The world's strongest people are often known for their most unique single reps—the ones where they did something eye-popping at an unbelievable weight. But what often gets lost in the 1RM glare is that the masters of strength are usually masters of their own bodies first. And being master of your body requires lots and lots of reps of the basics. For example, push-ups.
Yes, push-ups! They've been a stable of fitness routines for decades, if not centuries, but you may have discarded them as being "too easy" years ago. There's no way they build strength, right? Many strongmen would disagree. They used the humble push-up to develop their might and muscle, and they definitely didn't do it with 3 sets of 10.
What A Good Push-Up Really Means
A good push-up begins and ends with good spinal position. That means no sagging or exaggeration of your normal spinal curve. If you resemble a devolving semivertebrate mammal when you are in the plank position, the rest of these cues will be impossible for you, because your belly will get in the way.
Once you've established your back position, lower yourself down until your elbows are at least past 90 degrees. For even better results, rest your chest on the ground and lift your hands off of the ground every rep. This will keep your form tight even when you start to fatigue. You won't be able to perform as many consecutive push-ups this way as you are used to, but each one will do far more to build a solid training base from which to progress.
Lastly, your arms should fully extend at the top, spreading your shoulder blades. This is the big difference between push-ups and the bench press. If you don't lock out your arms, your scapula will stay locked in place throughout the reps. That extra range is necessary to keep your shoulders happy and strong for years to come.
3 Ways To Get More Push-Ups In Your Life
Some of the strongest people in history have used push-ups in training, but why should you? In the same way that an efficient aerobic system will help a powerlifter recover quickly between sets and workouts, push-ups allow the upper body to recover faster between efforts by increasing vascularity in the arms, chest, and upper back. When you recover faster, you'll be able to lift harder and more frequently, resulting in more potential muscle and strength gains.
This doesn't mean you need to replace your primary lifts with push-ups, though. Here are four ways to get the benefits of push-ups, all of which allow you room for the rest of your training, whatever it might be.
1. At The End Of Your Workout
Push-ups make great finishers. A finisher is just an exercise or grouping of exercises that will allow you to use up the very last of your energy stores at the end of a workout, to jump-start fat loss and muscle gain. Try one of these, then feel free to make up your own:
- Perform 20 push-ups followed by 20 kettlebell swings. With as little rest as possible, perform 18 push-ups followed by the same number of kettlebell swings. Continue working in that manner until you finish with a set of just 2 reps of each.
- Perform 10 push-ups followed by 10 front squats. Continue eliminating 1 rep from each exercise until your last set, where you'll perform 1 push-up and 1 front squat.
2. During Rest Periods
Perform push-ups during your rest breaks for lower-body movements. If you want to get truly strong, you will have to pair heavy lifting with heavy breathing; there's no way around that.
However, if I'm resting 5 or more minutes between sets, I'll throw in an easy set of push-ups to keep me warm. I find it actually improves my recovery.
3. Throughout The Day
Because push-ups don't require any equipment, they can be done nearly anywhere. Even if you can't do them in your workplace, you can fit them in somewhere. At home keeping track of your fantasy football team? Just perform a set of push-ups during every commercial break. If you work in a cubicle, set an alarm to do them hourly.
Find any excuse to push the earth away throughout your day; it's worked for the world's elite fighting units.
4. First Thing In The Morning
When my alarm goes off, I roll out of bed, let the dog out, and then head straight for my living room where I have a timer set for 5 minutes. I do as many push-ups as I can in those five minutes. Sometimes I add resistance by placing a sandbag on my shoulders; on other days, I see how long I can maintain the bottom position with my chest just off of the ground.
There are dozens of different ways to do push-ups, and in over a year, I have rarely repeated the same workout. My morning ritual has made doing push-ups a habit that I can't start my day without.
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- January 11, 2017
- Jonathan Kay