How To Get Better At Push Ups

girl push ups

Here are some exercises to help you progress towards the perfect pushup

The push up is one of the most common bodyweight exercises out there. It doesn’t get anymore simple than dropping down to the floor and pressing yourself up and down repeatedly.

The push up is most commonly known as a chest exercise but as with any bodyweight movement, multiple muscle groups are incorporated.

Stabilization of the torso and core musculature is crucial for proper execution of the push up by ensuring to isolate the proper muscles to execute the movement.

Poor stability during a push up results in compensation that is often seen with excessive lumbar extension, contact of the pelvis to the floor before the chest, flared elbows, neck flexion and winged out shoulder blades.

There are movement progressions that can be implemented and practiced to ensure that each component of the push up is executed with the proper muscle groups.

One important muscle that functions for executing pushing movements is the serratus anterior. Known as “goose feathers” or the “ superhero muscle” it works to stabilize the scapula and protract, or move the scapula forward.

It received the nicknames due to its appearance as it runs along the rib cage and also because super heroes were known for having developed serratus muscles due to all the punching they do.

pushups for serratus anterior

In this article we will discuss progressions that can help to ensure proper sequencing of muscles such as the serratus anterior to ensure key components such shoulder stability during the push up.

There are a few variations of the stepping-stone movements used to build up to a proper push up. Many of the positions require a proper plank position, as being able to hold the body in that position is important for the push up. This was discussed in the previous articles covering core progressions.

Exercise #1: Supine Serratus Anterior Punch

Supine Serratus Anterior Punch

Lying on your back, hold your arms straight up in front of you.

  • Make sure to push the shoulder blades down while thinking about depressing them into your rib cage. 
  • Squeeze your shoulder blades together. Avoid your shoulders from shrugging to your ears.
  • From this position, keep your elbows straight and reach up towards the ceiling as if you are pushing your arms forward “out of the socket” of the joint.
  • Keep your neck on the ground and do not arch your lower back.
  • Repeat for 10-15 reps.

Exercise #2: Resisted Supine Serratus Anterior Punch

Resisted Supine Serratus Anterior Punch

Add a resistance band to the serratus punch now. You can use exercise tubing, assisted pull up bands or a theraband.

  • Loop it around your back with an end in each hand. Execute the same movement patterns as before but now against the resistance.
  • Make sure NOT to extend your neck as compensation by pushing the back of your head into the ground to generate force.
  • Also make sure to keep the arms straight and elbows locked out. 
  • Repeat 10-15 times.

Exercise #3: Modified Plank Serratus Anterior Push

Modified Plank Serratus Anterior Push

Start in a modified plank position on your knees and elbows.

  • While keeping your torso straight with your hips inline with your shoulders, press your elbows straight down into the floor. Think about pushing your arms forward with your shoulder blades moving across your rib cage while your thoracic spine moves towards the ceiling.
  • Then move the opposite direction by squeezing your shoulder blades together. Avoid arching your lower back.
  • Attempt to execute the push forward portion for a 3 second hold and the scapula squeeze portion for a 1 second hold.
  • Repeat for 10-15 reps.

Exercise #4: Modified Plank Serratus Anterior Push Progression

Modified Plank Serratus Anterior Push Progression

Progress the modified plank by straightening one leg. This will promote more core control due to increased effort of maintaining a neutral torso position. It will also put more weight bearing through the arms.

  • Execute the same sequence of alternating from the forward movement and then the squeezing movement through the arms while holding this position.
  • Attempt on both sides alternating each leg kicking behind you.
  • Repeat 10-15 times.
  • 3 second hold on the push forward and 1 second hold on the shoulder blade squeeze.

Exercise #5: Quadruped Scapula Protraction and Retraction

Quadruped Scapula Protraction and Retraction

The quadruped position will reduce the focus on the core but emphasize scapula positioning to begin progressing into push up form.

