What is the best push-up?
It’s a question that’s bandied about on fitness blogs and muscle mag covers to generate intrigue for that one hurdle that stands between us and the perfect body. The latest one I heard about was the dead-stop push-up. I demo’d it with a back extension in my 100 Push-ups video (#20 in the vid below). It’s a push-up where you descend all the way to the floor and then lift your hands off the floor to ensure you’re not using the stretch reflex, or ballistic movement to spring back up. It’s a great push-up. I like it because it’s a great core exercise where your entire body has to be engaged to remain rigid as you press yourself off the floor. There’s just one problem with it.
You’ll see in the pic below, that in order to descend all the way to the floor, my elbows have to go way past my torso, throwing the front shoulder muscles, or the anterior deltoids, into an extreme stretch.
A muscle is weakest when it’s in the stretch position, not to mention the most vulnerable. And since the shoulder is the most mobile joint in the whole body, it’s also the most injured. So why would we want to increase our risk of injury by performing this type of push-up?
The Proper Push-Up
“Chest to the floor, or it don’t count,” you’ll hear some guys say. “Bar to the chest or it don’t count,” they’ll also say as you’re doing the bench press. Somewhere along the muscle-building line, overextending your shoulders became a point of performance, machismo, or both. So what’s the right way?
“90 degrees and no more,” my trainer said in my fitness instructor course. “Don’t bring your elbows past your body,” the teacher said in my personal trainer exam where she docked me a point because I demonstrated the bench press with elbows descending past my body — and shoulders into a slightly stretched position — with the bar hovering over my chest. “Elbows should bend to about 90 degrees but always be conscious of shoulder mobility,” my yoga teacher said of properly doing chaturanga. The chest-to-floor dead-stop push-up is “the true test of strength,” according to this Men’s Health article. The American College of Exercise remains ambivalent in recommending “chest or chin” to the floor. And I’ve heard of lifting competitions that require chest to the ground or bar to the chest while others don’t.
While it appears to be subjective, I’m with my teachers on this one, but with a big caveat — it depends on a few factors:
- Arm length. One exercise does not fit all, and we can’t all follow its recommended guidelines unless considering our bodies first. If you’ve got long arms like mine, then shoulder extension and injury should be a concern. If you’ve got short arms and a large chest, bending your arms to 90 degrees will probably bring your chest to the ground anyway. Keep this in mind for the bench press as well. If you’re working out with a friend with shorter arms, don’t be surprised if they can bench more than you or have no problem bringing the bar to their chest. Exercise performance depends a great deal on lever length.
- Flexibility. Loose shoulders and an open chest mean your chance of injury when pressing from an extended shoulder position is reduced, reinforcing the need to warm-up with dynamic stretching before working out.
- Performance goals. If you’re into general fitness, a 90-degree bend should be fine for your goals. But if your goals include sport-specific movement that requires a high degree of mobility of the shoulder in pressing or pushing movement, then going past may be required.
- Your current state. I injured my shoulder while moving through my normal range of motion in a yoga class, but because I had done a very intense shoulder workout the previous day, my ROM was limited. Because I didn’t pay close attention to how I was feeling on that specific day, I went through the next 6 months not able to do any push-ups or bench presses at all while rehabbing the shoulder.
The Best Push-Up for YOU
So what’s the best push-up for you? The right answer, but probably the most boring one, is the push-up that you can do with proper technique on that day. Most general lifters can’t even put their hands beside their chest while standing without flaring their rib cage and releasing their core, so they shouldn’t be trying to load the same movement with over 100 pounds while trying to do a push-up or bench press. Most people also can’t do the standard push-up from their toes without dumping their weight into their shoulders and back. I can’t count the number of women and men who have insisted on doing standard push-ups in my class because they don’t want to do “women” push-ups from their knees, even though it’s obvious from their flared elbows and hunched shoulders that they lack the required tricep strength. And most people can’t even perform the diving box push-up properly, #5 in the video, also because of weakness in the triceps and shoulders. The ego is a powerful thing, but if you keep working on the exercise in the wrong way, you won’t be strengthening the proper muscles or training in the best biomechanical way to move to more advanced exercises.
My advice with the push-up is to start on a steep incline, with hands on a bench, and work up to push-ups from your knees on the floor. Keep your elbows close to your body, and send your bodyweight forward as you descend. Chances are this is exactly what you need to work on before building up to the standard push-up, #11, let alone the dead-stop push-up, #20.
The best push-up is a perfect one, but perfection will come in many forms for different people on different days. That headline isn’t going to sell any mags, but it’s the right answer.