News from Shape Up America
September 2005
Shape Up America! Newsletter


Push Ups – A new look at a Classic Exercise
by Michael Roussell
In the last issue of our newsletter we finished the lower body workout with calf training. This month we will begin training the upper body, starting with the chest, shoulders, and triceps (the backs of your upper arms). For the chest, shoulders and triceps the body weight exercise of choice is the push up. I’m sure at some point in your life you have been made to do a push up or two. If talking about push ups brings back terrible memories of 5th grade gym class, I’m sorry. I’m not trying to invoke painful flashbacks but instead motivate you to develop a stronger upper body in order to prevent injuries, slow down the aging process, and improve your overall health.

The push up is a wonderful exercise because there are several different variations that will work your muscles slightly differently and keep you from getting bored with your workouts. But before we get into the variations we should cover two basic points that are essential to a proper and effective push up.

1) Maintain a straight line from your heels to your head – A common mistake when doing push ups is to send your rear end up into the air so your body looks more like a tent than a flat board. The reason that people commonly go to this tent position is because it makes the movement easier – allowing them to complete more push ups. This is called “cheating.” Cheating in exercise, as in life, is bad – because it defeats the purpose of the exercise in the first place. Avoid becoming a “tent” so you can properly work out the target muscles.

2) Your chest must touch the ground – This past summer I worked at an all boys’ summer camp in which the boys would have to do 10 or so push ups whenever they let expletives fly out of their mouths. I was amazed to see the boys’ understanding of a proper push up. In their mind if their chest came within 6 inches of the ground that was close enough; this could not be further from the truth! Touching your chest to the ground is important because this means that you have pushed your chest muscles through their full range of motion. Working a muscle out through its full range of motion is essential it you want to get the greatest benefit from your workouts.

This month I’ve included starting and midpoint pictures to illustrate the exercise and to make explaining the exercises easier. Foot position is the first part of the push up that can be varied.

The beginners push up (Figure 1), regular push up (Figure 2), and the advanced or elevated push up (Figure 3) are shown below.

The beginner push up is the easiest of the 3 variations while the elevated push up moves more of the stress from your chest to your shoulders. Your set/rep goal for the push ups are 3 sets of 15. Start with the beginners push up. After several weeks or months, when you are ready, progress to the regular push up. Again after several more weeks or months, you may feel finally ready for the elevated push up. The point is that you should not progress to the next level until you have successfully completed and feel you have mastered the set/rep goals using the proper form.

Another point of variation is hand spacing. You should start with your hands only slightly wider than your shoulders’ width apart. Once you have worked your way up to 3 sets of 15 reps of the elevated push ups, you can then start to vary your hand spacing. The further your hands are apart the more your chest muscles will be stressed. While the closer your hands are together the more your triceps muscles will be stressed.

With 3 feet positions and 3 hand positions (wide, shoulder width, and close together) you have 9 different variations of the push up that you can use in your workouts.

By now you have probably become pretty efficient with the body weight squats and calf raises we presented in earlier issues of this newsletter. If you add 3 sets of push ups to your workouts you will still be done in no time! Keep working hard and next month we’ll focus on strengthening your lower back to help prevent injuries.

Push Up -- Beginner Figure 1: Here is a beginner's push up...

Push Up -- Regular Figure 2: this is the regular push up...

Push Up -- Elevated Figure 3: and here is the advanced push up.

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