  • On hands and knees, ensure the arms and hips are at 90 degrees. Think about externally rotating your arms or screwing your hands into the ground.
  • While keeping your fingers pointed straight ahead, the right hand will screw in clockwise and the left hand will screw in counter clockwise.  One this position is locked in, focus on squeezing the shoulder blades together.
  • Then focus on pushing the arms forward. This will be in the same manner that was executed in the position of the earlier exercise your back.
  • Avoid arching your low back and keep your head neutral, looking straight in front of you. Keep the hands “screwed” into the floor the whole time.
  • Repeat 10-15 times with a 3 second hold for the push forward portion and a 1 second hold for the squeeze portion.

Exercise #6: Top Plank Scapula Protraction and Retraction

Top Plank Scapula Protraction and Retraction

The top plank position will require more core stability.

  • Positioning the hips to be inline with the shoulders, feet shoulder width apart and arms shoulder width apart, execute the screw home technique with both hands.
  • Once locked in, execute the same movement pattern of squeezing the shoulder blades together and pushing the arms forward into the floor.
  • Keep the torso straight, avoid arching the low back and keep the neck neutral.
  • Repeat 10-15 times with a 3 second hold for the push forward portion and a 1 second hold for the squeeze portion.

Exercise #7: Wall Push Up

wall push up

The wall push up will allow for a beginning execution of the push up with minimal load onto the shoulders and torso. The more vertical your body is, the easier the push will be. To increase the challenge, move your feet further behind you to increase the pitch of the angle. The more the pitch, the more on your toes you will be.

  • Execute the same principles of screwing your hands into the wall, squeezing your shoulders blades and the slowly lowering your body to the wall.
  • Focus on keeping your torso straight and avoid the low back from sagging down.
  • Prevent the elbows from flaring out excessively.
  • Keeping your hands at collarbone height and about shoulder width apart will help ensure proper positioning. Repeat 10-15 times.

Exercise #8: Modified Incline Push Up

Modified Incline Push Up

Progressing the angle of the push up will require eventually coming off of the wall and progressing to the floor. Starting in a modified position on your knees and using a bench, chair or couch will act as a good progression towards the regular push up. A couch or cushion may be less stable which can challenge your stability slightly more.

  • Position yourself so your hands are about shoulder width apart on the surface, elbows inward and torso straight with hips inline with shoulders.
  • Execute the hand screw home technique and squeeze your shoulder blades together.
  • Slowly lower down so your chest or sternum touches the surface and then return back up.
  • Make sure your lower back does not arch and you do not lose the screw in technique of your hands. Repeat 10-15 times.

Exercise #9: Incline Push Up

Incline Push Up

Assume the same positioning as the modified incline push up except with the legs straight and on your toes.

  • Keeping the torso straight and the hips inline with your shoulders, execute the same movement patterns as before.
  • This position will challenge the core and shoulder stability slightly more.

Exercise #10: Shoulder Tap

shoulder tap exercise

The shoulder tap is an excellent way to train core stability and prepare for proper control required during a push up.

  • Assuming a top plank position or the top portion of the push up, starting with hands more narrow and feet wider will be easier.
  • As you want to progress the challenge of the exercise to harder, widen the hands and narrow the feet.

Exercise #11: Push Up Assisted With Band

Push Up Assisted With Band

This is basically the push up with training wheels. The same concept as an assisted pull up with a band, it will act to help assist you back to start position while also unloading your body weight for the way down.

Once push-ups become easy with the band and proper form is maintained, progress to regular push-ups in sets of 3-5.

Avoid reps that result in lower back arching, elbow flaring or inability to contact the ground with the chest and hips at the same time.

Quality reps for lower count will ensure a greater benefit then poor reps for higher count.

While maintaining the hips in line with the shoulders, avoiding lumbar extension and pelvis rotation, draw the belly button in, squeeze the gluteals together and tap one hand to the opposite shoulder. Repeat 5 taps to each shoulder.

About The Author:

Michael St. George PT, DPT has been practicing for 10 years primarily in the outpatient and orthopedic setting. He works for a physical therapist owned private practice based in the greater Philadelphia area and surrounding suburbs. Mike is certified through Functional Movement Systems for FMS, SFMA and FCS which consist of screens and testing used to measure movement quality and performance. Mike also has experience with working with numerous surgeons and physicians from the Rothman institute. Currently he works primarily with ACL, meniscus and post surgical recovery and sports injuries, return to sport testing and performance, running evaluation and re training and hand and upper extremity conditions.

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