Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Diagnosing the Pushup

Today I'm going to give the most common technique flaws I see take place during the everyday pushup, and some corrections on how to get much more "bang for your buck" from this exercise.  The pushup is an AWESOME tool in your training arsenal, but the problem is it frequently isn't executed in a manner that will give people a decent return for their investment. 

The truth is: I used to withhold this information and only disclose it to the people paying me to coach them.  However, I've become so frustrated (and frightened) with the myriad people completely mutilating the exercise that I've decided to make an effort to help EVERYONE do this correctly; for the sake of their physical health and to help them reap some benefit from the repetitions they are putting in.  

I'll be giving video demonstrations of how NOT to do them, and then a video of what a real, perfect pushup looks like (and I'm not talking about the commercial product, hah!) (If you don't care about the "why," skip to the bottom of the post to see the video demonstrations of common pushup flaws, and then the correct version).

Pushups are probably looked down upon so often because they're the first exercise most people learned in grade school during gym class.  They're often viewed as elementary and "too easy" for most, likely because they're not seen as sexy as another popular exercise: the bench press.

The funny thing is, the pushup seems to be one of the most frequently butchered exercises I see on a regular basis.  When I walk around commercial gyms, I cringe at the form I see people using;  I honestly have to stop myself from running around and correcting people's technique out of fear they're going to hurt themselves!

Also, at SAPT, I have yet to see someone able to do a few pushups with 100% perfection when they first walk through our doors.  Heck, using myself as an example, I know I sure didn't do them correctly until about a few years ago.

Anyway, let's get the "geeky" side of things out of the way.  Here's where I'll be explaining the why behind pushups.

Why Perform Pushups?
  • They teach you to control your body from head to toe.  When performed correctly, they engage countless muscles in the pelvis, abdominals/low back, upper back, and then of course the chest, shoulders, and triceps.  The nerdy way to describe the stabilization required during pushups is "lumbo-pelvic stability" which teaches you to control your core in a functional manner, leading to benefits both in and out of the weight room (I'll let you use your imagination here).  
Proper pushups provide benefits for the midsection, too.
    • It effectively trains movement of the scapulae (shoulder blades), giving you healthy shoulders for the long haul.  Unlike the bench press, a pushup allows the shoulder blades to glide freely.  When pushups are performed correctly (i.e. "pulling" yourself to the floor) you engage the serratus anterior, a key player in shoulder health and function.  The serratus, along with the lower trapezius, are two muscles that are pervasively dormant in our population.  These two muscles work synergistically with the upper trapezius to upwardly rotate the scapula when your arm moves overhead (think: throwing a ball, or performing an overhead press).  In fact, when I worked in the physical therapy clinic, the most common denominator in the patients with shoulder problems was weakness in both the serratus and the lower traps. 
    • They're a closed chain exercise, essentially making them more shoulder-friendly than the bench press (an open-chain exercise). 
    • When done properly, they'll help boost your bench press, squat and deadlift numbers.  Not to mention: aid you in your quest to achieve the look and function of a physical specimen.  Hah!  Now you're listening. 
    Anyway, below are videos of me performing various incorrect pushups.  The technical flaws may evade you initially, but look closer, and you'll see them.  You'll probably see some pushups that you weren't aware were even considered erroneous!

    Note: The following 6 videos demonstrate INCORRECT form.

    Error #1: Forward Head Posture
    This is the most common error that people are unaware of, I believe.  You'll see that my head juts forward, hitting the ground before my chest makes contact (the chest should touch the ground FIRST in a perfect pushup).

    Error #2: No Scapular Retraction (aka "loose upper back")
    Another common flaw most people are unaware of.  You'll notice in the video that I "fall" to the ground, instead of intentionally "pulling" myself to the floor.  The upper back is loose, there's no scapular retraction (think: pinching a pencil between your shoulder blades), and I'm essentially just letting gravity drop me to the floor. 

    Error #3: Excessive Elbow Flare
    You'll see the elbows make a 90 degree angle with my torso (they should be tucked at roughly 45 degrees). 

    Error #4: Hip Sag
    This is where the person lacks the "anterior-posterior" engagement of the core and the hips/low back sag to the floor (the body should form a completely straight line from head to toe, remaining stiff as a board). 

    Error #5: Elevated Hips
    This is where the butt sticks up in the air.  It's another compensation pattern (similar to #4) people slip into when they lack the core strength to effectively resist the pull of gravity throughout their entire body.

    Error #6: Looking Straight Ahead/Looking "Up" (no video shown).
    This is where people tilt their head up and look straight ahead as they perform pushups.  It seems every sports coach tells their kids to do this!  Look straight down at the floor when you do your pushups (unless you desire cervical problems down the my guest). 

    So, what does a Perfect Pushup look like?

    Here (at last!) is the correct version:

    Key Coaching Cues:
    • Hands just be just outside shoulder width, and the elbows tucked at 45 degrees (or less) to the torso.  Don't listen to people who tell you that placing your hands wider will give you better chest development!  All that will do is fast-track you to shoulder pain and a subsequent physical therapy appointment.
    • "Pull" yourself down to the ground, actively engaging the scapular retractors and essentially the entire upper-back musculature.
    • Keep your chin tucked (think: give yourself a "double chin") so you don't "reach for the ground" with your head.
    • The chest should touch the floor first (i.e. not your hips or your head)
    • Squeeze your abs and glutes tight throughout the entire movement
    • Entire body should be perfect alignment, and you should remain as tight as if someone were about to come along and try to knock you over.

    Once you master the basic perfect pushup (it will take longer than you think: you should be able to do at least 20 before progressing further), there are a number of ways to increase difficulty.  One way is wrap a sturdy resistance band around you, so that the movement will become harder as you reach the top portion of the pushup (as the band tension increases).  You can elevate the feet as well.

    Both versions are combined and shown in the video, here:

    Take home message: you'll receive far greater benefit from performing 5 perfect pushups then you will from performing 20 incorrect pushups.

    Some further reading on the subject I'm sure you'll enjoy:
    1. Girls Can Do Push-Ups, Too. Here Tony Gentilcore discusses strategies to help females achieve the full pushup (hint: it isn't accomplished by performing pushups from the knees).
    2. Eric Cressey discusses 10 different advance pushup variations.  See Part 1 and Part 2 respectively. 
    3. Ben Bruno discusses 5 difficult pushup variations
    That should be enough to keep you going for a while!  Enjoy. 


      Niel K. Patel said...

      Stevo, give this a skim for more variations:

      Stevo said...

      Niel, definitely some good stuff there. Summed up very nicely. Great job on the blog in general, too.

      Anonymous said...

      Thank you for this, it's funny how many opinions there are out there about proper push-ups.

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