A Simple Progression to Stop Butchering Push-ups

Not too long ago, we posted a Move of the Week featuring a progression on a gym staple: the band-resisted push-up. In that blog, I also briefly discussed what a regular push-up done with good technique should look like and how most people get it wrong. I’ve seen enough elbows flare out, hips dump forward, and chins poke forward to know that they could benefit from what we are about to dive into today.

The Push-up, and Where it Goes Wrong

Figuratively speaking, you want this, not a canoe.
Figuratively speaking, you want this, not a canoe.

There are many ways to progress a push-up aside from using bands, but if you’re struggling with regular push-ups as it is, tacking on these progressions is akin to firing a cannon from a canoe; neither of these scenarios would end well!

So how do we beef up a canoe and turn it into something bigger, like a pirate ship? Since we haven’t had the chance to do so yet, we will discuss how to master the regular push-up in today’s blog. This is no small task for someone who has never stepped foot inside a gym, let alone for everyone else.

I spoke with fellow Staff Coach Jake Roswell for this, and together we came up with a simple progression that can get you performing proper push-ups in no time.

For starters, this is what a proper push-up should look like.

First and foremost, notice how it resembles a moving plank. If you can’t hold one for at least 30 seconds, imagine how it would look if you were also required to push your body back and forth during the set. Not good. In fact, most issues with the push-up are actually core stability issues, in which the trainee has trouble maintaining the integrity and alignment of his/her body during movement. If the trainee does not have the requisite core stability, the body detunes itself and it is virtually impossible to build strength. It would be like building a skyscraper on a cracked foundation.

1. Plank

This is why the plank is the first exercise in this push-up progression, and in this case there are some important things to keep in mind. First of all, these are not passive planks. Clench your fists hard, and screw your elbows into the ground. If done correctly, this will activate the upper back area close to your armpits—these are the scapular stabilizers that keep the shoulder blades flush with the ribcage. Be sure to squeeze the butt and keep the chin tucked; this will align your body in a straight line from head to toe. Jake and I also like the cue of “bringing your belt buckle to your chin.”

spinal-curvatureAs a side note, the curvature of the spine here should match the natural curvature of the spine in standing, so I would’ve loved to see Jake flatten out his t-spine a little more in the video. However, this issue actually cleans up nicely in the push-up regressions to follow. Secondly, instead of holding the plank for time as conventional wisdom would tell you to do, hold the plank for a certain number of breaths. These breaths should be deep and intentional, full inhales and exhales. Inhale through the nose and exhale hard through the mouth. This effort will engage the core even more, and turns a passive and mindless plank into an active and difficult exercise. 10 breaths a set is usually enough to get people shaking uncontrollably, in a good way.

2. Forearm Scapular Retraction-Protraction Slides

In the Move of the Week blogpost, I also mentioned how the shoulder blades glide smoothly around the rib cage during a push-up. They alternate between retraction (shoulder blades moving back toward the spine during the lowering phase) and protraction (moving forwards towards the armpits during the pulling phase). The flexing and extending of the arms follow suit in a rhythmic fashion during the push-up. The following exercise is meant to teach proper scapular retraction and protraction, in order to facilitate the scapulohumeral rhythm inherent to a good push-up.

In this exercise, lean your forearms into the wall the entire time in a standing position with the knees softly bent. Your forearms should be shoulder-width apart and your elbows right below your shoulder sockets. Tuck your belt buckle to your chin to engage the core and create a neutral spine position. You want all the movement in this exercise to come from the scapula moving on the ribcage and not by flexing and extending the lower back, which is a common mistake that many people make.

Slowly let your body sink into the wall as your scaps retract and move back and around towards the spine. Done correctly, you should feel this in your upper back just as you would in a rowing exercise.

Now, reverse this motion by pushing away from the wall, filling the gap between your scaps and rounding your upper back ever so slightly. This is protraction. Finally, continue to push through the forearms as you slide them up the wall, doing your best to maintain contact with the wall the entire time. By doing so, you are activating the serratus anterior, a muscle below the armpits that wraps around the ribcage on both sides. The motion here might be limited, but that’s okay; this scapular protraction + upward rotation combo is the icing on the cake.

