We often want to do the hardest variation of a move possible, but all too often when we try to do more advanced versions of the push up, we end up looking like we’re doing a funky dance move. Our head will jut forward or our hips will drop. It ends up looking more like the worm, which doesn’t really get us the results we want.
Or maybe you feel you don’t even have the strength to attempt that full push up, but have always wanted to. You might feel like you aren’t strong enough or you may not even realize your form isn’t right. But learning to engage the right muscles can help you achieve beautiful full push ups that not only strengthen your upper body, but also your core.
Below are 5 quick tips to help you improve your push ups!
1. Strengthen Your Core
Push ups are just a moving plank. If you can’t keep your core engaged properly, your upper body won’t work correctly and you may even end up loading your low back. You not only risk injury, but you also don’t reap the full rewards.
If your core isn’t strong and engaging correctly, your hips will sag and your push up will look more like you’re doing the worm than a sleek and graceful upper body and core exercise. You’ve got to first work on strengthening your core and making sure it engages correctly during the entire push up movement. So how do you do this?
Try including more planking exercises in your workout. You can do forearm or even high plank holds. Or you can try even push up holds, holding at different stages in the push up move itself! But make sure as you hold in this plank position, you are actively engage your entire core - your abs, glutes, quads and even your back!
Here are 3 Tips To Improve Your Planks.
2. Activate Your Back
You may look at this one and be a bit confused because aren’t push ups a chest, shoulders and tricep move? Yes they are, BUT you need to make sure your back is engaged and working correctly to support your shoulders!
Getting your back muscles activated and working correctly helps stabilize your shoulders and mobilize your shoulder blades to prevent shoulder and neck injuries during push ups. Getting your back and your serratus anterior (the muscle on the sides of our ribs under our chest and in front of our lats) activated and working will not only prevent injury but also improve your pressing strength!
One great move to mobilize your shoulder blades and strengthen these muscles for push ups is the Scapular Push Up. They are a great way to strengthen your upper back and serratus anterior while also improving your core strength.
To do a Scapular Push Up, set up in a high plank position with your hands under your shoulders and your feet together. Your body should be in a nice straight line from head to your heels. Without bending your elbows or dropping your hips, pinch your shoulder blades together and press your chest out.
Do not tuck your chin or jut your head forward. Also do not let your core wiggle or your elbows bend to try to increase your range of motion.
Remember, you are not doing a push up. This is a very small range of motion where you are simply focused on pinching your shoulder blades together. Just pinch your shoulder blades together and then relax or even round your back up out of it (rounding your back at the top is another variation but can be very useful for correcting certain push up problems). Keep your core tight as you pinch your shoulder blades together. As you get stronger and build the mind-body connection you will find your range of motion increases.
Beginners can modify by doing this move from the wall, off an incline or even from their knees. Just focus on mobilizing your shoulder blades and make sure you aren’t moving other things to try to increase your range of motion.
3. Use Incline Variations
While I will have clients still do some push ups from their knees, I’ve found that the Incline Push Up is really key if you want to achieve that full push up from your toes. If you’ve been stuck doing knee push ups and unable to progress to that first full one, it’s because you’ve only been doing push ups from your knees.
What you may not know too is that the Knee Push Up may be too advanced in some cases and even causing you to develop bad habits. For instance, you may find you tuck your chin or your elbows flare way out or your core still sags. These are all reasons to modify with an incline. It does give you more control and allows you, or your clients, to learn proper form with the right amount of resistance.
When you do push ups from your knees you can build upper body strength and you are working on your core strength; HOWEVER, you also never force yourself to take on your full bodyweight or engage your core in exactly the way you have to do a proper full push up.
With the Incline Push Up, you are working your core and body in the exact form you will with a full push up from the ground. It is also very easy to slowly progress. As you get stronger, you can slowly lower the incline even just ever so slightly each and every workout!
To do the Incline Push Up, simply put your hands up on a step, box, table, couch or even the wall. Select an incline that allows you to maintain a nice straight line from your head to your heels as you lower your chest down to the incline and then press back up. Make sure that as you lower and press, your elbows create an arrow shape with your body!
4. Use Eccentric Variations
If you want to build strength and take your push ups to the next level, you also need to do some Eccentric Push Ups, which means you need to do Push Ups where you focus on a slow lower down to the ground. By slowing the lower down, you can challenge your muscles even more. You can build core strength while challenging your upper body further.
If you can do a full push up, this is a great tool to use to be able to do more push ups and even more challenging variations. And if you can’t yet do a full push up from your toes yet, this is a great way to help yourself progress toward that first full one and start taking on your full bodyweight.
Often before you can do that first full one, you can at least handle your own bodyweight for part of the movement, which is where the Eccentric Push Up comes into play. By taking on your full bodyweight for a slow lower down, you are building upper body and core strength. You are learning to engage everything correct with perfect form even if you can’t push back up.
So if you aren’t yet at that first full push up, try doing just an Eccentric ONLY Push Up.
To do Eccentric-Only Push Ups, set up in a high plank position with your hands outside your chest and your feet together. Your body should be in a nice straight line. Keeping your body in a nice straight line, slowly lower your chest down to the ground.
Try to slowly lower down for at least a 3 count if not a 5 count. Keep everything engaged until you touch the ground.
Here you can release and relax onto the ground and then reset. You do not need to push back up. Simply reset at the top. Your focus is on perfect form for a very slow lower down. At the bottom you can release and simply reset back at the top. By just doing this slow lower down, you may find you are able to build toward that perfect full push up even when you feel like you’ve been working forever with other modified variations!
5. Mix Up Your Grips
We’ve all heard the phrase, “You’re only as strong as your weakest link.” Well the same is true with push ups. Whether it’s your shoulders, triceps, chest or even your core that is the weakest link, that weak link may limit how many push ups you can do.
That is why it is important to include a variety of push up “grips” in your workouts. Do some close grip, some wide grip, some pike presses so T Push Ups…include a variety of hand placements and even movements that focuses on certain areas.
There are so many push up variations out there you can use to target your upper body and core in different ways to strengthen your weak points!
Here are 31 Push Up Variations you can check out to help you!
Using these 5 tips in your workouts, you can get yourself on your way toward perfect full push ups even if you’ve never been able to do one before!
Cori is the owner of Redefining Strength, a functional training facility in Orange County, California focused on helping each client find their strong. She started training and writing a fitness blog in 2011 because she wanted to empower people through diet and exercise so that they can lead healthier, happier lives.