Think you know all there is to know about push-ups? Ha! We thought so too…until we read this.
While other bodyweight exercises like chin-ups and dips boast devoted fans from all corners of the industry, the lowly push-up is the veritable red-headed step-child of the strength and conditioning world.
But if they’re such a walk in the park, ever wonder why most novices do what they do when first attempting push-ups?
Why do rookies flare their elbows and place their hands high and wide? Why do they tend to sag in the core region, or limit the range of motion and perform “partial reps?” And why do men just seem to “catch on” much quicker than women?
Let’s discuss push-ups, common errors, corrective exercises and progressions.
Abdominal muscles are king when it comes to spinal stability during push-ups. The rectus abdominis is the primary stabilizer for preventing hip sagging, while the obliques do most of the work to prevent lateral shifting and twisting. The transversus abdominis, multifidus, and erector spinae are only minimal contributors to spinal stability during the push-up exercise.
Push-ups are also about arms and chest, with 73-109% maximum voluntary contraction (MVC) of the triceps, and 95-105% MVC of the pec major. The back is also involved, with serratus anterior as the top back muscle with 75% MVC compared to 27% for the mid traps and 36% for the lower traps.
Hand position plays an important role. A narrow base push-up position significantly increases stress on the elbow joint, but also involves higher muscle activation in the triceps and pecs. Internally rotated hand positions were also shown to produce greater and potentially injurious forces on the elbow joints.
Depending on your goal, you’ll want to do different push-up progressions.
Push-ups with alternating hands on a ball provided the greatest rectus abdominis and oblique challenge. One arm push-ups hit the lats, anterior deltoid, and erector spinae the hardest. And clapping push-ups were the toughest for the pec major, triceps, and biceps.
Research shows that narrow base push-ups led to higher EMG values in the triceps brachii and pectoralis major than wide base push-ups. Popular belief indicates that wide base push-ups activate more pec fibers, but this study showed otherwise.
Other studies found that peak axial forces on the elbow joint during push-ups averaged around 45% of bodyweight. This increases to 75% in the case of narrow base push-ups. This means that narrow base push-ups (with your hands closer together) increases stress on the elbow joint.
Studies show suspended push-ups may activate the core better than regular push-ups. Based on this, you can use blast straps or a TRX to increase the efficacy of the push-ups exercise.
According to researchers, elevating the feet above the hands had a greater influence on scapulothoracic stabilizing musculature than placing the hands on a Swiss ball.
This means that it’s more challenging for the shoulder girdle stabilizers to do push-ups with your feet elevated onto a bench – with your hands on the ground – than to perform push-ups with your hands on a Swiss ball and your feet on the ground.
But don’t dump the unstable equipment just yet. Research shows that as long as the torso angle stays put, it’s more effective to perform exercises such as Swiss ball and Bosu push-ups in comparison to bodyweight push-ups – if you place your hands on the unstable piece of equipment instead of your feet.
According to one study, internal rotation of the hand position or full pronation of the forearm during push-ups led to greater posterior and varus forces on the elbow joints that could produce injurious shear force – proof that internally rotating your hands is bad for elbow health.
Research has found that push-ups with the hands placed on a Swiss ball significantly increased triceps and pectoralis major activity compared to normal push-ups, but only during the eccentric phase.
One study found that depending on the hand position, the push up activated between 73-109% MVC of the triceps brachii, 95-105% MVC of the pectoralis major, 67-87% MVC of the serratus anterior, and 11-21% MVC of the posterior delt.
The researchers also discovered that the narrow base position was the most effective position for increasing triceps contribution, and that the Perfect Push up™ device did not enhance muscle recruitment.
Think a push-up should feel natural? Think again. There are three common push-up performance errors.
First, when performing push-ups, people often set up with their hand position high and wide. If you took a snapshot from above as in an aerial view, their set up would look like the letter T. People do this to make the exercise easier.
Why is this position easier?
- The alignment of the pec fibers is better suited to produce force from this position.
