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
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
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.
Figure 1: Here is a beginner's push up...
Figure 2: this is the regular push up...
Figure 3: and here is the advanced push up.