The push up. Just like it’s elusive sister, the pull up, many people chase the ability to do one for years. Here’s how to do a proper push up, and how to build strength for them over time.
First things first
Before you attempt to do a push up, you need to make sure you have a strong plank position. If you’re still working on mastering the plank, here’s how to do one properly.
The plank is the top position of the push up, and requires tension throughout the body to hold a static position. Once you’ve got your plank, then you can move forward to working on the dynamic movement of the push up.
The most common fault with push ups is letting the elbows flare out to the sides. I call these “chicken wing” push ups.
Think of it like this: if you were standing in a room with a refrigerator, and I asked you to push that fridge from one side of the room to the other, how would you position your arms? Would your elbows flare out to the sides, away from your body?
No. You would keep your arms tucked in tight to your body when pushing, because that is where you are strongest. You have the most force when keeping as close to your center of mass as possible.
Now, when you first try to do a push up like this, you’re going to find that they’re much harder! That’s ok. Over time, they will get easier. In the meantime, let’s talk about how make them easier while still keeping good form.
The secret to making push ups easier
Many people simply start by laying flat on the ground and then immediately push with their arms to do a pushup. This likely results in their chest coming off the ground while their hips stay on the ground, and then eventually follow, looking something like a worm.
What most people don’t realize is that the push up is a full body exercise. Yes, there are muscles it works more than others. But your entire body must be tight in order to complete a proper push up.
Next time, try this: before you ever start to push with your arms, get your body tight.
Flex your legs. They will lift off the ground. Squeeze your abs and upper back. Your torso will lift off the ground.
Once you are here:
NOW push hard on the ground, shoving it away from you.
After completing the rep, lower yourself back down to the ground. It does not need to be SLOW, but it needs to be CONTROLLED. Don’t flop like a fish.
Why knee push ups don’t work
A lot of times when I work with people, they come to me with a history of doing knee push ups. I’m not sure where knee push ups originated, but I’m here to tell you that they are never going to help you get a full, strict push up.
Most often when I see people complete a knee push up, they start on their knees, their elbows flare out to the walls to their left and right, and they barely break their elbows before pushing back up.
Here’s the thing – if you’re only pushing a very small amount of weight, in a very short range of motion, you’re only ever going to get stronger at pushing that small amount of weight.
In order to train your body to push up your entire bodyweight, you need to practice push ups with…your entire bodyweight.
The way we do this is by elevating our hands. It doesn’t matter how high at first – if you need to put them on a wall, do so. The more you do them, the stronger you’ll get.
When you find one day that the height of your hands seems too easy, lower them a bit. Continue this method until you are eventually doing full bodyweight proper push ups from the ground!
I like to use a plyo box like this one. Depending on which side you turn it onto, it provides a 30″, 24″, and 20″ support, so you can gradually work your way down.
Hand release push ups
When you are doing push ups to the ground, your chest and thighs should make contact with the floor. If they don’t, you are likely not getting full range of motion, or ROM.
One way to ensure you are getting full ROM is to do what is called a hand release push up, or HRPU. These are often seen in military physical fitness assessments and are also common in many CrossFit gyms, as they help hold everyone to the same standard.
To complete a HRPU, when you reach the bottom of the rep and your chest and thighs are on the ground, pick your palms up off the ground very quickly, then place them back down on the ground and press away hard for your next rep.
This will force you to relax and contract before each rep, making sure you’re getting a full push up every time.
- Start by lying flat on the ground, face down. Place your palms flat on the ground, directly at your nipple line, making sure your forearms are vertical and elbows are tucked in tight to your sides.
- Pressing your toes into the ground, flex your quads (thighs) as hard as you can. You will feel your legs lift off the ground a bit like this:
- Keeping your quads flexed tight, contract and flex your abdominal muscles. You should feel your stomach and possibly your chest lift off the ground slightly. You should now look like this:
- At this point, your entire body should be tight tight tight. Keeping your legs and your abs flexed, press HARD into your hands and shove the ground away from you until your elbows lock out. You should now be in the top of a plank position.
- Lower yourself to the ground so you are back in your starting position. At the bottom of the push up, your chest and thighs should make contact with the ground again before you attempt a second push up.
If you need to modify push ups to make them easier, do not go to your knees. This will not make you stronger at anything other than push ups from your knees. Elevate your hands on a box or other object to a height that you can complete the push up with good form. As you get stronger, slowly choose objects closer to the ground until you no longer need the support.
If your chest and thighs don't make contact with the ground at the bottom of your push up, its likely that you are shorting your rep and not getting full range of motion, or ROM.