Pushup Technique and Progressions
By Al Kavadlo, CSCS
The pushup is a classic example of a strength building exercise that requires no equipment. Push-ups can be done pretty much anywhere and at anytime--so there should be no excuse for not doing them. If you haven't already worked out today, then drop and give me twenty right now!
The upper body strength that you can build with push-ups is relevant for just about every outdoor sport from kayaking to rock climbing. And while doing push-ups will increase your upper-body strength and endurance, push-ups are not just helpful towards improved performance, they can also improve your appearance. This one exercise alone can make a noticeable change to your chest, shoulders, and arms. Furthermore, don't forget that push-ups require a lot of core strength in order to keep your body in a straight line throughout the range of motion, so practicing push-ups with strict form will improve strength in your abs and lower back.
In order to get the most out of your pushups, make sure that you don't let your posture get sloppy as you start to fatigue. Your lower back should not be collapsing inward or rounding outward. Your shoulder blades shouldn't be poking out of your back and your body should pretty much just be a straight line from your heels all the way up to your head. Your hips shouldn't deviate from this straight line at any point during the movement. It can be helpful to have someone watch you, or to tape yourself doing push-ups so that you can make sure your back stays straight. This is probably the most common problem that I see people making with this exercise.
If you are starting out and don't have the strength to do traditional push-ups yet, you can do modified push-ups. My favorite way to do this is to find a bar (or bench) that is just about waist height (the lower the bar, the harder it is going to be), then put your hands on the bar and do your push-ups on an angle. Conversely, putting your feet up on a bench or against a wall at an angle will make them harder because you are putting more weight on your arms. Whereas having your hands higher than your feet makes it easier, having your feet higher than your hands makes it harder. You are changing your position and therefore you have less leverage. Over time, you can gradually progress to walking your feet up the wall all the way until you wind up doing handstand pushups!
Once you have gotten very good at traditional push-ups, you can start all over again and get humbled by trying one arm push-ups. Just like the regular push-up, in the beginning, start by doing a one armed push up on an angle so you can practice the technique, then gradually build towards doing them on the floor. One arm push-ups require a ton of core strength. When you're learning to perform a one arm push-up, you'll need to have your feet a bit wider than you would for a regular two-arm push-up. The wider your feet are, the more you can use your legs and hips to stabilize you. You might be surprised how much your legs need to work during a one arm push-up. Any time you take a limb away from an exercise like this, you make the rest of the body have to work that much harder to stabilize, which also forces your remaining muscles to have to work together more.
Al Kavadlo, CSCS has been a personal trainer to hundreds of clients from various fitness backgrounds, including an overweight 72 year old grandmother and a two time Olympic medalist. He's also a fitness writer who holds a BA in English from Binghamton University. Go to www.AlKavadlo.com for more info.