Practicing push-ups is a great way to get strong. As a vague rule of thumb, I like training for either sets of five or sets of ten. I used to be a bit wary of doing heavier work for fewer reps, it’s easy to be unsure if you aren’t confident with your technique, but attempting something that is challenging, which you can complete, is the best way to get strong. It needs to be hard to stimulate development.
But you don’t necessarily need to push until failure or train hard all the time – to indulge in the Paleo fantasy for a moment – human evolution – why would high rep training until exhaustion three days a week – why would that be optimal? Is it struggling against exhaustion that stimulates our development? I’m not convinced. Sometimes it’s useful, but sometimes it’s useful to train only a few easy reps, frequently throughout your week.
Often that’s not the approach we take – we don’t think it’ll help us get into a smaller pair of jeans or whatever, but if you do start to train like this – easily – it means that training stops being intimidating. It doesn’t have to be an impressive set, you don’t need to worry about whether or not you hit the right numbers, there’s no such thing as failing at a workout. It’s not a test of your character.
If you just want to develop a coordination, a skill, the way to do it is with frequent practice and not a whole lot of loading. Don’t do something hard. But if you want to develop strength – you don’t need frequent practice, you need more resistance.
Which in terms of push-up training, means finding a variation on the technique that is appropriate to your needs. If you cannot do a push-up, and you want to be able to, the best way to start is utilise an easy variation, and do so frequently. Once you start to feel confident and comfortable with the variation – start making it harder.
Wall-push-ups are simplest. Hands are on the wall – while keeping the body straight, lean forwards towards the wall, and then use the strength of your arms to push yourself back up.
You can progress that to back-of-the-couch-push-ups. Hands on the back of a couch, then do a push-up. Or chair-push-ups, and over time you can progress to step-push-ups, if you have access to a staircase or a low ledge, and of course, the full, impressively hard push-up is with your feet and hands all flat on the ground. Once that becomes too easy (and one day it will, if you want to dedicate yourself to this), you can add load in the form of a heavy backpack, or you can start to elevate your feet which of course moves more of your body weight over your arms.
Because it’s not just moving your muscles. It’s about the relationship between your structure, your skeleton, and gravity. It’s about leverage. And your muscles help with that. If you want to make it easy for your muscles, easy to complete the technique, give yourself good structural support in relation to gravity and the technique you are attempting. If you want to make it hard for your muscles, if you really want to stimulate them to work, give yourself bad leverage. You’ll be working harder.
Anyway, to the technique: regardless of whether your hands are on the ground, or on the back of a couch or a bench top, or whatever, these are the angles you want to go for – the upper arm should be (when you’re in the bottom position of the push-up) at about 45 degrees in relation to the torso. The elbows aren’t tucked in, touching your ribs, and they’re not way out to the side, up around shoulder height (see image to the left). This balances the workload nicely between the muscles of the shoulder, the arm (mostly triceps), and the chest.
Sometimes people will use the narrow arm setup, with the elbows touching the ribs, in order to focus development on the triceps muscles. Usually the wide, flat variation isn’t much use. It focuses a lot of work on the shoulders, but it’s not really a useful shoulder exercise – it’s just a bit stressful for the joint.
If your upper arms are at about 45 degrees, then when you come down towards the ledge or couch-end or whatever, your chest comes down towards that surface, not your face. Your face will come down to the bench if your hands are too wide and your arms are high.
And in terms of hand placement, if your upper arms are at about 45 degrees, and your forearms are perpendicular to your hands, your hands will be placed a little bit wider than your shoulders.
Perpendicular forearms are good. That means, if you’re doing push-ups flat on the ground, your forearms are vertical. When you bend your elbows and lower yourself down towards the ground, bench, couch or wall, your elbows don’t go wider than your wrists. This is good leverage, and good joint-harmony – but you can play around with this. Try if you want, with your hands a bit narrower, it’ll probably be harder, and you’ll probably feel strain in your elbows, rather than your arm muscles. Try with your hands a bit wider, it’ll probably be harder. But in the right place, it means you’ve got a really efficient movement pattern.
And if you’re wondering – the version with narrow elbows to work the triceps – it’s narrow hands and narrow elbows. They go together. Wide hands, wide elbows. But narrow hands and wide elbows? It doesn’t really work.
But all that said – play with it. If you’re just discovering the technique and you’re not working intensely or under a heavy load, play around – you’re unlikely to hurt yourself. But be sure to use your own sensitivity as your guide. It can take a while to learn how to distinguish between joint pain and muscle tension – and you need to be attentive. It bears repeating: everyone has different joints. We have varying ranges of motion, and these days people talk about the core, they talk about all kinds of things, but the best thing you can do is be your own guide. Listen to your body, and if in doubt – don’t do it. There’s no need to push through joint pain – that is not what they mean when they say ‘no pain, no gain’. They mean fatigue, muscle distress. They don’t mean tearing, joint damage, or passing out.
There’s plenty more to be said about push-ups. But this is a good place to start. Investigate leverage and efficiency, and when you’re ready – add load, or vary the technique to make it harder, and bring your awareness to it – see how you feel, and embrace the experience of effort in motion. See what comes up.