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A Simple Strategy For How To Do Push-Ups.

body insights Feb 22, 2020

Push-ups aren’t merely a goal with aesthetic benefits. 

There’s great value in learning how to push things away from our bodies, the same way that there’s great value in learning how to pull things toward our body, move forward and backward in space, and get down to and up from the floor. These are functional skills that pay massive dividends--not only in our ability to protect our body physically, but in the confidence we have in ourselves as a free agent of the world. When we become strong, we become strong in all ways. 

To see the practical value in something like a push-up is to buy-in to the value system of learning to do physically hard things, and learning to do them well. For me personally, I spent eight years practicing doing push-ups not so well in my yoga practice, and while I didn’t directly injure myself doing this, I also gained absolutely no shoulder mobility, stability or strength. In eight years of practice. Thousands of push-ups. Nothing to show for it. 

How do I know that I gained nothing? Because when I finally became interested in learning how to do them well, I discovered I had a super low-level not-helpful understanding of the joint positions that make up a push-up, I had no idea how to assess those joint positions in my body, and I had no strategy for up-leveling and down-leveling the position. After eight years, I was at square one. 

My guess is that you might be, too :) 

And so I want to share with you what I’ve learned since then. I predict that if you take to heart what I say in this article, it will save you a bunch of time and frustration in the long run. It will give you a simple strategy for how to do push-ups, so that you’re challenged but not overwhelmed, and your road to progress is paved by something other than wishful thinking.

Here goes.

How To Do Push-Ups

When learning how to do push-ups, consider this strategy: Learn what joint positions are in a push-up and figure out how to load those positions in your body. If you want to be able to articulate a push-up with the full weight of your body, the steps toward that end goal will look like progressively loading the joint positions of a push-up until you’re able to control the shape with your full body weight. 

My brain understands joint positions much better than muscles. For me, muscle names and functions have always been a tedious task to try and remember and call to mind and use in some sort of practical way. If someone tells me, “Use your hamstrings!” I honestly don’t really know what that means. I mean, I get what they’re referring to--the muscles on the backs of my legs--but my brain and nervous system don’t have a “hamstrings” action that they can utilize at a moment’s notice. 

Instead, my brain tends to more easily understand joint positions. If someone tells me, “Flex your hips!” my brain can recruit whatever muscles it deems necessary to complete that action (supposing that I know what “flex your hips” means). Joint positions give the brain a job to do, and the brain really likes figuring out how to do various jobs. 

This is how I like to think about push-ups and movement in general. Once I understand the job--the joint positions--then I can build out a strategy for getting that job done. 

When we talk about the joint positions of a push-up, we’re talking about joint positions that take the body away from anatomical neutral. Anatomical neutral is more-or-less how your skeleton would arrange itself if you were dangling from the ceiling. Luckily, push-ups aren’t super complex when it comes to joint positions. It’s the difficulty of creating those joint positions that becomes challenging, which is what we’ll talk about in the next section. 

For now, let’s take a look at the joint positions of a push-up.

Joint Positions

Shoulder

  • External rotation - The ability of the head of arm bone to roll away from the midline in the gleno-humeral (English: shoulder blade-upper arm) socket. I find this to be extremely challenging for a couple of reasons. The first is that my shoulders spend a lot of time in internal rotation due to my lifestyle (computers, cars, couches, etc.), which means overcoming that internal rotation and moving into legitimate external rotation is hard to do. The second reason is that the shoulder is a hard joint to pay attention to and to understand in the moment of movement. Even being able to discern a neutral shoulder--where is the collar bone? The humerus? The shoulder blade? The ribs? The spine?--is a big task. Because of this, it takes many repetitions of very deliberate movement for the brain to turn these tissues back online.

