Most people have done push ups (or part of a push up motion) at some point in time in their life. If you’ve ever been in a situation where you got into a position where you were lying face down on the floor, you most likely got down on your knees, put your hands down on the floor and then lowered down your chest. When you got back up you most likely put your hands, faced down, underneath your shoulders and pressed yourself back up again to a kneeling position. Those two movements put together would be similar to a complete (modified) push up.
What is a Push Up?
A push up is an upper body and core stabilizing functional exercise using one’s body weight. It is a multi-joint exercise that works several muscle groups throughout the movement. Starting in a prone position (face down) the body is lowered and raised using the arms. The primary muscles used (not including synergists and stabilizers) include:
- Chest (pectoralis major)
- Arms (triceps brachi)
- Shoulders (anterior deltoids)
- Abdominals (rectus abdominis, transverse abdominis)
The push up (when done properly) is practically the perfect anterior upper body and core stabilizing exercise. It can be done almost anywhere with open floor space, requires no equipment, works multiple muscle groups at one time, and is a movement everyone should include in their workout routine (with the exception of those with an injury that is aggravated by the movement).
Performing the Perfect Push Up
Performing the “perfect” push up requires the following:
- Proper form throughout the entire exercise.
- Coordination of the muscle groups for smooth movement.
- Utilizing as much energy as possible to complete each repetition (quality of movement, not quantity).
In simpler terms, it has to look right, feel right and challenge the body as much as possible with each repetition and set. Unfortunately, it’s very easy to “cheat” when performing multi-joint (or compound) exercises. Just like a blueprint, the way that each person naturally does a push up is different because, without consciously thinking about it, our bodies try to make every movement as efficient as possible (i.e. use as little energy as possible to get the job done). To get the most out of a push up you need to focus on all aspects of the movement to keep muscles contracted for the best overall result.
5 Tips for the Perfect Push Up
Mastering the perfect push up requires dedicated attention to five key components of the exercise:
- Hand position
- Foot position
- Stabilization of the shoulder
- Stabilization of the core
Push Up – Hand Position
Place the hands directly outside the width of the shoulders (if you were lying face down on the ground, your thumbs would touch the outside of your shoulders). Fingers should be pointing forward, tips lined up with the top of the shoulder, and fingers together. Evenly distribute the weight across the entire palm of the hand and fingers.
Modification #1: To make the exercise more difficult, make the base of support smaller (and add a stabilizing challenge) by placing both hands on a medicine ball.
Modification #2: If you experience wrist discomfort, create a fist and place the knuckles on the floor (using a locked wrist position) or a curved push up bar for added comfort.
Push Up – Foot Position
Place the feet hip distance apart, with toes tucked under and heels pointing upwards towards the ceiling. Avoid having the heels turn inwards (or out) during the exercise.
Modification #1: To make the push up easier, drop the knees to the ground (either together or hip distance apart).
Modification #2: To make the exercise more difficult, make the base of support smaller by putting the feet closer together or lifting one foot off the ground.
Modification #3: For an added challenge, place one foot on a medicine ball to decrease the base of support (surface area) to a minimum.
Push Up – Stabilizing the Shoulders
Because of the affect of gravity on the head, neck and shoulder capsule it is important to activate shoulder stabilizing muscles to ensure proper form and function during the exercise. At the starting point of the exercise (arms fully extended), lengthen the neck by pushing your shoulders away from your ears. Imagine a line drawn across the floor from the tops of your right and left fingers. Look at the spot in the middle of the imaginary line. During the exercise bend the elbows to no less than a 90 degree angle. This will ensure you do not let your shoulder capsule collapse (i.e. the shoulder blades touch behind your back).
Modification #1: If you experience shoulder discomfort (i.e. chronic shoulder pain, tendonitis, etc.), position the hands directly underneath the shoulder, with elbows tucked in by your sides.
Push – Up Stabilizing the Core
The core stabilizing muscles play an important role in the overall work being done with each repetition. Similar to a plank hold, gravity is constantly challenging the core stabilizing muscles throughout the exercise. The rectus abdominis, transverse abdominis, and erector spinae work together to hold in the organs and secure the spine in a prone position. Maintain a straight line through the ears, shoulders, hips, knees and heels. To generate a constant contraction of all core stabilizing muscles, focus on pressing the toes (or knees) and palms of the hands simultaneously into the ground throughout the exercise. The isokinetic activation of these stabilizing muscles ensures the body is in the correct position in both the downward and upward phases of the movement.
Push Up – Breathing
Breathing is often an afterthought when it comes to doing any exercise and is vital to both safety and performance. Complete each push up slowly, rather than quickly. A slower movement ensure the muscles are activated and all joints are stable throughout the full range of motion.
- Inhale during the decent towards the floor (“1 – 2 – 3” count).
- Exhale during the ascent back to starting position (“1 – 2 – 3” count).
- Pause for one second.
Additional Words of Wisdom for the Push Up
The push up is a very complex exercise that can be greatly improved with focus to details of the exercise and consistent use. Below are additional tips to make each push up more effective as an addition to your workout program.
- Focus on the quality of the exercise, not the quantity.
- Listen to your body. If you feel pain, discomfort, or fatigue … discontinue the exercise.
- Use modifications to the exercise to make it easier or more challenging as needed.
For a complete total body workout, be sure to include additional exercises that challenge other muscle groups, including: