Okay that's unfair. I don't know you (But I want to! Send me an email at email@example.com telling me your top three favorite movies!).
I've never seen you do push-ups and I am making a huge assumption.
Who knows maybe you are actually the Micheal Jordan of push-ups.
But you know what the thing is there is only one Micheal Jordan and therefore it's unlikely that everyone who reads this is going to be awesome at push-ups and based on my experience this is likely the truth.
That being said I don't want to be condescending or discouraging to you.
If you have been regularly doing push-ups then you are awesome! And you are definitely way ahead of the 95% of Americans who engage in no physical activity what so ever on any regular basis.
Kudos on that!
Seriously, let's slow clap that shit! I don't mind waiting!
[Clap . . . . . . clap . . . . clap . . . clap . . clap . . clap . . clap . . clap]
That felt good didn't it?
You know to acknowledge your success and admit that you are kind of a badass?
Yeah do that more!
What I really want to accomplish today though is give you a firm understanding of what a really, really great push-up looks like, how it's different from how most people perform push-ups, and why it is going to be better for you in the long run.
How most people perform push-ups.
Chances are that the first time anyone ever made you do a push-up was in school during a "physical education" class.
Likely it revolved around the Presidential Fitness Test and focused on how many you could do on a timed metronomic voice saying "up . . . down . . . up . . . down."
Am I bring back some memories?
Yeah that's what I thought.
Anyways the instruction you were probably given about how to do the push-up could probably be summed up as "minimal."
And considering that we are social primates who usually base our behavior on those around us you probably just copied the person next you's form which probably looked something like this.
I'm not making fun of this individual I am just trying to give you a visual reference of what bad push-up form looks like and how much of the fault for your bad form lies with the pathetic excuse that our country calls "Physical Education."
In fact (Granted I don't know the dude in the video maybe he was trying to be funny) this guy probably was really proud of himself because he believe he was actually making progress towards becoming stronger and more muscular. The same very impression you maybe under!
But while I give this guy (and you) an "A" for effort I can't help but criticize the execution because if he (or you) continue to do push-ups in this manner you are going to end up creating a lot more problems for yourself than just that you are weak and out of shape.
Let's break it down then.
What is so horrible about doing a push-up like this?
Will start proximal (closest to the mid-section) and work distally (further away from the mid-section) just for organization sake.
Did you notice how the area of the body that is closes to the ground when performing a push-up with this form is the belly and anterior (front) hips?
Yeah me too.
The problem here is that as the front side of the body extends towards the ground the back side of the body goes into hyper flexion that is close to end range motion for the lower back while being exposed to shear forces created by gravity. Imagine you are trying to tear a phone book in half. You apply a force up on one end of the phone book while applying another force down on the other side in order to try and tear it in half. The same thing kind of force acts on your spine when it is positioned parallel to the floor and gravity acts perpendicularly on it.
And from what we know from the research of people like Stuart McGill is that this type of position places the spine, both the discs and vertebrae, at an increased risk of injury.
Does your back ever hurt after doing a set of push-ups?
Yeah not a good sign that your form is on point.
Likely those of you who do your push-ups like this also feel stable through your back in this position, but in truth your stability is coming from jamming the ends of your vertebrae into one another to create stability. In other words you are using passive structures to do the work that your muscles or active structures should be doing.
This is no bueno!
Did you also notice how his butt seemed to be sticking up in the air?
That's what you would call an anteriorly tilted pelvis and it can also wreak havoc on the lower areas of your spine as it crushes the first vertebrae of your sacral spine against the last couple vertebrae of your lumbar spine.
Notice how his shoulder blades seem to clap shut and open up during each repetition?
Kind of resembles a venous fly trap right?
Yeah not the analogy that we want to use when talking about how the shoulder blade works.
This is probably largely due to the over extension of his upper back and thoracic spine. The shoulder blade is searching for something to stabilize against and ends up finding that stability against its neighboring scapula.
