The push-up is a classic exercise and a staple in nearly all training programs. It’s easily one of the most popular upper body exercises of all time due to its simplicity and effectiveness.
The problem is that most people tend to bypass many of the necessary steps in the process of building a pristine push-up from start to finish. There are several ingredients that go into push-up mastery, so it’s important to check off each box, one by one.
Let’s break the push-up down into 3 key areas:
- The top
- The middle
- The bottom
Pretty simple, right? Your goal is to build strength and competency within each of these 3 positions. Although it seems simple on paper, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who actually spends the quality time necessary going through each step in the process.
There’s a ton of benefits that come along with performing a technically sound push-up for long-term shoulder health, durability, and performance. However, being strong in all positions—the top, the middle, and the bottom—will ultimately be the differentiating factor toward helping you perform a push-up with excellent technique.
The top of the push-up is the easiest place to begin building your technique. In all exercise variations below, be sure to stay long with your arms and actively push your torso away from the ground the entire time. This will help to keep your shoulders and core muscles engaged.
Technically, you’ll be performing an isometric (hold) in the top position of the push-up for all of these progressions. This is a great first step in the push-up building process as you begin to develop integrity in this position.
1. Tall Plank
Start with your hands roughly shoulder-width apart. Now, drive your hands down through the ground so that your arms are long and so that your torso is pushing away from the ground beneath you. Maintain this isometric hold and keep your core muscles engaged.
2. Tall Plank w/ Alternating Shoulder Tap
Here is the next level up from the tall plank where you’ll now be tasked with alternating shoulder taps from one side to the other. The challenge here is to maintain a stable low back and hips throughout the duration of the exercise. Imagine having a glass of water filled to the top resting on the low of your back. Don’t spill that glass!
3. Tall Plank w/ 1-Arm Shoulder Tap
This is the last step in the process of mastering the top position. Now, instead of alternating shoulder taps from one side to the other, keep the shoulder taps all on one side. This will ultimately challenge one shoulder for stability at a time while also increasing the anti-rotation trunk stability demand.
Let’s face it, this is a tough and also awkward position. How often have you simply held a pause in the middle position on the way down in a push-up?
Likely, never. That’s exactly why it’s important for us to work on it. You need to be strong in all positions to leave no stones unturned on your path toward push-up mastery.
1. Mid Push-Up Iso
Start in a tall plank. Lower down to the mid position just halfway between the top and bottom, and hold a pause there. Be mindful that your elbows don’t flare out, and instead keep them at a 45-degree angle in relation to the sides of your body.
2. Mini-Band Mid Push-Up Iso
A mini-band is pretty harmless, right? In this case, not really. Loop the mini-band around your wrists, drop down into the same exact position as in the above exercise, and yet again, hold a pause there. The added resistance from the mini-band will increase the overall challenge in your shoulders and core muscles.
The bottom is the most difficult position to master when building up your push-up technique.
A great cue to think about here is “pulling” yourself down toward the ground, which will help to put the shoulder joint and shoulder blades in a natural position. Again, be sure to avoid flaring your elbows out away from you and instead keep them at a 45-degree angle in relation to the sides of your body.
1. Low Push-Up Iso
Be sure to begin in a tall plank. Lower down to the low position, just about an inch off the ground. You want to be close enough to sniff the ground beneath you, but not close enough to the point where you’re touching it with your nose.
2. Mini-Band Low Push-Up Iso
Loop the mini-band around your wrists, drop down into the same exact position as in the above exercise, and yet again, hold a pause there. You’ll once again feel the added resistance from the mini-band.
THE ACTUAL PUSH-UP
We’ve finally made it; this is it.
Before we actually jump into the traditional push-up, I just want to make sure that you’re truly ready. We have a few more critical boxes to check off.
1. Eccentric Only Push-Up w/ 5-Sec Eccentric
Eccentrics (slow and controlled lowering) serve as a key component to pepper into any exercise when you’re attempting to master the descent. The best part about using eccentrics is that they can really fit into any exercise, so the push-up is no different. You can learn more about the importance of using eccentrics in your training programs from this recent article.
Begin in the top position of the push-up. Now, you’re only going to be working during the descent here as you lower down to the ground. This entire lowering component should last you a full 5 seconds. Once you get to the bottom, rest, and then reset back into the top (starting) position.
2. Eccentric Push-Up to Kneeling Push-Up
The typical version of the kneeling push-up gets a bad rap in training circles. Now, I’m certainly not sitting here telling you to go crush some kneeling push-ups and add them into every single training program that you write. However, I’m also not saying that they’re the worst idea that exists.
My point is that they can be useful to a certain extent in the right scenario. Well, wouldn’t you know? That right scenario is right now.
Please be sure to watch the full video to truly understand the technique I’m looking for. It’s not the kneeling push-up that you’ve likely seen. Instead, you’ll want to start in the top position of the push-up. Slowly lower down to the ground. Once you get there, place your knees onto the ground to create a short lever to push back up with.
Yes, the last portion of this exercise is not a true push-up. I get it. However, it brings you one step closer to actually performing a push-up and aids in your ability to push your body weight (most of it) off of the ground. If we’re going to peel some layers back here, we need to make small progressions each step of the way.
3. Elevated Push-Up
Now, this is going to mimic more of what a true push-up actually looks like except for it being on an incline. You could elevate your hands on top of an object such as a bench or plyo box as demonstrated in the video above. However, if that positioning bothers your wrist, opt for a barbell instead as shown in the video below.
Either way, start at a height that is comfortable and that allows you to keep good technique throughout each rep. For example, you could start out at hip height, work your way down to knee height, and then land at ankle height as the final step before advancing to the floor.
This is it: the holy grail. Now, think of all the work you put in to finally get here. That’s a true progression process when attempting to truly master an exercise.
Once the traditional push-up becomes easy for you, you can mess around with a variety of add-ons. My personal favorites would first be using specific tempos, eccentrics, and isometrics to increase the overall challenge. The next step would be to tack on additional external resistance via mini-bands around the wrists, chains or weight plates on top of your back, or even to simply wear a weight vest. Either way, make sure your technique remains flawless.
I love the push-up exercise just as much as the next person. However, I can’t stress this enough: hold yourself accountable in the technique department.
If your form is feeling off, then it likely is. In that case, trace back to the start and begin at step one. You’ll appreciate it that much more once you begin to make positive strides over time.
The push-up is a classic for a reason, so let’s treat it like one.