Regressing the Push-Up

Many have coined the push-up “the king” of upper body exercises.

It’s a staple of just about every strength and conditioning program, and one of the most popular exercises in the history of exercise.

Hell, when I was 10 years old I did push-ups and pull-ups in my room because it was one of the only exercises I knew.

Sure, it’s not a cure-all for upper body strength, but it does have a important place in most strength training programs. I program push-ups becuase it’s not only an upper body exercise, but also a core exercise, much like a plank. Along with teaching how to properly press, it incorporates the principles of stable core positioning.

For beginners, I also gravitate towards the push-up because it’s a closed chain exercise, meaning the the hands or feet (in this case hands) are not moving. In a push-up, the hands don’t move, but in a bench press, the hands are moving. The fixed position is more stable. For beginners this is advantageous because it takes away the variable of instability at the shoulder joint.

However, push-ups aren’t easy. For most people, properly executed push-ups take time to progress to. So, it’s important program regressions to the traditional push-up to maintain the benefits of the exercise and progress towards regular push-ups.

Key Coaching Points:

First we must be on the same page with what makes a well-performed push-up. Coaches have argued about the proper push-up technique for decades. Yet, there are a few concepts that most agree on.

  • Core Control – antiextension

It doesn’t matter how strong your upper body is if you can use it while maintaining your spine in a safe position. Engage your abs and squeeze your glutes in order to tilt your pelvis into a neutral position.

  • Shoulder Position

Push-up shoulder position is fairly controversial. Should the elbows be at 90? All the way tucked in? In between? Does it matter? Regardless of where the elbows are, the priority is establishing a position where the shoulders are functioning safely and without compensation. Keeping elbows flared out puts the shoulders in a rounded-forward position (think hunched shoulders). Over time, many folks who do push-ups and bench press like this wind up with rounded posture and later pain. Most people struggle to keep their shoulders back when pressing, so I cue “down and back,” or “elbow pits forward.” The one that personally clicks for me the most, which I learned from Kelly Starrett’s Becoming a Supple Leopard is “screw the hands out.” Regardless, all three effectively get the shoulders back to a neutral position, where it is safe to press.

Regressions:

Regression Option #1: Gravity

If push-ups are too difficult because of the load it places on the upper body, a simple regression is to place the hands on an elevated surface. In this variation, the push-up becomes easier because the load is decreased (gravity, whoa). This makes it easy to adjust by manipulating the degree of elevation. I love watching week by week as the bench slowly lowers, eventually reaching the floor.

regressing the push-up with a bench

Regression Option #2: Add Mini-Band

Adding a mini-band to a push-up comes from the same concept behind Mark Bell’s Sling Shot®. This is a variation we typically use with people who really struggle with keeping their shoulders in a safe position. Placing the band around the elbows often fixes a shoulder fault in the push-up because it forces the athlete to keep their shoulders relatively in to keep tension on the band. If the elbows are flared out, the band will slide up your elbows and hit you in the face. I also love to include a band in the repertoire of those who are right on the cusp of being able to do standard push-ups. Those who may only be able to do 2 or 3 quality push-ups can do 8 to 12 with the band. This is because the band adds a lift off at the bottom of the push-up, where the movement is most difficult. I find myself using the bands for push-ups more and more, and started using them as a warm-up for any heavy pushing exercises.

Regressing the Push-up with band

Regression Option #3: Going to Knees

Doing push-ups on the knees I avoid if logistically possible. Push-ups, on top of being an excellent upper body exercise, are also a great antiextension exercise. Going on your knees takes away the majority of this core training effect. It’s also way too common that when you’re on your knees, the intent of maintaining a stable core and shoulder positioning is forgotten. We see hips flexed, elbows flare out, and the overall quality decrease. But, push-ups on your knees is still a suitable variation. In the summer outdoor classes for example, we utilize push-ups on our knees as a way to extend a push-up set, without needing any extra equipment.

Push-ups can be made into a suitable, effective exercise for clients of all different demographics. Wherever you’re starting out, find a variation that’s difficult for 8-12 reps, and perform 3-4 sets. As time goes by, you can make the exercise more and more difficult until regular push-ups become possible. Even if you’re already at that point, use mini-bands and benches for warm-up sets, to do higher-rep sets, or to work on perfecting your push-up mechanics.

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