How to Perform the Perfect Push-Up. All Gain No Pain!

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Last month I promised to develop a plan to strengthen and rehabilitate your chest and shoulders. The exercise that can do both, safely and effectively, is the Push-Up. For those of you that have worked at the Exercise Effective Analysis reported from Electromyographical Activity Research (EMG), prepare to get mad at me. I have not had time to look at the EMG Analysis as closely as I would like, nor the Methodology used, but I can tell you that I see enough Non-Scientific, Anecdotal evidence to disagree. While most EMG Studies show near maximal activation of muscle fibers of the Pectoralis Major and Minor on Bench Press type exercise, there is limited research proving the effectiveness of the Classic Push-Up. To understand the validity of EMG Research refer back to your IFPA Personal Training Manual and reference Recruitment Ability: the recruitment of motor units and the muscle fibers the motor unit innervates. Each muscle contains a single motor neuron and all of the muscle fiber that it innervates. Recruitment of all involuntary muscle fibers during exercise activities begins in the brain and ends in an electrical signal that results in muscular contractions. EMG Analysis has been used to track which exercises result in the highest percentage EMG activity. Below is a list of Exercises and the percentage of EMG Activity:

Pectoral Major % of EMG MAX.
Decline Dumbbell Bench Press 93
Decline Bench Press: Olympic Bar 90
Push-Up: Between Benches 88
Flat Dumbbell Bench Press 87
Flat Bench Press: Olympic Bar 85
Flat Dumbbell Fly 84
Pectoral Minor % of ENG MAX.
Incline Dumbbell Bench Press 91
Incline Bench Press: Olympic Bar 85
Incline Dumbbell Fly 83
Incline Bench Press: Smith Machine 81

Even the most ardent supporters of EMG Analysis admit that the way a muscle responds to exercise differs among athletes and the athletes’ goals. I would stress that since few people are taught how to do a perfect Push-Up, it may simply be a lack of technique that resulted in poor EMG percentage. My best advice then is for you to incorporate Push-Ups into your program and practice them to perfection. Remember “Practice Does Not Make Perfect! Only Perfect Practice Makes Perfect!”  IFPA Key Teaching Points for the Perfect Push-Up

  1. Keep your head neutral throughout the exercise. Keep only enough tension in your neck to maintain neutrality. Chronic neck pain may occur when you are fighting through the “Burns” to complete your last few Reps! Do not allow excessive tension in your neck.
  1. Maintain the “Plank Position”. Keep your neck in-line with your spine. You should maintain a solid, straight-line from the head-neck-spine-hips-leg-heels.
  1. Retract your scapula by pulling your shoulders back. Maintain scapula retraction throughout the exercise.
  1. Hand Placement will vary depending on which part of the pectorals you target. Yes, I know! According to EMG Analysis, hand placement has zero effect on activation of muscle fibers. I would ask you to try your own experiment to prove the Academicians wrong; all by yourself.

If you do your Narrow-Stance Push-Ups correctly, placing your hands together… I recommend the Triangle Position where you place your thumbs are touching to form the base and the index fingers are touching to form the sides of a triangle. You will feel and observe the medical part on your own Pecs working. If you take a wide stance with your hands, you will feel and observe the lateral part of your Pecs working. The Regular Stance Push-Up is with your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. I suggest you start with the Regular Stance Push-Up first and master that position before moving onto other and more advanced Push-Up Positions.

  1. Your body must maintain the Plank Position throughout the exercise. Whether you are going up or coming down, your body is a Plank. This is an important component to deriving the full benefit of the exercise.
  1. Pretend that you have a piece of paper that you must hold in-position in your armpits. This is not an arbitrary request. While the Pecs may be strong enough to handle a lot of stress during pressing movements, unfortunately, the shoulder capsule and rotation cuff muscle may not. You will find that this simple trick and a few others to come are the difference between building or destroying these tissues.
  1. Keep your glutes tight. Again, imagine a piece of paper between your glutes and clench your glutes hard throughout the exercise to hold the paper in place.
  1. Keep your legs tight. Squeeze your feet together… imagine a piece of paper between your heels/ankles.
  1. Start with 5 Points of Contact: hands, Chest and Balls of your feet. Focus on your hands maintaining position, but imagine you are “Screwing Your Hands into the Floor.” the hands and arms won’t move, but the force you are generating protects the shoulder capsule and rotator cuff. The torque will be as if you are attempting to turn your thumb outward and pin your elbows to your sides. Nothing moves, but feel the muscle contract in that direction. Use the same isometric contraction technique to think of pulling your hands to your toes.
  1. Exhale forcefully as you contract your Pecs to push upward while lifting your body as a solid unit: Plank until your arms are fully extended to a straight-arm position. DO NOT LOCK YOUR ELBOWS!
  1. Inhale coming down. Fill your lungs fully with air in preparation for the next concentric phase where you will exhale forcefully as you push upward.
  1. As you are coming down instead of dropping down, think of pulling your chest to the floor. This prevents laxity in the shoulders to prevent damage to the shoulder capsule and rotator cuff muscles.

What if you’re not strong enough to do a regular Push-Up? Do Push-Ups on your knees until you get strong enough. Using the GPO Principle, you can increase Frequency, Intensity, Time, or Type as you progress.

  1. To increase Frequency: I do my narrow stance push-ups on Arm and Shoulder Day and Regular Stance and Wide-Decline Stance on Chest and Back Days.
  2. To increase Intensity you can add resistance by using strength bands, weights, or a training partner on your back. If you are a Powerlifter you can do Push-Ups with your pick-up truck on your back and if you are trying out for Captain America you can use an 18-Wheeler.
  3. To increase Time: Increase the amount of sets you perform.
  4. To Increase Type: There are a great many variations of Push-Ups. Many are explained in the new IFPA High Intensity Trainer Certification Course.

Good Luck in All Your Training!

Best Regards,

Dr. Jim Bell,

CEO, IFPA

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