Saturday, January 23, 2010

Now, go do some push-ups

At the end of my first two blogs, I’ve instructed you to go do some push-ups in my sign off, but it has come to my attention, that some people may not know how or be able to do push-ups or do them properly.  There are many different variations on the venerable push-up, but let’s first take a look at the basic push-up and why you should be doing push-ups in the first place.

Initially, I wrote up a detailed explanation of how to properly do a push-up.  Then I realized one of my favorite strength and conditioning coaches (Eric Cressey) has already done the work of putting together a narrated video demonstration of proper push-up form.  So we’ll take a look at that, and I’ll throw in my two cents afterward.

Two things Eric mentioned, but did not stress were hip-sagging, and elbow-flaring.  The demonstrator in the video showed the correct form, but sometimes seeing what NOT to do can help us realize what we’re doing wrong.  Here are side by side pictures of the wrong and right back posture and elbow position.  (Click To Enlarge)

Another common mistake which Eric did not mention is holding your breath.  Breathing in on the way down and out on the way up works for a lot of people, but you’ll have to find what works for you.  Working muscles use up oxygen, so you need to replace it or you will reduce the number you can do; also holding your breath while straining increases you intrathoracic pressure, but we won’t go into all that.  Bottom line, don’t hold your breath.

So, why do we want to do push-ups anyway?  I’m glad you asked.  Push-ups are a great exercise for many muscles in the upper body, in fact there are few muscles untouched by push-ups, but the main movers are the triceps (back of arms), pectorals (chest), deltoids (shoulders), and lats (upper back).   Also, your abdominal muscles get worked in a stabilizing manner, much like a plank exercise.  In working all these different muscle groups with the same exercise, you are teaching them how to function together as well; that’s important because in the real world, you almost never use one muscle in isolation, you almost always use several together.   In addition to being a great exercise, they are easy to take with you.  You can do them nearly anywhere; all you need is a firm, flat surface.

If you are not quite ready for full push-ups, there are a few ways to make them just a bit easier so you can work up to full ones.  There is the technique in the video above, where you place your hands on an elevated object (bench, bar, counter-top, etc).  As you get stronger, you can gradually move to lower and lower objects until you can do them on the floor.  Another trick is to do knee or “girl” push-ups.  Instead of having your toes on the floor, you bend your knees and place them on the floor.  Once again, the goal is to get strong enough to do full, push-ups.  If you can do one or two full push-ups, do them at the beginning of the set, then finish up with one of the above variations.

Now that you know how to do a correct push-up, how do you go about getting better at them?  Great question.  There are numerous programs you can follow, or you can make up your own.  A good program for beginners (or anyone, really)is 3 Sets of 50% of your maximum, 3 times a week.  What you do is do as many push-ups as you can in a row, until you can no longer maintain proper form; this is your “max.”  Let’s say you did 20.  When it’s time for your work out (on a separate day from your “test”) you would do 10 push-ups, rest couple minutes, do 10 more, rest a couple minutes, do your final 10.  You would do this 3 times a week.  Every couple weeks or so, you’d want to repeat the test to see how you’ve progressed and use your new “max” to calculate how many push-ups to do per set.

A more advanced program is the 100 Push-Up Challenge at  This program moves a bit fast, so it’s okay to repeat each week a few times if you need to.  I went through the program in 10 weeks and managed 102 good form push-ups in row at the end.  It’s a solid program, that has you doing a lot of push-ups; if you’re willing to commit to it and repeat weeks as needed, you can improve a lot.

There are hundreds of ways you can make variations of push-ups, a few examples include: wide grip, narrow grip, incline, decline, medicine ball, clap, one-handed, etc, etc.  I’ve done these and many more in martial arts classes, circuit training groups, or just goofing around by myself, but the standard push-up as outlined above is by far my favorite.  If you can do thirty or forty clean, crisp push-ups, and want to mess around with some variations, go ahead, just keep in mind the basic principles of a proper push-up while you do.

-Now, go do some push-ups-


  1. I notice the more I do push ups the easier I can knead bread.

  2. Oh, I should have included bread kneading as one of the benefits of push-ups. Thank you for covering my oversight.