Improving the Push Up

Over my years as a performance coach I have performed and overseen 1000’s of postural/ movement assessments. In doing so, I have successfully used push-ups as both an assessment tool and as a corrective exercise. Here is one of the most common movement flaws I’ve seen

during the push up and a simple way to correct it. “Simplicity is the key to brilliance” Bruce Lee

Common Push Up Flaw – Faulty Spinal Alignment

This type of flaw is seen in just about gym and is normally caused by a lack of general body awareness, torso strength and postural stability. Faulty spinal alignment can appear as;

-Sagging head

-Sagging back (lordosis)

-Hunching back (kyphosis)

-Any combination of the above.

In some cases people will begin with ideal alignment and gradually loose alignment as the exercises progresses and fatigue sets in. In other cases they will start out right away with poor alignment. Regardless of when the fault happens, this is a muscle imbalance that needs to be corrected! The imbalance I’m referring to is that the mover muscles (chest, shoulders, triceps, etc;) involved in pushing the body away from the floor are stronger and posses more endurance than the spinal stabilizer muscles that are responsible for maintaining ideal alignment. In other words, you’re unable to control the movement and force that you can create. This can put you on the fast track to injury. It’s for this reason that I usually do a max rep test on the push up during my performance assessments. This allows me to see if their stabilizers give out before their prime movers. The solution to this alignment problem lies with a very high tech piece of gym equipment. A dowel rod. There is the 3 step progression we use to correct faulty spinal alignment issues using the dowel rod.

Step 1- Build awareness

The quadruped position shortens the lever arm (bent legs) and takes most of the load off the system while still keeping the torso and arms in a very similar position to the push up. The dowel is placed along the spine and is kept in contact with 3 points; back of the head (not the top), Thoracic region (between shoulder blades) and Sacrum (tail bone). This forces you to understand and become aware of proper alignment.

Step 2- Static control

The elbow plank takes what was learned in step one and lengthens the lever arm (straight legs). This increases postural stability and endurance in a manner necessary to perform the push up successfully. I try to progress everyone to be able to maintain this position for at least 1min without deviation. The hold time we choose for each individual is usually double the number in seconds of their max push up reps. Example= if your rep max is 30 push-ups then you should be able to hold the elbow plank for 60sec. We use this standard because the average push up is performed at a 1-1 tempo, which translates into each rep taking 2sec, at 30 reps that would take 60 sec.

Step 3- Dynamic control

Once awareness is created and strength/endurance is built, the final step is to integrate both components into the actual movement itself, in this case the push up. The dowel push-up is much more challenging than it looks because so much effort is dedicated to maintaining alignment. Eventually, as your postural endurance improves, this push- up will become easier. We try to get everyone to achieve the same rep max with the dowel rod as without it. Once you can do this, the dowel is no longer needed. Click here to see pictures of each exercise listed above.

A few additional notes on the above progression;

– During all (1-3) progressions, the dowel should remain in contact with the back of the head, T-spine and sacrum.

– Begin with neutral spinal alignment and stop the exercises when spinal curvatures change or the dowel falls.

– The worst your alignment is, the harder these exercises will be and the longer it will take to progress through them.

– Use a mirror at floor level to help with visual feedback, body position and awareness.

– In the case of a hunch back (kyphosis), I recommend you perform some additional anterior abdominal stretches because the rectus abdominals is most likely overactive.