  • Flexion & Extension - When we lower down from a push-up, we start in plank pose. In plank pose, the shoulders are in 90 degrees of flexion, which refers to the upper arms being in front of the torso. (You could think about shoulder flexion as zombie arms if you like.) When you lower down through the push-up, the upper arms pulls back behind the frame of the torso into what’s called shoulder extension. Don’t let this small movement fool you: Moving from shoulder flexion to extension is tricky. For instance, it’s common for the shoulders to rebel and roll into internal rotation. It’s also common for the rib-cage to become gumby as the upper arms pull behind the body and to sort of crack-open like a nut toward the floor. The trick is to be able to article shoulder flexion to extension while maintaining neutral with the rest of the body and external rotation of the shoulders.

  • Shoulder blade retraction - As we lower down in the push-up, the shoulder blades need to be able to move together on the back. But here’s the kicker: They need to be able to move towards each other without the ribs or spine moving into a backbend (extension). See, our shoulder blades aren’t attached to our ribs or spine, which means that they should be able to move independently of both those structures. But unless we specifically train shoulder blade mobility, our brain likely doesn’t have sophisticated enough control over that region to operate structures independently of each other. To develop shoulder blade retraction, we will have faster and more optimal gains if we practice shoulder blade mobility on its own and then layer it into the push-up once we’re confident in our ability to control the movement in our upper back. 

Elbow

  • Pronate - At both the top and bottom of the push-up, the elbow pronates. It has to if the shoulder is to remain in external rotation and the hand is to remain planted on the floor. If you’re holding a plank position (the position at the top of a push-up), this will feel like your upper arms are spinning away from your torso and your forearms are spinning toward your torso--the two joint positions form something almost like a double helix. The more range of motion and control the elbow has, the more competent and confident we will feel in our push-up, and the more options we will have for our shoulders and wrists. (Our brain loves having movement options!)

  • Flex/Extend - Similarly to the shoulders, the elbows need to be able to flex and extend throughout the push-up movement. At the top of the push-up, the shoulders are flexed in front of the body 90 degrees. At the same time, the elbows are extended. As we move through the chain of push-up movement, the shoulders move from flexion to extension, and the elbows move from extension to flexion. This coordinated effort between shoulder and elbow is a skill, much like learning to keep the shoulders externally rotated and to retract the shoulder blades.

Wrist

  • Extension - When we place our hands on the floor and bear weight directly over them, we are passively flexing our wrists about 90 degrees. It’s worth mentioning here the difference between active and passive range of motion, which refers to our capacity to endure deeper ranges than we are able to control with our strength. One secret of a long-lasting push-up practice is to develop our joints’ capacities to control all of these motions using the strength of our muscles, rather than letting gravity and leverage create joint positions that we don’t own with our strength. 

Load

Once we understand and can articulate the joint positions of a push-up, it’s time to think about load. Load is whatever I’m asking my muscles to resist against--in this case, it’s my body-weight. 

For a lot of people--especially women--the body is too much load at first. Our muscles are not innately adapted to endure our full body weight in our wrists, elbows and shoulders in the push-up position. At this point, things either hurt or become sloppy--neither of which is fun to endure or repeat. 

The question becomes: How do I de-load my push-up enough that my muscles are challenged but not overwhelmed? 

One strategy would be to practice articulating and repeating each joint position, and to gradually add external weight to progressively load the tissues. For instance, we can work shoulder external rotation while sitting upright or lying on our side, and we can gradually load those movements by adding in wrist weights, dumbbells or resistance bands to the movement. Over time, our external rotators adapt to the increasingly challenging loads and become stronger. When we sense we’ve become stronger in all of the requisite joint positions, we can return to our push-up position. 

But perhaps the push-up position is still too challenging. What then? The next strategy might be to change the angle of the pose, which will transfer some of the body’s weight out of the shoulders and into the feet. We can do this by inverting our position and practicing our push-ups against a wall. As we adapt and become stronger, we can progress our push-up to a counter-top. Then maybe to a bench. Then maybe a low set of stairs. And finally, back down to the floor. 

This is a long-term loading strategy that enables us to work at the level that we’re at and progress down the path of optimal movement toward our end goal. 

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