One of the most common training mistakes, from rookies and seasoned veterans, is overlooking the value of body-weight exercises. It's easy to be seduced by machines and gadgets and their false promises of maximal muscle for minimal effort. And then, of course there's the ego, that noisy know-nothing know-it-all that demands we showcase our strength with stunning feats involving knurled steel barbells and heavy iron plates.
Yet, when performed properly, bodyweight exercises can lead to serious gains in size, strength, and mobility. Take the push-up, arguably the most basic of all strength-training exercises.
Push-ups work the arms, shoulders, chest and core. They also do a fantastic job of enhancing what we fitness professionals refer to as "dynamic scapular stability" – the ability to put your shoulder blades in the proper position and control them while the arms move freely. I know it sounds like fancy fitness-speak, but if you want strong, healthy shoulders, mastering scapular stability is a must.
Right now, you're probably thinking: If they're such a killer exercise, why do I never see anyone doing push-ups at the gym? Aside from the aforementioned reliance upon machines and the ego-driven quest for big bench-press numbers, push-ups get no love for one simple reason: they're hard!
Don't think so? Drop and give me 20. If you completed this task, congratulations. According to the Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology, your muscular endurance classification is somewhere between Fair and Very Good, depending on your age and gender. Now, this assumes you executed each of these push-ups with pristine form. As someone who has spent years training aspiring fighters and regular folks, I'm here to say you most likely did not.
Let's fix that.
Hand placement is where most people run into trouble. Too wide and you risk injuring your shoulders; too narrow, and the triceps – those muscles on the back of your arms – take on the majority of the work. You want your hands to be inline or just outside of your shoulders, whichever feels more comfortable.
Another common mistake is flaring the elbows out to the side. This may feel natural, but over time your joints will pay the price. To minimize any needless strain, rotate your upper arms so your elbows point backward at something close to a 45-degree angle. Yes, this makes the exercise harder. It also makes it more effective.
Lastly, we want some tension. Squeeze your butt muscles as tight as you can while simultaneously pulling your kneecaps towards your hips and bracing your abs as if you were about to take a punch to the gut. This connects the upper and lower body into a single cohesive unit.
Here you are – hands under your shoulders, arms extended, elbows pointing backward, butt tight, abs braced. Now the fun part. With your eyes focused on the floor, inhale deep into your belly while lowering your torso. Once your upper arms are in line with your ribs, stop and push the floor away as hard as you can while exhaling forcefully. That's one repetition. Repeat until your arms are useless noodles – just make sure to keep your heels, hips, and shoulders in alignment throughout the movement and you're good to go.
Progressions and regressions
Despite what generations of sadistic, whistle-blowing phys ed teachers would have you believe, push-ups are not a beginner exercise. To make things easier, simply place your hands on an elevated surface like a bench of a table. The steeper the incline, the easier they'll be. Oh, and don't bother with the kneeling variation. Those aren't push-ups.
Once you can easily manage 20 reps, you're ready to progress to some more advanced variations. Elevating your feet is the most practical way to increase the challenge. You can also try strapping on a weighted vest or balancing a weight plate on your back.