This is an article I wrote for EliteFTS.com several years back on the pushup and it’s benefits. The original article can still be found with no video links so this the updated version. It’s no secret how much I use the pushup and it’s variations to train our baseball athletes. It is not only a essential movement in our foundation program but an integral part of our intermediate and advanced pro groups as well.
What You Don’t Know About the Pushup
by Zach Dechant
The pushup is quite possibly one of the best exercises athletes can do. Most athletes and coaches only associate pushups for the chest, and triceps, but it’s a great exercise for the upper back, shoulder proprioception, and also helps to ingrain proper torso stability patterns. Reaping the benefits of the pushup means focusing on correct technique first and foremost. I believe throwing athletes should have pushups in every phase of their program. At TCU, our baseball athletes, and quarterbacks will incorporate some form of the pushup year round in their training. At various times we even eliminate all forms of pressing in lieu of the pushup and the many variations we have.
So why is the pushup so good?
The scapula is allowed to go through its full range of motion during the pushup. This isn’t possible for the scapulae (plural for scapula) in bench press, or db bench press variations. The scaps should in fact be retracted and depressed to create a stabile platform during pressing variations. This isn’t exactly a perfect environment for creating scapular health.
One of the best parts of a correct pushup is the activation of the serratus anterior at the top of the movement. What’s important about the serratus you ask?
The serratus anterior is a commonly inactive muscle that is extremely important for any overhead athletes, throwing and non-throwing. The serratus is quick to shut down at the first sign of shoulder trouble. Dysfunction in the serratus can cause the scapula to wing, creating instability in an area where we want stability at all times. Possibly the most important function
of the serratus is the assistance it provides with upward rotation. The serratus works in a force couple along with the upper, and lower trapezius to complete this motion. We want upward rotation in order create room in the sub-acromial space and avoid impingement when we raise our arm. Obviously the is pretty important for overhead athletes! aka: pitchers, quarterbacks, etc.
Where the benefit lies for serratus activation is trying to push as far away from the floor as possible at the top of the pushup. The scapulae won’t fully protract kick-starting the serratus until the elbows are locked out. Many athletes fail to get this benefit by not completely finishing the rep. Some may even lock out the arms but by letting the upper back sag in instead of fully extending it, the serratus is doesn’t get the full benefit either. Also, don’t let the lower back, and/or torso sag to the ground. Doing so not only hurts your efforts to fire the serratus but isn’t doing your low back any favors. When this happens the scapulae go into anterior tilt and the serratus is shut down once again. Performing pushups correctly with full extension, and protraction, will activate the serratus. Many coaches have heard of the pushup plus exercise where the athlete does a pushup to extension then pushes their shoulders out a bit more. This is how a standard push up should be done. We shouldn’t need to make up an exercise to take care of this very important portion. Once they can properly perform pushups, elevate their feet onto a 12″ box. Activation in the serratus is highest in the feet elevated pushup.
Another huge benefit in the pushup is torso stability. The low back is an area that we want as much stability as we can get. According to McGill, low back flexibility and low back pain have a negative correlation. The more movement we have in the lumbar spine, the more susceptible our lower back is to pain, and injury.
According to a study Jeffrey McBride, the pushup has higher muscular activation in the obliques than an isometric side bridge. Not only is the pushup great for the chest, shoulders, and upper back, but it is just as good as any movement for torso stability, and activation within the core musculature. A lot of my athletes ask me why we don’t do more “core training”, but what we try to convey to them is that all the pushup movements we implement into our training is as effective, and much safer for low back health and athletic performance than any sit-up ever could be.
The pushup is a great closed chain exercise that helps to develop stabilization as well as proprioception with the shoulder girdle. Adding in an unstable surface creates an increase in stabilizer activation as in a medball pushup, or blast strap pushups. Now, I’m not saying go train with your feet on a stability ball stacked on top of a wobble board while your hands are on one of those rolling balance boards. Always remember when you add an unstable surface, the stabilizer activation increases but prime mover activation usually decreases. Make sure your exercise selection matches your goals.
Making sure your athletes are performing the pushup correctly is half the battle. Not only is it more effective, but it’s ingraining proper motor patterns, especially one of stability with a neutral pelvis. I tell our kids we want a straight line from the ankles to the shoulders. The line should run directly through the hips.
Hand position should be around shoulder width and close to the chest with the elbows back at around a 45 degree angle. Too many athletes try to use a hands wide, elbows flared pushup putting undue stress on the shoulder. Not only is this not exactly healthy for the shoulder, but it’s a much weaker position in the end. Watch most beginners setup and do pushups and you’ll find they almost all setup with a hands wide, elbows straight out position. They may be stronger in that position for now, but once they learn and reinforce a more proper position they will become much stronger
Another common problem is a forward head posture. Make sure they keep the head in line with the back. The first thing to touch the floor should always be the chest. Don’t let you athletes peck at the ground with their head. They’re only compensating for weakness in the bottom position.