The trick here is to go very slowly; it took me 45 seconds to do 3 full reps. Be sure to hold the positions of retraction, protraction, and protraction + upward rotation in order to feel them. For some people who are unaware or not used to moving their shoulder blades without also flexing and extending at the lower back, this exercise could actually be extremely difficult. Keep working at it.

3. Push-up from Pins

So now that we’ve learned how to do a proper plank and how to keep the shoulder blades flush with the ribcage during movement, it’s time to bring it all together. This here is the meat and potatoes; the push-up from pins. It’s simply a regular push-up done from a barbell in a squat rack, but it’s incredibly versatile. With strength demands taken out of the equation for now, the trainee can focus on maintaining that plank as the body moves through space. The higher the bar and more upright the body, the easier the push-up. Once proficient though, this can be easily progressed by lowering the barbell. The pinholes on the rack are a great way to keep track as you work your way down to the floor.

As far as coaching cues go, everything from the plank that we went into before still applies here. At the top, squeeze the barbell and think about pulling your mid-torso down to the bar. At the bottom, think about pushing away from the bar/floor. Stay aligned throughout the movement by engaging your abs and glutes. As for the arms, the elbows should track naturally, which results in a 45-degree angle between the torso and the upper arm. This is the most advantageous position mechanically for the arms to push at full strength.

4. Eccentric Push-up

If you find yourself stalling as you work your way down to the floor, one way to change things up is by focusing exclusively on the eccentric portion of the push-up. Lower your body down to the barbell as slowly as you can, but instead of attempting to push back up with strength you don’t have, just reset and re-position to the top and repeat. We are stronger eccentrically than we are concentrically, so these should be done with the barbell a little lower than you’re used to in order to keep things challenging. You might even find that you’ll be able to reach the floor here before you are able to perform a full push-up.

5. Push-up

In no time you will have developed the proper core stability, scapulohumeral rhythm, and strength in order to do push-ups from the floor. All the coaching cues from the push-up regressions we outlined previously still apply here. You may only get 3 or 4 reps to start, but resist the urge to do more if doing so compromises the integrity of the positions we have established, and instead, focus on doing multiple short sets.

Recap

To recap, here’s the progression again:

  1. Plank
  2. Forearm Scapular Retraction-Protraction Slides
  3. Push-up from Pins
  4. Eccentric Push-up
  5. Push-up

Here are our suggestions for incorporating this sequence. For the plank, we’ve found 3 sets of 10 breaths during a workout to be good. For the forearm slides, 3 sets of 6 should be good. These two exercise can be used as warm-up exercises for a couple of workouts. Put a huge emphasis on technique when doing these exercises. Nailing them down might take a little bit of practice, but once you’ve done so, you can start doing push-ups from pins. Aim for sets of 8-10 perfect reps here as you continue to work your way down the squat rack, and use the eccentrics for sets of 6 to “introduce” yourself to lower settings on the rack. Eventually you’ll reach the floor. Use multiple short sets here as we discussed until you are able to bang out 10 respectable push-ups a set. Now you have your pirate ship and have effectively earned the right to go even further.

Hopefully, this progression will get you going if you’re struggling with the push-up. Let us know what your think!

featuring Jake Roswell

Jake Roswell

personal trainer jake roswell halevy lifeJake Roswell is a Staff Coach at Halevy Life.

Jake successfully completed NAVY Seal trials, but subsequently chose a career path focused on his primary passion, working with a variety of clients and athletes and honing his has craft as a coach at Halevy Life.

After graduating from Castleton State College, where he earned a degree in Exercise Science with a concentration in Kinesiology (while a star athlete on the school’s soccer team), he remained at Castleton to serve as one of the school’s top strength coaches.

Jake is a multi-sport athlete and has medaled in powerlifting with the USAPL.