Mastering the Fundamentals: The Push-Up

There are certain exercises that form the foundation for more advanced, complex exercises. Often in their impatience, new CrossFitters want to jump right into those more exciting exercises without the proper foundation; what they typically find is slower progress, more injury, and lower performance. Putting in the work and time on foundational training pays off in the long run.

One of these exercises is the push-up.

Not only is it an important foundational exercise, it’s a commonly used bodyweight exercise in CrossFit and other workouts itself, yet the details of its execution are often neglected to a stunning extent.

Performed well, the push-up is a powerful training tool; there’s no reason not to take it seriously and invest some time and effort into developing a proper push-up.

How one performs a push-up is indicative of that individual’s athletic foundation, and possibly more importantly, how committed one is to excellence in movement and performance. Sloppy push-ups suggest to me a superficial interest in athleticism and a degree of laziness.

Full-Body Rigidity

The first element that needs to be established for a proper push-up is fixing the entire body into a single, straight, rigid line. At any point in the movement, you should be able to visualize that straight line passing through the ankle, hip and shoulder.

The head should also be a neutral position—not reaching for the floor to pretend the depth is greater than it is.

If performing a scaled push-up from the knees, the line will pass through the knee rather than the ankle—this variation doesn’t change anything about the movement, just the length of the body to reduce resistance.

Range of Motion

This should be the most obvious criterion of the push-up, yet it seems to be the most difficult point to get across. The full range of motion of the push-up is from complete extension of the elbows and some scapular protraction (arms completely straight and locked and shoulders pushed forward slightly) to light contact of the chest on the floor (touching the floor but not supported by it). Don’t cheat yourself and dip your head down toward the floor to pretend you’re closer, and don’t flop onto the floor and relax.

Mechanics

We want the push-up to be a tool for developing strength, stamina, endurance, etc… not a cause of pain or injury. To do this, we need to ensure ideal shoulder mechanics. Commonly people will use a wide hand placement with the arms at a ninety-degree angle from the body. This makes performing push-ups easier and naturally limits the depth, meaning even more can be done, which people love. But of course, it also limits the benefit and can create shoulder pain and injury.

Ideally, we want the upper arm to be within about 45 degrees from the body. This will allow the full range of motion we want while allowing the shoulders to move freely and naturally.

Scaling

The last priority is the actual resistance; that is, in this case, how much of your bodyweight you’re moving. It’s far more beneficial to address and improve the previous elements in a scaled position than to perform what only appears to be a push-up with your entire bodyweight.

If you’re unable to perform a proper push-up, scale it in a way that allows you to reach your intended number of repetitions while meeting the previous criteria. The first way to do this is to perform the push-up from the knees rather than the toes. Simply bend at the knees and secure your body in the same rigid straight line as you would otherwise, but from the knees to the shoulders instead.

The other way to scale the push-up is to elevate the hands. The benefit of this method is that you’re still able to maintain and practice the total-body rigidity as you would in a standard push-up. Using a bench or something similar to place the hands on is ideal, as it will allow free movement of the head (as opposed to using a wall, for example).

Mix regular and scaled push-ups as needed, over time increasing the ratio of regular to scaled, until you’re able to perform all of your push-ups in your workouts from the standard position.

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