Pushups – how to train and strengthen the pectoral muscles and triceps

What is a pushup?

The pushup is one of the exercises that absolutely everyone will encounter in life. In school gym class, pushups are performed compulsorily, in sports training, whether it be boxing or football, they are widely used as punishment for disobedience, and soldiers and policemen alike have to perform tens of thousands of pushups in their careers.

It is thus an exercise that almost everyone has seen and tried, and it is etched into the consciousness of society as a symbol of exercising with one’s own body. Nevertheless, strict and technically perfect push-ups are unfortunately mastered by few nowadays. Sedentary jobs slowly but surely accustom our bodies to comfort and passivity, and what one once managed with one’s left rear is suddenly a tremendous drudgery.

On the other hand, the body is incredibly adaptable, so when one devotes, say, only ten minutes every other day to push-ups, improvement comes fairly quickly. The zigzag, like any other horizontal push, mainly strengthens the pectoral muscles, triceps, and the front of the shoulders (deltoids). However, among other things, when performed correctly, it will also work the middle of the body (the abdominal muscles, but also the serratus anterior, for example).

The initial position of the standard kneeling squat is explained in detail in the article upright lying, but for the sake of argument let’s reiterate the basic points. The arm span roughly follows the width of the shoulders, but can be slightly wider. The hands are placed level under the shoulders, the feet are resting with the toes on the floor and are side by side (not necessarily close together, just not too far apart). The body is stiffened, especially the abdominal and gluteal muscles, and forms one plane (like a plank) so that the pelvis is neither sagging nor thrust upwards. The head is in extension of the body, or may be slightly raised, potentially allowing for a longer path of movement (I don’t stick my nose in the ground in the bottom position).

From this position, gradually bend the elbows, with the humerus at a standard kneeling angle of roughly 45 degrees with the torso. If the elbows are directly in front of the body, this is not a fault, but a different variation of the pushup (triceps pushup). Conversely, if the elbows are at right angles to the body, or heaven forbid even farther away, this is a fundamental error that puts the shoulders at risk. Continue the movement until the chest or abdomen (whichever is bulkier) touches the ground, and then reverse the movement upward until the original position. We inhale downwards, exhale upwards.

The most common technical errors and how to correct them

Many practitioners initially have difficulty straightening and firming up properly in the basic top position, or sustaining this firming throughout the exercise. A mirror or any visual feedback will help with this, as it is not difficult to get into a solid “plank” position, you just need to know how to do it and not loosen the position when actually performing the kip.

Another common bad habit is shortening the movement path. Beginners typically stop the click about two-thirds of the way down and return up prematurely. This is either due to ignorance of the technique of the exercise, lack of strength, or the head hanging down to the ground. If the head and neck are in the correct position (so that the downward movement is not impeded by the head hitting the floor prematurely) and the technique is clear to the person, it is simply a lack of strength. Occasionally, people are fooled by the opposite way up (they don’t get all the way to the original position on the way up), but this error is rarer and easy to correct.

Lack of strength also often manifests itself by transferring more of the weight backwards (making the plane of the shoulders fall behind the plane of the supported arms), or by the elbows moving too far away from the body (see the right angle of the arm from the torso mentioned above). These two inappropriate ways of facilitating the pushup put the shoulders in an unnatural and potentially dangerous position, especially when they both happen at the same time. Since the exercise is relatively safe, mistakes don’t show up right away, but sooner or later, poor technique catches up with everyone (and injury ensues).

If we make mistakes when training push-ups due to a lack of strength and are unable to perform at least a few quality reps, an easier option is in order. The same applies when we are so exhausted by the end of the workout that we lack the energy to do proper push-ups, but we still want to do another set.

Women’s pushups – appropriate or inappropriate facilitation?

If a person finds the standard pushup difficult, it is enough to choose an easier variant of the exercise, and train it until the muscles gain enough strength to do ordinary pushups. With regular and honest practice this will only take weeks, but even with severe overweight or flabbiness it should only be a few months.

The best known facilitations are the so-called “ladies’ push-ups,” which consist in resting the knees on the ground instead of the toes of the feet. The technique is otherwise identical, but the arms logically carry a noticeably lower proportion of the body weight. Recently, a wave of opposition has risen in calisthenics fan circles against women’s push-ups. The arguments against this variant are mainly as follows:

  • The women’s pushup invites bad technique (sticking the butt up, not having the body in one plane)
  • By leaning the knees back, we not only make the pushup easier (which is a desirable effect), but we essentially take the center of the body out of the exercised muscles (which is obviously undesirable), or we make it so easy for the center of the body to work that it is not enough stimulation to get stronger.

Against the first objection, I would like to point out that this is not a different problem in principle from that of the normal pushup. Technique simply needs to be guarded at all times. While the second point is absolutely true, on the other hand, we are primarily concerned with strengthening the arms, shoulders, and chest in the women’s squat so that we can eventually move on to the “normal” squat. Few people lack the strength to pushup specifically in the middle of the body, and we can strengthen the so-called Core at rest with other exercises.

