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Push ups. Or depending on where you are from, press ups. Whatever you call them, they are one of the best exercises for your body to build upper body strength and a solid core. With few exceptions though, new KULT students’ faces fall when asked to show me what they can do – and that’s while they are still standing. I strongly suspect that the accompanying stress response in their body is responsible for shutting down their ability to access reflexive stabilization and motor patterning, let alone strength. If your brain already thinks you can’t, then you’ve pretty much lost the battle.

There’s a cool new field of study called heart rate variability that measures the time gaps between your heart beats and how those gaps change over time. So much more telling that just measuring your heart rate, it assesses the effects of stress on your body. Research evidence increasingly links high HRV to good health and a high level of fitness, while decreased HRV is linked to stress, fatigue and even burnout. What does that have to do with the blasted push up?

What Goes Into a Good Push-Up?

Well, a lot it turns out, when we consider that a good push up has more to do with what happens before your body even leaves the ground than once you start pushing. You see, in order for a good push up to happen, you need five things:

  1. a good set up position
  2. reflexive core and scapula stabilization
  3. sufficient abdominal strength to resist lumbar spine extension (arching your back)
  4. enough upper body strength to push up your planked body
  5. a little bit of grit to get past the sticking point rather than just giving up

Now if your sympathetic nervous system (the part of your automatic system responsible for the fight or flight response) fires up at the threat of a push up, well then you might just find yourself going into a form of flexion that won’t allow you to get into a good set up position with upper traps all shrugged, muscles tense, shallow breathing, rounded shoulders and thoracic spine. Even if you did manage to push yourself off the ground here, you wouldn’t get a very good training effect.

In this flexed position, your larger muscles have likely fired first since our central nervous system is very primal – it doesn’t care if you get away from the threat with good form or not – so it fires those big, strong muscles. The problem is that stability happens so often with the smaller muscles. And these don’t need to fire hard – they need to fire FAST, before all the other ones to keep the joints stable. So if your prime movers are out of the gate first, then your have little chance to create the stabilization required to do a push up.

Now if you don’t have enough ab strength to stop your spine from sagging, but your arms and chest are strong, you’ll do a snake pushup…upper body first then the butt at the end, if we are lucky…otherwise it’s just a yoga upward facing dog (good move, but not what we’re after here). If your abs are strong but arms are weak, well, you might hover off the floor a little bit but that’s it…or your bum will pitch up off the floor in a weird tent pose. Not good either.

Finally, without some mental toughness, we often give up before our brains send enough ‘juice’ to the required parts. So here too we fail, crash, give up or just stay put.

Sounds a bit like nothing but bad news. But it’s not.

5 Steps to Mastering Your Push-up from the Inside Out

First off, the inability to push-up does not make you a bad person. So don’t feel bad or down on yourself. What it does do is flag some important gaps in your body that are making movements and exercises harder and potentially riskier than they need to be. So the great news is that we’ve identified a weakness. Working on those invariably delivers more results than making you better at what you are already good at. Just, well, maybe not so much fun. Too bad.

  1. Relax. Doing, or training to do push-ups is not life and death. It’s just a way to make us move better. No one will die if you don’t succeed today or even next week. But the more you practice, the less you’ll stress and the easier it will become until one day, whammo. Push-up number 1. We ALL started with 1.
  2. Elbow plank with a stick. Lying on the ground with your elbows just below your shoulders. Pull your shoulder blades down towards your opposite back pockets. Squeeze your legs together and tighten those buns. Now lift your bottom up off the ground. Have someone place a stick on your back and help coach you to keep it in the right position, i.e. a neutral spine. Done well, the stick will touch the back of your head, between your shoulder blades and the top of your sacrum (just above your bum ‘valley’). Don’t hold each try for too long to start since you’re learning how to create tension and relax your face at the same time. Breathe. Once you can hold a proper elbow plank for 15 to 20 seconds, try it up on your hands (where your elbows were). Is that easier, harder or the same? Your spine still needs to be straight and shoulders need to stay packed. Practice, practice, practice.
  3. Elevated mountain climbers. Now that you’ve gotten good at static stability, we’re adding an element of movement by having you alternate lifting your knees towards your chest, each time returning to the starting position with four points of support. Your starting position is the ending part of #2, with hands elevated. You are aiming to keep your spine neutral – use the stick as your own coach. Additionally, you want to focus on keeping your pelvis level, so no rocking from side to side when you lift one knee. You may find it easier to start with feet wider apart and progressively narrow them. I like to place a towel, or threaten to place a glass of liquid on the low back asking students NOT to spill. As you progress, bring your hands lower until you are on the ground.
  4. Elevated pledge planks. Not only are we going to challenge dynamic stability here from a different angle (removing an arm support instead of the foot like in #3), we’re firing a whole lot of core muscles and building some upper body strength endurance. Similar starting position as for number 3. Remember wrists should be below shoulders and head, thoracic spine and top of bum all touching a stick (or in a straight line). Spreading the feet out for added support, lift one hand off the bench being mindful of what muscles have to fire to create that movement. Resist all hip rocking from side to side. Alternate hands. If that’s getting easy, you can touch your opposite shoulder with the hand you are lifting, but the most important part is to go slow. Each time you place your hands back on the ground is your reset for core reflexive stabilization – the nanosecond you think about lifting your hand is where the magic happens.
  5. Elevated push ups. I’m not a huge believer of pushups on your knees unless they are at the end of a set of military style or to facilitate a the eccentric or concentric only portion. I’d much prefer you practice on an elevated surface starting from the wall if necessary and progressing to your counter, desk, table, sofa, coffee table, step then the floor. Lots of options. The same spinal alignment, shoulder packing and planking points apply. One point of caution is what to do with your elbows when they bend – should they go perfectly back or flare out? Well, there are different types of push-ups. I like to start with somewhere in between, so about 45 degrees out from your hips, or less. Once you can do 10 at one level move to a lower elevation. While you’re working your way down to the floor, you’re working your strength, core stability up. All good stuff. Get to the floor and do even 1? Celebrate. Individual sets of 1, lets say for 10 sets, are awesome.

So that’s it! A plan to help you perform that elusive push up, and a good one too, not one of those sloppy terrible ones you see in gyms around the world every day.