Let’s face it. Not only do you have to have epic arm strength, you also have to engage your core muscles, squeeze the abdominals and at the same time engage the inner thighs. Phew. No wonder it can be super tough.
But the good news is? It’s not hard to master it. We just need to take some time to learn the proper way of doing it.
Shall we get started?
To be able to do a standard push-up, we need to really go back to basics by asking ourselves one very simple, but important question – Do we know how to even do a push-up?
Kind of? Yes? No? It’s okay to admit it, we all need to start somewhere. The huge point here is to try as much as possible to try. Don’t be afraid of trying because that’s how you can get results.
It took me some time to be able to do a push-up. When I was losing weight, I remembered starting off with a knee push-up before finally graduating to a standard one in six months. Six months.
The funny thing is, I’ve been doing push-ups for as long as I can remember, since I was 12 back in the good ‘ol NPCC days. Yes I was one of them. Back then though, I have no idea how to do it, or why I did it. I simply just did it.
It was only recently, after years of learning and teaching fitness, I realised how important it is to do this right. Doing it wrong does not only put you in a risk of hurting yourself but it is a complete waste of time and energy. You’d better just sit and watch reruns of HIMYM. Yep, I said it.
If you’ve never done a single push up in your life before, this is definitely for you. If you’ve done a couple in the past, this is for you too. If you’re regularly doing it now, it doesn’t hurt to check your form and see if you’re doing it correctly, so this is great for you too.
Abdominal Muscles are King
We might think that our arm muscles are the most important for push-ups but studies has shown that when it comes to spine stability, our abdominal muscles are king. Imagine being in a push-up position. To prevent your hip from sagging, our rectus abdominis acts as a primary stabilizer and to prevent our body from twisting laterally, our obliques are the primary stabilizer for that.
Which is one of the reasons why engaging the core is important in executing a push-up.
Apart from the abdominals, the push-ups work on our triceps, at a rate of about 80% of maximum voluntary contraction, and the chest at a rate of about 95-105% of maximum voluntary contraction. Other muscles involved are the top back muscle (serratus anterior) and our trapezius.
To explain that in simpler terms – the abdominals are king for the proper execution of a push-up, followed by our chest, triceps and back.
Now that we know a little Science behind the push-up, here’s how we can set up for our first push-up.
Position your head so that you are looking straight down and ahead of you. In other words, do not tuck your chin and your body should be in a straight line from your head to your heels.
Spread your legs about the same width as your hands. The wider the space, the more stable you are, the easier it is to complete a push up.
So many of us make the mistake in positioning our hands and over-time may cause unnecessary strain to our elbow. In order to execute a push-up of any variation, hand positioning is gold.
Always try to get your shoulder in line with your wrist. The distance between your hand and your shoulder should be the same. It should be in a straight line. Don’t go too far out to the top of your head or too far in to your chest.
Set your hands on the ground slightly wider than shoulder width apart. I like to do mine with my fingers slightly spread, some do it with closed fingers and some really spread it out to the max. This is a comfort issue so find one and stick to the one that works for you.
Now that we know how to properly set-up, let’s progress. It doesn’t matter where you are right now with push-ups, I want you to do some experimenting with the proper form – figure out which push-up stage you’re at.
All of us are going to start at Stage 1: The Wall Push-ups and then working ourselves through to the Standard Push-ups. How do we do it?
- Start with Stage 1, and aim to completely 15 reps in excellent form. Once you’ve done 15 reps, take a min break and repeat for another 15 as your second set. Once you’re done with that, do another 15 for your third set.
- At anytime your form starts to suffer or you cannot complete 15 reps of a set, stop and make a note of your stage number. That will be the one we’ll be starting on for all your push-up workouts.
- If you can do 3 sets of 15 of any stage, graduate yourself to the next stage, with the same deal – do 3 sets of 15.
Before we start, here are the stages in summary:
- Stage 1: Wall Push-up
- Stage 2: Incline Push-up
- Stage 3: Knee Push-up
- Stage 4: Standard Push-up
Are we ready?
Here are the Form…
Stage 1. Wall Push-up
Stand in front of a wall, with your hands slightly wider than shoulder width apart. Walk yourself backwards till your arms are fully extended, and you’re standing on your toes.
Inhale as you lower yourself towards the wall, remembering to squeeze your butt and abs. Lower yourself till your nose touches the wall (or close) and push yourself back to the starting position, exhaling.
Do 3 sets of 15 reps of the wall push ups, with a one minute break between sets. This means you smash out 15 reps, have a one minute break, and do another 15 reps, another minute break, and finish with one last set of 15 reps. I know, I may sound silly explaining this, but there are some people out there who don’t have a clue what 3 sets of 15 means so this is really for you. You’re welcome.
Stage 2. Incline Push-up
Pick a bench, the stairs in your house or a chair. The lower the incline, the harder it is for you to push back up so choose something you’re confident in starting with. Just like all the other push ups we’ve covered today, position your hands slightly wider than shoulder width apart.
