The push-up is a fundamental calisthenic movement. You can do a push-up anywhere, anytime, and it’s easy to adapt to increase/decrease difficulty or shift focus to the triceps or shoulders. By adding plyometrics to your push-up, you can make even more explosive strength and impressive physique gains. The push-up recruits muscles in a similar pattern to the bench press, which includes pectorals (chest), deltoids (shoulders), and triceps (the back of your upper arm), with the added benefit of being a great core workout.
Let’s delve into the proper form for a standard push-up. A standard push-up is performed by assuming the plank position, with the wrists stacked directly under the shoulders and the body in one straight line, from neck through hips to ankles. One of the most effective ways to think about the push-up is to think of performing a moving plank. Only the joints in your shoulders, elbows, and wrists should move. Slowly lower your body until your nose touches the ground, while the rest of your body remains rigid. Explosively press up and push the ground away from you to finish the movement by returning to the plank position.
One common issue that occurs with the push-up is when the hips begin to sink towards the floor independently of the rest of the body, creating a concave back. This is a sign that you lack the core strength to perform a standard push-up, and the remedy is to remove standard push-ups from your repertoire for awhile and focus on planks and modified push-ups from the knees. Aim first for a hold of 15 sec, then 30 sec, and eventually a minute with your planks. Be sure to keep your hips in a straight line from your neck to ankles – no arching or sinking of the back. Perform modified push-ups from the knees, with a straight line through your knees, hips, to your neck. Once you’ve built some proficiency with push-ups from the knees, try push-ups with your hands elevated on a chair or bench (known as inclined push-ups).
Another common problem with push-up execution is flaring out the elbows as the body is lowered. This puts unnecessary strain on the rotator cuff. Keep the elbows tucked into the body so that they are a 90-degree angle at the bottom of the movement. This is not only safer, but also gives you a shorter lever arm, which directly translates to more force production. If you notice yourself flaring your elbows, be mindful of pulling them into your sides and check your hand positioning. If all of your fingers point forward and thumbs in towards each other, it should be easy to keep your elbows in line. Pointing the fingers in towards each other or out away from the body can create undue strain and make it more difficult to keep proper push-up form. Relevant to distance from your sides, do not allow your elbows to travel past your wrists.
Now that you’ve got your push-up perfected and you’re banging out sets of 20 at a time no problem, let’s talk about modifying your push-up to keep variation and muscle stress high.
The basic ways of making your push-up more difficult are either to shift the focus to the shoulders or triceps, add resistance, or introduce plyometrics.
You can shift the focus of the push-up from the pecs to the shoulders by performing push-ups with your legs elevated, also known as declined push-ups. The higher your legs are elevated, the more focus will be put on the shoulders, up until you reach the totally inverted version of the push-up, or handstand push-up. Emphasis can be shifted to the triceps by moving the hands in closer together, or even completely under the body as with Diamond Push-ups. Conversely, as you widen the grip of your push-up, less tricep is recruited and more emphasis is put on the pectoral muscles.
Another way to shift the focus and put some emphasis on the lats is to stretch the arms out in front of you in what is called the Lalanne push-up. This variation does not have a wide range of motion because you can only lift yourself off the ground a few inches, but it’s a fun way to add some diversity into your push-up routine and target muscle groups that you might not think of as being activated by push-ups.
There’s a variety of ways to add resistance to your push-up, the most straightforward of which being to simply place a plate on your back. Some people find this difficult to accomplish solo, so it’s helpful to have a training partner to weigh you down after you’re in the plank position. You can also wear a weighted pack or vest, which can be easier to navigate while training alone. Resistance bands are a third good option for adding “weight” to your push-up, and can be used by looping both ends around your hands and the rest of the band over your back so that you encounter resistance as you push back up into the plank position.
You can also add additional body weight resistance. This can be accomplished by removing an arm or a leg from the equation – even both for those that are very advanced. Begin by taking weight off of one of your feet and suspending it in the air, maintaining floor contact with both hands and your other foot, and then perform a push-up as usual. Removing points of contact will force your core to work harder in stabilizing your body.
Plyometrics means adding elements that elicit rapid stretching and contracting of the muscles, such as launching yourself into the air for a clap push-up. Many people that get into plyometric push-ups begin creating their own freestyle routines to music which keeps push-up sessions extra fun and interesting. It isn’t necessary to jump right into 360 clap push-ups off the bat – try just pushing explosively off the ground for an inch or two as you reach the top of your push-up to start. When you can achieve some decent air time, try to bring your hands together and clap in front of your chest while you’re airborne. From the clap push-up, you can progress to double claps or eventually even superwoman push-ups!