PUSH UPS...GLAMOUR AND GRIT Push ups. Everybody knows what they are. You probably did them in gym class. Soldiers do them in basic training. Moms do them in exercise classes. They’re used by exercise physiologists to gauge muscular endurance, and drill instructors use them for punishment. Think Richard Gere in An Officer and a Gentleman doing push ups in the rain with Lou Gossett Jr. glowering over him. Or Demi Moore in GI Jane wowing us with one arm push ups. How about Ralph Macchio in the Karate Kid building himself up to fight the bully. And, of course, Sylvester Stallone’s old school, boxing training in Rocky. My favorite will always be Jack Palance grinding them out at the Oscars. More than any other exercise.. even probably more complete ones such as squats, deadlifts, or chin ups..push ups are the most widely known and performed exercise of all. One obvious reason for this is the only equipment you need is the ground; you can do them anywhere, inside or out. Another is that they can be modified to be made easier to perform, so they’re accessible to beginning exercisers and seniors. An interesting and specific benefit to seniors citizens is the push up’s application in regards to injuries from falling. In a March 11, 2008 article; ‘An Enduring Measure of Fitness: The Simple Push Up’, by Tara Parker Pope, Dr. James Ashton-Miller, director of the biomechanics research laboratory at the University of Michigan, discusses this connection. “What so many people really need to do is develop enough strength so they can break a fall safely without hitting their head on the ground. If you can’t do a single push-up, it’s going to be difficult to resist that kind of loading on your wrists in a fall.” The article also states that “Researchers who study the biomechanics of aging, for instance, note that push-ups can provide the strength and muscle memory to reach out and break a fall. When people fall forward, they typically reach out to catch themselves, ending in a move that mimics the push-up. The hands hit the ground, the wrists and arms absorb much of the impact, and the elbows bend slightly to reduce the force.” These are really interesting implications connecting the benefits of push ups to the aging process. Another definite plus with the push up is you don’t need a spotter or have to worry about getting stuck under a bar. And if you fall, well..you’re already on the ground! Possible drawbacks to the push up? Unlike a deadlift, which works the hips and thighs and muscles in the back, trunk and forearms, most of the work during push ups is by some upper body muscles and trunk stabilizers. Let’s get real..in a reasonably fit person, there’s not much active work for going on in the leg muscles . Many bikers and runners will supplement their endurance training with sets of push ups and feel that they don’t need to do any other strength training, not realizing that their leg strength and flexibility is poor. A potential problem with push ups is that as you become stronger, the number of repetitions and sets usually go up too, and repetitive/overuse type of injuries can occur. The most common are wrist pains and shoulder soreness. Unlike a bench press where the forearms are in a straight line to the bar, during a pushup the hands are flat on the ground which forces the wrists to bend at a 90 degree angle. Over time, this can compress and irritate tendons and nerves. Shoulder soreness can occur because the deep, smaller rotator cuff muscles which stabilize the shoulder capsule during push ups are weak, and they become overloaded and inflamed from too much work. Both these conditions can be addressed, the wrists by using push up handles which are gripped like a bar, and allow you to keep your wrists in a straight line. They’re inexpensive and can be bought in sporting goods stores. Hexagon, flat-sided dumbells can also be used in the same way. With the shoulders, what’s needed is specific work for the rotator cuff muscles..particularly the external rotators. But regardless of these issues, the push up is a valuable and productive exercise for developing upper body and core strength. In this article I’ll briefly describe the muscles involved while doing push ups, followed by some challenging variations of the standard push up for the intermediate and advanced trainee. By using equipment such as medicine balls, stability balls, dumbells and lengths of chain, push ups can be transformed from a high rep, endurance type exercise, to a high intensity movement that builds muscle and fits into the most advanced weight training program. The push up variations discussed in this article are stability ball push ups, chain push ups, asymmetrical medicine ball push ups, alternate twist push ups, and boxers push ups. ANATOMY OF A PUSH UP . There are many types of push ups, each kind emphasizing specific muscular and athletic demands. But all share similar joint actions and muscles being worked. The largest muscles involved are the pectorals and deltoids (chest and shoulders), which adduct and flex the upper arms at the shoulder joint (pull the arms across, and up to the front). The serratus anterior muscles (deep muscles