The fact of the matter is most young athletes that come to train with us at CTS really have never been taught how to properly perform a push up. Most of the time these young athletes want to jump into doing heavy weight training such as bench pressing and all sorts of other “beach muscle” exercises, yet they can’t even perform 20 correct, full range of motion push ups.
What is full range of motion? I ask my athletes to get their chest all the way down to the ground and lock the arms out in full extension when coming up to the top position.
Another common fault most athletes exhibit when performing a push up is allowing the hips to “Sag” or drop down to the ground. This shows weakness in the abs, lower/upper back, and the muscle of the hips/glutes. Either that, or we see a lot of “inchworming” where the hips are elevated up and the athlete bends the arms a couple of inches (more commonly seen in younger athletes and/or females who don’t possess the best upper body strength).
The final common error I see when athlete perform push ups is where they place their hands. Often times, these athletes are placing their hands way too wide and allowing the elbows to flare out instead of keeping them tucked close to the body.
When all of these errors are left untreated, we just get a whole lot of ugly, 1/2 rep, improperly performed push ups! I except all of my athletes to be able to perform a minimum of 25 full range of motion push ups with correct technique before they’re even allowed to place a barbell in their hands. It makes zero sense to have an athlete bench press if they can’t even perform basic bodyweight exercises correctly! This is simply a recipe for injury and frustration!
Now that we’ve examined many of the common errors of the push up, I’ll briefly explain how to perform a proper push up and how to get stronger at them if you don’t have the strength to do more than 25 just yet.
Hand Placement: Your hands should be directly underneath your shoulders when you place them on the ground.
Head Position: Your head should be in a “neutral” position: chin tucked, eyes down towards the floor (think correct posture as if you were standing up looking straight ahead).
Abs/Glute/Hips: Your midsection should be “braced” or tightened up as if someone was about to punch you in the stomach the entire time! Your glutes (butt muscles) should be contracted the entire time as well to prevent your hips from sagging or dropping down towards the ground.
Elbows: Your elbows should not flare out; they should remain tight to the body (tucked).
*Bonus Tip: Instead of simply lowering your body down towards the floor, imagine “pulling” yourself into the ground with your arms; this will help maintain tension throughout the upper and lower body and keep the body rigid as you perform your push ups.
Now, if you cannot perform more than a few reps, you can start by performing them from your knees and perform multiple sets of 5-10 repetitions OR you can elevate your hands i.e. place them on a bench, chairs, etc. I prefer to work quality over quantity when someone is still learning how to perform them correctly, so don’t be afraid to use multiple sets of lower reps to work on technique!
Once you’re strong enough to do them correctly, it’s time to work on other variations of the push up! Check out a couple videos of some athletes at CTS getting after it and getting strong with basic (but effective) bodyweight exercises!
As you can see, you can’t go wrong with push ups for building strength and muscle. They are a classic and mainstay exercise for a reason. Even when you’re strong enough to perform 25-50 full range of motion push ups, you can work on advanced variations and continue to progress on them for years.
Remember: be patient, full range of motion, and always use common sense in your quest to get strong and fast!