Ah, the simple push-up. The staple of gym teachers, Drill Instructors, and coaches everywhere. Most trainers think of them as a boring, filler exercise. I get it. Basic things aren’t sexy, right?
The truth is that I’m fascinated with push-ups. In one simple technique using nothing but your own bodyweight you can train your pushing muscles, balance out your pulling muscles, and train your mid-section (I hate the word “core”) to do exactly what it’s supposed to do: Hold up your spine and keep you from hurting your back. What’s not to love?
Even better, the execution of the push-up is simple. Just lay down straight with your arms in front of you and push yourself up and down, right? Everyone knows “how to do a push-up”….
Or do they?
Like many things in life, however, just because it’s common doesn’t mean it’s easy.
Look, we all know what a good push-up looks like. We also all know what we see when we walk into the average gym, boot camp, or spy on people doing their favorite in-home DVD workout (Ok, don’t do the last one, it’s creepy) and those don’t look anything like our vision of a good push-up. Usually the most commonly observed “push-ups” in the wild look like some sort of elbow-bending, head nodding, mid-section flopping group exercise mess.
With that in mind here’s three quick technique cues that you can use to help improve your push-ups and get more out of this great exercise:
1. Keep your head up and look at the ground about six feet in front of you.
This helps keep your body in better alignment and put some of the tension on the big muscles of your back, your lats (where it should be), versus the smaller muscles of the back of your shoulders and traps. Plus, you’ll find it easier to hit a real depth because you won’t be giving yourself the illusion of movement with a flopping head!
2. Squeeze your butt to tighten up your midsection.
When most people think of their mid-section or “core”, they think the six-pack muscles of the abs, because that’s what they see in the mirror. There’s a lot more to it, though. The truth is that the entire area of the mid-section, the front, sides, AND back have to work together to keep you stable while you move, create, and resist tension around your spine and the middle of your body.
What does that mean? It means that having a stronger, more balanced backside will help make a stronger, more balanced front side. So tighten up your cheeks and you’ll find that your back and abs will brace much more effectively and turn the push-up into the “core workout” it should be.
3. Keep your elbows in at about a 45-degree angle.
One of the things that drives me nuts is when I see people wing their elbows way out to do push-ups. This basically puts the load on the front of your shoulders and the pecs (if you go deep enough) but it also really twists and puts the shoulder joint in a bad position. Basically, everything in the front is working but most of the back is shut off. This is a recipe for an overuse injury in the shoulder. That, and it’s a just plain weaker position to be doing the exercise from.
Think about it. If you were going to push someone away from you, which is essentially what a push-up is, would you have your elbows all out to your side like some lame-ass T, or would you tuck them in and push from a lower and more stable position? I thought so.
Keep your elbows tucked at a 45-degree angle to your body, learn to engage the big muscles of your back, and your shoulders (and push-up numbers) will thank you!
Doing lots of push-ups can be a killer on the wrists and elbows. So at Relentless we do almost all of our basic push-ups, and many of the advanced versions, off of dumbbells or gymnastics parallettes in a neutral grip (“thumbs up”) so that we can keep our wrists locked and the forearms engaged from having to grip the handles. This is a much safer position for your wrists, elbows, and shoulders. As an added bonus this somewhat forces the elbows to stay in, so it helps teach Tip #3 automatically!
Check out Coach Rob showing you how we set up the Neutral-grip Push-up in this video.