upper body

Some Female Pushup Goodness

A misconception I would like to blow out of the water today is that women should only perform pushups from their knees.  It seems that when some fitness instructors are working with females, and realize they can't do "normal" pushups from the feet, they resort to placing their knees on the ground. Not that there is never a time or a place for this, but I feel it's a misguided mindset, for two reasons:

  1. I've never seen a correlation between the number of pushups a woman can do from her knees versus the ability to perform a pushup from her feet (ex. even if a woman can do 25 pushups from the knees, she still may not be able to do a full pushup with the knees off the ground).  This is largely do to the heightened lumbo-pelvic stability suddenly required at the hips/torso when the knees are elevated.
  2. While subtle, it continues to perpetuate the notion that women should train differently than men and are destined to be "inferior," if you will, in the weight room.  I think we should set women up for success, and show them what they actually cando with some perseverance and proper coaching.

If we're trying to, oh I don't know, actually improve female's movement quality and help them become stronger (not to mention boost their confidence), we need to stop perpetuating this notion that the majority of women are doomed to eternally fail at the full-range pushup.

Granted, nature hasn't necessarily set women up to learn the pushup as quickly as most men, due to biomechanical factors. For example, females tend to have a higher "lower body mass:upper body mass" ratio compared to men (think of having a weight placed over your hips versus your shoulders in a pushup, this would make it much more difficult).

However, with some careful coaching and persistent practice, almost any female can obtain this. We coach girls who can perform better pushups than most men I see in commercial gyms, and these same girls couldn't do a single perfect pushup when they first started training at SAPT.  My guess is that if we had just resorted to having them do "knee pushups," they'd still be unable to do a proper pushup (not to mention received FAR less improvement in their preparedness for sport).

Below are some videos of a couple of our female athletes performing pushups.  I'm sharing these for two reasons:

  1. To show that it is definitely possible for a girl to do a full-range pushup after proper training (without them being eternally destined to do "knee pushups" as the media will often portray).
  2. These pushups completely destroy 95% of the pushups I see performed by men across the country.  Boys: you really aren't that cool! Let's be real here and save the bench press for when we can perform at least 25 perfect pushups without any technical breakdown.

Below is one of our volleyball players (13-years old, mind you), Kenzie, performing five flawless pushups, and then topping them off with some sandbag walkovers:

Note: when Kenzie first came to us, she had to do pushups with her hands elevated on a high mat, so she has come a long way!

Next is Kaleigh (a track athlete), performing them with a 25lb plate on her back.

Thirdly, is a video of Kelsey performing some awesome TRX pushups, with her feet elevated.

And, last but not least, is Lisa banging out some single-leg, foot-elevated pushups. Strong!

Now, what to do if she can't yet perform a full-range pushup?  One option is to only perform the eccentric (the lowering or "yielding" portion of the movement) as Maggie is doing in the video below.  Focusing on the eccentric portion is actually a pretty key factor in rapid strength gains, especially in beginners.

Now, if someone can't do eccentric pushups them from the floor (as most people can't, initially), then you could simply have them elevate their hands on a mat or bench to make it easier.

You can even have them perform PUPPs, in order to acclimate to the feeling of supporting their bodyweight in full pushup position.


There are many other tools you can use as well, but I trust this is enough to at least give the women in the crowd some motivation, and get you thinking about tools outside the knee pushup to work on your strength and movement quality.


Suspended Pushup (with a twist) for an Added Challenge + Improved Shoulder Stability

The primary function of the rotator cuff (which many people often miss) is to center the humeral head in the glenoid fossa. In order to accomplish this, the dynamic stabilizers of the shoulder need to be on their "A" game. This is of special consideration when dealing with athletes, as the nature of competition is frequently an "open loop" scenario. See the video below for a pushup variation that incorporates some dynamic stabilization of the shoulder girdle. We named it "Suspended Pushup ISO Hold (with perturbations) into Repetitions."


