The Lost Art of The Push Up, Its Many Variations & Functions

By Meghan Callaway

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Stronger, Leaner, Healtier, FOREVER

Introducing Functional Strength Training: 
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The execution of the perfect push up has become a lost art in today’s fitness community.  With so many sexy and exciting variations of the push up that have been popularized over the years, people have simply forgotten the requisites and basics of arguably the most important upper body functional patterns in the human body.

Guest author Meghan Callaway is making her debut on JRx this week and really knocked this one out of the park.  From sharing quick fixes to clean up push up form to advanced progressions and regressions of this standard movement, Meghan walks you though step by step, and will have you pressing like a pro in no time!

Here’s What You Need To Know…

1. The Push Up seems overly simple, but it has become one of the most butchered movements in fitness.

2. Fixing the Push Up can sometimes be as easy as cueing in on a few key requisites of the movement to solidify form and execution, but other times, properly programmed regressions are necessary.

3. Once the traditional Push Up is mastered, there are a myriad of progressions to chose from to challenge your core, strength and stability.

4. Though fun and exciting progressions dominate the Push Up scene, the foundational Push-Up and it’s setup will always remain the standard for testing function and strength.  You can’t fake function.

A Lost Art – The Push Up

The push up is one of the best upper body exercises out there and it gives you a huge bang for your buck.  There are many different types of push ups that target different muscle groups, and range in difficulty.  The push-up is also extremely convenient as it requires no equipment, can be done anywhere, and at any time.  Unfortunately, many people struggle to even perform a basic push up and advance themselves up the progression chain way too quickly for long term success.

While the push up is considered an upper body exercise, for the exercise to be executed safely and effectively, the entire body needs to be working in harmony.  Targeting both pillar stability and upper body strength to synergize together to execute the perfect push-up is the goal!

In this article, I will outline what a perfect push up entails, I will describe some of the common problems that occur, I will talk about how to fix these problems, and I will list some more advanced progressions of push ups, and one regression.

The Perfect Push Up

push up

A perfect push up should look like the following:

  1. The body is in a straight line from the head to heels and remains that way for the entire set.  There is no rotation occurring in the pelvis or thorax, or collapsing in the neck, lower back, or hips.  The shoulders are packed so the shoulder blades are drawn together and down, and they should never collapse/cave in.
  2. The body should travel in a vertical plane the entire time.  At the top of the push up, the shoulders, elbows and wrists should be in line.  At the bottom position of the push up, the elbows should remain over the wrists.
  3. During the lowering portion of the push up, the elbows should not flare out.  They should be kept closer to the body, and at about a 20-40 degree angle depending on the persons individual anthropometrics and body typing.  At the bottom of the push up, the elbows should bend to 90 degrees, although going to a greater depth is good if proper form can be maintained, and if the body feels good.

All About Alignment

push up

Many people struggle to maintain proper alignment throughout a set of push-ups, and are often unable to perform a single properly executed rep.  It is common to observe a sagging neck, sagging hips, an anterior pelvic tilt, depressed scapulae, and flaring elbows. A large percentage of the population fails at push ups not because they are weak in their upper body, but because they lack the pelvic and spinal stability to execute the movement properly.

This will decrease the amount of strength that they are able to produce with their upper body, and will cause breakdowns in form to occur.  Therefore, in this article, I will address how to achieve the requisite pelvic and spinal stability that is required to perform the basic push up, and then I will outline some more advanced varieties of push ups.

Perfect Your Push Up with Dr. John’s 12-Week Functional Hypertrophy Training

It is important to note, in certain cases, people are capable of performing a proper push up, but either lack the body awareness and don’t know that their form has deteriorated, or they simply get lazy.  As a result, they lose pelvic and spinal stability, fall out of alignment, and their form suffers.  These people usually just need a quick fix.

Quick Tips to Success – The Setup 

At the top of the push up before each rep, I will have them:

  1. Set the body so it is in a straight line from the head to heels.  The eyes should be looking straight down, and should be fixed on the same spot on the floor the entire time, which would indicate that the neck has remained in the proper position.
  2. Squeeze the glutes.  This will stabilize the pelvis and will prevent it from dropping or rotating.
  3. Gently tuck the ribs towards the pelvis so the body is in a slight hollow body position.  This will allow them to engage the anterior core, which in turn will provide the much needed stability around the spine and pelvis.
  4. Take a deep breath into the belly (360 degrees of air around the spine) and brace the core.  This will increase the stability around the spine.
  5. Lightly press the tongue against the back of the upper teeth.  This subtle move will activate the deep neck flexors, which will help keep the neck up.  I also find that this strategy helps activate the core muscles.

These tips are often all it takes to change a person’s form from flawed to perfect, or at least near perfect, and will allow them to work on improving their upper body “pushing” strength.  While this might seem like a lot of information at first, with practice, it will become second nature.

