The Ultimate Guide to Getting a Pushup - Part 1: The Mechanics

PART 1 - MECHANICS

Seemingly simple, the pushup--done correctly-- is a challenging measure of upper body strength, shoulder flexibility, wrist flexibility, and core strength (yes, really...all of that).

You can tell a lot about a gym or a trainer based on how they teach (or don't teach) the pushup, and what path they use to build pushups in their clients.  This is Part 1 of a 3-part blog series to develop correct pushups in volume.  We'll define correct as: body position and range of motion that challenge and assess the measures listed above.  Here are the key elements to a correct, full range of motion pushup.

THE SETUP

  • Body in plank position with head neutral (look about 2 feet in front of your fingers).
  • Feet & legs completely together.
  • Quads, butt, and belly squeezed tight.
  • Shoulders directly above elbows, which are both directly above the wrists.
  • Hands at, or slightly wider than shoulder width with fingers pointed forward. Place the thumbs beneath the point of the shoulder as a good guide.
  • Keeping fingers pointed forward, twist arms so your elbows point mostly backward.

SCALING (modifying based on ability)

  • If unable to hold a plank with hands on the floor for more than 10 seconds, elevate hands while maintaining the plank body position.
  • Lean slightly forward to stack shoulders nearly above elbows and wrists.  The higher your hands are elevated, the further your shoulders will be behind your elbows.
  • You can use a bench, a desk, a table, or even luggage in your hotel room to elevate the hands.

A note about scaling.  We don't generally use knee-pushups in our progression.  We are not absolutist about this, but have found developing and maintaining the full plank from the beginning of the progression more beneficial in the long run (improved core and shoulder stability that carry over to other movements).

Pushup setup position: feet together, shoulders, elbows, & wrists aligned, butt & belly squeezed tight

Pushup setup position: feet together, shoulders, elbows, & wrists aligned, butt & belly squeezed tight

Pushup setup position: fingers forward, elbows spun mostly back, feet together, head neutral

Scaled plank hold: Elevate hands, but maintain same plank body position

Scaled plank hold: Elevate hands, but maintain same plank body position

Holding a correct plank position is challenging (even those who can do lots of pushups).  Our first step in teaching pushups is teaching the correct plank position, and then increasing duration of plank holds (gradually over weeks).

THE DESCENT

  • Bend elbows and shift weight slightly forward (you'll be on your toes)
  • Elbows track 45 degrees back (not out to the side)
  • Head stays neutral (don't bow your neck)
  • Maintain tight plank from setup (butt, quads, & belly squeezed)
  • Lower body as far as possible without losing plank - this generally places the lower portion of the chest very close to, or in contact with the ground
  • At the bottom, the elbows should be directly above the wrists

SCALING (modifying based on ability):

  • As with the plank, elevate hands to scale the pushup.
  • At the bottom, your elbows will be slightly behind your wrists.
  • You may or may not contact the object used to elevate your hands; if you do, it will be lower towards the belly (instead of the chest).  If your chest contacts the object, then you're elbows are likely shooting out to the sides instead 45 degrees back.
  • As you progress in strength over time (weeks), you can decrease the elevation of your hands.
Pushup Descent: rock slightly forward, maintain plank, elbows track 45 degrees back, wrists directly above wrists at bottom

Pushup Descent: rock slightly forward, maintain plank, elbows track 45 degrees back, wrists directly above wrists at bottom

Scaled Pushup Descent: Maintain plank (don't leave butt in the air!), elbows slightly behind wrists at bottom

THE ASCENT (press)

  • Maintain plank with neutral head.
  • Squeeze butt and quads hard to ensure they don't lag behind.
  • Press firmly through flat hands.
  • Establish plank position at top with shoulders, elbows, and wrists stacked.
  • Don't tuck chin on the way up, keep head neutral.

SCALING (modifying based on ability)

  • Same mechanics as listed above
  • At the top, your shoulders will be slightly behind your elbows
Pushup Ascent (the press): press firmly through flat hands, maintain plank, keep head neutral, re-establish beginning plank position with shoulders over elbows and wrists

Pushup Ascent (the press): press firmly through flat hands, maintain plank, keep head neutral, re-establish beginning plank position with shoulders over elbows and wrists

Pushup Ascent (Scaled): press firmly through flat hands, maintain plank, keep head neutral, shoulders will be slightly behind elbows at top

THE FULL PUSHUP & SCALED PUSHUP

Even weathered pushup veterans may find themselves challenged with these mechanics.  It's OK to decrease volume, or, when form begins to fail, scale your pushups; it will pay dividends in the long run.

Part 2 of "How to Get a Pushup" will have a step-by-step progression to get you to your first pushup, or to increase the quality and quantity of your existing pushups.

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