Updated: Jul 2, 2020
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.
Synergistic Muscle Involvement
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.
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.
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.
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.
Joint Mobility vs Stability
During a push-up movement, or mobility, 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.
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.
Common Compensations & Correcting with Verbal Cueing
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.
Verbal Cues: Screw Palms Into Ground | Pinky Palm Pressure
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.
Verbal Cues: Keep Elbows Tucked | Rotate Elbows into Body
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.
Verbal Cues: Draw-In Abdominals | Push Ribcage Down
Lower Spine (Lumbar) Extension
The mindset of a push-up being an upper body exercise creates compensations down the body. An initial arch in the low back will only create more pressure through the lumbar spine when lowering into a push-up. It will also disconnect the upper and lower body. By posteriorly rotating the pelvis we introduce gluteal and abdominal engagement by activating two large, powerful muscles. Not only will it promote safety but allow for increased calorie burning and muscle toning. Start thinking of the push-up as a full body exercise and success will follow soon after.
Verbal Cues: Tuck Pelvis | Squeeze Glutes & Abs | Round Pelvis & Low back
At the beginning and end of a set of push-ups the hands should be directly under the shoulder joint. Muscle weakness, fatigue, and poor body awareness can lead to backward drifting and shifting of the hands above head. This compensation severely stresses the shoulder joint and cervical spine. Use the hands and feet to maintain position! Dig the toes into the ground and push forward. Use the friction of the ground to drive hands down towards the feet extending the shoulders. Since the hands are locked in place on the ground it will create a forward shifting effect on the body.
Verbal Cues: Push Toes into Ground | Pull Palms Back Into Ground | Look DOWN At Hands
1.) Quadruped Scapular Press
2.) Incline Push-Up Scapular Press
3.) Push-Up Scapular Press
4.) Push-Up Pelvic Rotation
5.) Plank Scapular Press
1.) Incline Push-Up
2.) Concentric Depth Push-Up
3.) Kneeling Push-Up
1.) Initial Press Push-Up
2.) Standard Push-Up
1.) Close Grip Push-Up
2.) Planche Push-Up
Please refer to the video below for an in-depth explanation on each exercise and how to progress to achieve perfect push-up form.