- This position requires less muscle activation (as measured by EMG) in the pecs and the triceps.
- Shoulder horizontal abduction flexibility is limited, so the structures limiting flexibility will contribute much needed passive force in the bottom position.
Second is caterpillaring, or allowing the hips to sag resulting in anterior pelvic tilting and lumbar hyperextension. Here’s why this occurs.
- They lack the core strength to stabilize their lumbopelvic region and simply allow their core to gain stability by “hanging” on the structures that limit this motion – namely the hip flexors and lumbar vertebrae. Basically, the hip flexors lengthen and contribute passive tension, and the neural arches of the vertebrae get closer together (approximation). This places the posterior elements of the spine at risk.
- People are stuck in anterior pelvic tilt due to tight hip flexors and erector spinae and don’t have the muscular strength in the rectus abdominis and gluteus maximus to override this tightness during the push-up.
- By keeping the hips low and hinging at the lumbar spine, a lower percentage of bodyweight is being lifted since much of the body is hanging toward the floor, thereby making the exercise easier.
- People aren’t strong in deeper ranges so they sag to “pretend” they’re going deeper since their hips will bottom out before their chest, creating the illusion that they’re using full ROM.
Third, people cut the movement short and perform half-reps. Here’s typically why this occurs.
- People lack end-range shoulder strength and stability.
- The bottom position of the push-ups involves a higher percentage of bodyweight than the top position, which makes the bottom more difficult. This makes the push-up the opposite of “accommodating resistance” since the loading increases as the push-up is lowered to the ground.
- People want to fool themselves into thinking that they’re in better shape than they really are. The ego can handle doing ten half-rep push-ups, but it’s tough for a typical person to admit that he or she isn’t in good enough shape to perform a single legitimate, full-range push-up.
The push-up naturally encourages anterior pelvic tilt (APT) and lumbar extension due to the posteroanterior forces on the body induced by gravity.
Contraction of the rectus abdominis is required to prevent pelvic and lumbar deformation and keep the lumbopelvic region in neutral, but further contraction of the glutes and abs will take you into posterior pelvic tilt (PPT). Whether you should enter into PPT, and the optimal amount of PPT, is up for debate.
Most coaches would agree that doing push-ups in APT is unwise. As long as you can keep a neutral posture, then all is well. However, some coaches believe that the push-up should be performed with a maximal glute and lower ab contraction to facilitate a strong PPT.
The PPT push-ups have three distinct advantages over the traditional push-up.
- Since it requires a strong glute and lower ab contraction to create the tilt, it serves as a static glute activation exercise. This allows you to kill two birds with one stone by improving the neural drive to the glutes while working the upper body.
- By shifting the pelvis forward with your glutes, you’re no longer “hanging” on your hip flexors and lumbar vertebrae for stability. This will now require a stronger abdominal contraction as now you’re using active muscles to keep you stable rather than passive muscles and ligaments.
- The extra muscle force from the rectus abdominis and gluteus maximus makes it a more effective core exercise and makes the push-up a “total body exercise.”
- Third, it “locks you in” so there’s really no chance of losing core stability. In other words, you maintain a straight line from your shoulders to ankles while you perform push-ups. Now your hips won’t begin to sag as the set ensues, which spares the posterior elements of the lumbar spine.
Pelvic positioning is linked to lumbar and thoracic spine positioning. Specifically, a PPT is associated with increased thoracic kyphosis.
Performing push-ups with a hyperkyphotic curve will affect scapulohumeral rhythm and could increase the risk of impingement and rotator cuff issues. While this might not cause any problems initially, it might present problems down the road.
Now, it is important to take a step back and note that you don’t need a posterior pelvic tilt in your push-ups; what you need is to avoid anterior pelvic tilt push-ups.
If you tend to produce an anterior pelvic tilt when you do push-ups, then encouraging PPT as you work on improving your push-ups is a great approach, but once you’re able to maintain a neutral pelvic alignment, you may wish to eliminate the posterior tilt focus. For this reason, our corrections and progressions will be shown using a PPT.
