Updated: Apr 8
HOW GOOD IS YOUR PUSH-UP FORM?
Performing any exercise without proper form is like being on a diet but still eating whatever you want. Without following strict guidelines you will not witness the benefits. Yet, this is not a black and white issue. Just like a nutritional diet, the more rules you follow the more benefits there will be. The push-up fits this comparison perfectly as it is one of the most incorrectly performed exercises. A push-up with perfect form is, in fact, a very difficult exercise to master. Let's start with a few questions to rank how well you are doing with your push-ups and find what areas need to improve the most.
3 PRICINPLE PUSH-UP QUESTIONS
#1 | What do you feel?
How do you get better at push-ups? Muscle engagement and sensation is a great way to confirm good form. Feel for pressure in your triceps (elbow) and serratus anterior (side ribcage) while feeling for your abdominals, gluteals, quadriceps, & calves to engage. If you are feeling pressure in the low back or burning in the front of the shoulders and neck then continue to adjust your form until corrected.
#2 | How do you look?
Before you move, check your positioning first! Use a mirror or take a picture or video on your phone.
Is your face shifted forward over your hand?
Is your full back slightly rounded?
Are your knees straight?
Your ability to isometrically hold a push-up position is just as important as your ability to actually perform the full movement.
#3 | How do you move?
How many push-ups can you do? What counts as a full rep? Deciding on what range of motion is best is entirely dependent on your ability to maintain form and engagement. Choose a distance for your chest to touch and make that your first goal (using a yoga block is an easy depth gauge). It is also important to know that there is no incorrect range for a push-up. Dropping your chest to the floor is only a danger to your shoulders if you do it wrong! When evaluating your push-up form do not try to look in the mirror. Use a phone and take video. Evaluate your form using the detailed cues listed below.
FOUR CUES TO PERFECT YOUR PUSH-UP
#1 | Forward Body Positioning | "Don't Shift Backward!"
The push-up is a full body exercise, plain and simple. Tension needs to be developed from head to toe or form will fail leading to an inefficient and injury causing exercise. This starts with maintaining a forward body position. The eyes should never travel below the hands with the shoulders positioned directly over the wrists. Practice this simplified kneeling exercise to perfect your positioning. When you progress to a full hand and foot push-up position make sure to engage the ankles. Think about performing a calf raise to maintain a forward body position.
Note: The further forward the more difficult the exercise. As the hands travel down the body we shift into a planche position. This opens the gates to a world of complex and complicated calisthenics strength exercises.
#2 | Posterior Pelvic Rotation | "Tuck Tailbone Down; Squeeze Glutes"
While mastering the forward weight shift you may have noticed tension develop through the abdominal muscles. This is a key sensation to maintaining spinal and pelvic stability. It is very common for the lumbar spine and pelvis to arch causing excessive compression to the lumbar spine and SI joints. Developing an isolated posterior pelvic rotation can be difficult as it is not a common movement for the body to perform against gravity. Practice in non-weight bearing positions first. Once you are able to isolate the movement then combine with the forward weight shift exercise from above.
Note: A posterior pelvic rotation will engage the abdominal and gluteal muscles. Feel for tension and engagement through these muscles. This is confirmation that you are performing the exercise properly.
#3 | Scapular Protraction | "Push the Shoulder Blades Apart"
"Push the Earth down" is one of my favorite cues to engage the upper body, specifically the scapulas. This movement completes the subtle rounding effect across the posterior chain (back). This is how we know the full abdominal complex is engaged, stabilizing the spine and pelvis throughout the exercise. Similar to the posterior pelvic rotation exercise above, scapular protraction is a tricky exercise to perform. Consider trying the reverse push-up position exercise below. This will assist with locking out the elbows to isolate the scapular movement.
Note: As the scapulas move it is very common for the spine to collapse and abdominal tension to disengage. Make sure to maintain a posterior pelvic rotation throughout the range of motion of the exercise.
#4 | Shoulder & Elbow Rotation | "Tuck Elbows into Body"
If the front of your shoulders and neck are burning at the end of a set of push-ups your form needs to improve. Developing external rotation through the shoulder joints will allow for targeting of the triceps and posterior shoulder muscles. Think about keeping the point of each elbow tucked tight to the body, DO NOT ALLOW YOUR ELBOWS TO FLARE OUT. You can also think about screwing your palm into the ground or increase pressure through the pinky side of your palms. Keep experimenting with these cues until you are able to develop tension through the triceps.
PROPER PUSH-UP FORM & PUSH-UP PROGRESSIONS
Once you are able to connect all of these cues together, simultaneously, should you wander into more complicated push-up progressions. It takes a high level of mental thought and physical stability to perform this challenging exercise with perfection. Below is a simple to difficult progression of several push-up variations. Try to connect to cues learned above to each exercise.
Try your hand at this progressive push-up challenge. How many reps can you do of each push-up variation?
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