You’re Never Too Good for a Push-Up
Strength and Physique Gains from a Classic Movement.
You’re never too good to work on the basics. Basic movements don’t stop being useful just because you got better.
Today we’re going to discuss what you can do to improve your physique or performance through better bodyweight movements. These are accessory movements you can add to your training program in interesting ways to improve performance, size, or co-ordination.
How to Perform a Push-up Properly
“how one performs a push-up is indicative of that individual’s athletic foundation, and […] how committed one is to excellence in movement and performance. Sloppy push-ups suggest to me a superficial interest in athleticism and a degree of laziness.” – Greg Everett, Coach at Catalyst Athletics
The problem is that most people do push-ups wrong. When properly applied, the push-up is a great addition to your training. It can be used to support proper mechanics from the upper body, which may even carry over to the bench press or sports performance.
A Quick-Start Guide to Better Push-Ups
For the benefit of those who aren’t loving push-ups, here’s a quick guide on how to be less-bad at them. It’s not complicated, but it is important because if you’re doing them wrong, you’re not going to get anything from them:
- Take position with your hands directly under your shoulders, on active feet, with a perfectly straight body (keep the abs and glutes working!)
- Tuck the shoulder blades down, keeping the elbows at roughly 45 degrees, keeping the muscles of the upper back active throughout
- Keeping the shoulders and torso/hips in position, bend the arms and lower yourself until your chest touches the floor
- From this position, keep the rest of your body totally stable and push the floor down until you lock the arms out
- Once you return to the setup position, the push-up is completed
Things to watch out for:
Flaccid core: your torso and hips need to stay tight and controlled throughout the movement. If your hips aren’t down or your abs aren’t tight, you’re not training the chest as effectively.
Flared or over-tucked elbows: if you let your elbows too far out (like a T shape), you’ll put too much stress in the shoulders and cut the triceps out of the movement. If you want to focus on chest development more, you can do so with a different type of push-up, like the Maltese:
Elbows too tucked, however, will take the chest out of the movement. 45-degrees is a great mid-point.
Wobbly shoulders: You need to keep the shoulders tucked and actively controlled. Lack of control is one of the reasons why you might catch an injury. Keep the shoulders tucked down from the start of the movement and keep them in the same position throughout the movement.
Cutting depth: if you don’t touch the chest to the floor, you’re not doing it right. You can make a push-up easier by kneeling, or by performing them on a raised surface, rather than by half-repping!
Push-ups as a Tool for Technique/Skill
One of the most important and commonly-seen uses for the push-up is as a teaching tool. This is appropriate for bench training, as well as just building better movement-awareness and movement control in the upper body.
My favourite type of push-up is the hand-release push-up (or HRPU) and it really shines in this context.
In beginners to strength training – and powerlifting specifically – it’s a great tool for understanding how to keep the scapula tight and controlled while pressing. These are fundamental skills for shoulder health and upper body strength and size training, which the HRPU really helps develop.
Performing this movement as a warm-up or accessory movement is amazing for driving the bench from the triceps/chest. Great for physique, strength, joint-preparation, and even building up your confidence with pressing movements.
If you’re a beginner to benching, or you’re working with someone who is, the HRPU is a great accessory exercise for progressing to bench. Our favourite thing about it is the ability to build general and specific strength: developing skill and strength in good positions!
Push-ups as a Finisher
As you get better and stronger, the push-up will be less of a challenge, but this doesn’t make it irrelevant.
The push-up is an awesome finisher: an exercise you can use at the end of a session to get a pump and push some final, bonus volume.
Rather, it just takes on a different role. As a finisher for strength and size in the upper body, it has some really interesting applications. As a bodyweight movement, it doesn’t have the same injury risk you’d see with a weighted movement like the bench press, making it more appropriate for “finisher” status.
This is when you’re at the end of a workout – when it’s appropriate to get a sick pump for (1) looking great in the mirror, and (2) potentially maximising muscle gains through cell hydration and other scientific mechanisms.
There are two types of supersets that we recommend looking at for using the push-up as a finisher: agonist and antagonist supersets. Let’s take a quick look at what they are, why you use them, and some of our favourite examples..
Antagonist muscles are ones that act on opposite sides of the same joint – such as the biceps and triceps.
The push-up works beautifully with antagonistic movements that strengthen the upper back. As we saw with the use of the HRPU, the muscles of the upper back are important for pressing but also for better push-ups. Working them together means you’re in the golden “functional hypertrophy” zone.
There are a few, increasingly-advanced recommendations for antagonistic push-up supersets:
- Push-ups and Inverted Rows
- Push-ups and Dumbbell rows
- HRPUs and behind-the-neck lat pulldowns
- HRPUs and single-arm cable rows
You can interchange the rowing movements, but mixing up single- and two-arm rowing movements is a great way to improve overall back development and co-ordination.
Agonist supersets for gains
While antagonist supersets are better for whole-body co-ordination and growth, agonist supersets are about driving one muscle group to the max. They involve supersetting the same muscles on two different movements.
We recommend picking a harder and easier exercise to combine. This means you can use the push-up as the easier or harder movement, which makes it very versatile. You can pair it with heavy lifting, power training, or lighter accessories.
There are loads of interesting combos here. These are just a few examples of our favourite combos for heavy lifting, power training, and sick pumps, respectively:
Heavier Combos (compound lifts):
- Floor presses and push-ups
- Dumbbell flyes and push-ups
- Overhead press and push-ups
Power Combos (speed and power movements):
- Pin presses and Clapping push-ups
- Push-ups and cable rotating press
- Landmine presses and clapping push-ups
Ridiculous Finishers (specific isolation exercises):
- Push-ups and dumbbell tricep extensions
- Push-ups and wide-grip floor presses
- Banded push-ups and HRPU
- Push ups and cable tricep pushdown
There are literally dozens of options for each of these categories, but these are some personal favourites.
About The Author
Professional sport/fitness writer, Weightlifter, high-performance enthusiast. Liam wears many hats, but they’re unified by a love for competition, performance, and engaging writing. You can get in touch (or hurl abuse) over at ApexContent.Org.