A couple notes:

  1. Having a studly powerlifter give you perturbations during the ISO hold is optional, as the suspension straps inherently provide a stability challenge on their own.
  2. This exercise hits multiple birds with one stone. It will give you a tremendous challenge for your core (you're essentially holding a plank position for the entire time), give you a nice stretch for the pecs in the bottom, improve the ability of your rotator cuff to stabilize the humeral head (where your upper arm bone attaches to the shoulder joint), and develop your upper body strength. Sounds like a winner to me.
  3. As shown in the video, hold at the bottom for 10-20 seconds, and then move into the desired number of repetitions. Stay TIGHT in the bottom. Everything should be braced. Everything....
  4. Using the suspension straps is actually a fairly advanced progression of a pushup (especially if your feet are elevated, as shown). Be sure you master the ground-based pushups first.
  5. (Piggybacking off of #2) If you don't have access to suspension straps (or a partner), no problem! Holding a tight isometric at the bottom of a pushup (on the floor), and then moving into repetitions, can make a great way of taking on a new challenge if standard pushups have become a bit easy for you.
  6. You increase testosterone levels by 50% if you wear a "Do Work" shirt while performing these.

Just don't tear your shoulder in two....Stevo

PUPP: The Most Simple (Yet Difficult) Exercise You're Not Doing

Want a surefire yet simple method of making your current workout more challenging, while simultaneously improving your core stability and shoulder endurance? Instead of walking around (or checking your cell phone) during your rest period, get into the top of a pushup position, and hold it right there while keeping your body stiff as a board. Do this for 30 seconds, and then return to your next exercise. Dan John calls this a “PUPP” (Push-Up Position Plank).

Give it a shot for a few rounds. You'll quickly begin to feel your abdominals, chest, and shoulders burning like crazy.

A few months ago I put together a video of enough anti-extension core exercises to last you a lifetime:

However, most people (and I'm no exception), could really just use PUPP for a loooongg time and continue to garner the benefits from it. After a while, you can elevate the feet, place your feet in suspension straps, or place a weight on your back. The progressions are nearly endless, and believe me when I say you don't need to progress too quickly.

Above is a picture of Kelsey and Carson both performing a PUPP. Kelsey is using the method I described above, and Carson is doing it as an actual exercise in his training program, holding it for 60 seconds (when you have your feet in TRX straps, you won’t want to do it more than a few times).

Note that this exercise is only as challenging as you make it. Sure, most people can hold themselves up for a minute. But few can do it correctly, and thus reap the full benefit of it. Your glutes should be squeezed so tight that a walnut would be cracked between them. Your stomach should be maximally braced to the point that if I were to suddenly punch you in the gut, you wouldn’t feel it. No sagging of the low back, and you should be able to draw a perfectly straight line from the top of your head through your heels (no reaching forward, or looking up, with the head).

Try it. That shaking throughout your torso occurring at the halfway point is your body telling you that you’re not too advanced for planks.

Other Applications Moving along a similar thread, I’ve found that the PUPP also makes an excellent exercise for those struggling to either:

a. Do their first perfect pushup b. Improve their max number of bodyweight pushups (ex. as in a military challenge)

A lot of people go up in smoke when they attempt the pushup because their core musculature fails in its role as a stabilizer, as opposed to the primary movers (ex. chest, shoulders, and and triceps) failing. By the way, by “core” I’m referring to the 30+ muscles that attach to your pelvis, not just your abs! All of these muscles must learn to work as a unit, and the pushup position hold aids you in your quest to achieve this.

So get to work, and enjoy some newfound stability and strength-endurance in your upper body and lumbopelvic regions.


The Perfect Pushup: Diagnosing the Pushup

Pushups are probably looked down upon so often because they're the first exercise most people learned in grade school during gym class. They're often viewed as elementary and "too easy" for most, likely because they're not seen as sexy as another popular exercise: the bench press.

The funny thing is, the pushup seems to be one of the most frequently butchered exercises I see on a regular basis. When I walk around most gyms , I cringe at the form I see people using it's honestly very difficult to stop myself from running around like a Form Nazi in order to keep people from injuring themselves.

Today, I'm going to give the most common technique flaws I see take place during the everyday pushup, and some corrections on how to get much more "bang for your buck" from this exercise. The pushup is an AWESOME tool in your training arsenal, but the problem is it frequently isn't executed in a manner that will give people the results they're seeking.

I'll be giving video demonstrations of how NOT to do them, and then a video of what a real, perfect pushup looks like. All this on top of showing a few other pushup variations you can toy with once you master the perfect pushup. Aren't I a nice guy? You can buy me a cup of coffee later, no worries.

Anyway, let's get the geeky side of things out of the way. Here's where I'll be explaining the "why" behind pushups.

Why Perform Pushups?

