Sunday, November 8, 2015

The Power of the Push Up

The push up is one of my favorite exercises and for many reasons.  It is functional, requires no equipment, can be performed anywhere, and is great for building and maintaining strength and muscle tone.  I have consistently performed them since high school and I am still learning new variations to this day.  While the push up primarily targets the chest, shoulders, and triceps, it can be altered in ways to really make it a full body exercise.  You can also manipulate the push up to work on power, strength, muscle size, or muscular endurance. So with today's post I would like to share what the research says about push ups and also share some of my favorite variations.  

So what constitutes a proper push up?

First is to set up properly at the hands and arms.  Hands should be approximately shoulder width apart and directly under the shoulders.  When in the down position the elbows should make about a 45 degree angle from the torso. When viewed from above the body and arms should look like an arrow instead of a "T".  This puts the shoulders in a more optimal position and allows for increased recruitment of the upper body muscles.




Next, the body should be held tight and straight throughout the movement.  You can think of the push up as a moving plank.  The hips and shoulders should go up and down as a rigid unit.  No hip sagging or butt hiking!

Lastly is the the tempo.  A proper set of push ups should be done at a steady but controlled tempo, keeping constant tension on the muscles.  If you go really fast then you are just using the elastic properties of the muscle and basically just "bouncing" in and out of the movement.

How much weight are you pushing?

This is a great study that looked at various push ups and correlated them with percent of bodyweight.  According to this study if you do a "standard push up" then it is the equivalent of pushing around 65% of your body weight.  If you place your feet on a 12inch surface then that bumps you up to 70%.  And if you elevate your feet 24 inches then you use approximately 75% of your bodyweight.

Conversely, if you are wanted to regress the movement then you can elevate your hands instead of your feet.  If you raise your hands to a 12 inch surface then you drop to 55% body weight, and if you push from a 24 inch surface then you are using about 40% of your body weight.

What about varied hand position?

This is an interesting study that looked at how hand position effects muscle recruitment during the push up.  According to this study a narrow position, where the fingers form a diamond under the chest, increases activity of the primary chest muscles and triceps muscles.  If you perform the push up with hands slightly forward of the shoulders then this leads to increased abdominal activity.  This is similar to a study that showed high abdominal activity with the push up walk out exercise.  This study also concluded that a push up variation with the hands slightly below shoulder level activated the highest number of muscle fibers and recommended its use for total body conditioning.

What about suspension devices?

Here is a study that looked at how a suspension trainer could impact push ups.  They concluded that using a suspension trainer, such as a TRX, to perform push ups resulted in increased activation of the chest, anterior shoulder, and triceps muscles compared to a standard push up.  That means a suspension trainer could be used as an exercise progression.


Can push ups make you stronger?

This study compared the bench press to band resisted push ups and found similar strength gains.  That means you can use push ups, and a resistance band, to increase maximal strength without the use of heavy weights or equipment. 




What is a good number for max reps?

Although this information is a little dated (2000), here is a chart I found with some normative values for max reps of push ups according to age for men.


AgeExcellentGoodAverageFairPoor
20 - 29>5445 - 5435 - 4420 - 34<20
30 - 39>4435 - 4425 - 3415 - 24<15
40 -49>3930 - 3920 - 2912 - 19<12
50 - 59>3425 - 3415 - 248 - 14<8
60+>2920 - 2910 - 195 - 9<5

What about variety?

The varieties of push ups are literally endless.  You can vary foot, hand, and torso position to emphasize different muscle groups.  You can use varying speeds to emphasize different muscle fibers.  And you can alter the number of bases of support to provide an addition core challenge.  Here is a short video of some of my favorite push up variations.




So if you want to be fit, strong, healthy, and functional, I suggest you incorporate push ups into your life.  Have fun and stay fit.

 ,Amerson Fitness