Friday, September 14, 2012

The Humble Push Up

I love push ups. I can remember doing push ups in front of the little black and white TV in my very cool basement bedroom during the 1980 Winter Olympics.

Before basketball practice in high school, we all had to do 20 push ups, 20 sit ups and then run 10 high laps--about a mile in the "new gym". Ugh. Hated the running, but the push ups didn't phase me.

At this point in my career I'm stunned at the number of high school kids, particularly boys, who cannot do a solid push up. I'm pretty sure it borders on a national disgrace in the US. The saggy backs, droopy heads and severely-winging scapulae are almost unbearable to watch. The lack of depth in the movement is just plain sad.

Then I hear about how push ups are used by sport team coaches as punishment and I have to sigh. Nothing is accomplished when kids are forced to do movements that they are under-prepared to do. We are simply reinforcing dysfunctional movement patterns.

With tall, skinny guys and most girls, push ups are especially a challenge. When you have a body that is almost 7 ft. long and wingspan to match, a good push up can be a daunting task. When you have gone through grade and middle school without ever being given the opportunity to develop any upper body strength, much less strength to support your bodyweight, what do we expect?

I use the following progression. Note: my facility is a "knees-free push up zone" for everyone. We don't even go there.

1. Let downs
2. Progressive Incline Push Ups

Let Downs are where we start in the "up" position with good head and scapular position and then lower your body, head, chest and hips together, to the ground with control. "Plopping" loudly onto the ground is not allowed. With Let Downs, the athlete starts in a position of strength, as we are all stronger eccentricially. The athlete is able to lower her or his body and develop control/coordination of core strength before he or she can ever push themselves up (concentric movement)with good form. For my incline push ups, I use a barbell in a rack and progressively lower the bar as the athlete demonstrates good control of the head, torso, scapulae and elbow angle.

Combine these exercises with some turtles, hot-footed lizards, crawling, dumbbell pressing, straight arm pulldowns and tricep pressdowns and in a few weeks, the athlete should be able to knock out his or her first real push up. And it will be a push up everyone can be proud of.

Once an athlete has the basic movement down, you can start to have some fun and vary hand placement and surface stability. And of course, nothing is better than being able to join in on the fun. The most powerful inspiration is often through demonstration.


Jen Brown ~ Sparta PT said...

Great article!

I was wondering if you have any tips for addressing and cueing the correct scapular position. I see the winging scap all the time. I've tried different exercises to improve it and different cues when people are doing push-ups but it doesn't seem to translating to an improved position particularly well. I'd love to know your thoughts.


Tracy Fober said...

Jen, my first thought is to start with some crawls and pillars to see if they they can start in the up position and then work to hold it while varying the elbow bend or while walking over a step. This may take a while.

I've not had too much luck with verbal cues. Do incline push ups work? I think getting the head & c-spine under control is the key at first.

Will try to think more on this. Would love more thoughts from your end.