How to Maximize Your Push-ups
Fitness fads are always looking for ways to do more with less. Culturally, we’re all about efficiency, and often that means that people bring up new-fangled systems and exercises meant to cut through the fat and get your body as fit as possible, usually in “20 minutes or less.”
To this end, one of the best exercises you can do which engages all of your major muscle groups is push-ups. These can build an exemplary workout, with movements that will build strength and stamina. As a personal trainer, it’s important to know not just the variations here, but also the variations on the basic movement. Push-ups can be a great replacement for some strength-training, especially if there’s a concern about injury from weight overload.
But how do you progress your push-ups? How can you get in more reps, or challenge yourself more? Or, if a client can’t perform a single push-up, where’s a good starting point? What really constitutes a “perfect push-up?” And what should a client’s goal be when training with them?
What is a Push-up?
In the most basic of terms, a push-up is an exercise where you begin in a high plank with your toes on the ground, heels in the air. You place your hands shoulder width apart, although there can be some slight variation of hand position, depending on the type. In a controlled manner, you lower your body to the ground as one unit until your elbows reach 90º, then push your body back to the high plank you began with. This constitutes one single repetition.
With push-up training, as is the case with any strength exercise, the number of reps that you engage in will be determined by your overall goal, whether it’s strength, endurance, or both.
This is not a dynamic exercise, and is meant to be completely controlled in both the downward and upward direction when performing repetitions. It is important to have all supporting muscle groups engaged—everything from the back to the core, glutes, and even legs, to the point they are engaged and support the high plank position.
Although it will engage most muscle groups in your body, the primary target gains from push-ups will be in the chest muscles and shoulders, as well as core strength.
Now that we’ve covered the basic push-up, let’s go over the variants.
Mechanics of a Basic Push-up
When it comes to the components of what is really at work with the push-up, it’s important to remember that you want to engage all of your muscles with constant tension, even if the purpose is to maintain the plank as your body moves up and down. To this end, make sure you engage your core muscles.
Make sure that your elbows maintain a 90º bend or less. This will help to ensure that your repetitions are safe. Keep this range of motion to ensure that you’re getting the most out of your workout.
This mechanical repetition is what makes the push-up such an effective way to build strength with only body weight. It can be much less risky than bench or above-the-head presses with free weights or machines, should there be a pre-existing injury.
Types of Push-ups
When you look around the internet, you find many push-up variations with all different kinds of names. There are wall push-ups, countertop push-ups, handstand push-ups, knee push-ups, and everything else under the sun. But there’s one singular idea that works as the catch-all for modifying push-ups.
Think of the basic push-up described earlier as “neutral.” If someone is having too much trouble with neutral push-ups, then they need to elevate the hands to make them easier. However, if the neutral push-up is too easy, you simply elevate the feet. The degree angle of the change, one way or another, determines how much easier or more difficult the repetition will be.
There is one exception, however, and this is with modified, or knee push-ups. With this form, it’s still essential that you maintain the plank with your core, meaning that your back, glutes, and legs should still follow a straight line. These push-ups put less weight on the chest and shoulders, permitting you to do more repetitions with the same range of motion. This will enable someone to train the same muscle groups as neutral push-ups, but with less weight.
Furthermore, you can exercise different groups of muscles by the placement of your hands. For instance, moving your hands closer together, also known as diamond push-ups, will engage your triceps and traps. Moving your hands further apart will engage more of your pectoralis muscles and back.
Let’s talk about how to improve your push-ups.
How to Improve Push-ups
As a certified personal trainer, your clients might need a training plan from you that will include modified push-ups. A great goal for most of your clients is to be able to do sets of 5 or 10 reps continuously. If you or your client can’t push themselves all the way up to a high plank when doing a push-up, the following progression of variations will be a helpful reference:
1. Wall Push-ups
These are best when your client can’t perform a single repetition of a neutral push-up, or when there’s been some sort of shoulder injury in the past. Start small with these, too, as even though they might seem easy at first, too many can still cause an injury.
2. Counter Push-ups
When the wall becomes easier, move to the countertop. Keep the back straight and in line with your glutes and legs. These will add more resistance than the wall push-ups will alone.
3. Elevated Feet Push-ups
For these, make sure that you have a bench or a chair, something that allows you to slightly elevate the feet to add weight to the primary muscle group of the movement.
4. Feet to Wall Push-ups
This requires some coordination. From the ground, you must have the ability to climb your feet up the wall (preferably one that won’t get scuffed or damaged), up to however high you need them to be to make them as challenging as possible. You can even move into something of a “headstand” push-up position while using your toes on the wall to stabilize your body. This is usually the last step before doing completely unassisted headstand push-ups.
Even though push-ups can be safer than some free weight or machine exercises, it doesn’t mean that they always are. For instance, a low-weight bench press might be easier on someone who is trying to recover from a shoulder injury, but this should only be done in concert with and with the approval of a medical professional.
You can absolutely do too many push-ups. Often times, once someone is comfortable at a new level, they will try to do too many sets of push-ups. This can lead to injury, so it’s very important to note any pain whatsoever in the chest and shoulders when performing repetitions.
Finally, pay attention to the pressure on the wrist. For people with delicate bones or people who might be obese, the pressure on the wrists can be prohibitive to doing regular push-ups. In this instance, make sure to start the client off with modified push-ups that elevate the hands. This will relieve the pressure on the wrist and allow them to build up their strength in a safe manner.
Sample Training Plan
Here are three different approaches to progressing yours or a client’s push-ups, based on ability.
If they can’t do any push-ups, or can only get through a few regular ones, start slow. In the first few weeks, stick to wall push-ups. Build up their confidence and strength. After they can do about 50 of these, move to countertop push-ups for a few weeks. Then, steadily decrease the angle of elevation for the hands until they can sustain 5–10 reps at a time on the floor.
If they can do a few sets of 5–10 push-ups, then start out with those. But, when they start to reach muscle failure, have them drop to their knees. Still maintain the same number of repetitions for each set, but as they continue approaching muscle failure, go to an easier version by elevating the hands further. You should notice with each passing week that they are able to do more and more regular push-ups.
Alternatively, you can start out this individual with elevated push-ups to start workouts off with more difficulty, then move into regular push-ups, then knee push-ups. This is really a judgment call on the part of the trainer.
When they can do a significant number of regular push-ups, then it’s time to have them start out with feet elevated. This will ensure that the challenge is greater. Work their feet up higher and higher as each level becomes easier.
Be very careful here, as there is an increased risk of injury, both from losing balance as well as the added weight onto the shoulders. Make sure that they have no prior injuries or have been cleared by a medical professional before attempting these progressions.
You Are the Key
At the end of the day, you are the personal trainer, and it’s your job to modify exercises to your clients’ needs. If your clients are looking for a great way to supplement upper-body training in a way that will engage their core and back, this is a great way to accomplish that goal.
As always, keep an eye out for safety. Push-ups make shoulders very vulnerable, especially for those who are older and heavier. Remember, if there’s any question at all, ask a medical professional for advice. Train them well, and you will see improvements in no time!
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