We’re now a full year into the pandemic, and while I’m very happy to see that gyms are getting to the point where they’re able to open safely, home workouts are still the best option in many cases. And with home workouts, the classic push-up is very often a cornerstone exercise. I hate to say it, but over the past year I’ve seen a lot of push-ups of… let’s say “questionable quality”. And of course, questionable quality produces lackluster results, so here are three tips for how to do push-ups that will produce the results you want.
1. USE PROPER RANGE OF MOTION
When you perform a push-up, you want to move by starting with fully extended arms to having your chest touch the floor. Just the same way you perform a bench press, you move between your arms being extended to having the barbell touch your chest.
I don’t know what it is about push-ups that seem to make a half-hearted range seem more acceptable, but it isn’t effective. When performing an individual push-up, your goal should be to cover as much ground as possible, not merely count as high and fast as you can.
I’m going to slip a bonus point in here and suggest that you should aim to have your chest be the ONLY part of your body that touches the floor… other than your hands and toes. If you look at our demo video here, you might be able to see that my thighs don’t actually touch the floor. That’s a useful cue to ensure that your body is neutral and rigid as you’re moving. Your spine’s position should not change as you move up and down, and thinking about keeping your thighs clear of the floor can help you achieve this.
2. KEEP YOUR ELBOWS CLOSE TO YOUR BODY
When you perform a push-up, aim to have your elbows relatively close to your body. I commonly see push-ups with elbows flared way out to the side; that’s generally not a great spot for your shoulders. This same ‘elbows out’ position is more or less the same thing that’s led to God-knows how many rotator cuff injuries by bro-dudes at the gym doing crappy bench presses.
When you lie down to begin a set of push-ups, place your hands down lower by your rib cage, not even with your shoulders. If I were to look at you from the top-down as you do a set of push-ups, your arms should be in close rather than flared out wide.
If you’re wondering why I’m performing push-ups with my hands on a barbell in the second image here, that feeds into our final point for today; adjusting the resistance.
3. NO KNEE PUSHUPS
Under normal circumstances, I don’t program pushups all that often in workouts for my clients because I don’t like that you can’t adjust the resistance the same way you can with external loading. There isn’t really a good way to make a set of 10 push-ups 3% harder, but you can easily make a set of 10 bench press 3% harder by adding weight.
Simply doing MORE push-ups is not the same as making them more effective with progressive loading. No more than doing lots of air squats is the same as a challenging set of 5 back squats.
On the flip side, and probably more relevant to our discussion here, it’s also tougher to scale the difficulty DOWN. Think of a push-up as a bench press that’s 70% of your body weight. For a LOT of us, that’s REALLY hard, so finding a way to adjust the degree of difficulty is necessary.
The most common way that I see this being done is with knee push-ups. I hate to burst your bubble, but this is not an especially effective way to scale. It may look close to a standard push-up, but, without getting too deep in the weeds, it affects your mechanics in such a way where it just doesn’t translate to the real thing as closely as you might think.
I heard a comment just the other day to the effect of “I’ve been doing knee push-ups forever, but I still can’t do a real push-up,” and… yup. That’s how it goes. They just don’t carry over to building strength in the way that you might expect.
With this scaling option, the steeper the incline, the more assistance you get. So you can play around with different things in your house to find something that gets you towards whatever rep range you’re looking for.
A better way to make your push-ups more manageable is to perform them on an incline. The BEST way to do this is by using a barbell in a rack because you can incrementally change the resistance by adjusting the height. I realize that this is seldom an option at home, but you can find a firm piece of furniture to use.
Performing push-ups at an incline translates much, much better to the real thing because the mechanics are effectively the same as a regular pushup. But since you’re not pushing as directly against gravity, the level of resistance is lower.
Hopefully, this rundown helps you to incorporate push-ups more effectively into your home routine. Remember, full range of motion, elbows in, and scale with an incline instead of knee push-ups.