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Push-ups are all too often regarded as a weak alternative to the mighty bench press. Yet, not only can push-ups improve your bench press; not only do you have no business even doing bench presses unless you can knock out a couple of dozen push-ups without undue effort; push-ups can be a respectable strength exercise in themselves, offering significant benefits over the bench press in several important areas.
One is simple vanity: men in particular like to bench to see their arm and chest muscles grow, and the bench press has been fetishized among some ill-advised lifters to the point that they hardly ever do anything else. It’s easy to spot these people – they’re the ones with their shoulders pulled halfway down their chests by over-tight pectoral muscles unresistant by a weak upper back.
The other reason is that most people are far and away stronger pressing and pulling laterally than vertically, so that most of us will have a far higher row than pull-up and a far higher bench than overhead press even if we train both lifts.
The King of Upper Body Exercises
So the bench press is the king of upper body exercises? Not exactly.
For some, the push-up can be a better strength exercise. A simple test is this: if you can’t do 20 neat correct push-ups without undue difficulty, stay away from barbells and dumbbells. Even for many who can meet that standard, the push-up can remain a superior strength training tool to the standard array of presses.
Why? Because push-ups are a nearly full body movement, requiring input from the legs and back, core and shoulders as well as the abs and chest and arms. While it’s much more difficult to progressively overload the push-up than the bench press, the push-up is therefore a better movement for beginner and even intermediate athletes – and requiring very strict form and making tempo adjustments can keep the push-up challenging.
Additionally, many stronger athletes are also bigger athletes and consequently bodyweight exercises can be much more challenging to these individuals than they might expect.
Types of Push-up
While there are many push-up variations, none of which is actually ‘wrong,’ this article will focus on what I regard as the basic push-up. That means a straight body without piked or sagging hips and hands directly under the shoulders. Ideally, the fingers should point forward. A repetition starts with straight arms and the halfway point is when the chest touches the floor, and the rep is finished when you return to the straight arm position. Elbows should brush the sides of the chest on the way through the exercise, and should definitely never get more than 45° away from the body.
False reps occur when you do partials without meaning to. I’ve seen these done two ways. One is to blast through reps ‘without touching the sides’ – you’re never at the top or the bottom, and typically people who do this stay out of the difficult bottom third of the movement altogether. Doing them fast and sloppy makes you feel like you’re cranking out reps, but really you’re just making a mess. Work on form instead.
Worming, caterpillaring or whatever you want to refer to it as, occurs when you peel yourself off the floor one segment at a time. Unlike false reps, which are a result of general weakness and egoism combined, worming is a result of a weak core, or a core that’s incorrectly positioned. Think of yourself standing and imagine that your pelvis is a bowl of water, full to the brim.
If your pelvis is neutral, the water will stay in he bowl. If the water would spill out the front of the bowl, onto your feet, you have ‘anterior pelvic tilt’ – the back of your pelvis is raised and the front lowered. The opposite position is posterior pelvic tilt, in which the water would pour out backwards.
Anterior pelvic tilt is associated with tight spinal erectors and glutes and lordosis, but it’s also the correct form for some exercises. In push-ups it creates a weak point in the lower back and that’s where you’ll sag if you have this problem.
The solution? Actively tense your glutes and imagine you’re about to receive a blow to your lower abdomen. That should result in increased posterior pelvic tilt, protecting your lower back and preventing sagging and ‘worming.’
Finally, incorrect arm positioning refers to allowing your elbows to flare or using a wide-elbowed posture with your hands and elbows high. While this is a way of doing push-ups, it’s something you should progress to after you can do a basic push-up, not a substitute for a basic push-up. Allowing your elbows to flare out puts your shoulder health at risk and throws the weight of your body in the bottom third of the exercise on passive structures in the shoulders that don’t really like this range of motion.