The first in our series of bedrock exercises that can be done using little or no equipment is the push-up. The push-up is the all-time classic upper-body exercise. Football players, cheerleaders, and military recruits all do them. Women do them from the knees; Older adults do them while leaning against a wall. There are multiple variations of the push-up, matching widely differing goals and fitness levels. No upper-body exercise is more versatile, accessible, and inclusive than the push-up. So, without further ado, let's assume the "plank" position and get started! (See above.)
When getting in position for a standard push-up, your body should be in perfect alignment: neutral spine; looking straight ahead (at the ground); no exaggerated arch in the back or sagging; no flexing at the hip or "piking"; weight resting on the balls of the feet/splayed toes and the palms of the hands/fingers.
To begin, slowly lower the body straight down toward the floor and stop just short of your face touching. You are simply lowering your plank to the ground by bending your elbows. Keep your elbows back and in; don't push them out (a common mistake). There are three different planes that all exercises and movement patterns fall into: the frontal, transverse, and sagittal planes.
During push-ups, although the action at the shoulder is in the transverse plane, the movement at the elbow takes place along the sagittal plane, and it is primarily a sagittal plane-oriented exercise. Picture someone performing a bench press on his or her back with perfect form. Now, remove the bar and invert the person so that it is a closed-chain exercise from the floor. As far as the shoulder and elbow joints are concerned, bench press and push-ups are the same exercise, and they both target the same three primary muscles: pectoralis major, deltoids, and triceps brachii.
To make this exercise easier, simply do your push-ups from the knees. Or to modify push-ups even further, do them standing with your hands against a wall. However, when doing push-ups from the knees or standing, you should still be mindful of good posture. And when doing them from a standing position, allow the heels to rise naturally from the floor (this should not feel like a calf stretch). This video by WellCall is a good illustration of a wall push-up. As demonstrated in the video, you can vary the intensity of this push-up by using an object such as a tabletop or chair in order to get closer to horizontal. But please do be sure to grab onto a sturdy object when doing so. The optimal location for this version of the wall push-up is a studio with a balance bar.
Now, for a couple push-up variations using light equipment ...
Further engage the core by trying push-ups on a stability ball. First, lean your abdomen against a stability ball (as seen above) with hands and knees on the floor.
Next, walk forward with your hands until your thighs are supported by the ball.
Then lower your plank toward the floor. Engage your abdominal muscles to prevent the ball from shifting laterally. After completing a set, dismount by walking your hands in reverse, returning your body to the start position.
To make the stability-ball push-up harder, walk your hands farther forward until your shins are supported by the ball. And for a really tough version of the exercise ...
Try this advanced stability-ball push-up, beginning with knees on the floor and hands on the ball as seen above. Next, assume a plank position, balancing your upper-body above the ball. I would recommend mastering holding the up position first, reaching the point at which you can hold a steady 30-second plank on the ball before attempting to actually do push-ups from this unstable position. Once you feel you are ready, try the push-ups, perhaps with a limited range of motion at first. Shoot for five or six reps, and work your way up to 12 to 15 from there. Again, this one's a toughie!
Finally, try a TRX version of the exercise that, like stability-ball push-ups, challenges the core muscles as well as the pecs, deltoids, and triceps ...
With a suspension trainer anchored at the top of a doorframe or other high attachment point, assume a start position similar to push-ups holding onto a tabletop or balance bar (see above). Like the ball, the nature of this apparatus adds instability to the exercise, making it more dynamic than the standard push-up and causing you to engage core muscles such as the rectus abdominis, transverse abdominis, and internal and external obliques (see "Core Training," posted June 27, 2016).
And just like wall push-ups, allow your heels to come up as you lean forward (no calf stretching). The closer your feet are to the attachment point and the more horizontal you are, the more difficult the exercise will be.
Okay, these are but a few variations of the classic push-up. There are more directions in which we could still go with this, so don't be surprised to see a "Push-Ups, Part Two" at some point in the future! For now, though, master that basic push-up form, keeping things oriented in the sagittal plane and progress appropriately from there.
Tune in this time next week for the second installment of the series, which will focus on rowing for upper-back strength. And in the meantime, be consistent, stay strong, and be well!