Progressing The Push-Up
Without a doubt the push-up is the most widely performed and well known exercise in the world. Everywhere from jailyards to gym classes people are banging out push-ups and in all likelihood it was the first exercise you ever did. Even before you were training with the intent of getting big and strong you were doing them and you didn’t even know it.
Unfortunately, when looking around the internet or the average gym many push-ups I see leave much to be desired. The versatility and efficiency of the push-up makes it an unparalleled choice when it comes to developing upper body and core strength so don’t miss out on the benefits or risk injury by performing them with bad technique. Follow the progressions below and get your push-ups up to par.
Don’t forget that push-ups are a core exercise! During the push up it’s important to maintain tension in your glutes and abs to maintain position of your pelvis and lumbar spine. The demonstration at the top shows bad push-up form where there is no tension in the glutes and abs letting the hips tilt anteriorly, arching the lumbar spine. The push up at the bottom shows good push-up form with the glutes and abs contracted, keeping the pelvis and spine neutral.
Can You Do 1 Good Push-Up?
When asked, everybody says “Yeah I can do push-ups” but in reality many push-ups I see are done poorly. The FMS Trunk Stability Push-Up screen provides us a standard of what a “good push-up” should look like and where our starting point should be in training.
For further reference you can check out a PDF of the FMS screening and scoring details here: FMS Scoring Criteria
Depending on how your push-up looks you may want to choose a different starting point to train your push-ups.
0: Pain/NO PRESSING. Refer for medical treatment.
1: Regressed Push-Ups and Core Progressions
2: Regular Push-Ups
3: Regular Push-Ups, Loaded Push-Ups and Advanced Progressions
How To Progress To The Push-Up
1 on Trunk Stability Push-Up Screen
If you score a 1 on the trunk stability push-up screen it would be a good idea to train anterior trunk stability before training the push-up itself. I typically would progress through the following exercises to improve anterior core strength.
Stability Ball Rollout
Eccentric Incline Push-up with Adduction
The most basic teaching regression I use is the eccentric incline push-up. Inclining the torso by placing your hands on a barbell or bench reduces the core and upper body load making the exercise easier. Emphasizing the eccentric portion of the push-up slows down the movement helping to pattern the exercise.
Squeezing a pad between the legs can be a very effective coaching cue to improve core activation with clients who have trouble maintaining tension throughout the movement. The act of squeezing the pad activates the adductors helping to facilitate core activation.
As core stability and upper body strength improves you will want to progressively lower the incline of the hands closer to floor level. A traditional squat rack makes for a perfect place to do this.
Eccentric Incline Push-Up
2 on Trunk Stability Push-Up Screen
If you score a 2 on the trunk stability push-up I would typically follow these progressions to perfect the movement pattern.
Bottoms Up Push-Up
The “bottoms up push-up” is a great progression to teach the client how to maintain torso stability. When I have clients who can only perform a couple of good push-ups before losing their form I have them perform this variation. The client must perform one rep at a time, de-loading and re-bracing in between each repetition. The act of consciously bracing from a dead stop one repetition at a time will train the client to brace more effectively.
At this stage I also like programming isometric push-up holds. This variation is a great way to train both core stability and upper body strength in clients who struggle to perform multiple reps of push-ups.
3 on Trunk Stability Push Up Screen
If you score a 3 on the trunk stability push-up there are endless variations of advanced progressions you can use to train the push-up pattern. I personally prefer to program variations that uniquely challenge core and shoulder stability prior to variations that simply increase resistance.
With that being said, there is nothing wrong with loading up a push-up with some vests, chains, plates or bands. Variety is the spice of life, try out a bunch of different progressions and find the ones you like best.
Here are some of my favorite advanced push-up variations that I program for my clients and myself.
Decline Bosu Push-Up
1 Arm Push-Up
Band Resisted Push-Up
1 Leg Push-Up
Mountain Climber Push-Up
External Loaded Push-Up