When beginning any functional training program, one should take the time to properly learn some of the fundamental full-body movements that are commonly used in exercise.
Starting from your knees, get into a plank position with your hands about shoulder width apart with fingers pointed straight ahead. Feet should be positioned together in order to maximize glute activation, which contributes to a stable and neutral trunk, while performing the movement. To create further tension throughout the arms, shoulders, and trunk, actively “screw” your hands into the floor as if your hands are on a sheet of paper and you are attempting to tear it in half. You’ll know if you’ve done this by looking at the pits of your elbows; they should be facing forward, just like your fingers.
To lower properly into a push up it is crucial to keep your weight centered over your hands. This is achieved by keeping your forearms vertical, which protects the elbows and shoulders and maximized the force produced by each repetition.
If lowered properly, the bottom of a push up should consist of vertical forearms and a flat back. Keep your glutes squeezed as tight as possible through the duration of the repetition to maintain this position.
Just as with the lowering and bottom position, there should be no change in the position of the shoulders or spine during the push phase. Remember to give a full exhale on the way up while maintaining tension throughout the trunk with glutes squeezed and hands “screwed in” until you finish in the top position.
This is the most common fault coaches will see when clients perform improper push-ups. This position is often adopted due to a lack of full range of motion through the shoulder joints. The elbow out position is a default pattern the body will use in order to perform a push up, but when continually down like for copious amounts of repetitions there is a significant risk of injury to the shoulder joints and capsules as well as to the elbows. This is because in this position the elbows take over as the prime movers through the movement rather than the shoulders.
Another common fault is the inability to maintain tension throughout the trunk during the movement of a push up. This, just as the elbow out fault, can be due to lack of shoulder mobility but more do usually do weakness of the trunk and hips.
Correcting the push up
Since most faults that occur in an incorrect push up are due to lack of mobility, this is a perfect place to start. The two movements to work on expressing full range of motion in are internal rotation and extension of the shoulder joints. Using a lacrosse ball or baseball you can do some soft tissue rolling to help free up adhesions that may be limiting shoulder mobility.
Wrist mobility can also hinder the performance of a push up and can be addressed in the top of the push up position. From a plank position turn your hands out and around so your fingers are now pointed back at you. If you cannot hold this position wrist mobility may be your limiting factor. You can use a hard ball for your wrists as well, pushing the ball into your forearm while moving the wrist in small circles.
Lack of stability either in the shoulders, trunk, or throughout the body is another central cause of the inability to perform a correct push up. Some exercises to practice generating stability in a push up position are:
- Get into a plank, setting up as you would for a push up with a flat back and fingers pointed forward. From here practice actively “screwing” your hands into the ground
- From the same plank position, hold for thirty second intervals while actively squeezing your glutes tightly.
There are several options that can be used for scaling the push up for someone who is trying to learn proper mechanics and/or still developing the necessary strength needed for performing a proper push up. Here are three that are very reliable in making sure that even though this is a scaled push up, it still encourages proper mechanics.
1. Place your hands on an elevated surface such as a chair or bench. This makes the movement easier, mainly by lowering the strength demand to perform the push up.
2. Looping a resistance band around your elbows. Again, this lowers the demand for the push up, making the movement easier to perform. This method has the added benefit of the band actively cueing you to keep your elbows from bowing out and helps to shoot you back up to the top of the push up.
3. Eccentric push-ups allow you to practice the lowering phase of the push up while not having to yet worry about the push phase. Using a slow tempo to lower into the bottom of a push up creates significant time under tension in the muscles required for executing the movement. This is a great way to develop the strength needed for correct push-ups.
Some coaches will have clients who have difficulty performing a correct push up do the movement from his or her knees. While this will undoubtedly create a lower demand of strength to complete the movement, it is nearly impossible to squeeze your glutes in this position. This becomes disadvantageous for maintaining tensions through the shoulders and trunk and encourages poor mechanics. Out on a field in a group training format would be the only time this regression would be appropriate.