The other day I decided to break from my low carb ways and have a bagel. Bagels aren't normally my first choice as a splurge food, but I got a weird craving. And since everything looks good to a carb-restricted man, I ordered an "everything" bagel because it has, well, everything.
In the short time it took me to scarf down that starchy goodness, I realized the pure genius of the "everything" bagel. It's a bagel that can become any bagel.
I wondered if there were any exercises with the same multitasking elements.
A few came to mind, but the one that stood out was the push-up. As I thought about all of the scenarios I've used some sort of push-up in, I began to appreciate its versatility. I also realized that even though the push-up is incredibly common, it's still misunderstood and underutilized.
My goal is to give you a new appreciation for the push-up by showing you that it's much more than just some horizontal pushin'.
Simple Solutions to Complex Problems
Over the years, I've performed thousands of postural and movement assessments. In doing so, I've successfully used push-ups as both an assessment tool and corrective exercise.
Here are the two most common movement flaws and simple ways to correct them.
Flaw #1: Faulty Spinal Alignment
This is normally caused by a lack of body awareness, torso strength, and postural stability.
Faulty spinal alignment can appear as:
- Sagging head
- Sagging back (lordosis)
- Hunching back (kyphosis)
Regardless of when the fault happens during the movement, it's a muscle imbalance that needs to be corrected. The issue is that the mover muscles are stronger than the spinal stabilizers responsible for maintaining ideal alignment.
In other words, you're unable to control the movement and force you create. This is the fast track to injury. For this reason, I do a max rep push-up test during performance assessments.
The solution to this alignment problem lies with a very high tech piece of equipment: a dowel rod.
This three-step progression using the dowel rod will help correct faulty spinal alignment:
The quadruped position (bent legs) shortens the lever arm (bent legs) and takes most of the load off the system while still keeping the torso and arms in a very similar position to the push-up.
The dowel is placed along the spine and kept in contact with three points: the back of the head, thoracic region (between the shoulder blades), and sacrum (tail bone). This forces you to become aware of proper alignment.
The elbow plank (straight legs) takes what was just learned and lengthens the lever arm. This increases postural stability and endurance in a manner necessary to perform the push-up successfully.
Everyone should be able to eventually maintain this position for at least one minute.
The hold time is chosen by doubling your maximum push-up reps. If your max is 30 push-ups, then you should be able to hold the elbow plank for 60 seconds.
This standard is used because the average push-up is performed at a 1:1 tempo, which translates into each rep taking two seconds.
The final step is to integrate both components into the actual movement itself.
The dowel push-up is more challenging than it looks because so much effort is dedicated to maintaining alignment. As your postural endurance improves, this push-up will become easier.
Once you've achieved the same rep max with the dowel as without it, the dowel can be tossed back on the wood pile.
Flaw #2: Scapular Winging
Scapular winging can be a complicated problem and possibly beyond the scope of even the most experienced coach. However, there are some cases in which a few simple, well-designed corrective exercises are the cure for what ails you.
To get everyone caught up to speed, a winged scapula is a shoulder condition in which the scapula (shoulder blade) sticks out at the back, particularly when performing pushing exercises.
Common symptoms of a winged scapula:
- Pain and limited shoulder elevation
- Difficulty lifting weights
- Pressure on the scapular from a chair when sitting
A winged scapula can be caused by one of two reasons:
- Damage to the long thoracic nerve: If the long thoracic nerve is damaged, it can cause paralysis of the serratus anterior. Damage to the nerve can be caused by a contusion or blunt trauma of the shoulder, traction of the neck, and can also follow a severe illness. In this case, I'd highly recommend consulting an orthopedic doctor for some poking and prodding.
- General weakness in the serratus anterior: Here, the winging scapula can be improved with some specialized exercises designed to build strength in the weak serratus anterior.
If you're dealing with a winging scapula and are unsure of its cause, play it safe and get an evaluation from a skilled professional.
There are three exercises to help correct and prevent scapular winging through strengthening the serratus anterior. During all three movements, pay careful attention to scapulohumeral rhythm and symmetry while also maintaining a stable pelvis and neck.
Each of these exercises achieves essentially the same thing. However, it's important to utilize a variety of methods in order to find what's best for the specific situation.
1 - Hand Walks
2 – Arm Shuffle
3 – Push-Up Plus
With the push-up plus, your hands should be no wider than your shoulders. Sometimes I'll even keep my thumbs touching. This allows for an increased range of motion and demand on the serratus muscle.
The above exercises are normally performed for 20 to 60 seconds.
Push-Ups for All Occasions
Now, let's incorporate push-ups into the business of building stability, hypertrophy, strength, power, and power endurance.
Push-Ups for Stability
Slide Board Band Push-Up
These increase muscle tension around the shoulder joint by forcing the posterior shoulder muscles to contract by resisting the band pulling the hands together. Many people who can't perform a normal push-up due to shoulder pain can successfully perform this variation pain free.
You'll need a slippery surface, as the friction created by the ground offsets the pull of the band. If you don't have a slide board, use socks on a tile floor.
This push-up was influenced by the spinal stabilization protocols laid out by Stuart McGill. It's great for developing awareness and stability of the torso and shoulders. The key to performing the T-stabilization push-up correctly is to keep the pelvis and shoulders rotating at the same rate.
This exercise can also be used to assess spinal stability and torsional control.
You can further progress this exercise by bringing the feet together. This reduces the base of support and increases the stabilization demand.
Push-Ups for Hypertrophy
When training for hypertrophy, we want high volume and constant muscle tension. Here are two unique variations that hit the spot.