Working our way down, we come to the torso. Keep the pelvis in a neutral position with the back flat throughout the movement. We don’t want a giant anterior pelvic tilt during the pushup. We shouldn’t be able to hold a small pool of water in the small of the back. Make sure they are flattened out with no sagging, or tilt. Like I mentioned earlier, pushups are one of the best exercises to train torso stability. Athletes must ingrain that motor pattern over and over.
A lot of coaches complaints when it comes to the pushup are that they aren’t easy to increase the load. The most effective tool that I’ve found for loading up the pushup is bands. We utilize mini bands, and light (purple) bands often for creating resistance in our athletes. Other methods that can be used include weight vests, as well as chains. Most of us have probably seen Joe DeFranco’s athletes doing countless numbers of pushups with chains cris-crossed on their backs. This is an easy, yet effective method in increasing the load in the pushup. As well, many of our variations include dumbbells, as well as body movement. So while we don’t increase the loading in the actual pushup, we increase the loading on the torso, scapulae, and shoulder stabilizers. Again, we aren’t always doing the pushup to increase the loading on the chest. Increasing the loading in other area’s can be just as effective for our training goals.
With walkover pushups, we generally stack 2 Olympic plates. Starting with one hand on the plate and one on the floor we perform a pushup and then walk across the plates to the other side where we perform another pushup. This movement is great for single arm scapular protraction when done correctly. We want to make sure we extend ourselves all the way at the top and not try to walk across beforehand. Usually our beginning athletes will perform 5 pushups per side, while our more advanced athletes will work up to 10+ reps on each side.
Pushup w/ Rotation
Once our ability to perform pushups correctly, we advance to pushup w/ rotation. This is excellent for the glenohumeral stabilizers, as well as overall proprioception. We perform this movement with our feet spread about a foot apart. After the pushup we rotate with a straight arm over to one side, making sure to lock our ribs to our hips rotating everything together. We want the feet to rotate all the way over to the sides. Our advanced progression includes stacking the feet when rotating. Start with 5 reps per side and add on as skill increases.
Band Assisted Pushups
By looping a band around a bar set in a rack we can assist our athletes who are unable to do correct pushups. This is a great step for those who struggle either using correct form with their pushup, or just aren’t strong enough to get the job done. We use these for sets of 15 and 20 with our female athletes.
High Rep Green Band Pushups
Another use for the green band pushup is restoration and volume work. Our quarterbacks will perform high rep band pushups after game day to get blood flow to the shoulder and upper extremities. The pushups aren’t that intense so they serve as a means of recovery at that time. We use these in high rep brackets from 30 up to 50 reps.
Explosive Pushup Jumps
An advanced movement that we use is our band pushup jumps. It is an upper body dynamic movement that we have put in the place of speed bench. Usually we do this for time, or a low number of reps. These hit the serratus like nothing I’ve ever felt. The day after we perform these it feels like you have broken ribs. I’ve found virtually nothing else that would induce soreness in the serratus, but these bad boys do, especially if you’re doing repeat jumps for high reps.
Lateral Band Pushup Walks
These are by far my favorite pushup movement and easily the hardest one we use. Place a light ankle band around the wrists to perform the movement. Take three steps laterally and perform a pushup. Then three steps back and perform another pushup. Always start the movement by stepping with the away hand first. We start with 5 pushups on each side for a total of 10. Believe me; these aren’t as easy as they sound. Our athletes always complain of these being the hardest variation that we have. By continually having to spread the band makes these pushups more impressive for the mid back, and shoulder musculature than anything else.
Medball Scap Pushup
Starting with a hand on a medball we perform a pushup. The variation here comes at the top of the rep. When we get to the top we completely extend the arm and protract the scap on the medball side coming off the ground on the other side.
Where can I implement them?
Add them in after upper body pressing days in the form of a few high rep sets. Joe Defranco uses pushups in his Westside for skinny bastard’s template after max effort work to blow his guys up.
These variations can also be put into your training when you’re feeling a little beat up from you’re regular program or during a deload. Our pitchers at TCU always use at least one pushup variation in their weekly training. We not only use them for our upper body mobility work, but anytime we work with a DB bench press we warm up with pushup variations.
I believe pushups are one of the most underrated exercises for the upper body. Many don’t know how far the benefits of this exercise extend. With so many variations available, pushups can be a staple in an athlete’s program without getting bored or going stale all while keeping the shoulder healthy.