Back to Basics: Perfect Your Push-up

Too often people get hung up on performing “sexy” exercises and movements. They want to skip past “boring” foundational movements and go straight to throwing boulder-like weights over their heads, flipping massive tires, and climbing ropes like superheroes. While all of these things are super-cool, beneficial to overall development, and increase your social media following—if photographed correctly and paired with some sort of motivational/witty statement—the reality is that most of us would be better served in our own fitness by watching someone perform a beautifully executed squat, lunge or pull-up. That’s because you can’t get to lifting like a pro if you bypass mastering foundational movements. That’s why, over the next little while, we’ll be focusing on improving technique and performance in foundational movements. The first on the must-master list is the push-up.

Why the push-up is so important

The push-up is an incredible way to teach the muscles of your body to work together. To do it right, you need to create stability through your shoulder girdle, midsection and hips while moving a load with your upper body. Create stability in these areas and you’ll greatly improve your overhead pressing and pull-up strength. It will also help your body move correctly, preventing injury when you’re asked to add intensity to these movements.

Three common mistakes people make with push-ups

Mistake No. 1:  Poor hand/elbow position  

There is a lot of variation in how you can position your hands and elbows in a push-up, and each one targets different muscles in different ways, but when discussing a classic push-up there are a few things to keep in mind:

• Fingers should be facing forward to ensure your hands are not turned inwards or outwards

• Hands should be slightly below your shoulders, in line with your chest

• As you lower down, your upper arm should be at a 45 degree angle. A helpful visualization here is to imagine you have to push a refrigerator with your hands. Generally speaking, the place you choose to put your hands and the position of your arms will be close to your optimal push-up position.

Mistake No. 2: Your stomach/hips/quads are the first thing to touch the ground (and last thing to leave)

The push-up requires you to maintain tension in your entire body. That means your body shouldn’t dip or wave, but should remain in the same taut position at the top, middle, and bottom of the movement. To keep it tight, squeeze your butt and your gut all the way through the movement. Ensure your chest touches the ground first and that you push up off the ground holding that same position.

Mistake 3: You are trying a variation that is too difficult for you

Does your hand/shoulder position change involuntarily? Do you try to keep your core tight but even so can’t help but leave your hips on the ground as you push out? Is touching the floor with your chest seemingly impossible?

Most people will answer yes to one or all of the above, especially if they’re asked to do a high volume of push-ups. If you’re in one of the above groups then consider trying a variation that is in line with where you’re at now. So, move to your knees, or add a box and do them on an incline. My favourite variation is a band-assisted push-up (see video here).  I’ve watched many people’s push-up technique go from terrible to excellent with the addition of a band around their hips.

The plan for improving your push-up

Do Push-ups!  Do them perfectly, not aimlessly.  Find out the max set of push-ups (of any variation) you can do in a row and make sure you can do at least five this way, or scale to a different variation.

A program for getting your push-up on-point (decide which one of the five options is right for you): 

If you can do 5-10 push-ups, perform 5 sets @ 60% of max rounded up for a week

If you can do 11-20 push-ups, perform 5 sets @ 70% of max rounded up for a week

If you can do 21-30 push-ups, perform 5 sets @ 70% of max rounded up for a week

If you can do 30+ push-ups, perform 5 sets @ 70% of max rounded up for a week

Rest as much as needed in between sets to hit the desired number with perfect form.  Add 1/1/2/3 reps to your sets each week based on which level you started at. Perform the sets for two days each week. After three weeks, retest your max set of push-ups and use the new number to start at week one again.


Duncan McNeill is a coach and co-owner at Alchemy CrossFit. 


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