Sometimes, it's necessary to get back to basics, whether you want to go really beast mode or simply look good in a tank top. The pushup is a time-honored staple of many fitness regimens, thanks in large part to the convenience factor.
"They are perfect for building strength when you do not have equipment, such as if you are in a hotel room when traveling or can't get to a gym," says personal trainer and champion powerlifter Robert Herbst in an email interview, recalling an unusual spot where he made sure to get his workout in. "I did pushups in the shadow of Mt. Everest and drew a crowd of curious student Buddhist monks."
"A pushup will target your chest (pectorals), shoulders (deltoids) and arms (triceps)," explains ACE certified personal trainer and Studio Fitness VT co-owner, Kyle Finneron in an email. It will build your core strength too. There's just one big caveat. "I have noticed that many people can struggle with pushups and even experience shoulder pain during and after the exercise." So how do you prevent that?
The form: Hand placement is critical. For the standard, run-of-the-mill pushup, your hands should be directly under your shoulders. Do not let your core sag or allow your butt to shoot up in the air. You should be in a straight line from shoulders to toes.
"As you lower yourself to the ground let your shoulder blades squeeze together and your elbows point behind you. Keep your shoulders back as you drive through your elbows and press your hands into the ground," Finneron explains. "When our core starts to fatigue our hips will start to dip. This will cause a curvature in your back that we want to avoid."
He adds that when you're unable to hold the core and glutes tight and in a straight line, it is either time to rest or move to a higher hand position. This will protect you from injury while still developing those crucial muscles.
What's a higher hand position? Well, a lot of people have trouble with the regular pushup done on the toes, so many resort to dropping down to a hands and knees position. "This reduces the amount of weight you will have to push due to the lever point (knees instead of feet) is closer to your hands," Finneron says. "However, when people perform pushups in this way they tend to keep their bums in the air and lower their faces and shoulders towards the ground. This can lead to an ineffective exercise and potentially lead to shoulder pain or injury."
Instead, he suggests scaling the pushup by placing the hands on a surface higher than the ground, like a bench, couch or even a countertop. "This will allow you to keep your feet together, bum (glutes) and core (abdominals) tight throughout the movement. Keeping your hips and core tight during the movement will help keep your spine in the correct form while performing this exercise," he explains, noting that this patient approach will pay off in time. "As you gradually become strong you will start to perform your pushups at a lower and lower level."
Getting Creative With Pushups
Once you master the standard pushup it might be fun to challenge yourself further with one of the many variations, which can be customized to get specific results. Certain modifications can significantly affect the results you get, like:
Hand positioning: "The wider the hands are, the more you get a chest workout. The closer your hands are in together, the more it becomes a tricep and to some extent a shoulder workout," emails Paul Miller, co-founder of online fitness resource Compression+Design. "Vary it up, and you will work your entire upper body."
Quantity: The more pushups you do, the more intense the workout. Again, be sure to mind your form. Once that starts to suffer, take a break or call it a day.
Speed: While fast-paced pushups help you break quantity records, they might not be the most effective. Miller says that slower pushups provide a workout on the negative (when you're lowering to the ground) as well as the positive (when you're pushing back up. "In fact, one of our favorite pushup workouts is a four-count pushup," he explains. You should hold yourself up in plank for four counts, then slowly lower down over the course of four counts. Next, hold in the bottom of the pushup for four counts, then slowly push up for four counts. "A few of these reps will be the equivalent of many, many pushups," he says.
Other Types of Pushups
Diamond Pushup: This is done by moving hands closer together to make a diamond shape using your fingers. "Diamond pushups are going to put more emphasis on your triceps and shoulders and actually require more balance to execute with proper form," says Kyle Hoffman, with Noob Gains, which offers online courses and education on how to build muscle and lose body fat. "Triceps, shoulders, and lats are important muscles in baseball and basketball in throwing and shooting. Diamond pushups are actually a good stepping stone towards one-arm pushups."
Wide-grip Pushup: This style is good for people who want to take some of the pressure off the arms and put emphasis on the chest, instead. Simply widen the hand placement to just wider than shoulder width. "Pressing to the floor in this way activates a better stretch reflex similar to that of a dumbbell fly exercise," Hoffman says.
Plyometric Pushup: Certified personal trainer (ACE) and fitness writer Rachel MacPherson suggests plyometric pushups for people who engage in sports that require explosive movements, like gymnastics, football and basketball. "To perform plyo pushups, quickly drop down into the bottom position of a regular pushup and then forcefully explode back upwards immediately, lifting your hands off the ground before gently landing back onto your hands, repeating the process," she explains, noting that the motion relies on the pectorals, triceps and shoulders.
Tricep Pushup: This is good for targeting — what else? — the triceps. To do so, keep your arms by your side. "A common mistake is to place the hands into a diamond shape to perform the pushup," says Finneron. "While this will put a greater amount of tension on your triceps it can lead to elbow and wrist strain. A better way to shift focus onto your triceps is to place your hands shoulder-width apart and even with the middle of your rib cage. Keep your shoulders retracted and your elbows close to your body. "
Instead of lowering yourself all the way to the ground, lower down only until your arms are at 90 degrees or even with your torso. "Press the heel of your palm into the ground, think about the back of your arm tightening up, and return to your starting position," says Finneron.
Pushup Plus: This version is like a regular pushup, except for an extra step at the end when you actively separate the shoulder blades. This exercise has been studied and declared ideal for helping to strengthen the serratus anterior, which connects the shoulder blade and the rib cage. A strong serratus can help keep the shoulder blade from becoming compromised, preventing injury or fatigue during activity.
Triangle Pushup: This pushup takes turns putting greater weight on each arm by altering the movement angle. Instead of placing hands palm-down, make fists and put your knuckles on the floor. Lower toward your left hand, push back up and then go to the right side. Continue to alternate.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of pushups, but it'll get you started on the path to ripped arm and chest muscles just in time for swimsuit season!