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Coaching the Push-Up


The Push-Up is undoubtedly one of the worlds most recognized exercise. It’s been performed for centuries all around the world and it’s likely that it was the first exercise you ever did.

As great core and upper body strength builder, that requires nothing more than your bodyweight to perform, the push-up is at the top of the heap when it comes to overall value and accessibility.

Despite its fame, the push-up is equally misrepresented as it is revered. Walk into any gym in America you might risk running into any number of variations of push-up with lack luster form.

In hopes of avoiding any of these pitfalls and the potential injuries that might come with poor push-up form, check out the tips we use at Mike Boyle Strength and Conditioning (MBSC) to help our clients set up and execute push-ups perfectly.

1. The Set Up

Many people struggle with the push-up simply because they don’t set up in a good position. The set-up is critical because if you enter the execution of the exercise with poor positioning, it will make it nearly impossible to perform it safely and correctly.

Hand Width:

Start on all fours in a quadruped position with the hands just outside shoulder width. Most people start with their hands too narrow, which results in placing too much stress on the anterior compartment of the shoulder.

Kevin Carr demonstrating hand width position

Shoulder Tension:

Next, while still in the quadruped position, create tension in the shoulder girdle by rotating the shoulders into external rotation, keeping the hands fixed and fingers spread on the floor. This should create tension in the lats, stabilizing the scapula for pressing.

Feet Positioning:

Extend the legs back into the high push-up plank positioning. Be sure to bring the feet together so that you can create tension, squeezing both the adductors and glutes. Creating tension between the legs will help you brace more effectively in your core. You can assist clients who struggle with this by having them squeeze a towel or Airex pad between their knees.

Spinal Alignment:

Clients and trainers alike often struggle to find the optimal spinal alignment during the push-up. To make the set up easier for both parties, we recommend using a dowel rod to help establish optimal alignment. If you place a dowel rod along the client’s spine it should contact at three locations:

Start from the head and work down. Have the client pack their neck (think “make a double chin”) and align the stick between their head and thoracic spine. They should have smooth curvature through their thoracic spine but they should not be hunched nor should they be winging. Finally, the dowel should contact their sacrum with a small lordosis in between the stick and their lumbar spine.

demonstration on spinal alignment during a push-up

2. The Movement

Now that we’ve learned to set up correctly, we need to teach the client how to properly move through the exercise.

Pull Yourself to The Floor:

We learned how to create tension during the set-up and we want the client to keep that tension throughout the entire exercise. Cue the client to pull themselves slowly to the floor rather than letting themselves relax and fall to the floor. Keep cueing them to screw their hands into the floor like we did during the set-up to keep tension in the lats and shoulders.

Create an Arrow:

One of the biggest mistakes people make while executing the push-up is elbow positioning. Often clients will either spread them too wide or keep them too tight; either position can potentially place too much stress on the anterior shoulder and cervical spine.  The proper position should create an “arrow head” shape if you draw a line from the client’s elbows up to their head.

person creating an arrow shape with their arms while doing a push-up

Maintaining Alignment and Depth:

As clients progress into the movement, they will often error by losing spinal alignment. Most commonly they will protrude their neck and head forward or drop their hips and lumbar spine into extension. For this reason, we recommend keeping the dowel rod on the spine for beginners. We also recommend creating a depth marker for clients so that they do not go too low or too high. An Airex pad placed on the floor creates perfect target for the client to contact with their chest at the bottom of the movement.

Pressing Up:

Finally, we want to cue the client to be explosive during the concentric portion of the movement. Cue them to drive the floor down forcefully, breathing out hard while pressing away from the floor.

3. Progressions and Regressions

Not every client will be able to start by performing push-ups on flat ground and some clients will need to progress beyond regular push-ups. Follow the progression/regression guide below to adapt the push-up for any client.

Regression: No Kneeling Push-Ups

The classic way to regress the standard push-up is to have the client perform the exercise from their knees. We choose not to regress the exercise that way because it reduces the core stability challenge and makes it difficult to progress the exercise smoothly. We prefer clients start on an incline by placing their hands on a barbell positioned in a squat rack and have them progress down over time until they can execute push-ups on the floor. This method allows the client to practice the long push-up position with less intensity and using the barbell rack allows us to gauge qualitatively how strong the client is, making it easier to progress them.

Progression: Decline, Loaded, Unstable Surface, and Tempo

Once your client has a good command of classic push-ups and needs a challenge, you can first progress them by elevating their feet on to a box or bench. At MBSC we would choose to elevate the feet on a 6- to 18-inch box while placing the client’s hands on the floor. We do not recommend handstand push-ups and would not have the client elevate their feet above 18 inches.

Once the client can execute feet-elevated push-ups you can progress multiple ways to continue to challenge them. If the goal is to develop top-end strength, I would recommend increasing intensity by adding a weight vest, sandbag, plate or band to increase resistance. Be careful when placing weights on a client’s back; be sure not to place directly on their spine.

Not all clients will benefit from increasing load. With older clients or those with history of shoulder injuries, progressing by adding instability or challenging with tempo may be a better choice.

Having the client perform push-ups with their hands on the flat side of a Bosu ball can provide an increased core and scapular stability challenge without increasing the overall system load.

Changing the tempo of the push-up execution can also provide a challenge without increasing the load placed on the shoulders. Try having a client perform push-ups with a 3-3-0 tempo: lowering for 3 seconds, holding for 3 seconds, and pushing out explosively.

Watch the below video for demonstrations of these regressions and progressions:

Wrapping It Up

Hopefully these tips were helpful for you and your clients to better set up execute push-ups. For more tips like this check out our push-up video above and visit CertifiedFSC.com to see our Certified Functional Strength Coach Level 1 Course offerings!