It may be a bodyweight 101 exercise, but many clients and trainers alike perform the push-up with poor form. Movement specialist Guillaume Tual explains how to get it right.
- Mobilise joints to access proper ROM and create necessary tension
- Tension at the hands and core irradiates to amplify force production of the pectoral muscles
- Hip adduction has a trunk and shoulder stabilising effect that enhances serratus anterior activity
- Push-ups are functional, have many variations and can be done anywhere.
The push-up is one of the fundamentals of fitness training and looks incredibly simple, so much so that we assume everyone knows how to do it properly. Yet, there is more to it than simply bending the elbows to lower the chest!
In my 10 years in the fitness industry, I have seen many people of all shapes and strength (some being trainers!) performing this chest up-and-down movement with bad form. There appears to be a lack of understanding that the push-up has more to do with whole body tension than it does with pectoral or triceps strength. So, let’s revisit this classic bodyweight training move and break it down.
Mobility for stability
In order to access full range of motion in a push-up, you need to have proper mobility at the wrists, shoulders, shoulder girdle (scapulae and clavicles) and hips. Here’s what may happen if the necessary ROM isn’t available at these joints:
Wrists: Should be roughly lining up with the shoulders, which means close to 90 degrees. If you can’t get to this angle (perhaps because you’ve spent too much time sitting typing at a desk or on the phone!), you will put too much pressure on the carpal joints, supinate the wrists and be unable to create fascial tension from the palmar arch.
Shoulders: Most of the ROM should be available during the push-up, but you need to be able to be pain-free in horizontal abduction/adduction (wide stance) and flexion/extension (narrow stance). The glenohumeral joint should be roughly half way in external rotation.
Shoulder girdle: This is the hard one as it involves multiple directions and forces at the same time. Picture seeing the scapulae gliding smoothly from the spine to the side of the rib cage (protraction/retraction and in/outward rotation), depending on the hand positions. There should be minimal ‘winging’ movement and elevation (sternoclavicular joint not gliding laterally during scapula pro/retraction).
Hips: A swayback is a sign of anterior pelvic tilt, which puts more pressure in the sacro-lumbar region. You should be able to tilt the pelvis posteriorly to engage the abdominals in the horizontal position.
Drills like wrists mobilisation (prayer stretch, kneeling leans), shoulders pass throughs, Cat-Cow or Animal Flow Static Crab and Wave Unload are great for preparing the body to perform push-ups.
Creating whole body tension
Once you’ve established proper ROM in these joints it will be much easier to create fascial tensioning through the body for increased stability. Just like a slingshot, the base is stable while the elastic of the sling is mobile and can produce movement. The base has to be stable enough for the elastic to generate tension and increase its force production through greater ROM.
So, let’s look at the myofascial Arm Lines and both Functional Lines (taking our cue from Thomas Myers’s Anatomy Trains1) to understand how connecting fingers and pelvis can improve trunk stability and help increase force production from the pectoral and triceps muscles.
The Superficial Front Arm Line: This connects the fingertips (flexor group) to the pectoralis major and the latissimus dorsi. This means that when you drive your fingers onto the floor you are activating the palmar arch. This creates a stable base to push from, and the tension created amplifies the tension of the pecs and lats (called muscular irradiation). You may be wondering what the lats have to do with the push-up, as it seems to be an antagonist to the pectoralis major. Well, the lats actually act as a shoulder and thoraco-lumbar stabiliser during the up phase, enabling the pecs to generate more power.
The Deep Front and Back Arm Lines: These have an intrinsic effect as they connect the thumb to the pectoralis minor (front line) and the little finger to the rotator cuffs via the triceps (back line). You can now appreciate why anchoring all your digits to the floor as you push off will have a direct impact on the force production and stability of the shoulder girdle.
One of the most common mistakes during push-ups is the hips sagging down during the push phase – the infamous ‘sexy beast’! It is due to the total lack of tension in the abdominal region (and deep core muscles by extension). If we look at the Front Functional Line, we can see that it links the pectoralis major to the lateral rectus abdominis and the adductor longus (via the pubic symphysis). If you tilt your pelvis back (tucking your tailbone under) and gently squeeze your inner thighs in (you can use a yoga block between the legs), you can notice an immediate increase of tension in your abdominals and better force production from the pec major. Irradiating tension from the inner thigh will again have a stabilising and force production effect.
Research by the National Research Foundation of Korea (Kim and Yoo, 20132) found that by contracting the hip adductors during a push-up exercise, the serratus anterior activity was increased, because the stress on the thoracolumbar fascia was transmitted to the scapula. The Deep Front Line links adductor muscles to the pelvic floor and diaphragm, so by increasing intra-abdominal pressure, the tension of the thoracolumbar fascia plays a major role in transmitting the load of the trunk to the arms and shoulders.
Push-up bottom position
Push-up middle position
Push-up top position
Push-up with poor form
Why program push-ups for your clients?
The push-up is one of the best exercises for optimal conditioning and strength. It is measurable and functional in its ability to integrate body tension, deep and superficial core activation and upper body strength. It can also be categorised as functional for daily living, because it is the movement needed to lift yourself up in case of a fall (think elderly population).
The push-up also has a number of other benefits: it requires no equipment, can be done anywhere (making it a good ‘homework’ exercise for clients) and easily included as part of a challenge. Compared to the bench press, the push-up allows you to gain better control of the whole body, because it is a closed kinetic chain exercise.
It is also a movement that allows for numerous variations: from a change of grip or arm position, and beginner-inclined versions, to the very advanced planche push-up in which the feet and legs are elevated and the entire body weight lifted through the arms. There’s a push-up variation for everyone and so much room for exercise progressions that it need never get boring. As long as you cue it well and give the correct variation to your clients, the push-up can become one of the pillar movements of their training program.
5 cues for good push-up form
- Engage all fingers to create an arch under the hand
- Tuck the tailbone under and draw belly in
- Squeeze legs in
- Push the ground away
- Drive shoulders away from armpits
- Myers, Thomas. Anatomy Trains : Myofascial Meridians for Manual and Movement Therapists. Elsevier Health Sciences, 2001
- Kim, Min-Hee & Yoo, Won-gyu. Effects of Push-up Exercise with Hip Adduction on the COP Deviation and the Serratus Anterior and L1 Paraspinal Muscles. J Phys Ther Sci. 2013 Jul; 25(7): 783–784.
‘Gee’ is a Sydney-based movement and sport conditioning specialist with over a decade’s industry experience. As a personal trainer and Animal Flow instructor, he is passionate about helping people improve their overall health and fitness through movement at his Sydney-based studio Peak Movement. peakmovement.com.au / facebook.com/peakmovement / instagram.com/peak_movement_aus