Thursday, July 21, 2016

The Top 5 Bonafide Superstar Push-up Progressions

Push-ups. Everyone knows ‘em. Very few can actually do ‘em. In fact, I’d wager that only about 38% of gym goers — young or old, athletic or couch potatoic — can do a single good one, let alone multiple sets of multiple reps like I do in the video below. (Go me!) Maybe even a smaller percentage than 38, but 38 is my lucky number, so we’ll go with that.


Why the epically bad performance on such a staple exercise? First and foremost, there’s a definite lack of awareness about what constitutes proper form:
  • Proper form begins with the setup: wrists stacked directly under the shoulders and a straight line from head to heels. To achieve that straight line, the abs must be braced and the glutes (butt muscles) must be squeezed. This will necessitate a gaze neither ahead nor directly at the floor, but rather downward at a 45° angle. If you don’t get the setup right, the actual movement is doomed for sure.
  • Proper form continues with a slow and controlled descent at least to the point at which the upper arms are parallel to the floor (elbow angle equals 90°), if not deeper if you're able and pain free. On the descent, the elbows should track inward at 45°. When viewed from above, the torso and upper arms should form an arrow, not a ‘T.’
  • Throughout this descent, the same straight line from the setup must be preserved without deviation. Everything moves as one rigid unit. (Ipso facto, the push-up is really just a moving plank!) Hip sag and lower back sway are not okay, and the hip pike is also right out. Tension in the abs and glutes must be maintained.
  • Proper form finishes with a strong ascent to return to the starting position. The ascent is the exact opposite motion of the descent. No funny business is to be allowed at the hips, lower back, or neck. The upper body should not rise up before the lower body. Unless you are a seal. Which you are not.


Here’s a side-by-side comparison of proper form (top) and epically-lousy-yet-all-too-common form (bottom):


Once the standard described above has been engrained from a theoretical standpoint, continued poor form boils down to a lack of strength, either of the upper body (chest, shoulders, and triceps) or the core (the muscle that connect to the hips and pelvis).

[Coaches' note: When it comes to falling into excessive anterior pelvic tilt, especially with young athletes, occasionally the fix can be as simple as bringing awareness to the faulty position verbally or with the help of a tactile cue (i.e. physically putting them into a slight posterior pelvic tilt).]

The good news for the push-up deficient is that there are about half a dozen convenient ways to regress the push-up (i.e. make it easier) in order to address limitations and build up to a bonafide superstar push-up. The choice of regression will depend on the individual’s deficiency (be it upper body strength or core strength) and equipment available.

5. “Modified” push-ups (from the knees)
Deficiency: Upper body strength
Equipment required: None

Modified push-ups are most people’s go-to regression when they realize they can’t perform solid full push-ups. Coincidentally, they’re also the most commonly butchered variation, which has earned them a horrible reputation among fitness professionals.

The truth is, they’re really not bad, provided they’re done correctly. (Anyone who says "modified push-ups don't work" isn't doing them correctly.) Just take all of the instructions from above and replace ‘heels’ with ‘knees.’ It’s as simple as that. Absolutely do not allow the hips to pike up. Absolutely do use full range of motion.


4. Push-ups to a box
Deficiency: Upper body strength
Equipment required: An aerobic step, stack of mats, or even a pillow

Push-ups to a box reduce the range of motion of the movement by allow the torso to rest on a box a few inches above the ground. Generally speaking, full range of motion is the way to go. The exception to this rule is when full range of motion would lead to compensation (AKA an ugly push-up), and partial range of motion is being used as a progression toward the whole enchilada.

The best part about the push-up to the box is that it directly mimics the positional requirements of the full push-up, including the core activation needed to maintain rigidity.

(Fast forward to 1:14 in the video above)

3. Incline push-ups
Deficiency: Upper body strength
Equipment required: A bench, Smith machine, barbell and power rack, or even a sturdy chair

Placing the body on an incline (e.g. hands on a bench) reduces the amount of weight the upper body has to support. (If you want to see for yourself, experiment by assuming a push-up position with your hands on a scale on the floor versus hands on a scale on a hard, elevated surface.) The best thing about the incline push-up is that it's simple to progress. Just decrease the height of the incline gradually, until you're performing perfect push-ups all the way down at the floor.


3. Band-assisted push-ups
Deficiency: Upper body strength OR core stability (depending on band placement)
Equipment required: A superband and something to attach it to

Band-assisted push-ups are about as close to the real thing as it gets, which is what we want if we’re truly working toward full push-ups. By varying the placement of the band on the body, we can address either deficiency. Put the band directly below the chest to give more assistance to the upper body; put it lower down on the tummy to support the core.

An added feature of the band is that as it stretches it provides more help where it’s really needed (in the bottom of the push-up) and less where it’s not (at the top). Note that the band can either be attached from above or around the j-hooks on a power rack.


1. Eccentric push-ups or Push-up position planks
Deficiency: Upper body strength and/or core strength
Equipment required: None

This regression is as real as it gets, since it’s exactly the setup and descent of the full push-up. The only difference here is that we’re accentuating the descent (where we’re stronger) by lowering over the course of about five seconds, then dropping the knees and coming back to the starting position to repeat.

The key with the eccentric push-ups is to maintain control over the entire range of motion. That is, don’t lower slowly through the top half of the range of motion and then just drop it like it's hot through the lower half. If you’re unable to lower under control, practice holding the top position (i.e. a push-up position plank) until it becomes stupidly easy, then try the eccentric push-ups again.


(Hit the next arrow above to view the push-up position plank.)

My Promise to You

And there you have it, folks. Hit your preferred regression(s) a couple of days per week for a few quality sets, and within about 6-8 weeks you'll be knocking out full push-ups like a pro — or your money back. That's right, a full money-back guarantee, ladies and gentlemen! I'm just that good.

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