it should be in neutral, the way it is when normally standing. Activate and tighten your core, glutes (butt cheeks) and quads to maintain proper posture so that your hips don’t sag.

So far, you should be in a great high plank position.  Now let’s talk about the downward motion.  Remember how I said that one of the most common mistakes for most people is to have their elbows flare out to the side? I like how Justin Rivelli puts it simply, “It’s NOT a T it’s an arrow.”  Elbows should not flare out OR be tucked close to the body.

Elbows should not be tucked in for this reason, Anterior Humeral Glide.

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What exactly does that mean?  Put simply (as far I understand it), it means that the ball of your humerus (colloquially called the arm bone) rides forward in its socket which might cause joint instability.

Here’s a good experiment to do in your seat to get a feeling of what I’m talking about.  Take your right arm and make a 90 degree angle at your elbow.  Now, tuck your elbow close to your side.  Take your left hand and place it in front of your right shoulder.  Now, still having your right elbow at 90 degrees and tucked close in, pull back in a rowing motion.  You should feel something jut forward slightly into your left hand.  That’s your humeral head moving forward in the socket. Now, imagine extra weight being added onto your shoulder, say your body weight when you’re doing push-ups.  See where I’m going?  That’s no buena for your shoulder health.

Elbows should properly be at a 45 degree angle.  Remember, it’s not a straight line (with relation to the elbows and body) but an arrow.  Now try the experiment above with some space between your arm and body at a 45 degree angle.  Not much anterior humeral glide this time.

So we have body position and elbow positioning.  Ok, now the rest is pretty simple… or is it?  THERE’S MORE? Yup.  As you start to lower the body to bending your elbows, the first thing that should hit the floor is your chest, NOT head.  Don’t reach for the floor with your chin.  and REMEMBER, to keep that whole body as straight as an arrow, NO SAGGING!  As you reach the bottom, retract or pinch your scapula (shoulder blades) together.  Once your chest hits the floor, explode up fully extending the elbows and protracting the scapula into what “plus” position.

Here’s what I mean about the “plus” part and the retract part.

If you’re saying, “MK, that’s all fine and dandy, but I not strong enough to do a full body push-up.”  Fully understandable, everyone might not have the upper body strength to perform a full body.  What I suggest, and Eric Cressey suggests as well, it to not do push-ups on your knees, but elevated push-ups like this:

This is more advantageous than the knee push-ups because according to Eric Cressey, ” [it] help[s] you to train the muscles responsible for pushing, but also those responsible for keeping the spine in a neutral position.”  Decrease your level of incline until you are able to do full body push-ups.

So here’s what a proper push-up looks like.

Who says girls can’t do push-ups – and with added weight? – Eric Cressey

Summary

  • Brace core and activate glutes & quads to keep straight body posture
  • Keep head and hands in neutral
  • Chest should hit the floor, not head
  • Elbows at a 45 degree angle relative to the body
  • “Plus” at the top and retract shoulder blades at the bottom

So what do you guys think? Questions, comments or concerns, please leave them in the comments below.  Thanks!

References

Strength Exercise of the Week: Push-ups

Strength Training Technique: 8 Ways to Screw Up a Row

Quick and Easy Ways to Feel and Move Better: Installment 12

Strength Training Technique: Scapular Movement During the Push-up

Exercise Technique Improvement (The Push Up Edition)

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