by Nashville personal trainer Dan DeFigio
The pushup is a very underrated exercise. Not only does it strengthen and tone your chest, shoulders, and arms, but it can be a mean torso workout for unconditioned or medium-conditioned clients. Pushups can be done anywhere, with no equipment required, and an infinite number of variations exist to make them as easy or as challenging as necessary.
EXECUTION: The pushup is a pressing movement, which means the focus should be on the pecs, the deltoids, and the triceps. The head should be pulled back into a slightly extended position - this will help to keep the erectors nice and tight to support the spine. The hands should be spaced outside the shoulders, but not so wide that at the bottom of the pushup you've got an angle at the elbow wider than 90 degrees.
Two important things are frequently missed in the proper execution of a pushup - scapular positioning and torso stability.
The shoulder blades should be depressed and retracted, as they should be during all pressing movements. Often, especially at the top of the movement, the client will allow the scapulae to spread apart. This should not happen, nor should the shoulders be shrugged. Both conditions take stress off the target muscles and subject the shoulders to potential injury.
The torso should be locked into a neutral spine position throughout the entire set. A common problem involves allowing the waist to sag, creating an excessive lorditic curve. This robs the target muscles of pushing a majority of the body's weight, and it subjects the spine and back muscles to unacceptable stress. The opposite problem is also common - allowing the hips to rise at the top of the exercise. This is your body's unconscious way of taking the stress off of fatiguing muscles.
- Throughout the movement, the arms should not be excessively abducted. The elbows should be just short of parallel to the shoulders when viewed from above. During certain modifications of this exercise, it's easy to go too deep and strain the shoulders. The shoulders should not dip more than a couple inches below elbow level. Breathe in on the way down, and exhale as you push up.
- MODIFICATIONS: Pushups can be modified to suit virtually any fitness level. As a general rule, the more bodyweight that's on the hands, the more difficult it is to execute the pushup. Even elderly clients can perform simple pushups by leaning against the wall (photo A). The chart below list some modifications in order of increasing difficulty:
- Standing (photo A)
- Incline, on knees (photo B)
- On knees (no photo)
- Incline, on toes (photo C)
- On toes (photo D)
- Decline, on toes (photo E)
- ADVANCED PUSHUPS: For a great challenge, try these variations:
LEGS ON SWISS BALL (no photo) - Balancing yourself on an unstable surface increases the proprioceptive demand of the exercise and works the torso muscles harder. Modify the difficulty by moving your hips closer to or farther away from the ball.
HANDS ON BALLS (photo G) - To improve balance and increase the activation of the shoulder stabilizers, put each hand on a medicine ball or a volleyball. For an even greater challenge, use two different sized balls, and combine this exercise with the Swiss Ball variation.
HANDS CLOSE (photo H) - By placing your hands close together, the triceps are heavily emphasized.
UNEVEN HANDS (photo I) - Place one hand normally, place the other on the floor directly under your neck. For another variation in unevenness, place one hand on a raised surface, like a box or a phone book.
PLYOMETRIC VARIATIONS: To develop explosive speed and coordination, add a few sets of these to your workout:
Pushoff: When you push, make the movement as fast and explosive as you can so your hands leave the floor. Add a hand clap while you're airborne (photo K).
Box Pushoff: Place one hand on a raised surface and one hand on the floor. Use the same explosive pushoff as above, but leave your hand on the box and twist your body 90 degrees in the air (photo L).
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