The pushup is a terrific exercise. It is used in various fitness programs around the world, from the military, strength and conditioning programs, professional sports and even regular commercial personal trainers. Why are pushups so good?
- Builds upper body strength
- Can be done anywhere
- Easily adjust difficulty
- Lot of variations
- Lots of carryover to other lifts/sports
- Can be used for conditioning purposes
- A stepping stone to much harder calisthenics exercises (i.e. handstand pushups)
The list could be much longer, but this article is not about the benefits of pushups, but rather how to do pushups. In this article we are going to go over how beginners should train pushups the proper way and then talk about where to go once you’ve got them down.
Work The Motion First, Muscles Second
Most lifters get excited at the prospect of learning a new exercise in the hopes that it will be the “missing link” in your quest for training greatness. Unfortunately, most of these lifters get disappointed with the results they get and as a result they hop onto the next “magic” exercise. This is why I always tell lifters to work the motion first, and the muscles second. Although the muscles are getting worked, it is ultimately the motion we are exercising. This is why proper mechanics are so important. With that said let’s now learn the proper mechanics of a pushup. Yes, this is necessary.
The first and most important thing to remember when doing pushups is to maintain a neutral spine. The spine is like a chain. If the chain maintains tension (i.e. stays tight) it will better transmit force. If, however, the chain does not maintain tension, energy will be lost and very little to no force will be transmitted. This can be learned easily by anyone on the wall because you are not handling too much of your bodyweight.
First, place your hands on the wall in front of you just slightly outside your shoulders. From here, turn your elbow pits forward (this will be important for tougher bodyweight exercises) and lower your body all the way down until you touch the wall. Then just push yourself back up. Make sure to keep your body in a straight line (avoid over-arching your back).
You want to do as many reps as possible with PERFECT FORM! Once you can do about 10-20 reps easily you are ready to move onto the next stage.
Now that the proper mechanics have been mastered on the wall, it is now time to add some strength so we can transition to the normal version on the floor. This can be accomplished with inclined pushups preferably on a an aerobic step or some other elevated surface where you can lower yourself evenly over time. If not then just be creative. As you start to lower yourself, you will need to work harder to maintain good form. A good rule of thumb is about 3 sets of 10 reps, with PERFECT FORM, each time you lower yourself before you move onto the next progression.
Remember, strength takes time to acquire and with time the more likely people are going to quit. Most people can do a wall pushup, sure that’s true. But not many trainees can do a perfect pushup and that is because they want to skip the process of acquiring strength. This step is crucial and it is unwise to try and breeze through this if you are a beginner.
Transitioning To The Floor
After spending some time on the incline pushups and you a couple of inches off the floor, then it is time to lower yourself onto the floor. For some people this is a smooth and easy transition; for others, it is a little more difficult. If you are able to pump out a set of 5-10 without a problem then that is great, you can skip to the last section. If you can’t, don’t worry continue reading and we’ll get you there.
With the transition onto the floor there are two common problems that arise:
- Elbows Flare Out to the Sides
- Loss of Neutral Spine
When the elbows flare out it means that the transition to the floor was a bit too much of a jump in weight. The jump in weight overwhelms the shoulders and stabilizers. This causes the shoulders to loose stability during the movement. As a result, the body has no choice but to have the shoulders flare out to create an artificially stable position.
We also see lifters breaking their neutral spine, this occurs with either the butt rising up in the air or the butt dropping down close to the floor. The body is again being overwhelmed by the change in position and thus the stabilizers lose stability in the hips and core.
If you could keep your elbows in a good position during the incline pushup series, but lost it on the floor then you simple just need to keep mentally cueing yourself to do so. With practice this should correct itself. One neat little exercise to help correct this issue is the scapula pushup.
The scapula pushup (pictured below) is essentially a pushup with straight arms. Similar to the preparation exercise for pull-ups. To do this, first make sure that your elbow pits are turned forward and then simply pinch your shoulder blades together. Your arms should be kept locked out the whole time. If done correctly, your body will move down a little bit. Then all you have to do is push through your hands and come back up to the starting position. Perform this for 3 sets of 15 reps.
If keeping the hips neutral is the problem, then we need to address the abdominals and the glutes. Most trainees neglect these muscle groups as insignificant to the pushup. Well, let me clarify, the pushup, when done correctly, is a full body movement. Therefore, we need to activate these muscles during the movement.
In order to train the abs, we need to perform an exercise called the extended plank. The extended plank is a plank in which you place your arms further in front of you than in a regular plank. This is similar to the ab wheel exercise except you are not moving.
To perform this, get into a pushup position on the floor and start moving your hands in front of you in a close grip. Go as far as you can while maintaining a neutral spine. You will know right away if your form is bad because your lower back will feel as if it is hyperextending. That is why I love this exercise, you can not mess it up. Once in this position, just hold as long as possible for 3 sets. 20-30 seconds is a good timeframe to go for. If done correctly, your abs will be smoking.
Now to address the problem with the glutes; the glutes work with the abs to stabilize the lower body and trunk. Strength is usually not the issue with the glutes, therefore we just need to activate them. To do this we will do flat foot pushups.
Find an empty wall with nothing in front of it and face away from it. Then get down on the ground in a pushup position. From here, simply walk your feet back all the way until your feet are against the wall. Once there, push your heels into the wall as hard as you can. Keep pushing and perform a pushup. This will force the glutes to activate during the pushup. It may seem a little awkward at first, but you will get used to it and best of all your glutes will get in the habit of firing during the pushup. Perform for 3 sets of as many reps as possible with PERFECT FORM!
90% of the getting a perfect pushup is the prep work. With all of the prep work done you should have no problem transitioning to the floor.
Where To Go From Here
Once you have the pushup perfected, keep performing reps, as many as possible. From here you can then progress to wide-grip pushups, diamond pushups, explosive pushups, handstand pushups, etc. Eventually yo can even do feats of strength, such as the one-arm pushup. The possibilities are endless and when you realize that you will be glad that you took the time and effort to master the basics.