Swiss Ball Squeeze Push-Up
The key is to place your hands lower on the sides of the ball than with normal Swiss ball push-ups. This small change ups the difficulty by forcing you to squeeze the ball hard in order to avoid falling. The squeeze creates a tremendous amount of tension on the pectorals, shoulders, and triceps. A weight vest or elevated foot position can be used to increase overload.
Normal ball push-up
Ball squeeze push-up
Arco Wheel Push/Fly-Up
These are just plain tough! The combination push-up and fly really maximizes chest and shoulder recruitment. You'll soon find out that this movement demands a lot of torso strength and control. A weight vest can be added for additional torment.
Push-Ups for Strength
When it comes to building strength, I haven't heard of many coaches incorporating push-ups. This is likely because they don't feel it provides enough overload. In general, I'd have to agree. However, there are a couple of styles that can humble even the strongest athlete.
The one arm push-up is the king at developing incredible upper body strength and torso stability. But when did you do them last?
Because of its difficulty, here's a three-stage progression strategy consisting of one-arm planks, lock offs, and rollovers to help you conquer it:
The one-arm plank develops the body awareness and torso control required to perform the one-arm push-up successfully
The goal is to maintain a flat pelvis and avoid rotation at the pelvis and lumbar spine. Start with a wide base of support and progress to a closer base which requires more torso stability.
Lock offs build from the stability developed with the one-arm plank and add some single-arm strength. This stage also develops the ability to "lock off" at the top position, hence the name.
Now that a solid foundation of torso stability and lock off strength has been achieved, we can add the rollover push-up. The rollover push-up can be done in alternating fashion or one side at time.
This exercise teaches correct body positioning and builds the strength required to push out from the bottom of the one-arm push-up while still allowing some assistance from the other arm.
In order to ensure proper strength progression, gradually shift the work load to the arm on the side you're leaning toward (the working side).
Once you're able to achieve a 90:10 weight distribution on both arms for at least six reps, you'll be more than ready to perform the full one-arm push-up.
Weighted Feet-Elevated Push-Up
If one-arm push-ups aren't your style, then try these. This push-up can actually develop hypertrophy or strength depending on the training scheme used. Use a heavy enough plate and your abs will be barking at you, as well.
Push-Ups for Power Development
One of the popular push-up exercises used for improving power is the clap push-up. This exercise is great for developing explosive pushing power.
However, the constant pounding on the wrist from the landing is a concern for some athletes, like wrestlers and football players. They're constantly being thrown down, having to break the fall with their wrists.
The last thing you want is an exercise that replicates something an athlete does too much of already – especially one with a high risk to benefit ratio.
Luckily, there are some great alternatives that are just as effective at developing explosive pushing power while limiting the impact on the wrists.
Box Jump Push-Up
A closer, shoulder-width hand position provides more carryover to sports like wrestling and football. These are best performed for 4 to 5 sets of 3 to 6 reps and can easily be progressed by increasing the height of the box.
Swiss Ball Ricochet Push-Up
Ah, one of my favorite exercises to develop explosive power and speed. Perform these for 8 to 15 seconds at max speed, maintaining ideal spinal alignment throughout
The concepts of metabolic and power endurance are in the baby steps of exploration. In most sports, athletes are required to continuously explode and repeatedly produce power, sometimes for hundreds of reps.
This type of power endurance can't be developed with traditional 5 x 5 methods and requires specialized protocols. Below are two that'll ensure you're the last one standing when the smoke clears.
This circuit is easy to remember and doesn't require any additional equipment. It's typically used at the beginning of a power endurance phase.
Perform the following with no rest:
- 20 seconds of push-ups
- 20 seconds of paused push-ups (hold the bottom position)
- 20 seconds of clap push-ups
Rest one to three minutes.
The JC Push-Up Circuit
I learned this phenomenal protocol from my good friend and colleague, Juan Carlos Santana. You're going to need a medicine ball for this one.
Perform as a circuit with speed:
- 5 to 10 medicine ball lock offs on each side
- 5 to 10 medicine ball crossover push-ups on each side (alternate sides)
- 5 to 10 medicine ball close-grip push-ups
- 5 to 10 medicine ball drop and returns (video follows)
Rest one to three minutes.
Start with five reps and progress one rep a week until you're at ten.
Both of these metabolic protocols can be progressed so that you can complete two to three rounds without rest. At one time, I was able to complete five rounds of the JC circuit straight through. My chest, shoulders, and arms never looked better. Not to mention my abs were sore for a week.
I wasn't going to include the following variations, but I wouldn't sleep at night if I didn't.
Sprinkle these in to add some new flavor to your training.
Dove Tail Push-Up
Gradually increase your depth every rep for three reps. Go down 1/3, then 2/3, and then full range of motion. One time through is one rep.
This is usually used as a warm-up because it's great for developing mobility in the shoulders, T-spine, and ankles. You want to achieve thoracic extension by driving the shoulder blades together and the head toward the knees. Additional effort should be made to drive the hips up and back while driving the heels down to the floor.
Here's another great way to give your upper body a shock without having to use any additional equipment. The Spiderman push-up is one of my personal favorites. It's also very popular among rock climbers and grapplers because it resembles the weight shifting required in their sports.
As promised, I've provided you with a wide variety of push-ups that can easily be integrated into any program. But, I'd like to mention that this article is about more than just the push-up. It's about value.
Exercises are tools and certain jobs require certain tools. These days, we believe that the tools make the job and that the more we have, the more we can accomplish.
But, it isn't about giving you additional tools. It's about knowing more about the ones you already have. And most importantly, it's about learning how to use them for new jobs.