PUSHUPS - they're made out to be a staple exercise, like everyone should do them. But they are really really hard in reality. It's very rare for me to see just anyone bust out flawless pushups. Simple? Yes. Basic? Hmm, don't think so.
It's as simple as being on all fours and bringing your chest within an inch of the ground and then pushing your body back up. Simple simple simple. And SO valuable for overall strength and functionality. Yes, I have even my older clientele do pushups; it's very relevant when you come across the scenarior of falling over and having to get yourself off the ground. Falls are a big factor for mortality in older populations, so being strong enough to get yourself up off the ground is a must.
So this is for all my guys and gals struggling with pushups. If you struggle with form, you most likely are struggling with strength. If you have sufficient strength, your form will typically be pretty good. If you don't have enough strength, your form will most likely suck (tbh).
Here are some progressive exercises you can implement in order to build your upper body strength and form to achieve those pushups!
#1 - Kneeling Pushups
No, not "girl" pushups. These make pushups easier by decreasing the amount of load/weight on your hands. These are a good substitute if you are unable to do a full pushup on your toes or struggle with form.
Form check - shoulders down & back, away from your ears and core engaged. Don't let your low back arch; think of tucking your butt under. Elbows should come out and down, not just straight out to the side and not right up against your ribcage (think of a 45 degree angle from your shoulder).
Once you can do 8-12 reps with solid form, move onto the next variation!
These increase the difficulty of your pushups by increasing range of motion (ROM). You'll need two elevated surfaces that are apart from one another, leaving room for your body in the middle (see video to understand what I'm talking about). A deficit will help increase your strength before you transition into full pushups.
Form check - make sure you come low enough so your chest is still within an inch or two of the ground. You may feel a stretch through the front of your shoulders when you do this, due to the increased ROM. IF YOU FEEL PAIN - don't push through pain. However, make sure that your shoulders are rolled down and back and that you aren't letting your shoulder joint push forward at the bottom of your deficit pushup. If it is, think of drawing your shoulder blades toward one another as you lower into a pushup.
Once you can do 8-12 reps with solid form and range of motion, you can move onto the next pushup variation!
#3 - Elevated Pushups
Now you are in a full pushup position! With your hands elevated on a surface to decrease range of motion, take some load off your upper body, and help you move through a full pushup. This is your next step to full pushups off the ground!
You will obviously need an elevated surface. The higher the surface, the easier this will be. You can start with something high off the ground, like a chair or the seat of a coach, and progress by lowering the height of the surface you use. In the video, I'm using an aerobic step, which is about three inches up from the ground. Often times, I'll have people use the benches at the gym to perform elevated pushups.
Form check - everything about your shoulders should be the same; down and away from your ears, with your shoulder blades drawing back as you lower yourself towards the ground/surface. Make sure you really tuck your butt under here. A huge form fault that I see is that people tend to let their hips sag and head hang in a pushup. Keep your hips up by tucking your butt under and keep your head in line with your body!
Once you can do 8-12 reps here, you can move onto the next variation! Whoohoo! You're getting closer to full blown pushups!
#4 - Eccentric Pushups
Now you're moving onto the ground! Whoo!!
The eccentric portion of any movement is where your muscles are lengthening as they are contracting. To make it simple, we fitness professionals typically refer to the lowering or descending part of a movement the "eccentric" or "negative" portion. For example, a squat's eccentric portion would be where you bring your hips closer to the ground. Opposite of an eccentric movement or portion is the concentric.
Eccentrics are great because they induce a great amount of muscle tension and fatigue, even more so than jumping or something highly concentric. This is why we love to use eccentrics in workouts because they can be easier (kinda!) to perform but still elicit positive adaptation (getting stronger!).
Form check - Make sure your hips and head are all in line with your body. The slower you can move here, the BETTER. Remember, since this is an eccentric pushup, really emphasize the part where you lower your body to the ground, until your chest touches the ground. If you can't push yourself up still, NO WORRIES. Simply come back to your start position however you need to. Most people end up doing some sort of cobra/up dog movement, which is fine!
If you can lower yourself slowly and stop within an inch or two of your chest touching the ground, that will make this one even harder!
Once you can do 8-12 reps of these, with at least a 5 second eccentric portion, or if you can stop within an inch of the gorund and push yourself back up, move onto the next variation!
#5 - Hand Release Pushups
Here's your next variation!
This is somewhat like the eccentric pushup, except you are not lowering yourself as slowly as possible and you are attempting to push yourself back up, all at once. By pausing on the ground momentarily, we are eliminated another portion of the movement to make it slightly easier and work on the movement pattern itself; the isometric. That's the part where you stop right above the ground. Yep, by taking that out, it makes the full pushup a tiny bit easier, and therefore more doable than a regular pushup.
Form check - Don't peel yourself off the floor on this one. Unlike the eccentric pushup, you should push your whole body off the ground in one motion here. No cobras/up dogs! As you press yourself up off the ground, your chest and hips should lift up at the same time! Yes, it's harder! But isn't that the point?
Once you can do (you guessed it) 8-12 reps here, move onto the next variation! Of course, make sure these 8-12 reps feel relatively easy and like you're able to do more!
What's your next variation? A full pushup of course!
Remember to keep all those form checks in mind with your full pushup. All the same rules apply with your shoulder blades, elbow position, and keeping your hips and head in line with your body.
Now go get that pushup!
About the Author
Laura Su, BS Exercise Science, Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist, Powerlifter, Entreprenuer
I'm just a girl who fell in love with movement in high school and now wants to bring the freedom that exercise brings to everyone else.
I started working out with the desire to look a certain way but eventually found the sense of accomplishment and clarity that training for performance brought. Now I want to help everyone, especially women, to learn how to train and eat for their health and performance and realize that when you do that, the looks you desire are simply a positive side effect.
In my spare time, I enjoy powerlifting, horseback riding, sleeping, and hanging out with my boyfriend. I hope you enjoy my posts and keep reading along!
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