A Closer Look at Form
“C’mon, everybody knows what to do a pushup and how to do one. Don’t waste your time.”Wrong. A quick look around a gym or a practice field can tell you that. Having worked with cadets for several years, I can attest to the fact that pushup technique is woefully lacking in many people. So I’m going to first explain the proper form for a pushup and then highlight some common errors along with their corrections. Bear in mind that while there are countless variations, I’m describing the basic pushup.
Four points of contact: The balls of the feet and the palms of each hand. If you’re a beginner, start with your feet slightly spaced apart. This will change the weight distribution on your legs. Everybody else, keep your feet together and stay on the balls of the feet.
Hands slightly wider than shoulder width apart and over the hands. There should be a straight plumb line from your shoulder to your hand. At the bottom of each rep, your shoulders should be in line with your hands. Tuck your elbows in. Many people will flare their elbows out to the sides. But if you’ve read up on bench press technique, the top coaches recommend keeping the elbows in by the ripcage and angling the forearms out to improve your power.
Why wouldn’t the same principle apply to pushups? It’s harder at first, but you’ll adapt quickly and see greater gains. I taught this same technique to many freshmen cadets; the ones who made the best gains on their fitness tests had made this adjustment.
Head and eyes DOWN, not forward. Look straight down at the floor, just in front of your hands. A common mistake is to look up or look ahead. Although your coaches may have requires this as an athlete, break the habit now. You are hyperextending your neck for the duration of the session, possibly altering your movement arc, and wasting energy. Relax your neck and just look down. Note: Be careful not to round your shoulders forward, keep a slight arch in the upper back.
Contract your core to keep your hips level. Say it with me now, I am a board. Your body moves as a single unit with a straight line from your feet to the top of your head at all times. I should be able to put a ruler across your hips and expect it not to move with every rep. If you have a weak core, your hips will pike (raise) or sag. Keep your gluteals (your butt) contracted and tense your abs throughout each rep, and you’ll keep your back straight.
Full range of motion. You must break the plane on every rep. In other words, your shoulders must go past your elbows or else it does not count. Partial reps are a waste of time. Come all the way up to the starting position on each repetition. If you want an extra kick, retract and protract your shoulder blades every rep for an extra mobility boost.
Slowly lower down and explode up. Studies and anecdotal evidence have shown for years that the best gains in strength and hypertrophy (size) occur during the eccentric (lowering/resisting gravity) phase of any exercise. Power and speed come from the concentric (lifting) portion. So when doing pushups, slowly lower down for 3-4 seconds, pause at the bottom for 1 second to eliminate elastic energy, and then explode back to the start. That’s one rep.
BREATHE. I often find that I hold my breath while doing a quick set of pushups. If I don’t pay attention, I’ll lose 10-15 pushups off of my maximum that way. If I’m doing a fitness test, I’ll alternate brief inspirations with long expirations. That works for me while doing rapid fire pushups and it helps me remember not to hold my breath.