Updated: Apr 12, 2021
PERFECTING YOUR PUSH-UP FORM
The push-up has been a standard test of strength for generations. It is a full body exercise that requires immense stability but minimal mobility. Typical guides to push-ups tend to focus on generalized tips and tricks missing important conceptual ideas like muscle synergy and joint alignment. This guide will help understand these deeper concepts and teach what proper form should look AND feel.
THREE IMPORTANT MUSCLES TO TARGET DURING A PUSH-UP
The following muscles work together to produce concentric and eccentric movement during the push-up. We also need to consider isometric core muscle engagement for stability throughout the range of motion.
#1 | Triceps
Consisting of three individual muscles, the long, short, and medial head, the triceps extends the elbow joint plus extends, adducts, and stabilizes the shoulder joint.
#2 | Pectoralis Major
A broad, flat, yet powerful muscle, the pectoralis major produces flexion, adduction, and internal rotation with a portion of the muscle producing shoulder extension. There is also a pectoralis minor, however, it only assists in scapular stability and minimal movement.
#3 | Serratus Anterior
Popularly known as the “Superman” or “Boxer” muscle, the serratus anterior facilitates forward movement of the scapula on the thorax called scapular protraction. It is branched into three (3) distinct muscles that also play a role during inspiration.
HOW DO YOU GET THE MOST OUT OF A PUSH-UP?
WARNING! This section is a little dry and full of the science stuff.
#1 | Mobility
During a push-up movement is isolated to the shoulder, elbow, and scapulothoracic joint. The elbow joint must be able to flex and extend while the shoulder joint requires rotation, flexion, and extension. Rotation is often the most underutilized movement during a push-up leading to compensations above and below the joint. Rotation is another term for torque and torque produces force during movement. By increasing rotation, we are increasing the force produced during an exercise. In this case, rotation produces the upward force during a push-up.
#2 | Stability
The pelvis and spine require stability throughout the range of a push-up. Any additional movement outside of the shoulder and elbow joint is force absorbed by other muscles and results in less effective targeting of the pectoralis, triceps, and serratus anterior. To stabilize the spine and pelvis effectively we need to create an isometric, stabilizing contraction of the gluteal, abdominal, and latissimus dorsi muscles. Rounding, or posteriorly rotating, the pelvis will create this stabilizing force at the pelvis and lumbar spine while the lat-dorsi will assist with full spinal stability.
Another important factor to consider during a push-up is drifting. There is a tendency for the body to drift, or fall, back when moving through the range of motion. As a result, the hands shift forward above the head and place the body in a compensatory position. Using the ankles and calf muscles by pushing toes into the ground will help maintain forward body position over hands.
FIVE WAYS TO STOP CHEATING YOUR PUSH-UP FORM
#1 | Wrist Caving
Hand strength and positioning will dictate elbow and shoulder function. Caving in results in excessive pressure through the thumb side of the palm and promotes compensatory muscle activation. By applying pressure to the pinky side of the palm we can facilitate external shoulder rotation (torque) and stimulate tricep activation.
How to correct with verbal cues?
Screw Palms Into Ground
Put Pressure into Pinky Side of Palm
Lift Thumbs Off Ground
#2 | Elbow Flare
As wrists cave in elbows flare out. Elbow flaring results from an inability to maintain tricep and lat-dorsi activation and stabilize the shoulder and scapular joints. Developing shoulder external rotation, or torque, will maintain elbow stability and control during the lowering phase (eccentric) of the push-up.
How to correct with verbal cues?
Keep Elbows Tucked
Rotate Elbows into Body
Don't Let Elbows Flare
#3 | Upper Spine (Thoracic) Extension
The return phase of the push-up can be difficult to stabilize. A disconnect through the abdominals and lat-dorsi muscle can result in upper spine (thoracic) extension causing an even greater strain on the spinal segments. Throughout the range of motion of a push-up the chest should be facing the ground. When pushing down into the ground to return back to a starting position, feel for the abdominal muscles to engage. If the push is not coordinated with abdominal tension then spinal extension will follow.