in the ribcage), abduct the scapulae (pull the shoulder blades towards the ribcage, as when punching). And the triceps extend the elbows (straighten the arms). These four muscle groups are illustrated below. Other muscles involved during a push up are the rotator cuff, mid-back, forearms, with hip and midsection muscles acting as stabilizers. STABILITY BALL PUSH UPS An interesting way to increase the intensity of push ups is to create added stress for the stabilizing muscles, along with the prime movers. Stability ball push ups adds the element of instability to a push up, which creates more work for the smaller, deep muscles of the rotator cuff. And since maintaining balance and correct posture becomes a challenge, the core muscles of the trunk and hips really work hard. I’ve also found that holding onto the sides of an unstable ball while doing push ups, squeezing the ball to keep it steady, creates added work for the pectorals. Make sure the stability ball is properly inflated, your hands shouldn’t sink into it. Set up like a regular push up; hands slightly wider than shoulders and under the chest. To decrease stress on the wrists, externally rotate the hands, turning them so the thumbs point forward. A good way to get a feel for this exercise is to start with the ball braced against a wall or something underneath to hold it in place. This will reduce some of wobble, giving you time to adapt to the movement. Once you can achieve 12-15 slow, solid repetitions, move the ball away from the wall and try the exercise free standing. As with other kinds of push ups, you can work towards doing them with your feet elevated on a bench or chair. This tilts more of your body weight forward, making the exercise harder. Tapping into the muscles that make up your “core” is especially important in this push up; be mindful in keeping your abs and butt muscles contracted throughout. CHAIN PUSH UPS Chain push ups are an interesting and really challenging variation to the standard push up. First off, they most closely replicate a conventional weight training exercise, the dumbell bench press. And because you’re suspended at the ends of two freely moving lengths of chain, your hands and arms can move in towards each other as you extend upwards. This also allows you to find a comfortable working angle for the elbows and shoulders. To do this exercise you’ll need two lengths of sturdy chain, each exactly 4 feet long, and access to a Smith machine or squat rack. You can buy the chain, and have it cut for you, at a local hardware store. Make sure to count the number of links in each chain to ensure both chains are exactly the same size. Also, pick up 2 carabineers (those teardrop shaped, spring loaded clips). These are used to attach cable/pulley handles to the ends of the chains. All this will cost you around 15 bucks..and it’s well worth it. Set the bar in the Smith machine to about waist height, and loop both chains around the bar, a bit wider than shoulder width apart. Now both chains are hanging down about 2 feet from the bar. Attach a pulley handle to the ends of each chain, with both handles hanging down under the bar. Adjust the height of the bar so the handles are suspended a couple of inches off the ground, and spaced apart at a width slightly wider than your shoulders. Grasp the handles and walk your feet back until your legs are straight, and handles are even with your chest. As when doing regular pushups, make sure to keep your back straight, with the abdominal and hip muscles tightly contracted. Right away, before you even do the first rep, you’ll feel the muscles throughout your torso and shoulders working to stabilize and hold you steady. Slowly lower yourself until your chest is between the handles, then powerfully press back up until arms are fully extended. Keep your wrists in a straight line. At the bottom position your hands will be directly under your elbows, at the top position they will be under your shoulders. Advanced progressions for this exercise is to do them with one leg extended back and off the ground, or the feet up on a bench or chair..or a stability ball if you’re able to. ASYMMETRICAL MEDICINE BALL PUSH UPS Like the previous two variations, AMB push ups add the element of instability to a push up. What’s different about them is the uneven plane that you’re working on by doing a push up with one hand flat on the floor and the other on top of a weighted medicine ball. Start the exercise in standard push up position; feet slightly apart, back and head in a straight, neutral position. Hands are positioned slightly wider than shoulder width apart, one on the floor and the other on top of the ball. In this “top” position, be sure to keep your back and torso level to the ground, not twisted with one shoulder higher than the other. This means that the arm that’s on the ball side will be slightly bent at the elbow. Now lower yourself until your chest reaches the height of the top of the ball, then slowly press yourself back up until your arm that’s over the floor-side of the push up is straightened completely. The other arm remains slightly bent at the top position. The added stress in this