"I can do 50 push-ups! How many can you do?!" Ah yes, the age-old challenge issued by thousands of retired jocks and drunken teens across America in real-time as I write this post. It would seem that push ups tend to be the universal default measurement of strength when a vacant bench press is not available. The physical reality of the 50 push up claim often ends up looking more like a beached epileptic seal on amphetamines and less like a strong, stable athlete expertly executing an exercise. My advice with push ups is simple: ditch the numbers game and focus on form. Here are 5 tips to make your push ups more challenging, and you significantly stronger in the process.
1. ELBOWS ON A 45 DEGREE ANGLE
A common technical mistake on push ups is to flare the elbows directly out to the sides. When the elbow stays fixed at a 45 degree angle there will be more shoulder and triceps activation. Also, the body will be forced forward to achieve the elbow position which puts more weight directly over the muscles being worked. Much harder.
2. SQUEEZE ABS AND BUTT BEFORE COMING UP
One of the most common cheat mechanisms during the "up" portion of the push up is the act of arching the lower back, lengthening the abs, and dropping the belly to the floor. This causes the weight of the lower body to stay below the muscles being used and therefore subtracted from the load on the involved muscles. Also, the rib cage arches upward putting less stress into the chest, shoulders, and triceps; while overloading the lower back. By squeezing the butt and tensing the core, it is much harder to arch the lower back and the abs prevent the rib cage from arching.
3. SET THE BLADES AND KEEP THEM SET
This is the key to seeing more chest and back development. Your shoulders should not be whispering sweet nothings in your ear during the push up. Instead, set the shoulders back and away from the ear lobes; thinking about digging under the arms and moving your blades back towards your hip bones during the entire push up movement. Your chest will burn more.
4. ELEVATE FEET WITH POINTED TOES
Push ups can be a leg exercise. What?! It's true. I have witnessed many people initiate the "up" portion of the push up from the balls of their feet. I see this especially during plyometric/clapping push ups. One of the best ways to make the push up more of an upper body exercise is to point the feet and rest them on top of a ball or in the straps of a suspension trainer. This takes away all leverage from the lower body and also adds a balance component to the upper body that is challenging. Wobble wobble. :)
5. MOVE THE HANDS BACK FURTHER TOWARDS CENTER OF GRAVITY
This one is the best! Gymnasts arguably have the highest level of relative strength in comparison to any other athletes in sport today. Relative strength is simply the amount of force they can generate relative to their body-weight. The gymnast push up is executed with the hands as close to the hip bones as possible. It it commonly used as a bridge to another move called a planche. The planche is similar to the position of a push up, but with both feet suspended freely off the ground! The closer the hands are to the hips…the further the body weight is shifted forward and the harder the push up becomes. When combined with the above tips, this one is really challenging.
Armed with these tips you are now ready for the hard part; actually doing them. Good luck!