The Push-Up: building upper body strength

  • May
    04

    BEFORE I BECAME A NATUROPATHIC DOCTOR I WAS A PERSONAL TRAINER.

    The benefits of exercise are endless. Everything from regulating high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, obesity, hormonal imbalances, confidence and stress management.

    I’ve written about many lower body strengthening exercises (Squat, Glute Thrusters, Lunge) and core work (Deadbug, Postural exercises) so be sure to check out those articles as well.

    This article will focus on upper body strength and one of the major muscles groups. The upper body is divided into 3 primary categories:

    1. Chest – Pectoralis major and minor
    2. Back – Latissimus dorsi, Trapezius (upper, middle, lower), Rhomboid major and minor, Erector spinae and the several layers of supportive spinal muscles.
    3. Shoulders – Deltoids (anterior, medial, posterior), rotator cuff (Subscapularis, Supraspinatus, Infraspinatus, Teres minor)

    The chest and back have secondary muscle groups (triceps and biceps, respectively) that help to assist the primary movers. For the general exerciser, it is safer to exercise the primary movers before secondary to avoid injury and poor form. For example:

    1. Chest (ie. push-up) –> Triceps (ie. skull crushers)
    2. Back (ie. lat pull down) –> Biceps (ie. bicep curls)

    The push-up is one of the best chest and triceps exercise for beginners, but also one that is rarely performed correctly.

    "I’d estimate that one person in 25 can actually do a pushup properly." - Dean Somerset

    “I’d estimate that one person in 25 can actually do a pushup properly.” – Dean Somerset

    Push-ups are versatile and can be easily modified for any level of exercise experience with very little or no equipment at all. Let’s walk through the push-up exercise to see why I’m such a fan:

    • Benefits
    • Proper technique
    • Myths
    • Common mistakes
    • Variations to the exercise
    • Alternate exercises for the chest
    • How to build them into your exercise

    THE PUSH-UP

    Benefits

    The Pectoralis muscles lay under the breasts attaching to the upper arm and creating a fan-like shape down the length of your sternum. The sternum is the bone found in the middle of your chest and looks like a short tie. So, depending on how you place your hands and at what angle your body is, you will work different muscle fibers of the Pectoralis muscles.

    The push-up doesn’t only work the chest, but also:

    • Chest (pectoralis major)
    • Ribcage (serratus anterior)
    • Arms (triceps, slight anterior-medial deltoids and coracobrachialis)
    • Back (slight rhomboids, lower traps and lats)
    • Core (rectus abdominus, transverse process, obliques, lower back stabilizers, glutes)
    The muscles engaged during a push-up. (JoeMartinFitness.com)

    The muscles engaged during a push-up, excluding back muscles. (JoeMartinFitness.com)

    These muscles are necessary any time you push a door open, give someone a hug, or do a burpie.

    People tend to be anteriorly rotated (that typical slouching forward posture), which means that your chest is tight and back is weak. This is also called “Upper Crossed Syndrome“.

    Training your chest without stretching and forgetting about your back can further exacerbate this poor posture. Read more about proper posture here.

    Proper Technique

    – The basic push-up (don’t forget to watch the video below)

    1. Hands are placed under the shoulders, fingers splayed and turned slightly outwards
    2. Eyes looking between the fingers, feet pointing forward, up on toes with knees straight
    3. Flat back and neck (slight double chin) with a straight line from heel to shoulders
    4. Engage your core and squeeze your bum
    5. Mid-back is pulling your scapula down and towards the midline in the starting position and holding stiff (like you’re trying to pinch a pen between your shoulder blades)
    6. Your shoulders should follow over-top of your wrists as you lower your body towards the ground in a single unit
    7. Elbows point directly opposite to your fingers, close to your body
    8. Keep your body a single unit as you slowly lower to the ground. Your chest should be the first thing to touch the floor (and not your chin, nose or forehead)
    9. Press back up with the same form and control. — I like to tell people to imaging their back is a table and there is a full glass of red wine sitting on their back, so you better not spill one drop!

    Myths

    These myths have been proven false for the average healthy person. Even your doctor, personal trainer or physical therapist may not be up-to-date with these facts, so make sure you speak with an expert if you have questions.