Advanced Coaching for the Dysfunctional Push Up

decline push up

In many other instances, people simply lack the strength to maintain the pelvic and spinal stability that is required to perform a proper push up.  I will outline numerous strategies that will help address these weaknesses.  Here are the common faults I see with push ups and how to fix type of dysfunction.

Excessive Anterior Pelvic Tilt: Core Weakness

The primary problem causing a forward anterior tilt of the pelvis can be attributed to sagging of the hips and hyperextended spinal position due to weak anterior core.  Strengthen the anterior core by performing exercises that will prevent the rib cage from flaring.  This will allow the spine to remain in a neutral position.  A strong anterior core will make this close to automatic.

Two of my favourite exercises that will help achieve this are:

  • Dead Bugs
    • This is an extremely effective core stability exercise.
    • Start by extending your legs straight up in the air, then gently tucking your ribs towards the hips.
    • While maintaining this hollow body position, simultaneously reach back with one arm, and slowly drop the opposite leg towards the floor.
    • Repeat with the other arm/leg, and go until your burn out (technical burnout, not absolute).
    • Your back should NOT arch, yet should not be forcefully pressed into the ground. Your legs should be relaxed so the anterior core is doing all of the work.
    • You should NOT feel your legs or low back, just the anterior core.

  • Band Resisted Rollouts With Foam Roller
    • This is an unconventional core stability exercise that yields incredible results.
    • Keep your glutes engaged, core braced, ribs down, and maintain a hollow body position. It is crucial that you maintain proper alignment and do not allow your neck, hips (or any other part of your body) to sag or rotate.
    • Keep your arms relaxed so they don’t dominate the exercise.

Excessive Anterior Pelvic Tilt: Weak Hip Extensors

Push up positions can be effected by weak or ineffective muscle actions and stability from the hip extensor group, most notably the gluteal complex.  You need to strengthen your weak glutes as this (in conjunction with your anterior core) will prevent your pelvis from collapsing or rotating, and will allow you to generate more strength with your upper body.  Your pelvis should remain in a neutral position, although a slight posterior pelvic tilt is ok.

Two of my favourite exercises that will help achieve this are:

  • Single Leg Deficit Hip Thrusts
    • This exercise will help strengthen your glutes, and because it is unilateral, it will help even out any imbalances that might exist.
    • Set yourself up so your upper back is on one slightly higher bench or box, and your foot is on a slightly lower box. Make sure that the boxes are close enough, so your knee is kept at approximately a 90° angle, as this will really hone in on the glutes.
    • Before you drop into the hip thrust, take a deep breath into your belly, brace your core, and do not allow your ribs to flare.
    • Drop your hips down as low as you can while maintaining good form, now drive through the back of the foot that is on the forward step, squeeze your glutes, and pick your hips up so your body is level.
    • The lockout should be done with the glutes and anterior core, not the muscles in the lower back. When you get to the top position, hold for a count or more as this will really utilize the glutes to the max. Reset at the bottom of the lift, and repeat.

  • Weighted Glute Bridges or Hip Thrusts
    • These two exercises will help you strengthen your glutes. It is crucial that you bring your hips up by driving through your heels and engaging your glutes, NOT by arching your low back!
    • Keep your shins relatively vertical or else your hamstrings will take over. If you are using a barbell, position it in your hip crease. I use a foam yoga pad as I’ve tried most other options and it is the most comfortable by far, especially as the weight increases.
    • Before you lift your hips, take a deep breath into your belly, brace your core, and do not allow your ribs to flare. A very subtle additional tip, and one that I haven’t heard before, but I have found that it really works, is to grip the bar as hard as you can. This will create a ton of tension in your upper body, will safeguard your spine, and will allow you to generate even more force.
    • When you get to the top position, hold for a count or more as this will really utilize the glutes to the max. Reset at the bottom of the lift, and repeat.

Push Up Regressions

When someone is unable to execute a strong and stable push-up after employing the coaching cues above, it is important not to load and practice a faulty movement pattern, but rather to regress the push up movement pattern.

Here is my go to push up regression:

  • Hands Elevated Push Up
    • This push-up is a great option for people who do not yet have the strength or stability to perform a regular push up from the floor.
    • This type of push up requires identical form to the regular push-up from the floor, thus will help people work toward being able to perform and perfect this type of push-up. I am not a fan of push-ups from the knees, as the same degree of pelvic and spinal stability is not required.
    • The end result is that most people will not be able to make the transition to regular the push up from the floor.
    • Hands elevated push-ups are also great because as the person get stronger, they can decrease the amount of the elevation, which will make the push-up more challenging.

Push Up Progressions

one arm push up

To the same point as the push up regressions, many people are able to execute sound push-ups with great mechanics and tempo.  After one shows mastery level with the push up, progressions can start to be programmed.

