Many people are never coached on how to do a Push-Up, leaving those challenged by the exercise on their own. The Push-Up is one of those exercises that is considered so simple it doesn’t need to be taught. It is assumed that anyone should be able to do Push-Ups.
Although Push-Ups are included in workouts for even elementary school physical education classes, the vast majority of young athletes have poor form on this staple exercise.
The following are cues and strategies that illustrate how to improve your push-up form. Three are changes that can be implemented immediately, and three are effective ways to vary the load of the exercise. All six can be used by individuals at any level of ability.
Left – Incorrect / Right – Correct
Most people who have received little or no Push-Up coaching do one of two things: they tuck their head and look at their hands or they look up at the horizon. Both things make it challenging to maintain a neutral back position. The former typically causes a rounding of the shoulders, and the latter, and more common mistake, causes a drop in the hips and and excessive arching in the lower back. This frequently results in Push-Ups done from the upper body with the hips lagging behind or not even moving. By keeping the head neutral and looking straight down, it is much easier to maintain a neutral back position. A Push-Up is really a moving Plank held from heel to head, the only motion occurring at the arms, shoulders and ankles.
Left – Incorrect / Right – Correct
Depending on the variation of Push-Up, the space between the hands varies. The most common forms have the hands roughly shoulder-width and held a bit further away from the body, more like a Barbell Bench Press grip. Regardless of the hand position, an easy fix involves the direction toward which the hands are pointed.
Many people start with their hands angled toward each other. Imagine trying to squat with your toes turned. It wouldn’t work very well. Though more feasible in a Push-Up, angling the hands inward toward one another is not ideal. It causes the shoulders to rotate internally, which makes it difficult to perform the Push-Up to full depth and is harder on the shoulders. By pointing the middle fingers straight ahead or slightly outward, the shoulder rotates externally to a greater degree, putting it in a stronger position, which should feel more comfortable and be easier to perform in general.
Elevate Your Hands
When someone struggles with a Push-Up or isn’t strong enough to perform the movement, individuals and coaches often modify it by placing the knees on the floor. This can be an effective modification. It’s easy and it requires no additional equipment. The drawback is that it results in a decrease in the physical challenge and benefit of the movement. In the short term, it may be the best place to start; however, it’s very tough to transition to doing Push-Ups from the feet.
An intermediate step or variation is needed, such as elevating the hands. By placing your hands on an elevated surface, you reduce the amount of body weight resistance that must be lifted. The elevated hand position also challenges the core, similar to performing a Push-Up from the ground. This makes the transition from knees on the ground to a full Push-Up much easier. This modification can be used to increase the volume of quality Push-Ups performed in a workout or to make plyometric Push-Ups lighter and more explosive.
Keep Your Chest High
Incorrect – Left / Correct – Right
Many people who struggle with Push-Ups start the movement by collapsing their chest toward the ground. Their arms don’t actually bend, or they bend minimally, while their torso drops several inches and their shoulder blades crash together. Instead, the chest should lower via flexion of the arms and shoulders. If done correctly, the shoulder blades gradually move closer together during the lowering portion of the movement and gradually move apart on the rising part. At the bottom of a Push-Up, the shoulder blades should be close together, but should not look or feel like they are colliding with one another. After demonstrating the correct movement to someone who is dropping his chest first, a cue that can help is “keep your chest high.”
In addition to demonstration and cueing, elevating the hands can really help. The decrease in resistance makes it much easier to lower everything together rather than dropping the chest. If you’re strong enough, you may only need to elevate your hands for a few reps to get the feeling of keeping your chest high and lowering from the arms and shoulder simultaneously.
Hand Release Push-Ups
Hand Release Push-Ups can help teach stiffness through the core and make the bottom portion of the exercise less difficult. A few weeks of training with this variation can help improve your traditional Push-Up form. Lie on your stomach with your hands in a push-up position. To begin the movement, tighten your core, raise your elbows toward the ceiling and lift your hands an inch or two off the ground. Then explosively drive your hands into the ground while quickly lifting your body up, maintaining a rigid core. Starting the Push-Up with your hands above the ground allows the Push-Up to be initiated with some momentum. It also helps promote stiffness through the core.
Change the Tempo
Changing the tempo of a Push-Up can be an effective way to increase the load during different parts of the movement. Both slowing the movement and adding pauses increases time under tension, making the movement more difficult in ways different from simply adding more repetitions. The two most obvious ways, and possibly the most effective, are to increase the time performing the lowering portion and adding a pause at the bottom. The lowering portion of a Push-Up is the easiest part of the movement and receives the least amount of training during a normal tempo. Increasing the duration of time spent lowering increases the difficultly of the exercise. The strength gained in the course of few weeks from this modification will improve your entire push-up movement at normal tempo, not just during the lowering portion. This can be done as part of a full Push-Up or separately with only the lowering portion of the movement and then resetting to the starting position at the top.
Adding a pause at the bottom emphasizes the portion of the Push-Up where many people struggle the most. Focusing on this position promotes faster improvement than just training with normal tempo Push-Ups. Like increasing the lowering time, holds can be performed within a full push-up movement or by themselves as their own exercise. Holds can also be done at any point in the push-up motion where an individual struggles. Another example is in the halfway up position. Time spent either lowering or holding in a specific position can be increased, like increasing the number of repetitions, to make either method more difficult.
Overall, many different strategies can improve your Push-Ups. The six cues and strategies discussed above provide both effective quick fixes and techniques that can be implemented in isolation or in various combinations to create new challenges. Once you become proficient with these, there are many variations of Push-Ups that you can perform, both to increase the challenge and to break up the monotony.