Inhale as you slowly lower yourself down till your arms is at a 90 degree angle. Pause slightly and slowly exhale back to the starting position.
I may sound like a broken record here, but do 3 sets of 15 reps of the incline push ups, with a one minute break between sets, before moving on to the third stage.
Stage 3. Knee Push-up
Knee push ups are my favourite on days when my body is extremely fatigued or when I’m making sure I get excellent depth in my push up. Your hands are slightly wider than shoulder width and instead of having your toes supporting your body, you will be on your knees with your legs on the ground, or crossed like I do in the picture.
Make sure you inhale as you slowly lower yourself down, till your arms is at a 90 degree angle and exhale yourself slowly back to the starting position.
Work your way up to 3 sets of 15 (perfect) reps before trying the standard push ups.
Stage 4. Standard Push-up
From your starting position, keep your arms straight, squeeze your butt and abs. This activates your core (aka the muscles in your body that stabilizes you) and gives you a little more strength to complete a rep.
Inhale and slowly lower yourself to the ground. It is important to take note how low you go, and try to remember it the next time you do it. This should be your bench mark. Lower yourself down till your arms reach a 90 degree angle, or for those left brainers out there, till your chest is about 10 cm off the ground.
Exhale and slowly straighten your arms back to the starting position.
Hurrah you have done one repetition of the PUSH UP! Do as many as you can before your form starts to get out of shape or you can no longer go down to the required depth. If this is new to you, you may only be able to do 3 or 4 as a start, and that’s okay! I used to train a client who couldn’t even do 1, and at the end of our training program together, she could smash out 25 in one go. Start slow, and build it up. Do not lose hope and most importantly, keep trying.
The Sagging Hips
Another point to take note is the hips. Never let the hips sag when doing a push-up. This will result in anterior pelvic tilting and lumbar hyperextension. In simpler terms – back pain.
If you find your hips sagging while doing a push-up, here are some reasons why.
- Lack of core strength. You probably will find it difficult to squeeze the abs and instead of doing it’s proper job, it hangs itself on your spine instead, creating a natural arch.
- Tight hip flexors and back muscles.
Sagging hips can cause severe problems later in life so try to stretch out those hip and back muscles so you can activate the core a little more each time.
How many of you have been doing push ups like this? Maybe you don’t realise it so the next time you’re doing it, do it in front of a mirror. If your body is positioned this way, don’t worry, you’re still working. It’s just not the proper way of doing a push up. And it’s not your fault. That’s why I’m here for.
The primary aim of a push up is to strengthen your whole body. If you’re doing it this way, you’re working on your chest on it’s own, which kinda defeats the whole purpose of doing a push up. So brush it off, follow the step and pictures above and move on doing the right thing. Oh and good on you for trying!
Other common mistakes include:
Putting hands too far out forward (or inward). Your shoulders and hands should be in a straight line.
Not going deep enough. Stop worrying about how many reps your gym buddy can do and focus on yourself. The only way you can get better is to get real and be true to yourself. Which lead us to…
Cheating. If you did 10 reps, don’t harp out to Facebook and say you did 15. Period.
Not breathing. Remember to exhale every time you push yourself up.
Not engaging your butt and abs. Yes I’ll say this again, squeeze em buttocks and abs, sista!
Finally! Some tips to better your Push Up.
Practise makes perfect. It took me 8 months to do ONE standard push up so do not give up. You can do it. I have faith in you.
Do not cheat. If you didn’t go to the depth you’re supposed to, do not count the rep. Stop, and try again the day after.
Strengthen your chest and core muscles. If you’re hitting the gym already, keep doing your bench presses. Do more planks. It is the best exercise for your core no matter how painful it is.
Keep healthy. Move more, lose excess body fat, choose healthier options in your daily meals. Get the good stuffs into your life.
Believe in yourself and want it, bad. It’s all in your mind, my dear lovely friends. If you believe it enough that you can do a push up, you will eventually get there. I am on a quest to do one perfect pull up and I am halfway there. It’s always a work in progress but if you don’t put your whole heart and mind to it, the work is piles up and it gets harder to end. So like Richard Branson favourite saying – ‘Screw it. Let’s do it!’
Take action and start doing push ups! Do it now, right after you’ve read this, or tomorrow as soon as you wake up. Check your form, grab a piece of paper, and record how many of which you can do. Do it in front of a mirror and make sure you’re doing it properly.
If you can do a hundred standard push ups already, there are so many different variations you can try out. Decline. Diamond. Triceps. Dive Bomber. Walking. Rotation. One-hand. Plyometrics. Handstand. You get it. This awesome post here shows about 30 plus variations of push ups. Or this one by John Alvino. Or even, try the Hundred Push Ups Challenge.
Have a good week ahead everyone! 🙂
P.S. Just before I go, tell me how you go with push ups by writing in the comment box below. Do you like push ups? What is it about push ups that you despise most? Share it!