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Back to the Basics: Why You Must Do Push-Ups

September 13, 2013

When working out to get bigger and stronger, bodyweight exercises take the back seat to lifting weights nine times out of 10. The prevailing attitude is, if you don't lift weight, you can't get bigger and stronger.

That's true to an extent—you need to lift heavy weight to challenge your muscles and stimulate gains in strength and size. However, you should only do this if you've mastered fundamental bodyweight movements. If you can't perform a Push-Up correctly, it makes no sense to attempt to Bench Press heavy weight.

I use the Push-Up as an example, because people simply love the Bench Press. When people first start to work out, this is often the exercise they look forward to most. It builds chest strength and demonstrates pure manliness.

Although pressing a heavy bar off your chest may seem tempting, it's important to slow down and master the Push-Up first. You will set yourself up for bigger gains in the future, and you will still build strength and size.

Say Hello to Healthy Shoulders

Everyone needs to master Push-Ups before performing the Bench Press. However, even if you're advanced, you can and should still do Push-Ups.

If you're properly performing the Bench, you must lock your shoulders against the bench and create a small arch with your back. There's nothing inherently wrong with this cue, and it's necessary to avoid injury when lifting heavy loads. But it immobilizes your scapulae (i.e., your shoulder blades), preventing them from moving with your arms as they are designed to.

Over time, you may learn to move your arms without engaging your scapulae. The scapulae help stabilize the shoulders, so taking them out of a movement may increase your risk for injury, especially if you are an athlete who throws a ball.

The Push-Up eliminates this problem, because your scapulae are not locked in place and are free to move.

Basic Push-Up Technique

You've probably been performing Push-Ups since gym class in grade school. But do you really know how to perform them correctly? Probably not. Here are a few tips to correct common mistakes:

  • Position your hands slightly outside your shoulders with your chest (not your shoulders or face) located directly above.
  • Lower your body while maintaining a straight plank position (don't let your hips sag) until your chest touches the ground.
  • Keep your forearms directly over your hands and keep your elbows to your sides at a 45-degree angle.
  • Make sure your shoulders are pulled back.
  • Fully extend your arms when pressing up.
  • Your chin should be slightly tucked and you should look straight down. Imagine kissing the floor on every rep.

Push-Up Progressions

Feet-Elevated Push-Ups

Elevating your feet increases the load, but shifts it more to your shoulders. The higher your feet are elevated, the more your shoulders must work. If you're a contact sport athlete, this movement is ideal because it simulates the pressing pattern used when blocking or battling for position.

Weighted Push-Ups

Increase the challenge by placing weights or chains across your upper back, similar to adding weight to a bar. This variation challenges your core to resist the load when maintaining the plank position.

Tip: Try performing a drop set by removing the load upon failure and continuing with bodyweight Push-Ups.

Suspended Push-Ups

These are my favorite of the three variations. The straps are unstable, so your shoulder stabilizers and core must fire to keep you balanced and in control. Also, you're able to move through a greater range of motion, which stretches the pecs and increases the challenge—even though you're only using your body weight.

Note the difference between the Bench Press and the Suspended Push-Up in the video below.


Although the Push-Up is typically performed with only your body weight, you can still build strength and size. And it offers several additional benefits compared to the Bench Press.

This same concept applies to other bodyweight exercises. Obviously there are differences (e.g., a bodyweight Squat has nothing to do with your shoulders); but it's critical to master the fundamentals before adding weight. You'll learn proper technique and build foundation strength, setting you up for serious gains from your training.

Topics: PUSH-UP
Lee Boyce
- Lee Boyce is a strength coach based in Toronto who works with strength, sports performance and conditioning clients. He contributes to many major magazines, including...
Lee Boyce
- Lee Boyce is a strength coach based in Toronto who works with strength, sports performance and conditioning clients. He contributes to many major magazines, including...
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