I personally don’t see a major drawback to this variation, other than its popularly used name. For one thing, it suggests a certain disrespect for female athletic potential, but also the “ladies” pushup is quite as suitable for men who have not yet mastered the standard variant. Among other things, I’ve met many female athletes who will put most of the male population in the bag in the pushups area.

Pushups with elevated hand support

A better method of facilitation is a pushup with a raised hand rest. Again, the technique remains exactly the same, only one rests the palms higher than the soles of the feet. A couch, a bench, a small wall, a child’s climbing frame, or any other solid support that allows the full kneeling position to be executed (i.e. not a high wall, as I will never get my chest up to the point where I rest my hands) can be used for this.

The higher I rest my hands, the easier the pushup will be, which is logical because a greater proportion of my body weight will rest on my feet. Ideally, we choose the height of the support so that the pushup is roughly difficult enough that we can perform 8-15 reps correctly in a set, but no more. We train the knees in this way, gradually lowering the fulcrum according to our ability until we can correctly perform a few knees with our palms on the ground.

Harder variations – triceps push-ups, bar push-ups and others

If, on the other hand, you are an experienced athlete and ordinary push-ups are no longer a problem for you even in larger numbers (say 5 sets of 25 perfect push-ups), it is advisable to include heavier variations in your training. There are a huge number of ways in which we can make the knees harder in order to stimulate the muscles more intensely. We’ll discuss at least a few basic ones for which it is not necessary to own any equipment.

When we choose a slightly narrower hand position and run the arms directly along the body (parallel to the torso) when performing the kneel, it is a triceps kneel. The pectoral muscles, which are larger and stronger than the triceps muscle, may be more helpful in a standard kneeling position. This means that when we perform the pushup so that the triceps take most of the work, the pushup will be harder, and using this variation will strengthen the triceps muscle more.

It is even harder to pushup targeting the shoulders (especially the front of the deltoid muscle). We perform this one by elevating the supporting surface of the feet (putting the feet on a bench, for example). The higher we support the feet, the more load the shoulders have to take and the harder the zig will be to perform. The extreme of this pushup is the handstand pushup, which is actually very difficult and even experienced powerlifters have trouble with it. When practicing this variant, I recommend to elevate the arms slightly in some way (handrails, metal dumbbells placed on the ground …), otherwise the head will get in the way at the bottom of the pushup, and even more so the higher the legs are supported.

The heaviest variant of the pushup

Probably the most difficult variant of the pushup are the one-arm pushups, which are extremely demanding not only on strength, but also on balance and technique. Since they would make for a separate article, I’ll at least mention the easier variant, a sort of precursor to the one-arm pushup. The arm that we load more is guided along the body, as in the triceps pushup, but the other arm is stretched out to the side and slightly elevated (on a step, a step, a low bench …). What this achieves is that the arm we have by our body does most of the work, and the outstretched arm only slightly assists and holds the balance. Of course we need to do the same number of reps on each arm so that we don’t over train one side.

In addition to the above options, it is worth mentioning the weighted kneeling, for which a backpack on the back (loaded according to how much we want to make the kneeling more difficult) is enough. We can achieve the same effect by asking our training partner(s) to apply slight pressure to our shoulder blades with the palms of their hands as we click. Another option is to perform the pushup either more slowly, which means the muscles do the work for longer, or conversely explosively with a “pop” of the hands, for example in the form of the popular clapping pushup.

How best to incorporate pushups into a training regime?

As with most calisthenics exercises, it’s okay to practice pushup frequently and in relatively large quantities. For example, an inexperienced beginner can start with 5 sets of 10 pushups (an easier variation if needed) every other day. The average athlete can probably manage 8 sets of 15-20 pushup per day and will feel free to include the harder variations. In order to accomplish anything by performing the push-ups, a strong and seasoned individual should select difficult variations and perform them for dozens of repetitions, with some of the sets performed to exhaustion.

However, results will also come with less frequency and fewer sets. For an untrained person, even 30 push-ups (divided into, say, 3 sets) twice a week is enough of a boost to make the muscles a little stronger. It is true that the more effort you put in, the better the results will be and the faster they will come, on the other hand, long term honest adherence will always win out over intense but irregular effort.

Basically, the only thing one should keep in mind when practicing push-ups is the fact that the push-up only strengthens the front side of the torso (pectoral muscles, anterior side of the shoulders), which means that push-ups have to be balanced with a corresponding workout of the back side (broad back muscles, intercostal muscles). Neglecting the back muscles combined with over-strengthening the chest and front side of the shoulders leads to an unhealthy hunching of the thoracic spine and shoulder adduction (a stronger front side pulls the shoulders forward and inward). In the long term this posture is harmful and causes problems, most commonly of course back pain.

Taking this warning into account, however, there is no reason not to click, so boldly go to work, just don’t neglect your back muscles! Results are of course always individual to age, gender, and genetic predispositions, but with honest exercise for long enough are guaranteed for everyone!

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