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The humble push up – one of the most overlooked and underrated upper-body exercises


When it comes to building your chest, shoulders and triceps, most people overlook one of the most basic, yet effective exercises – the humble push-up, or press-up as it is also sometimes called.

People seem obsessed with the bench press, thinking it impossible to build a good set of pecs without the bench press being the mainstay of their chest training routine.

The question, “how much can you bench?” is so common, it just serves to further perpetuate the myth that you HAVE TO be bench pressing, and bench pressing HEAVY in order to build your chest.

Guys become so obsessed with how much weight they are benching and in continuously increasing it, that the movement ultimately becomes counter-productive. Their form becomes terrible, they cheat with the movement and they end up reaching a plateau, making no further gains, or even worse, injuring themselves.

My advice is this – if you are stuck in a bench pressing rut, with your pectoral development going nowhere – STOP bench pressing, yes, that’s right, you heard me, drop the bench press all together! In fact, drop all ‘weight-training’ for your chest. Get back to basics. Learn to properly master some of the age-old bodyweight movements before returning to the iron.

I know many of you are probably thinking, “who the hell does this guy think he is?”, or asking “what the hell is he talking about, telling me to stop all weight training for my chest?”, but hear me out, let me explain:

Due to the popularity of the bench-press, and the use of various machines, the push-up has been relegated to a high-repetition endurance exercise, believed incapable of building any real muscle or strength. This is where the vast majority of people are sadly mistaken.

In fact, so was I for most of my training career, until I was forced into a situation where I was unable to get to a gym and had to find alternatives to stay in shape.

Yes, I’ll agree, the way calisthenics (bodyweight training) is performed these days does make it mainly an endurance activity. This was however not always the case. In the latter part of the 19th century and for the first few decades of the 20th century, some of the toughest and meanest guys on the planet relied heavily on bodyweight exercises to build their strength and power.

Don’t for a second go thinking that the men of yesteryear were lesser mortals than today’s jacked-up, bloated steroid-jockeys. Most of the ‘old school’ guys would easily tear today’s bodybuilders in half.

I’ll give you a couple of examples:

Alexander Zass: He was reputed to be able to carry a horse on his shoulders and regularly did strongman displays that involved the bending of iron bars and the breaking of chains.

Eugene Sandow: Often referred to as the father of modern bodybuilding, Sandow was known for his legendary strength. He was reported to have been able to lift two grown men above his head.

John Grimek: The only man to win the Mr. America title more than once. He was not all just show though, he was known to easily tear a phone book in half. Whilst also an avid weight lifter, he attributed much of his upper development to push-ups and other advanced hand-stand movements.

I’m not saying for one second that these guys did not lift weights, the point I’m trying to make is that they placed a MUCH greater emphasis on bodyweight training and calisthenics than most people today do. They had to, there just wasn’t the equipment available back then that we have today.

These men were masters of their own bodyweight, easily able to perform one arm push-ups, pull-ups and pistols (one-legged squats). Few, if even any of your big, puffy, bloated bodybuilders of today have any real control over their body. Most of them have very little, real-world, usable strength. I have seen guys in gyms able to bench or row huge weights (albeit with sloppy form and plenty of cheating). Yet, they can barely do a proper pull-up and struggle to do even 10 proper push-ups with the correct form.

The ‘strongmen of old’ had a different philosophy compared with the bodybuilders of today. They believed that form-should-follow-function, not the other way round. Being super strong and powerful was their main objective. The beautiful irony of such an approach, is that these guys looked, harder, meaner and more rugged than most of today’s artificially ‘inflated’ bodybuilders.

When you become too obsessed with training only for aesthetics, forgetting the real point of strength training, it becomes counter-productive.

Focus on getting more powerful, stronger and athletic, and your body will change accordingly, remember, form will follow function, not the other way round.
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Okay, so if push ups are so great, why isn’t everyone doing them?

The reason bodyweight training and old-school calisthenics has fallen out of favor, has to do largely with the fact that bodybuilding as we see it today is a HUGE BUSINESS. It’s far more profitable to sell weights and new fancy pieces of equipment than to teach people about proper bodyweight training.

Of course weight training definitely still has its merits, and I still train with weights, the point I’m trying to make, is don’t ever underestimate the power of bodyweight training just because everyone is training with weights these days and tells you it’s the only way.

Back to the Push-up:

Okay, so now that I’ve made my point about bodyweight training, back to the push-up and how it could be the key to your upper-body development.

For the large part, most people do not know how a push-up ought to be performed if it’s to be a strength and muscle builder.

Most people perform it in such a way that it ends up being a pointless endurance exercise, and even then most people still perform it incorrectly.

