Push ups are a fundamental bodyweight exercise when it comes to developing overall body strength. This is because push ups force the body to be maintained in a horizontal position to the floor, which means that all of the muscles used to stabilise you in this position, from the abdomen to the buttocks, are worked, as well as the arm and chest muscles which do the lion’s share of the work.
The chest muscles can be targeted from various angles with push ups, depending on how the exercise is performed. This means that a balanced development of the chest muscles can be achieved, really bulking up the chest, in much the same way as the bench press can be altered to work either the top, bottom or sides of the chest more intensely.
However, push ups are also a very challenging exercise, due to the fact that the body has to be maintained in the horizontal position throughout, and the fact that you are lifting a weight which is usually greater than that being pushed by beginners at the bench press – roughly seventy per cent of your bodyweight. This is because the bodyweight is dispersed between three points of contact with the floor, your feet and your two hands. There is no lying on a bench like with the bench press.
This means that if you are new to exercise, or just new to the push up, you won’t necessarily be able to jump straight in and do a full push up. Even if you can do a full push up, maintaining the proper form for the exercise throughout your reps will be a real challenge, and the best results for the exercise won’t be achievable with poor form.
As with any exercise, the key is to build up to the full version of the push up by doing easier versions of the exercise. This is the equivalent of building the weight up as you get stronger with weights. This can involve push up specific exercises, which will of course work best as you are practising for the actual movement, or exercises which will complement the development of push up strength. In turn, all of the easier versions and developmental exercises will build not only the muscular strength required, but also the strength of your tendons.
To build specific strength, the push up can be performed with the body at an angle greater than horizontal. In other words, rather than performing the push up with your hands on the floor, perform the push up with your hands against a higher object. This can begin with push ups performed at an almost vertical angle, with the arms against a wall, then as you get stronger, lower the hands to a desk. Once on the floor, do the push up from your hands and knees, then move onto the full version.
The basic version of the push up requires the hands to be kept at shoulder width, and as you bend the arms to descend into your reps, the arms should be bent backwards towards the body, rather than bent straight out to your sides. The arms should describe an angle between the torso and shoulder of less than ninety degrees. Also, with all versions of the exercise, tense your abs and gluteus maximus muscles of the backside to keep the body in the straight position, with no sagging to the lower back which should be maintained in a flat position throughout your push ups.
For people who find the straight position required for push ups difficult to maintain, plank exercises should be practised to develop abdominal and overall core or midriff strength. To do planks, lie on the floor with your belly facing the floor. Place your arms beneath you, bent at the elbows so that the forearms are lying flat along the floor, with either the palms facing the floor, or making fists with the thumb facing the ceiling. Then, with the toes of your feet as the third contact point, lift yourself of the floor so that the upper arms are at ninety degrees to the floor. Concentrate upon keeping the lower back flat and in-line with the rest of the body, from your head to your toes, with the head kept neutral or looking forward. Work on how long you can hold this position which is essentially a push up position without the hands on the floor. Challenge yourself to hold the position for longer each time, and your strength should develop fairly quickly.
Once full push ups are achievable, the chest can be worked from all angles by varying where you place your hands. Keep the hands out wide to work the outside of the chest and laterals, or at shoulder width to work the chest evenly. Bring the hands nearer to your waist to work the lower part of the chest, and place the hands close together to work the inside of the chest more intensely.
As can be seen, the push up, like any other exercise, is more than achievable for all people. All that is required is hard work and perseverance, and the drive to stick to a set routine. As long as all reps are performed in a slow and controlled manner, the push up is more than capable of producing a very challenging and effective workout, which will both tone and build the chest muscles.