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Push-ups: how-to and variations

Push-ups are a great foundational strength movement to build strength through the upper body and core. If you are experiencing pain with push-ups, here are some common errors and helpful tips for technique.

Benefits of Push-ups

Push-ups are a great way to build strength, endurance and muscle throughout the upper body.

As shown below, push-ups are a compound movement that work multiple muscles at the same time - primarily the chest, shoulders and triceps. The pectoralis muscle assists in bringing the arm forward (also known as adduction), the triceps are used for straightening the elbow (extension) and the deltoid for flexing the shoulder. In addition, the core, gluts, quads and upper back are working hard to maintain a solid plank position.

Push-ups are great as they can be scaled to suit anyone, whether you’re a beginner or an advanced body builder.

Push up Technique

  1. Firstly start in a plank position, with hands slightly outside the shoulders but directly underneath the shoulders, hands parallel, arms straight, core engaged (think ribs to hips), and gluts and legs engaged to maintain a straight line.

  2. From there, lower down the chest so the chest makes contact with the floor. Full range of movement is starting with straight arms, chest touches the floor, and then pushing up to finish the movement with straight arms. Ensure the core stays engaged the whole time and the body stays in a straight line, like a plank of wood, where the hips don’t sag down. Keep the elbows in throughout the movement to avoid the elbows flaring.

Common Errors

  1. The first error is reduced range of motion, ie the chest not touching the floor. It is important to build strength throughout the full range of motion, so if you’re not strong enough to get your chest to touch the floor, pick a scaling option from down below that will allow you to do so.

  2. The next common error is the forehead push-up. Similar to above, the athlete pushes their head out in front so their forehead touches the floor before their chest does, where the athlete feels they have completed a full depth push-up, when they actually haven’t. To fix this, ensure the neck is in a straight line with the rest of the body, and get the chest to touch the floor first.

  3. Another common error is the elbows flaring to around 90 degrees out to the side. Whilst push-ups are traditionally taught this way, this can put unnecessary stress on the shoulders and elbows. Instead, keep your elbows in, and this will also increase tricep strength.

  4. Another common error is reduced core engagement causing sagging hips, where the athlete pushes up through the arms, but the hips stay low throughout the movement. It is important that the core stays engaged throughout the movement to keep the body in a straight line.

See our video below for the common errors.

Beginner Push-up Progressions

  1. Wall push-up: The easiest version of a push-up is at the wall, where the athlete is standing and leaning into the wall. This allows the most weight to be taken throughout the legs to make it easier.

  2. Incline push-up: The best variation is an incline push-up, where the athlete can adjust the height of the incline to accommodate the difficulty. The more upright the easier it is, the lower the surface the harder this is. The athlete can gradually progress the difficulty of the incline over time as strength improves.

  3. Full depth push-up: The final variation is a full depth push-up. The athlete is ready to progress to this once they can complete multiple incline push-ups from a very low surface ~30cm.

  4. The knee push-up: Push-ups on knees are the most common variation, however incline push-ups allow the athlete to modify the difficulty at more levels and ensure they are working through a full range of motion (chest to bar).

See our video below for all these progressions.

Advanced Progressions

  1. Feet elevated: Feel elevated push-ups on a box increases load through the upper body. The higher the box, the harder they are.

  2. Hand release push-ups: This increases the difficulty by releasing the hands at end of range, so the athlete loses muscular tension and is unable to use the stretch reflex.

  3. Ring push-ups: These are more demanding on shoulder strength and stability due to the unstable surface.

See our video below for all these progressions.

Hopefully this gives you some tips to get the most out of your workout next time you’re in the gym. If you are experiencing pain with these, please contact your physiotherapist for a full assessment.

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