There are hundreds of different variations of the push-up, some of which require so much strength and co-ordination that only a tiny percentage of the world’s population will ever be able to perform them.

If you want to build your strength and develop your upper body, you need to work at progressively being able to master more and more advanced types of push-up, before going back to the bench-press.

In fact, if you master some of the advanced ones, you may even decide to never go back to the bench press.

You may even find yourself stronger and with greater pectoral development than if you had carried on benching for the same period of time.

By mastering the different types of push-ups and push-up workouts, you end up strengthening your tendons and other stabilizing and supporting muscles, in a safer and far more natural, less injury-prone manner than you would by bench-pressing alone. Also, push-ups will develop your midsection and core, ‘teaching’ these muscles to work in better co-ordination with your bigger upper-body pressing muscles.

Okay, so how do I get started with my push up workouts then?

For most people in reasonably good shape, the regular push-up should not be too difficult to progress past.

The real strength and muscle building benefits of the push-up lie in mastering the more advanced varieties, moving all the way up to the one-arm push-up and perhaps for an elite few, the planche push-up.

But, you need to be able to walk before you can run, so you need to make sure you are fully comfortable with, and able to master the regular push-up before you even think about trying the progressions towards the more advanced ones.

Many guys will be thinking that they’ll have the regular push-up licked before they even start out because they hit the iron all the time and are competent bench-pressers, but the truth is they have probably never done push-ups correctly and in the way they ought to be done, for them to be effective muscle and strength builders.

In the video below I explain the first 3 types of push-up that you need to work at mastering before moving to some of the real tough ones and then ultimately the one-arm push up.

Lever Push ups: The next step in mastering the one arm push up. 

In the video, I showed you how to correctly perform the regular push up, the diamond push up and then the uneven push up. You should progess from one to the next in that order, being able to perform 2 sets of 20 for the regular push up, before progressing to the diamond push up. To progress from the diamond push up to uneven push ups, you should also be able to perform 2 sets of 20.

When you’re able to perform 2 sets of 15-20 reps PER ARM of uneven push ups,  you can progress to the next movement, lever push ups. 

What are Lever Push ups?

Lever push ups are significantly more difficult than uneven push ups because your one arm is extended completely, and far out to the side, so you are able to generate very little force with it. It acts mostly to help you balance and in a stabilizing role. Almost all of the force will be generated by the pressing arm.

In the video below I demonstrate how to perform lever push ups:

When performing lever push ups, be careful to not put too much pressure on the elbow of the arm on the ball. The bulk of the weight must go onto the pressing arm. 

If you find your elbow becoming sore, then you are not putting enough weight and force into the pressing arm. Make a conscious effort to do this. 

If, even after making a conscious effort to put more force and weight into the pressing arm, you find you are still having problems with your elbow, perhaps you are not yet strong enough to be doing lever push ups. 

Go back to uneven push ups and gradually start moving the ball out from underneath you and into the lever push up position each week. When you get back to the full lever push up position, you should find yourself much stronger in this movement and you should not have problems with your elbow. 

Work your way up to 2 sets of 15 reps (PER ARM) on this movement before progressing. 

Elevated one arm push ups: The final step towards the one arm push up!

Do not rush into these, rather make sure you are fully competent with lever push ups first. Now is not the time to be rushing and cutting corners because your technique will be sloppy and your progress will stall if you go too fast.

What is an elevated one arm push up?

The elevated one arm push up is almost identical to the proper one arm push up. The only difference is that by elevating your torso slightly, you are transferring some of your bodyweight to your feet and away from your torso, thereby making the exercise slightly easier.

Obviously the higher your elevation, the easier the exercise will be because you are transferring more weight to your feet. Start at a height that will allow you to perform at least 6 reps per arm, with good technique as shown in the video. 

Once you are comfortable at a particular height, you can move a bit lower, repeating the process of GRADUALLY moving lower and lower until your hand is on the ground and you are doing legitimate one arm push ups.

In the video I used a stack of books for my elevation. I like using a stack of objects because it makes it easier to consistently and efficiently change your elevation, by removing or adding objects (in this instance books) from or to the stack.

So, if you’ve paid your dues with the training and push up varieties laid out in the first 2 videos, then elevated one-arm push ups should not pose too much of a problem.

Once you can do 6 reps per arm at a certain elevation with these, decrease the elevation. When you can do 6 reps at the new, lower elevation, decrease it again until you are on the ground, doing legitimate one-arm push ups.

Good luck! 

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Article by: Bryan Hamann.

Bryan is a personal trainer, certified bootcamp instructor, Ironman Triathlete and author of THE PRISON WORKOUT.

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