By Tony Gracia, Head Coach and Co-Founder at Industrial Strength.

This series of articles will highlight fifteen of my favorite exercises that I think are awesome and do not get the appreciation they deserve.  The first week of installments focused on major lower body strength developers, and this week will focus primarily on upper body strength movements.

UNDERRATED EXERCISE #6 = Push Ups

I imagine a lot of people are somewhat surprised to see push ups on this list.  However, I think they are a great fit because they are a fantastic upper body and core strength exercise that really do not get the love they deserve.  I think this stems from people perceiving push ups as “easy” or as a “beginner” exercise, to which I strongly disagree.  I would argue that a) most people perform push ups quite poorly, b) when performed well they are a lot more challenging than most people give them credit for, and c) they have tons of progression options for people who legitimately do standard push ups well … for example, work up to a one-arm-one-leg push up and you can let me know if you still think they are easy.

Before giving instructions on how to do them, I want to highlight a few common errors I see. First off, most people have what I can only describe as atrocious range of motion on their push ups.  If you divide the what should be full range of motion into thirds (top, middle, and bottom), most people only do the middle 1/3 and never do the top or the bottom.  It is my opinion that with every exercise you get the most benefit by training (e.g. displaying control and proper positioning) through a full range of motion, and should only do partial reps as purposeful specialized variety. So, why people do half-rep push ups is beyond me (maybe call them 1/3 reps?).  Second, most people are either unable to maintain proper core position and/or are blissfully unaware that they are in a poor core position during their push ups.  In a good push up the body should be held rigid, either with a neutral core or in a hollow position, but never saggy/droopy and in a lot of extension. Finally, most people use a poor arm angle and hand placement for their push ups, again either because they are not strong enough to use a proper position and/or they are just unaware that they are out of proper alignment and possibly damaging their shoulders in the process.  I’ll be sure to highlight correct technique in all these areas in the instructions below.

HOW TO DO THEM

  • Keys to a good start position include:
    • Feet are hip width or narrower
    • Hands slightly outside of your shoulders with fingers pointed mostly straight ahead
    • The elbows are locked (ALL THE WAY LOCKED, double check this and make sure you do not have soft elbows).
    • The shoulder blades are flared away from each other
    • The core is either neutral or hollow, not saggy/droopy
    • The neck is neutral, be sure the chin is not poking forward
  • Keys to a good bottom position
    • The lifter has descended low enough that the back of the shoulder is lower than the point of the elbow – as mobility allows, touch the chest to the floor
    • The shoulder blades are now pulled together (the opposite of the start position)
    • The arms make a 30°-45° angle to the body, similar to the landmine press. Going wider than 45° is not generally advised and is one of the most common errors
    • The core position and neck position have not changed
  • Other tips
    • During the press back up, make sure the body rises as one unit. It is a common error to allow the shoulders to rise faster than the hips, or vice versa.  They must rise at the same time to be a proper push up.
    • Keep the shoulders away from the ears, there should be an element of “anti-shrugging” the shoulders throughout the entire motion
    • Emphasize full range of motion of the shoulder blades: fully flared at the top, and squeezed back at the bottom.
    • To get the most out of your push ups, include short pauses at the top and bottom of all reps – the pause at the top will give you a moment to double check that you have fully locked your elbows and are squeezing your triceps and pecs
      • Note – unless you OBVIOUSLY lock out your elbows completely at the top, I pretty much consider it to be a garbage rep … don’t do garbage reps!
      • Again, to make sure you are getting the full health and strength benefits of the movement I encourage you to pause for a moment at the top of each rep – the pause will give you time to lock your elbows fully by consciously engaging your triceps
    • Ready to up the ante? Once you can get 20 solid push ups like this, try making them harder by having a partner place a weight on your lower back.  This obviously adds weight to the push up so that your chest and arms have to work harder, and it also adds a brutal core challenge to not sag underneath the added weight.  A kettlebell works best for this because it has a convenient handle for moving it on and off the lifter, and it has a small surface area that can be placed directly on the lower back without being on the gluts or upper back.  Make sure the weight is placed on the back lower than the shoulder blades so that it does not interfere with their movement during the reps.  Your partner should maintain a light hold the handle of the kettlebell throughout the movement to stabilize it and make sure it does not fall off.  Try working up to a kettlebell that weighs ½ of your bodyweight for 10 reps.