    Push-ups make a woman’s upper body look bulky

    • if your definition of “bulky” is having muscles then yes, any strength training will make your muscles stronger and more visible. But they again, it will also allow you to be active in life, live a healthier life and lose more fat (if that’s your goal).
    • you are not a female body builder. And if you were, you’d have to dedicate your entire day to working out, eating and taking the proper supplements. “Bulking up” is not easy and you won’t accidentally do it exercising 1 hour a day.
    • your ability to put on more muscle than another person comes down to hormones. If you are the type that easily puts on muscle, you need to embrace your body. Being fit, active and strong is more beneficial than trying to change your body to be socially accepted. Surround yourself with positive people who accept you as you are and try the Love Your Body Challenge.
    • you may think you look more “man-ish” when you start working out because you aren’t used to it. I remember my family making comments about how “built” I was, and it made me feel self-conscious, but inevitably I didn’t only gain more muscle and strength, but also confidence. I liked how I felt and looked, and that’s what counts. Read my story here at Girls Gone Strong.

    People with shoulder issues shouldn’t do push-ups

    • poor push-up postures often cause shoulder discomfort, but that doesn’t mean you should avoid them. Read the “common mistakes” below to ensure you are using proper technique.
    • the shoulder is a ball and socket joint that allows for multi-directional movements. It’s attachment is the upper arm (humerous) to the scapula. People with weak upper-mid backs won’t have stable shoulder joints. Practice proper posture exercises to strengthen these stabilizing muscles.
    • shoulder discomfort comes from over-use or excessive stress in an extended (and unstable) position. Be aware of your daily movements. For example, reaching back while twisted and pulling a heavy object is a very common way to injure the shoulder joint (ie. opening the filing cabinet while seated, or reaching in the back seat of your car while driving).
    • that being said, if you have recent injury, pain or more serious dysfunction work with your physiotherapist or trainer to manage the injury first.

    People with elbow issues shouldn’t do push-ups

    • poor push-up postures can also cause elbow discomfort, but that doesn’t mean you should avoid them. Read the “common mistakes” below to ensure you are using proper technique.
    • your elbows should follow the direction of your shoulders during a push-up and not wing outwards.
    • that being said, if you have recent injury, pain or more serious dysfunction work with your physiotherapist or trainer to manage the injury first.

    “Girl” push-ups don’t count

    • push-ups done on the knees can be a progressive exercise, increasing upper body and core strength, prior to a conventional push-up (although incline push-ups are best). It can help to prevent poor form and injuries when the strength is lacking or fatigue has set in.
    • they can also be useful if outdoor or bootcamp training where higher surface levels aren’t available or as an “active rest” exercise.
    • make sure to use the same proper technique as the conventional push-up in terms of core and upper body set up (see more for progressive push-ups below)

    Common Mistakes

    These are the ones that happen the most. Having a personal trainer evaluate your form is always a good idea. Dean Somerset offers a great article here.

    1. Drooping bellykeep your core engaged and scapulas in place while lowering your body. If this is too difficult, modify the push-up (see more below)
    2. High butt – A high butt can indicated a weak core and low back. Try doing the first few reps beside a mirror to make sure you keep that flat line from heel to shoulder.
    3. Hands too wide – this will put too much strain on your shoulders as it increases the arm to the body (increased lever)
    4. Elbows too wide – elbows that flare to the sides puts more stress on the elbow joint not to mention the shoulder
    5. Squirming your way up – if you have done 3 sets of perfect push-ups and the last set has a bit of a squirm, that’s cool. You are pushing yourself to get stronger. However, if your hips are rocking and you’re favoring one side from the very start, it’s best to do a push-up progression first (see below)
    6. Favoring one side – everyone has a more dominant side that will kick in when fatigued. Try placing a ball or yoga block on your back to see if you lean while doing your push-up
    7. Not using modifications when necessary – this goes along with #5. “Pushing through” may cause more harm than good. If you are struggling to finish a set and your form is being lost, use a modification and increase the repetitions. It’s just as hard and more beneficial.
    8. Burying the chin in or lifting the head – many people aid to hit the floor with their head (chin or forehead) at the bottom of a push-up to feel like they are doing more work. This actually shortens the distance of the push-up and creates poor posture for the neck. Keep a neutral head with a slight tuck in of the chin and eyes between the fingers.
    9. Going for quantity and not quality – take your time and do less proper push-ups rather than many poor quality ones. You’ll get stronger and avoid injuries this way.

    If you think you suffer from any of these common mistakes, watch the following video to identify and correct imbalances.

    Also, read a great article by Dean Somerset here.

    Variations of the Basic Push-up

    — It’s always a good idea to try different variations to your push-up position and continue to challenge yourself with progressions.

