Coach’s Corner: The Push-up
The push-up consists of an athlete pushing themself upward into full elbow extension from a prone position without compromising the natural position of the spine, or the lordotic curve. The push-up is a basic functional movement and should be mastered before moving on to handstand push-ups, dips, or any variation. Regardless of the scaling option or progression selected, there are a few common themes to every variation below:
- Shoulders are externally rotated, “splitting” the ground or barbell.
- Hollow body position is maintained, specifically in the body weight variations.
- Elbows stay tight to the body. We realize that using a wide grip has different benefits, however for the majority of athletes, an elbows-in position is a safer and more shoulder-friendly option that also translates better to other movements.
Prerequisite movements: None.
The Gold Standard
On a flat surface, the athlete demonstrates a proper push-up with…
- Hands just outside shoulder width, head neutral with eyes forward
- Feet together
- A straight line from heels to head
- Elbows back as they descend
- Chest makes contact with the deck
- Hips remain off the floor at the bottom of the repetition
- Full elbow extension at the top
- No loss of lordotic curve throughout the movement
Athletes who are unable to perform a push-up or have limited capacity to perform them in a workout should scale during workouts and start a progression to improve their capacity.
Scaling Option 1: Elevate the hands
For athletes with little to no capacity, a vertical surface may be sufficient.
- The stronger the athlete is, the lower the hands can be. You can use boxes, a bench, a barbell inside a stable rack, or anything elevated. Make a note of the height of the athlete’s hands so the difficulty can be gradually increased by lowering the height of the hands.
- Push-ups from the knees can also be used, however the preferred method is a wall or elevated implement. Ensure the midline is not compromised if performing push-ups from the knees.
Scaling Option 2: Band-Assisted Push-ups
- Attach one end of the band to a pull-up bar or similar apparatus and then wrap the other end of the band around the athlete’s torso at approximately rib-cage height (this can be adjusted as needed)
- This modification can be a great alternative to elevated push-ups in both strength work and within a workout.
Scaling Option 3: Dumbbell or Barbell Bench Presses
- These exercises can be used to supplement the elevated push-ups discussed above.
- These alternatives could also be used for athletes who lack the midline stability to push any percentage of their bodyweight. This allows the coach to preserve the stimulus of a horizontal pressing movement.
Progressions for improving push ups rely more on a coach to hold the athlete accountable to the correct standard of what a push-up should look like. Varying the volume (number of reps) and intensity (height of the hands) are the two easiest variables to manipulate to progress and athlete toward push-ups.
- Gradually decrease the height of the hands
- Use midline exercises such as planks to get athletes used to supporting their bodyweight with their shoulders and chest. You can even have athletes perform “push-up to plank” (photo/video) in order to improve upper body strength and midline stability.
- Use dumbbell or barbell bench presses to improve upper body strength.
Progressions for advanced athletes
- Deficit push-ups using plates, parallettes, straight bars, or rings
- Decline push-ups
- Clapping or plyometric push-ups
- Single arm push-ups
- Weighted push-ups or holds
Common Faults and Fixes
Fault 1: Loss of midline
This is the most common fault we see in push-ups, especially inside a metcon. An easy way to identify this if it is not visibly obvious is to watch the athlete’s quads and hips. Do they make contact with the ground before the chest?
The fix: although the midline appears to be the weak link, the sagging of the hips is more likely a result of poor upper body strength.
- Elevate the athlete’s hands so they are pushing less of their body weight.
- Remind athletes to squeeze their butt and brace their midline. The push-up is more of a full body exercise than most realize.
Fault 2: Elbows flare out to the side
The fix: If an athlete is flaring their elbows out instead of back, there are a couple ways to correct this.
- Make sure the athlete’s hands are at or just outside shoulder width.
- Make sure the athlete’s hands are under their shoulders at the top position.
- Make sure the athlete is externally rotating at the shoulder. This is accomplished by telling athletes to “screw your hands into the floor” or “split the floor in half with your hands”
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