Three Steps to a Stronger Push-up
1.) Understand Proper Push-up Technique
The Push-up is a fundamental pressing exercise that when performed correctly (even in the form of regressions) effectively strengthens the chest, shoulders, and triceps. But as a commonplace in group class workouts and strength and conditioning program, too often quantity is emphasized over quality.
A push-up is essentially a moving high plank but enough attention isn’t always given to the positioning of the lower back throughout the duration of the rep. Place your thumb on the bottom of your ribcage and your index finger on your hip bone. Reduce the space between your fingers by taking a hard exhale through your mouth to move your rib cage down and bracing your core (squeeze your stomach like someone is going to punch you). Maintain this position throughout your repetitions.
As your chest lowers to the ground, your elbows should follow a line 45° from your body to allow for proper movement of the shoulder blades (more below). Your arms and spine should create an arrow throughout the entirety of the repetitions.
Scapula (Shoulder blade) Movement
During the eccentric phase (lowering portion) your shoulder blades should retract (come together). As you press out of the bottom into the finishing position, your shoulder blades will protract (spread apart). A common mistake is too much Trapezius involvement where the athlete shrugs their shoulders up (elevation) towards their neck.
2.) Pristine Regressions > Poorly Performed Standards
Many athletes are unable to hit the aforementioned positions when performing push-ups to the ground. Instead of force feeding partial reps to the ground, I would prefer to see my athletes complete well executed regressions. Below are four variations that can be gradually progressed until you’re able to perform a picture perfect push-up to the ground.
1.) Incline Push-up - The Incline Push-up reduces the load placed on the core and upper body. The higher the object is that you place your hands on, the easier the movement becomes. This makes the exercise very easy to progress in a variety of ways (see below)
Three Ways to Progress the Incline Push-up (Until you are ready to perform reps to the ground)
Lower the height of the bar/bench
Slower Tempos - slow lowering phase, slow pressing phase, pause with chest at the bar, etc
Perform Rest/Pause Sets – Instead of maxing out at 8 reps while struggling through the last couple, perform 5 push-ups, rest for 15s, and then complete another 5 (the brief rest allows the last five reps to be cleaner)
2.) Band-Assisted Push-up - The Band Assisted Push-up is a great exercise for challenging the top half of the exercise while providing assistance at the bottom of the movement (the portion that many athletes struggle with). The amount of assistance can be adjusted by changing the thickness of the band or the height of it.
3.) Positional Isometrics - Perform isometric holds at different portions of the exercise to increases strength throughout the entire range of motion. Start by working on the top position (High Plank) and at the bottom (shown here).
4.) Eccentric Push-ups - You are nearly twice as strong during the eccentric portion of an exercise (lowering). To take advantage of this, perform Eccentric Push-ups where you start in a high plank and slowly lower your chest to the ground, controlling the eccentric through the entire range of motion, instead of pressing back up from your toes and completing a standard push-up, drop your knees to the ground and perform the concentric (pressing) from your knees. You can progress this by having a partner place a plate (10-15lbs) on your lower back while you lower, and remove it when you press back up.
3.) Variety in your Pressing Accessories
While performing regressions can be enough to build up the prerequisite strength to complete your first push-up, incorporating a handful of accessory movements to build up muscle weaknesses and provide a novel stimulus is another approach towards push-up mastery. Target the chest muscles and triceps primarily while also addressing shoulder and core strength. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but a good starting point.
1.) Tricep Pushdown - The Tricep Pushdown can be performed with resistance bands, a split rope or straight bar attachment on a cable machine. Mix up your grip from pronated (palms facing towards body) to supinated (palms facing away) to neutral (palms facing each other).
2.) High Plank and Mountain Climbers - Two of the biggest mistakes with the traditional push-up are elbow position as well as a lack of lumbar (lower back) stability. The core has to be able to maintain rigidity throughout the push-up. Using a variety of core exercises like the High Plank (picture 1) and Tempo Mountain Climber (picture 2) patterns can be effective for building up the shoulders and core strength necessary to do so.
3.) Cable Single Arm Chest Press - The Cable Single Arm Chest Press has an important advantage to push-up improvement compared to the two following, and more popular, pressing exercises. Since your back isn’t pinned to the bench, it allows your scapula (shoulder blades) to move freely, much like a push-up. Keep your hips and shoulders square and don’t allow your elbow to trace too far past your ribcage on the way back. You can change up the stance from standing, to half kneeling (one knee down), to tall kneeling (both knees down) to add some variety.
4.) Dumbbell Chest Press - The Dumbbell Chest Press is a great pressing variation to develop the prerequisite strength to complete a push-up. Keep your feet grounded, your shoulder blades down and pulled together, and the back of your head resting on the bench. Keep elbows close to your body or at 45° to have the best carryover to the push-up. Start with higher repetitions (10-15) and as you become more comfortable with the movement, progress to heavier loads for fewer reps. Variations of the Dumbbell Chest Press include:
Inclined Dumbbell Chest Press – Perform the press on a slightly inclined bench
Single Arm Chest Press – Press one dumbbell while making a fist with your empty hand to brace your core
Chest Press with Alternating Lockout Holds – Press both dumbbells to start and then keep one locked out while the other arm presses. Alternate arms, keeping the dumbbell pressed out after each rep
Bench Press The Bench Press is perhaps the most revered horizontal pressing exercise to develop the chest, shoulder, and tricep musculature. Keep your feet firmly planted, pull your shoulder blades together and down (tuck them into your back pockets) and row the bar in a controlled manner to your chest, don’t just let it drop. Similar to the push-up, elbows should be close to 45° at the bottom of the movement.
Want a 6 Week at-home exercise program to improve your push-up performance? Email firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line "Push-up Program".