Here are six of my most used push up progressions:

  • Triceps Push Up
    • This type of push up targets the triceps.
    • The arms will be kept much closer to the body than a traditional push-up.
  • Diamond Push Up
    • This is a more advanced form of push up that targets the triceps.
    • The thumbs and second fingers will be placed together and will form a triangular base.
    • The arms will be kept close to the body, but the elbows will point out, which will obliterate the triceps.
  • Feet Elevated Push Up
    • This type of push up targets the deltoid muscles more than the basic push-up.
    • The higher the feet are elevated, the more the deltoid muscles will work.
    • During the set up, rather than your hands being directly underneath the shoulders, they should be an inch or so back as this will allow the elbows to remain over the wrists at the bottom of the push up.
  • Weighted Push Up
    • This type of push up really challenges the upper body and core more than the traditional push up.
    • Place a weight plate in the middle of the back (thoracic spine).
    • Due to the additional resistance, you will really have to focus on keeping your core braced, ribs down, and glutes engaged.
  • Explosive Push Up Between Two Boxes
    • This type of push up is extremely advanced, and requires a lot of upper body power, and pelvic/spinal stability.
    • It is a great exercise for anybody who is looking to improve their upper body power, particularly athletes.
  • Single Arm Push Up
    • While this type of push up might look very flashy, it requires a tremendous amount of upper body strength and core stability.
    • Unlike the traditional push-up, the feet will be set much farther apart, and the foot of the opposite side should be about the same distance ahead as the opposite hand. This will create a tripod-like base.
    • During this type of push up, the ability to resist rotation of the pelvis and spine will be especially challenging.

Time To Go Get It Done!

Take the time to master the traditional push up, and all of the more advanced progressions, and you will reap the rewards. You will have a strong and sculpted upper body. What I failed to mention, is that the push-up is an incredible core stability exercise, so you will be killing two birds with one stone.

Perfect Your Push Up with Dr. John’s 12-Week Functional Hypertrophy Training

It is a practical and versatile exercise that will benefit everyone from the elite athlete, to the bodybuilder, and to the regular person who is looking to increase their upper body strength and appearance.

And a Little Extra For All You Push Up Overachievers Out There

  • Advanced Foam Roller Push Up Combo
    • Single arm push ups with the foam roller is an extremely advanced push-up is a combination of a single arm push-up and an ab rollout.
    • Set yourself up in a position that is similar to a traditional tricep push-up. Place the foam roller so it is directly underneath your one hand, and is positioned on your wrist.
    • Take a deep breath in, brace your core, squeeze your glutes, and perform a push up while simultaneously performing an ab rollout.
    • Return to the starting point of the push up and roll the foam roller back in.
    • As this exercise is extremely anti-extension in nature, the key is to maintain a slight hollow body position, and maintain proper alignment from head to heels. Your back should never hyperextend.
  • Advanced Triceps Push Up
    • The advanced triceps push up is another really advanced movement.
    • Set yourself up so you are in a front plank position from your forearms.
    • Your shoulders should be directly above your elbows. Now use your triceps to push yourself up and extend your arms so they are straight.
    • Return to the bottom position and repeat. The key is to keep your arms parallel the entire time, and to not allow the elbows to flare out.

About The Author

meghan callaway

Meghan Callaway is a prominent personal trainer in Western Canada with over 12 years of training experience coaching in the trenches.  Growing up as a multi-sport athlete competing in soccer, ice hockey and baseball, Meghan took her athletic prowess to the University of British Columbia and completed her degree in Human Kinetics.

Meghan currently works with an impressively wide array of clients, ranging from the elite athlete to post-physical therapy rehabilitation and strength training and many average fitness client looking to feel and function better everywhere between.  She teaches and coaches every one of her clients with the goal of helping them perform, feel and look their very best by laying down a properly aligned foundation for every client.

With a unquenchable thirst for learning about the human body and movement, Meghan spends her time broadening her knowledge base as a trainer and coach, and truly practices what she preaches in her own fitness and life.

Learn more about Meghan on her:

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  1. Johannes June 15, 2018 at 6:12 am - Reply

    Thanks for that pushup article. I love it and special thanks for the supportive/corrective exercises!

    Criticism i have too tough, sry. although i get the point how a single arm push up should be executed , but on the video you are not . Especially executed with the right arm you have 0 stability in your hip &core area and your legs are not moving at all just the upper body…

  2. Kevin Guzda July 6, 2019 at 9:50 pm - Reply

    I’m really trying to improve my pushup #’s and have been incorporating Pavel’s Grease the Groove strategy 5-7 sub-maximal sets spread throughout the day 5-6 x a week slowly increasing .. Should I abandon this method and program the pushups differently. My form is solid and can get about 18-20 pushups before failing and or form breaks down

  3. Cara Bryant February 23, 2021 at 4:02 am - Reply

    Absolutely love Meghan’s articles! Love a no BS trainer. More of you please Meghan xxx

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