exercise comes from the muscles on the working, “ball-side” of the upper body being overloaded due to the shakiness of the ball combined with the elbow never being fully extended (locked out); the tension is continually on the chest and shoulder muscles. You can do each side separately, working to fatigue on one set, then switching the ball to the other hand after a rest period. Or you can do one whole set without a rest between sides. If you do this, make sure to stop well short of muscular failure on the first side or the workload will be uneven. The strength progressions for AMB push ups can start with doing them from the knees, with feet crossed up and behind. Next would be with legs extended straight, military style. Advanced versions would be to use one leg, with the other lifted off the ground..in this case, remember to switch legs during or between sets. And, of course, placing the feet up on a bench or chair during the exercise. ALTERNATE TWIST PUSH UPS Alternate twist (AT) push ups don’t require any equipment, morphing a push up into a yoga-like, postural exercise. Start by getting into a standard position with the body straight, hands and feet at about shoulder width. Perform one push up, lowering chest between the hands then pressing back to the top. As you straighten your elbows, begin to shift weight to your right shoulder and lift your left hand off the ground while twisting your hips and torso. Keep on the balls of your feet while rotating at the hips and waist until your left hand is straight above you, fingertips pointing to the ceiling. Keep your neck in a straight, “neutral” position, with your head looking to your left. Be mindful of your midsection being tight throughout, with your ribcage “lifted”. Keep your right elbow locked out straight. Pause for a second, then return back to the upright, top position for the next push up. At the top repeat the movement, this time lifting the right arm off the ground. In performing the AT push ups, I like to emphasize posture and breathing. Visualize reaching high at the top, being fully extended throughout the torso and limbs. Take deep, full inhalations through the nose and exhale out of the mouth. To make this exercise more difficult, you can hold the top, extended position for a period of time. Another way to increase the intensity and build strength is to perform AT push ups with a dumbell in each hand. Again, adding weight to the exercise should not come at the expense of sloppy technique. Because of the twisting nature of this movement, it might be harmful to someone with a lumbar disc injury. Be sure, as with all the exercises in this article, that you don’t experience any pain outside of the healthy muscular burning and fatigue that’s present during intense exercise. BOXER PUSH UPS The last push up variation is the boxer push up. These will start in a standard push up position, but with one big difference. Instead of the hands being opened flat on the ground, boxer-style push ups are done with the hands held in a tight fist position with bodyweight evenly distributed along the knuckles and tops of each hand. The benefit to fighters is obvious; over time the knuckles and punching surface of the hands become toughened and de-sensitized. Also, because the wrists are held in a tight, straightened position, the forearm muscles get extra work. For anyone involved in a combat sport, these are valuable benefits. The technique as you perform a boxer push up will also be a bit different. Hand position is a bit narrower than with a regular push up, spaced directly under the shoulders, with the palm-side of the fists facing each other. As you lower to bottom position, keep your elbows into the sides of your body, close to the ribs. Pause a couple of inches off the ground and extend up to the top position. By keeping the elbows close to the body the workload shifts from the pectorals to the shoulder (anterior deltoid) and triceps muscles. An additional element can be added to provide extra work for the serratus anterior muscles, which are important in punching and pushing movements. Upon reaching the top of the push up, extend the shoulder blades up and out, rounding the top of the back while lifting the shoulders. Visualize pushing the hands down through the floor. Keep your spine straight and abdominals tightly contracted, only the upper back is pushing out of it’s standard, straightened position. This powerful rounding movement against the weight of the body puts added emphasis on the deep ribcage muscles. A warning..it is painful on the knuckles doing boxer push ups on a hard surface. If you want the muscular benefits from doing this exercise without needing to toughen the hands, you can use a folded up towel under the fists or wear padded lifting gloves. As important as all the physical benefits I’ve discussed, and often overlooked, is the psychological boost you get from changing elements of your workout from time to time. Apply the tenets of good form and common sense, and put safety at a premium, as a chronic injury will eventually undermine the most determined trainee. Good luck !
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