Push ups are a time-tested developer of upper body strength. However, in spite of how common they are, they are one of the most butchered exercises I see people doing. This is one of the classic cases of people prioritizing quantity (how many they do) over quantity (actually doing them well). Let’s look at how to fix that and make sure you get the most out of these.
1) Core position
The core position during your pushups should be more or less identical to the “cylinder” described in the previous article about planks. Since the baseline position of the exercise is essentially the same, we know that gravity will be applying force that tries to make your lower back “sag” down to the ground – and it is on you to make sure that does not happen. For many people the ability to maintain proper core position is actually their limiting factor for push ups (not chest / arm strength) so make sure to be attentive to this and give it the respect it deserves. If you notice your lower back starting to sag it is time to terminate the set and rest until you can maintain proper position.
2) Arm angle
Another classic blunder here is positioning the elbows in-line with the collar bones, essentially creating a 90° angle in the armpit. This is a poor position on the shoulder joint and can put undue wear and tear on your shoulders. People may not even realize they are doing this, or they might be trying to do it because it shortens the range of motion or for some other reason. Regardless, it is not advisable so be attentive to it and pick a more shoulder friendly position. A good general recommendation would be to have the upper arms at about a 45° angle from the body, however a range of options exist that are all great, including keeping the upper arms against the torso (nearly 0°) all the way up to about a 70° angle from the body.
3) Range of motion
Few things make me want to bang my head against the wall more than someone who says “I do sets of 50 push ups” and I watch them, and see exactly zero push ups … they are half reps at best. If you want to get the most out of ANY exercise, using a full range of motion is one of the most important things you can do. For push ups, that means fully locked elbows at the top of each rep (seriously, stop leaving 15° elbow bend at the top of each rep) and good depth at the bottom. What I mean by “good depth” can vary a bit from person-to-person, but a good gauge would be that if a tennis ball were on the floor directly below your chest, your chest should brush the tennis ball each rep. Some people have shoulder mobility that allow them to touch their chest to the floor each time, which is great too (do not force this if it is irritating on your shoulders).
4) Shoulder blade mechanics
Piggy-backing off #3 above, shoulder blade mechanics are hugely important to get the most out of your push ups. Remember, push ups are an upper body strength exercise, not an “elbow” or “chest” exercise. You are leaving hugely important gains on the table if you slack off on your shoulder blade mechanics here. The thing is, you can not get the benefits of shoulder blade mechanics if you cut your range of motion short, so make sure to do full reps in order to open up this opportunity. At the bottom of each rep (when your chest touches the invisible tennis ball) there should be somewhat of a “squeeze” pulling your shoulder blades together. Then, at the top of each rep (when your elbows are ALL THE WAY STRAIGHT) you should continue to “push the floor away” and feel like your shoulder blades are flaring away from each other. This last tip is one of the most overlooked aspects of push ups, and skipping it results in leaving much benefit on the table (not just from strength, but also shoulder health). I recommend you pause for a moment at the top & bottom of each rep to really “own” each of these positions and get full recruitment of all the muscles involved. If anyone else out there trains Jiu Jitsu and you want to improve your grip strength, getting that “flare” of the shoulder blades at the top is actually a fantastic way to help that too (maybe an explanation in a future article). For now, just trust me on it :)
Of course, we need ways to progress your push ups in order to get the most out of them. If you are not able to do full range of motion reps yet then the best plan is to place your hands on an elevated surface to allow full range with proper form. A barbell in a power rack is ideal here, because there are many height options to choose from, and as you get stronger you can move the bar closer and closer to the floor. Once you are at a point of being able to do them on the floor, keep working on them until you can do clean sets (with good form) for at least 10 reps. For those wanting to take it farther, once you can do about 20 good reps it is probably time to start adding more difficult variations such as weighted push ups, one handed push ups (or variations) etc.