[This post is written by Chris Hoina, CSCS – Athletic Development Coach at Athletic Lab]
I care about proper, efficient, and safe movements. Some people might consider this overbearing and critical, however it is anything but. My goal as a coach and as a professional is to ensure that my clients and athletes are performing safe and effective training. If they aren’t then I am not doing my job. If somebody gets injured on my watch, the fault lies squarely on my shoulders. And if there were one movement that I was to create a PSA about today it would be the push-up. Yes, the standard, everyday, run-of-the-mill push-up. The push-up is arguably one of the most difficult movements to master. Show me one person doing the snatch, clean or squat incorrectly and I will show you 20 people performing the push-up wrong.
Why is this? Well, I’ve spent the past 48 hours researching how to do the push-up correctly and I have found very little empirical data. This could be partly responsible for why so much discrepancy exists. Regardless, we should set a precedent.
While there isn’t a lot of scientific data depicting what the push-up should look like, it does offer some advice. If we observe the push-up (in it’s natural habitat), it’s really just an inverted bench (chest) press exercise. The movement pattern is essentially the same. At the start of the bench press the head, shoulders, upper back and glutes are firmly and evenly placed on the bench (Graham, 2003). The grip should be slightly wider than shoulder width; with the hand over the elbow (when looking from the top the hand will reside directly atop the elbow)(Graham, 2003). If we remove the bench, the athlete’s body position, with the exception of the legs (since they are flexed and not straight), should resemble the body as if it were in the push-up, logic would tell us that all we need to do is 1. flip the athlete around and 2. straighten out the legs to accommodate the new position.
If we consider the descent of the bench press, Graham (2003) observes that the elbows move down past the torso, and slightly away from the body, forearms are parallel to the each other and perpendicular to the floor, the barbell lightly touches the mid-chest, the body maintains contact with the bench throughout. At this point, it’s just a matter of returning the bar to the start position.
The push-up, when done correctly has shown a high correlation to number of bench press repetitions performed as percentage of body weight and are regarded a as an excellent exercise for developing upper-body strength, power and muscular endurance (Sorace, 2012). We use the push-up for a combination of logistical and efficiency reasons. We can utilize the push-up and its many variations to achieve similar results to what are seen in the bench press in an easy and time-efficient manner.
As implied earlier, the push-up is so easy that it’s actually difficult. Sorace (2012) suggests that the standard push-up requires a general stiffening of the knee and hip joints, pelvis and spine to keep the body in a straight line from head to feet (think ??plank’). As the athlete moves into the downward position the scapulae will retract (towards the midline of the body) slightly, upon the ascent the scapulae will protract (slightly move away from the midline) back into position, this is one of the few differences in the bench press and the push-up-in the bench press the shoulder blades move very little. Aside from this small fact, and the unique lower body position, the two movements are near identical. It is important to note, that during the ascent and descent there should be constant tension in the chest and triceps (the main muscles you’re using). If you don’t feel that, or if you feel it elsewhere (a common error is to preferentially activate the shoulders and trapezius, marked by excessive elbow flaring) please ask your coach how to correct your form. Better yet, ask your coach what you should be feeling throughout the push-up.
Typically, you’ll hear term ??standard push-up’ but there is still some disagreement as to what that actually means. Sorace (2012) maintains that: the wide base is marked by having the hands 150% of shoulder width, normal/standard base should be at shoulder width, and narrow base should be at 50% of shoulder width. If you ever hear our coaches state any of these three options, these are the approximate distances we are referring to. Despite this great information, the looming question still exists: which is the best option?
To answer this we must again consider the goal of the push-up. The push-up is used as an assessment tool for strength and is designed to primarily increase the strength of the pectoralis major and the triceps brachii. In lay terms, we are trying to make your chest and triceps nice and strong, prominent, and sexy. But in order to accomplish these goals, we have to determine the most effective and purposeful approach.
A recent comparison of the three different hand width reveals that the narrow base elicits the greatest amount pectoralis major and triceps brachii muscle activity during the push-up, with the normal base coming in second and the wide base coming in dead last (Coogley et al., 2005). This finding makes sense as it reflects current thoughts on length-tensions of muscle and their implications for muscle development. If a muscle is in a shortened position, as in the narrow base push-up, it must recruit a greater number of motor units than if the muscle were in a lengthened stated, as in the wide base (Coogley et al., 2005). What this translates to is more muscle fiber being trained, resulting in sexier and stronger muscles. So, if you’re currently using a wide width push-up, STOP! There is very little transfer and your efforts will only yield results in the form of bird-like arms and pre-pubescent pectoral muscles. We recommend the standard base because it is a great intermediate between the wide and narrow base. The standard base closely resembles the bench press, it’s what we use in the burpee, and is the easiest for most people to achieve within a very short amount of time. Since we don’t do a great deal of bench press, and this is the next best thing, we have to attempt to train as close to it as possible. Please note, that if you aren’t using the recommended form now and you do make the transition you’ll likely see a dip in your push-up performance for the first couple of weeks. Stick with it and your brain will pick up on the new movement pattern and you’ll be stronger than you were before in a couple of weeks! Follow the descriptions and do your best to think about what the push-up is attempting to strengthen!
Cogley, R. M., Archambault, T. A., Fibeger, J. F., Koverman, M. M., Youdas, J. W. & Hollman, J. H. (2005). Comparison of muscle activation using various hand positions during the push-up exercise. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 19(3), 628-633.
Graham, J. F. (2003). Bench press barbell. Strength and Conditioning Journal, 25(3), 50-51.
Sorace, P. (2012). The biomechanics of the push-up: Implications for resistance training programs. Strength and Conditioning Journal, 34(5), 41-46