Perhaps an under-utilised exercise today, the press-up has been around for a long time. I remember the first time I tried to do a press-up – there was absolutely no chance of doing the full movement. My upper body strength wasn’t great, so I modified it into a press-up on my knees. And that’s the beauty of the press-up – like the squat and chin-up, it can be modified to suit the strength of the individual.
And that’s the beauty of the press-up – like the squat and chin-up, it can be modified to suit the strength of the individual.
The press-up has been a staple in military training for sometime now, and often used as a form of punishment – “Drop and give me 20.” is, I’m sure, a familiar phrase to you! If you have a look on the British Military Fitness website, you will see a stack of different variations to the press-up, some much more difficult than others, and some I have never even heard of.
So why do a press-up? At first thought you may think it is all about upper body strength, and it is to a certain extent, but it is also much more. You are really working out your entire body, including your core and abs; done correctly, you will feel yourself engage these muscles to get into position. You are strengthening your shoulders, triceps, and chest. On top of that, when you stabilise your entire body, you engage your lower back to keep you in a nice straight line. Basically all of your muscles are working together in order to get one fluid movement.
How to Do a Press-up
Start in a plank position, with the palms of your hands flat on the ground and arms extended. The position of your hands can be either just beyond shoulder width or a little closer together. The two hand placements will alter which muscles you focus on. One study analysed the comparison of muscle activation using these various hand positions1 and found that the narrow hand placement generates more muscle activation and is a little trickier to complete. As you lower yourself down, keep yourself as engaged and straight as possible while you bend at the elbows. You want to stop about a fist-width from the floor; you may not be able to go this far so see how you feel, but this is a good goal. Technique is obviously important and if you work with someone you can make sure you are properly aligned.
Do your wrists hurt while doing a press-up? Robb Wolf featured a guest post on his site about how technology was destroying our upper body strength.2 Do you have tightness in your hands and fingers or feel that your mobility just isn’t up to scratch? Do you use your smart phone a little more than you probably should? I know I’m guilty of that. When you get ready for your press-up and find your palms aren’t flat to the ground and you are putting a little too much pressure on your thumbs, this could be the dreaded ‘technology claw hand’, and you could be doing more harm than good. With flat palms on the ground you get much more stability and prevent pain building in the forearms and allow a more fluid movement. So perhaps put your phone down a little more often and carry out some hand and wrist stretches to help with mobility.
You can test out your strength levels with a few of these workouts, add them onto your own workout, or just have a try them on your own.
- Beginner: Perform 10 wall assisted press-ups.
- Intermediate: Perform 10–15 press-ups on your knees.
- Advanced: Perform 10–15 press-ups in the full position.
The press-up is much more than just an arm workout – from being used in the military to the comfort of your own home. No equipment required and the reward from it is amazing as you build your core, your stability and upper body strength, all in one fluid movement. When an exercise like this is easy to complete anywhere, you have every opportunity to give it a go at any level.
Do you incorporate press-ups into your workouts? Do you have any other tips for form? Why not leave a comment below with your experience.
- Cogley, R. et al. (2005). Comparison of Muscle Activation Using Various Hand Positions During the Push-up Exercise, In Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 19(3), 628–633
- Galliet, K. (2015). “Technology Hand is Destroying your Upper Body Strength.” In Robb Wolf. Retrieved from http://robbwolf.com/2015/04/16/technology-hand-is-destroying-your-upper-body-strength/