Pushup fitness tests and competitions are a great way to measure your upper body relative strength, not to mention that they are plain fun! A few years ago at our gym we had an athletic competition with all kinds of disciplines – pull-ups for reps, weighted pull-ups, sprints, long jumps and so on. The push-up fitness test was one of the disciplines.
People from all over Bulgaria were invited to join the competition. Many enthusiasts came – some were professional athletes, others were just fitness buffs or amateur bodybuilders. The competitors from our gym won most of the disciplines as well as the overall title.
I was the winner of the pushup contest, even though I wasn’t the strongest or most athletic one. In this article I will share my secrets to pushup greatness. Here is a video we shot showing the first two push-up positions that you can use in your training. You can also see the elbows out push-up. Again – avoid this one.
Here is Why the Push-up is a Great Exercise
Push-ups often get neglected as a valuable exercise because once you start working out regularly, they become easy. The push-up, however, is still a great choice because when performed with proper form it is a great tool to build up your upper body relative strength – the ratio between your body weight and your strength.
Push-ups can be performed anywhere – you only need some space and the desire to get better. Another reason I’m writing about this exercise is because I see a lot of videos of people doing the push-up incorrectly. Although this is a fantastic exercise, when performed improperly it can harm your shoulders. In this article I will explain how to perform the push-ups safely and what one mistake we need to avoid.
Here is the Correct Way to Do Push-ups
The push-up is the exercise of choice in places where a lot of people are trained at the same time – for example in the army or in martial arts classes or bootcamps. It is at these exact places that I see the worst push-up technique.
Here is a quote from the Official Guinness World Record book on proper push-up form. If it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for us too:
The body must remain straight throughout, i.e., no bending at knees or waist. The body must be lowered until at least 90 degree-angle is attained at the elbow. The body must then be raised until the arms are straight. This equals one push-up.
Keep the Body Straight
The correct way to do push-ups is to keep your body straight – either in a neutral position or (and this is one of my secrets) in the hollow position. When you are in this gymnastic position, you can squeeze extra reps on the final part of the test by tensing your glutes, abs and lats. Here is how to do it:
- Rotate your pelvis forward – this shortens the distance between your chest bone and your hip bone and allows you to contract your abs hard.
- Tense your glutes – by tensing the butt, the nearby muscles can contract harder and thus get stronger. On the final reps you can squeeze a few extra reps.
- Tense your lats – the lats, the armpit muscles, can act like a spring board for your arms on push-ups. This way you can use this lat contraction to initiate the movement when you press up from the ground.
- Grab the ground – this is another technique for those last reps. Spread out your fingers and try to “grab the floor.” This will add a rep or two to your total.
On the photo above I am using all of these techniques, including grabbing the floor.
How to Get Really Good at Push-ups
Before giving specific training tips I will introduce two types of pushups that I find valuable for the purpose of increasing your push-up performance and will also show you what NOT to do.
In the photo above you can see two hand positions that are great for push-ups. Fig. A shows a wider grip push-up that is great for chest development, but is useless for the advanced irradiation and tension techniques we discuss here. Note however that the shoulders stay down and the elbows are not directly out to the sides, but point slightly downward.
Fig. B shows a shoulder width grip push-up position which is great for using whole body power and tension for those last reps. I suggest using both of these pushup positions in your training. On the actual test, assume a position somewhere in the middle between these stances. This way you can use both your chest and the tension techniques.
What NOT to Do
On Fig. C below you can see a push-up variation with the elbows straight out. This is how most people do push-ups and it’s wrong. It endangers the shoulders (every time you elevate the shoulders, you put them in a weak position) and doesn’t allow you to use tension techniques.
Here are my top tips to increase your push-up performance.
- Get your body weight down – this one is obvious. If you are lighter, your relative strength is greater and push-ups are easier.
- Increase your max strength – keep the body weight the same but get strong at an upper body pushing move like the bench press or the weighted dip. For push-ups the bench press is a better choice as it is in the same plane of motion.
- Train with volume – the more push-ups you do, the better you will get.
- Practice proper form – practice the straight body position as well as the tensing techniques.
- Do 1 set to failure per day – this one works for 2-4 weeks and then you need to take a week off. You basically do one set of max push-ups and add a rep every day.
- Do many sets but not to failure – this is a technique that will add 20+ percent to your push-up performance in as little as a week. I read the specific routine in Pavel Tsatsouline’s book Beyond Bodybuilding. Pavel is a former strength training specialist coming from the former Soviet Union who now specializes in instructing the US special forces. So according to his program, you do many sets throughout the day (sometimes 500+ push-ups per day) and vary the volume every day.
Here’s how to create your own high volume push-up routine according to Pavel’s book:
- Never come close to failure except when testing your max.
- Vary the reps and the rest periods between the sets daily.
- Adjust the load to your recovery ability.
- Build up cumulative fatigue.
- Taper down before a peak.
Other Push-up and Fitness Test Resources
Here a few articles from some of my favorite sites on push-ups and fitness tests in general:
- Explosive Pushups to Increase Your Bench Pressing Power and Pectoral Definition – in this article Rusty Moore from the Fitness Black Book explains how to increase your power (how fast you move a certain weight). This helps with the first one 30-40 push-ups.
- Modern Fitness Standards: How Do You Measure Up? – here Mark Sisson from Mark’s Daily Apple has outlined a very comprehensive piece on fitness standards in general. A must read.