* They teach you to control your body from head to toe. When performed correctly, they engage countless muscles in the pelvis, abdominals/low back, upper back, and then of course the chest, shoulders, and triceps. The nerdy way to describe the stabilization required during pushups is "lumbo-pelvic stability" which teaches you to control your core in a functional manner, leading to benefits both in and out of the weight room (I'll let you use your imagination here).

* It effectively trains movement of the scapulae (shoulder blades), giving you healthy shoulders for the long haul. Unlike the bench press, a pushup allows the shoulder blades to glide freely. When pushups are performed correctly (i.e. "pulling" yourself to the floor, and pressing yourself all the way up so your shoulder blades protract at the top) you engage the serratus anterior, a key player in shoulder health and function. The serratus, along with the lower trapezius, are two muscles that are pervasively dormant in our population. These two muscles work synergistically with the upper trapezius to upwardly rotate the scapula when your arm moves overhead (think: throwing a ball, or performing an overhead press). In fact, when I worked in the physical therapy clinic, the most common denominator in the patients with shoulder problems was weakness in both the serratus and the lower traps.

* They're a closed chain exercise, essentially making them more shoulder-friendly than the bench press (an open-chain exercise). * When done properly, they'll help boost your bench press, squat and deadlift numbers. Not to mention: aid you in your quest to achieve the look and function of a physical specimen. Hah! Now you're listening.

Anyway, below are videos of me performing various incorrect pushups. The technical flaws may evade you initially, but look closer, and you'll see them. You'll probably see some pushups that you weren't aware were even considered erroneous!

Note: The following 6 videos demonstrate INCORRECT form.

Error #1: Forward Head Posture

This is the most common error that people are unaware of, I believe. You'll see that my head juts forward, hitting the ground before my chest makes contact (the chest should touch the ground FIRST in a perfect pushup).

Error #2: No Scapular Retraction (aka "loose upper back")

Another common flaw most people are unaware of. You'll notice in the video that I "fall" to the ground, instead of intentionally "pulling" myself to the floor. The upper back is loose, there's no scapular retraction (think: pinching a pencil between your shoulder blades), and I'm essentially just letting gravity drop me to the floor.

Error #3: Excessive Elbow Flare

You'll see the elbows make a 90 degree angle with my torso (they should be tucked at roughly 45 degrees).

Error #4: Hip Sag

This is where the person lacks the "anterior-posterior" engagement of the core and the hips/low back sag to the floor (the body should form a completely straight line from head to toe, remaining stiff as a board).

Error #5: Elevated Hips

This is where the butt sticks up in the air. It's another compensation pattern (similar to #4) people slip into when they lack the core strength to effectively resist the pull of gravity throughout their entire body.

Error #6: Looking Straight Ahead/Looking "Up" (no video shown).

This is where people tilt their head up and look straight ahead as they perform pushups. It seems every sports coach tells their kids to do this! Look straight down at the floor when you do your pushups (unless you desire cervical problems down the road...be my guest).

So, what does a Perfect Pushup look like?

Here (at last!) is the correct version:

Key Coaching Cues:

* Hands just be just outside shoulder width, and the elbows tucked at 45 degrees (or less) to the torso. Don't listen to people who tell you that placing your hands wider will give you better chest development! All that will do is fast-track you to shoulder pain and a subsequent physical therapy appointment. * "Pull" yourself down to the ground, actively engaging the scapular retractors and essentially the entire upper-back musculature. * Keep your chin tucked (think: give yourself a "double chin") so you don't "reach for the ground" with your head. * The chest should touch the floor first (i.e. not your hips or your head) * Squeeze your abs and glutes tight throughout the entire movement * Entire body should be perfect alignment, and you should remain as tight as if someone were about to come along and try to knock you over.

Once you master the basic perfect pushup (it will take longer than you think: you should be able to do at least 20 before progressing further), there are a number of ways to increase difficulty. One way is wrap a sturdy resistance band around you, so that the movement will become harder as you reach the top portion of the pushup (as the band tension increases). You can elevate the feet as well.

Both versions are combined and shown in the video, here:

There are a million different variations you can use (in truth, you really don't need many, but it's always nice to spice things up from time to time). You can do walkover pushups, as shown here (much harder than they look!):

Or tempo pushups, in which you perform both the eccentric and concentric slowly:

Or suspended pushups, as Kelsey (my lovely fiancee) is demonstrating here:

The list goes on, but this is more than enough to get you started!

Take home message: you'll receive far greater benefit from performing 5 perfect pushups then you will from performing 20 incorrect pushups. - Steve