From punishment to ultimate workout jackpot: the story behind push-ups

pushupsPush-ups are a great way to motivate and discipline athletes. A quote from a sports movie „Coach Carter“ summarizes this concept pretty well: „You can either shut up, or push up; the choice is yours, gentlemen“. As an individual athlete and team sport coach, I have experienced again and again how disorder can be fixed within 5 seconds, after telling the athletes to immediately drop down and perform 20 push-ups.

Push-ups are the most basic body-weight exercise which allows an athlete to improve total-body strength and power.  The best characteristic of this exercise is that nothing else besides your own body and some space is needed. Regardless of the situation: if there is a will, there is an easy way to do some push-ups.

However, when it comes to the main part of the workout, push-ups can rarely be seen as they have the reputation of being too simple and elementary.  Unfortunately it is just a lack of imagination that makes people cross that exercise off their „to do“ list.

Following, are some facts and suggestions to make push-ups a regular part of your next training session:

  1. First, for all the bench press lovers: make sure you are able to do proper push-ups before starting to bench press! If you cannot properly handle your own body weight, it does not make sense to limit the movement with some extra weights.
  2. Push-ups are not only good for developing the upper body strength. True, they are crucial for activating the serratus anterior, a muscle against the ribcage that is especially important for overhead and collision sport athletes. However, besides strengthening the upper body, they offer a great challenge for core stability and lower body strength (glutes, quads, hamstrings), depending on the execution of the exercise.
  3. In order to yield the best results, push-ups should be conducted correctly.  As a total rookie, start with bent knees and elevated hands and then progress to the standard position and to higher intensity variations. The most common mistake is to put the hands in a T-shape instead of placing the elbows back at 45-degree angle. Also, the head should be in line with the rest of the body, and the back should be flat without a pelvic tilt. The upper back should be fully extended in the upper position, including protraction (abduction) of the scapula.
  4. There are hundreds of variations to do push-ups when the basic movement has been correctly learned. Diamond-, wide-, decline-, incline-, staggered-, one arm-, clapping-, plance-, slideboard-, 1-legged-, feet on the wall-, handstand-, plyometric-, spiderman-, superman-, fingertip pushups –  these are only some examples. For real explorers, there is much extra equipment to include in the push-up workout, for example a very specific invention, Perfect Pushup.
  5. Always remember what you are aiming to train: changing one small thing can lead to an immediate change in the muscle activation and training effect. For example, a greater activation in pectorales and triceps has been recorded in the narrow base hand position compared to the wide base. However, it should be emphasized that a narrow base can increase the stress on the elbow joint. Also the leg placement is important: push-ups on the knees decrease the muscles’ activity and an elevation of the feet leads to greater activity in different shoulder units. If you are interested in knowing more about torso stability and core work-out, the best article to explore is from Freeman and his colleagues (2006).
  6. Consider using extra equipment to make the movements less stable and get additional challenge. Although bosu has not been found to result in any big changes to the activation, the Swiss ball has proved to change muscle activity depending on the muscle and the task. In addition, the TRX system has been found to give higher activation levels in pectorales, triceps, deltoids and rectus abdominus.
  7. Be careful: although suspended push-ups (for example using TRX) activate abdominal wall muscles and latissimus dorsi much more than standard push-ups, they may also lead to increased compressive forces and stiffness in the lumbar spine which may result in back injuries.
  8. Plyometric push-ups, more specifically clapping- and box drop push-ups have been acknowledged to improve upper-body power more than regular dynamic push-ups.
  9. As a female, you should consider that contrarily to men, your core is more affected during push-ups than your shoulders due to the different muscle distribution. This can be changed by alternating body position and elevating your feet.
  10. Finally, make sure your workouts are comprehensive and balanced. Too much pushing will change the optimal muscle balance; therefore it is important to include different pulling exercises such as pull-up and row variations to the practice. Furthermore, make sure you do not forget to stretch and foam roll – keeping your body well conditioned and providing the right recovery for the muscles is a guarantee for successful results.

The current world record in push-ups executed within 1 hour is 3,877 for men and 1020 for women. However, repeatedly executing simple push-ups is not recommended: remember your training goals, challenge yourself and do not only aim to beat numbers! Try to make push-ups a part of your well-planned exercise routine instead of punishing yourself with them from time to time.

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