I’ve been struggling to write what I think you should do to develop your push-ups. It’s a much easier topic to cover when I’m training someone one-on-one, because I can see where they’re at.
And anyway, I don’t even know if you care about being able to do push-ups at all.
I really don’t believe there’s this one superior system of training that we all should be doing. Many people have great results practicing many different methods; it’s not what you train, but how you train that determines whether or not you progress.
It’s very much like that in martial arts. People spend a lot of time arguing about what the best system is, wilfully ignoring the obvious fact that in all systems there are champions. Who would win in a fight? Bruce Lee or Muhammad Ali? Who knows? I don’t think they ever fought. And anyway, who cares?
You have to find something that's right for you, something that suits your temperament, and the way to do that is just to try stuff out. Because as one method might encourage you to excel, another might just wear you down. You can tell a certain amount from the outside – you can tell, just by the way they promote the sport, whether or not you’d like to be a bodybuilder. It’s really not for me. To be an Olympic Weightlifter however, that’s actually appealing. And on the outside, they might not seem that different. But on the inside, the differences are enormous.
I would have liked being a dancer, but it’s not the sort of training I’d like to undertake now, and let’s face it – 31 isn’t the ideal age to start learning Ballet.
If there’s one thing I think you should be wary of – it’s about the reason you train in the first place rather than the actual method. Don’t train for validation. Train for your enjoyment and satisfaction, and when you do that, you’re free. Suddenly you realise that duration doesn’t matter, intensity doesn’t matter, how many calories you burn sure as heck doesn’t matter, because you realise that what is right is simply to do what you want. You free yourself from the propaganda and the dogma, and when that happens, you’re free to play.
The exercise you like to do is always going to be better for you than what you’ve been told you should be doing. Not just because then there’s a better chance you’ll keep it up, but because exercise is supposed to be enjoyable, and I think we do gravitate towards what we need.
And anyway, if your health is really a consideration (for most of us it’s a rather abstract idea, because you can’t really measure your progress in this particular way), you actually don’t need to be doing all that much. Just moving a bit, working on your mobility and flexibility, that’s what’s going to serve you for life. Being able to lift 380 pounds is cool, but am I doing that because I think it’s good for my longevity? Hell no. I’m doing that because I think it’s cool!
But it’s not for validation. It’s just for me, because for whatever reason I gravitate towards that method of training, at this time in my life. The vast majority of my friends don’t actually care about heavy lifting at all, and I usually train alone, so who am I going to impress? It's just something I enjoy. I find working intensely, and relatively frequently, rewarding. I find it fun. I really like the feeling of lifting heavy things, and the feeling of achievement I get out of it, and I also like bodyweight strength exercises and walking.
Having said all that, at the moment I am working on my push-ups. And also some heavy leg weights, and chin-ups, but mostly I’m focusing on increasing my push-ups, which requires both maximal strength and endurance work, which are slightly different beasts.
If you can’t do full push-ups, a simple thing to try is having your hands elevated on a ledge or step. Once you build up to being able to do about 8 to 12 reps, try doing them on a lower step, and progress in this way until you get down to the floor.
If you can already do push-ups with your hands and feet on a level surface, you can try decline push-ups where you put your feet on an elevated surface. They’re one of my favourites.
Whatever variation you’re training, try to keep your shoulders, hips and heels in a straight line. Try not to let your lower back arch or collapse, or your hips to sag, and try to be doing a full-range push-up, all the way down until your chest touches the floor or bench, if it feels comfortable for your shoulder joints. If you’re doing a decline push-up, it might not be possible to touch your chest to the floor without arching your back, in which case, do what feels right to you, where you feel like you’re in a position of good support and structural integrity.
Regarding arm and hand placement – whatever exercise you’re doing, you should feel the strain in your muscles, not your joints. It can take a while to work out what’s comfortable for you, so play with angles as much as you like. I frequently see people doing push-ups with the hands relatively narrow and the elbows moving out to the sides; this can cause unnecessary strain on the elbow and wrist joints. Try to keep the forearms vertical, so that the elbows are directly above the wrists when you’re in the bottom position of your push-up. This might mean having a wider placement for your hands, or if you’re doing the narrow-hand version it means keeping your elbows narrow too, so that when you lower your body down, your elbows are pressed tightly against your ribs. This particular variation works the triceps much more than a regular push-up does, and is relatively advanced.
If you can build up to higher numbers of a harder type of push-up, or you keep doing low numbers but you progress to more challenging variations such as the one-arm push-up, you’ll find your ability to pump out more reps of a regular push-up also increases.
And if you are focusing on progressing and building your strength, I think it’s good to vary the intensity of your exercises. It keeps you adaptable, and stimulates the development of strength in different ways. Overall, your training should feel challenging but achievable, so you might work on some decline push-ups to help build raw strength and power, and you might also work on incline push-ups to help develop your endurance.
With that in mind, we could probably all benefit more by practicing a prone hold: it’s exactly like holding the push-up position, except that your elbows are bent so that your forearms are resting on the ground, and your upper arms are vertically aligned. It takes some of the pressure out of the arms, and allows us to focus on holding your body straight. Keep your feet pressed together, squeeze your buttocks and legs together, squeeze your abdomen as if you were bracing for a punch, and you should feel really solid. It’s an ‘isometric’ exercise, which means you’re building your strength without moving. Once you can hold that position for a minute or more, you should find that your push-ups are feeling much stronger too.
Anyway, enjoy your training!