In response to this lack stability in the shoulder blade you'll see that the rest of the shoulder joint gets all sorts of outta whack. The shoulder elevates towards the ear and the upper arm bone dumps forward placing unnecessary strain on the biceps tendon, narrowing the AC joint, and impinging the supraspinatus.
In other words the shoulders are getting beat to hell.
Next notice how he hyper extends his neck and head during the lowering portion each rep. Again he is crushing vertebrae into vertebrae in order to create stability and perhaps in an attempt to feel as if he his getting adequate range of motion.
In any case what he is really going to end up with is a posture resembling Mr. Burns and a lot of neck pain.
Lastly can we just all agree that he is literally only bending his elbows maybe to 40 degrees of flexion if were generous and that just doesn't cut it.
You are missing all the benefits of a push-up.
If you are reading and watching thinking that wow this sounds and looks familiar then likely no doubt you have been working your butt off, but you also are likely missing out on all the benefits a properly executed push-up has to offer you.
A push-up is in my opinion one of the most fundamental movements that a human can perform. Literally think about how important your ability to push yourself up off the ground might be when your 60 or 70 years old at home alone, take a wrong step, and fall.
And while it's pretty fundamental that doesn't necessarily mean it is easy to do.
That being said a properly performed push-up will help develop our core stability, upper body strength, and shoulder health.
However you only reap these benefits when you keep the spine neutral, the glutes engaged, the scapula moving on the ribcage, and the humerous approximating your midline in rhythm with the scapula's movement.
I make it sound complex because in theory it is, but with the right internal and external cues you can make executing the push-up with proper form simple and easy to do.
How we should be performing push-ups.
My business partner and me probably say at least ten times a week to each other that "push-ups are hard."
Granted we can both crush a set of 3 on the bench press with 300 pounds cold. I know that's not world record strength, but it's pretty damn good considering the average. In other words we aren't beginners and both have relatively good upper body strength.
That being said we both find doing push-ups with good form for reps extraordinarily difficult no matter how many times we have done them.
Don't believe me? Well then this is my personal invitation to stop by the Lair of Awesomeness some time and let me coach you up on a push-up.
Anyways a well performed push-up is tough, but it's worth it.
When describing a good looking push-up I always like to start by saying "it's like a moving plank."
It all starts with the mid-section. You have to lock in your spinal position.
Do this by assuming the top position in the push-up. Your hands should be slightly outside, but inline with your shoulders. You fingers should be spread out and you should be linking out pushing your hands out and through the ground. You ankles should be flexed with all your toes in contact with the ground, but the majority of your weight shifted over your arms. Your neck should be an extension of your upper back and your chin should be pulled back towards your neck as if you were trying to make a double chin.
Next take a deep breath in, exhale as hard as you can through your mouth, squeeze your butt, and then engage your abdominal muscles. The tension you experience doing this is what is going to hold in a good posture and form a stable platform from which your shoulders can move and generate force from.
Then start the push-up by lowering your body as one unit towards the ground.
Imagine your shoulder blades sliding along and against your rib cage as you allow your elbow to bend. This will gradually move your body closer to the ground and your chest should be the first area of your body to make contact with the ground.
Don't allow your elbow to go far past your body as you don't want the front of your shoulder to dip forward.
Once you reach this positions you can begin pushing yourself back up. Think about your shoulder blades sliding apart and along your hip cage as you extend your elbows. Again your body should remain like a straight and stiff board.
As you reach the top position again you want to think about reaching your hands into the ground the ground.
And that is one rep!
Now you just have to do 7 to 11 more of them!
Here is a great video of me demonstrating how push-ups should look.
Yeah you see when you actually appreciate the complexity of what most people think of as a simple exercise then you can understand why making sure you have the form correct is such a big deal if you do really want to get the return on your investment of time and effort.
I hope this helps you get more out of each push-up you do and maybe if you are someone who finds doing push-ups painful allow you to do them pain-free for once!
Feel free to shoot me videos of your form! I'd be happy to give feedback! My email is firstname.lastname@example.org!
Happy moving and heavy lifting!
Practical, Purposeful, Effective Training