Three different factors could explain why women struggle more with push-ups than men.
First, strength levels are different between men and women. When measured as a percentage of lean body mass, the differences are dramatically reduced, especially in the lower body. But upper body strength in men is greater than in women, and because upper body strength is a big part of a push-up (requiring moving around 66% of body weight), it’s not a simple task for beginners, especially beginner women.
Second, most women possess a higher proportion of lower body muscle mass relative to upper body muscle mass compared to men. If you want to see how this feels, put yourself in a plank position and have someone place some weight above your chest and see how much of an added challenge that is. Then try this again but have the weight placed above your pelvis.
Your core will need to work much more to support the weight at your pelvis than at the chest. For this reason women could find the push-ups more challenging for the core.
Third, push-ups are considered the gold standard for strength in young males. Teenage boys likely attempt far more push-ups than teenage females. The “manliness” factor of push-ups provides an incentive for males to try harder and master the push-up.
There are several corrections that can be implemented to assist with push-up performance.
- No matter which type of push-up you’re performing, always set up in the “arrow formation.” Basically, this means that if you took a snapshot from the aerial view the push-ups position would look like an arrow, not the letter T. This position is easier on the shoulder joint and leads to higher EMG activation of the pecs and triceps.
- Only perform variations that allow you to keep your core stable and prevent excessive anterior pelvic tilt and lumbar extension. In other words, regress the exercise to a variation you can do correctly and progress from there.
- If you tend to produce an anterior pelvic tilt (APT) during your planks or push-ups, then focus on a posterior pelvic tilt.
- Only perform variations that allow you to use a full range of motion. In other words, regress the exercise to a variation that you can do correctly and progress from there.
- Perform corrective exercises and move up gradually through the progressions.
Despite the complex tone of this article, performing a push-up so perfect that it will make even the most anal retentive exercise physiologist’s heart skip a beat is a breeze.
From the list of push-up progressions below, find the one that you can do with proper form and do a set two-three times per day. Once you can complete a set of 10 with good form, move to the next progression.
Once you can do singles, progress to multiple repetitions of full push-ups. Success!
Progress not happening fast enough? Then do a couple of sets of these exercises two-three times per week and you’ll accelerate your push-ups performance progress.
Once you get the hang of proper push-up form you might find yourself quite smitten with the exercise. You’ll want it more, multiple times a day, different ways, different positions, in airplane lavatories after the captain turns off the seatbelt sign. You get the picture.
Fortunately there are many advanced progression options once quality regular push-ups have been achieved, starting with feet elevated push-ups, and moving to:
|Band resisted push-ups
|Kneeling clapping push-ups
|Between bench increased range push-ups
|Bosu ball or stability ball push-ups
|Hindu push-ups (Judo push-ups)
|Stability ball push-ups with two balls
|Push-ups with rotation (T-push-ups)
|Push-ups with hip extension
|Tick tock push-ups
|One-arm one-leg push-ups
|Weighted plate push-ups
|Weighted vest push-ups
|Weighted chain push-ups
|Alternating stability ball push-ups (walkovers)
|Grasshopper push-ups (soccer push-ups)
|Suspended push-ups (using TRX, blast straps, or rings)
Here are some good video demonstrations for push-up variations:
These two are from Roger Lawson.
These two are from Martin Rooney.
Nobody can ever be too strong for push-ups variations. Here’s Ben Bruno doing suspended push-ups with 185 lbs. of extra resistance; more than his own bodyweight!
Here’s Cem Eren doing explosive plyometric push-ups; you’ll see that he can spin 180 degrees while doing them!
And this is just insane. It’s some freak doing clapping planche push-ups, as if regular planche push-ups weren’t hard enough!
When it comes to building a stronger body sometimes the basics are the best. Don’t dump your current strength training routine, but do give the much-maligned push-up a second look.
At the very least, you can use a few of these push-up factoids to look really smart in front of your meathead friends. Just don’t let them catch you looking like a caterpillar when you do push-ups!