We’ve briefly covered wrists and how rolling the body of the fingers inward—what I call the “knuckle spiral“—helps to relieve discomfort on the wrist.
We’ve touched on elbows, which absorb the inner spiral of the hand and wrist in order to make strong, external rotation at the shoulder possible.
What are some of the other elements of a good push up?
Well, it depends on why you’re doing them. All I can tell you is why I do them, and how my method fits my goals.
Here’s the video, make sure to read through the breakdown for more info!
Range of Motion
The shoulder is fantastically mobile; in fact, it is so mobile as to be barely connected to the rest of your skeleton at all. The only real, bony attachment between your shoulder girdle and the rest of your skeleton is the sternoclavicular joint (pictured). Sans muscle attachments, a firm tug would allow you to lift the entire shoulder girdle off like a macabre set of shoulder pads.
The hip is exactly the opposite. The femoral head is sunk deeply into the pelvis and surrounded by a barricade of ligaments so that nothing short of an act of (a particularly malicious) god could dislocate it.
This is why we walk on our legs and manipulate stuff with our arms. Our legs can carry multiple times our body weight and manage the impact of many thousands of steps, daily, without flinching; those structures have sacrificed some mobility for the stability it takes to keep a biped truckin’.
Our arms, on the other hand (ha!), can move lightning fast and have among the highest nerve density of any structure in the body. Shoulders are designed, above all else, to cover large distances with precision and speed.
So, knowing this, push ups are kinda weird. I mean, you’re essentially asking your arms to act like legs and, let’s be honest, they are terrible at it.
Go find the most jaw-dropping youtube video you can find of some packed Russian circus performer doing plank and handstand variations. Now, watch the video and imagine them doing everything they’re doing with their hands, on their feet. Yeah, it would be a really boring video. It takes a super-high level of performance to make your arms do even a fraction of the awesome weight-bearing stuff that the average set of gams does every single day.
My goal in doing push ups is, first, to allow my arms to act like arms and my legs to act like legs. The plank puts my spine perpendicular to gravity’s acceleration, rather than parallel , which allows me to challenge my limbs at their respective jobs. To avoid getting sucked into the mindset of making my arms act like legs, at the very least, my push ups should aim to bring me all the way down to the floor, utilizing the full range of my shoulder’s available extension.
Better Feet Make Everything Better
Push ups are widely described as an “upper body exercise” which, frankly, is totally nonsensical to me. In fact, the upper body is almost entirely dependent on the lower body to produce power. Impact with the ground is compressed and conducted by the legs and hips as kinetic energy, which your shoulders and arms release to produce work, like carrying, throwing, or a sweet high-five. Even in a push up, you’re better served by using the feet and legs to carry the absolute maximum amount of weight so that the shoulders are free to be mobile.
For this reason, it’s really important that your foot gets to bear weight in a way that is structurally sound, for example, like this:
Tons of the complaints I get on the blog about push up pain, come from the failure or inability to get the ball of the toe in touch with the ground. If this isn’t happening, getting it there is a much higher priority for a safe, effective push up than anything having to do with your “upper body.”
Supporting the Back
I don’t buy into the conventional wisdom that squeezing your core protects your back. In fact, contracting the abdominals willy-nilly without setting up your lower-body structure can even injure your back.
You can even see it when you’re standing; lock out the knees in a standing position and your low spine is forced into a compressed position called lordosis. The exact same thing is true in a push up, only worse, since the force of gravity is now parallel to direction of the lordotic compensation.
Let me tell you, no amount of ab squeezing is going to undo that mess.
The solution is, in fact, way simpler. Bend the knees. Or, more to the point, begin to bend the knees. The size or amount of bending isn’t important, only that the muscles which cause the knees to bend are in the process of being engaged. This will make the force entering the feet and legs act as leverage against lordosis, essentially putting the geometry of your bones to work for you.
You may find that this causes your abdominals to engage automatically and that’s ok. The abs are at their best when taking orders from your skeleton rather than giving them. Never send a muscle to do a bone’s job, I always say.
If you would like to get really in-depth on creating safe, effective bodyweight routines, contact your local health and fitness center about hosting my workshop on push ups, squats and lunges! Also, stay on top of upcoming Reembody workshops in your area!