    1. Hand Position – click on the links to watch some videos

    • Neutral grip – as seen above
    • Narrow/ close grip – hand parallel on the insides of the shoulders to target more triceps

    • Staggered stance – one hand slightly in front of the other, make sure to do both sides (notice in this video that the model isn’t going quite deep enough and her chin juts forward. Refer back to the common push-up mistakes, above, to ensure this doesn’t happen)

    • Holding dumbells – this takes the stress off the wrists by creating a neutral line and allows you to go deeper at the bottom of the push-up. This can be performed with hands narrow and parallel or the regular shoulder-width grip

    2. Static push-up progressions — if you are new to push-ups, you may want to follow the order of these exercises to build up strength:

    A) wall push-ups – stand about 2-3 feet away from the wall (standing closer is easier than farther)

    B) high incline push-ups (ie. table, bed, counter)

    C) low incline push-ups – on low incline (ie. chair, bench, step)

    D) towel push-ups – neutral platform

    E) conventional push-ups – see above

    F) decline push-ups feet are raised (ie. step, chair or even table)

    G) handstand push-ups and their progression – this is only for very advanced exercisers

    H) One arm push-up – for advanced exercisers

    3. Resistance — adding resistance is a way to increase difficulty with the conventional push-up.

    Resistance bands – they come in various tensions (denoted by color) and lengths

    Added weight – use a plate to evenly distribute the weight on your back

    4. Unstable surfaces and external movement — Not only can you progress the push-up with the angle of your body, but also the surface that you are performing them on. Some examples include:

    Single leg with rotation – there are various twists and movements with the upper leg as well

    Twisting push-ups – there are many variations

    Bosu ball – the unstable surface will make your core work even harder

    TRX (hands or feet elevated) – this is a great way to see any imbalances and encourage core stability.

    Swiss ball push-up (hands or feet elevated) – this is a great way to see any imbalances and engage your core to remain stable.

    Medicine ball push-up (single or double arm)

    5. Explosive — hopping, clapping and any other crazy ideas you have. The video below is insane:

    6. Combination push-up – combining a push-up with another exercise will be more challenging for the core and work various muscles at the same time.

    Push-up to plank – add in a push-up when you’re on your hands to make it even more challenging

    Burpies – get your core and cardio working

    Push-up to row – using round or hexagonal dumbbells

    T-Push up (with or without weight)

    Alternate Exercises for the Chest

    With all the fibers of the pec major, you want to make sure you are hitting all angles of the chest to progress your routines. Push-ups are a great exercise, especially if you have limited time and equipment available, but they can be limiting when reaching the upper and lower pec major fibers and pec minor. Here are alternate chest exercises to rotate into your workouts.

    Chest press – there are many variations to do a chest press

    • Position: neutral, incline, decline, standing (with cables or bands)
    • Surfaces: floor, bench, swiss ball
    • Weights: barbell (aka. bench press), dumbbell, kettlebell, cables, bands, machines, smith machine
    • Variations: added rotation (ie. parallel at the top), close grip (aka narrow), single arm


    Chest fly – there are many variations to do a chest press

    • Position: neutral, incline, decline, standing (with cables or bands)
    • Surfaces: floor, bench, swiss ball
    • Weights: barbell (aka. bench press), dumbbell, cables, bands, machines
    • Variations: added rotation (ie. pinkies down at the bottom), single arm
    • Hand position: low, middle, high


    Dynamic medicine ball slam – the medicine ball is a great tool to increase core strength, endurance and the pecs with the chest push. The balls vary in size and weight. You can throw them from person-to-person, against wall, down towards the floor, or in a sit up push.

    Other examples of medicine ball slams:

    Numbers Game

    Building your push-up variation into your exercise routine depends on which type you do. Generally you are either doing:

    1. High rep and Low weight
      — These are either body weight or resistance push-ups that can be worked into a routine as ‘active rest’ for 10-20 repetitions or a time duration (ie. 30 seconds)
      — High repetition as a metabolic activator of fast twitch muscle fiber
      — Form is not as critical to safety, but still important due to the high repetitions
    2. Low rep and High weight
      — High weight in repetitions of 3-10 and sets of 3-6 (ie. feet elevated trx push-up) with an adequate amount of rest
      — Strengthens slow twitch muscle fibers to build and tone the chest
      — Form is absolutely critical due to the heavy weights that could cause serious injury

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This website is NOT to be used as a diagnostic or treatment tool. Always consult with your Conventional Medical Doctor or Naturopathic Doctor for specific concerns. In cases of medical emergencies visit your nearest hospital or call 9-1-1.