It is one of the oldest and most traditional exercises out there – Push Ups! Do you know why the humble push up has stood the test of time? Because push ups simply work! Push ups target your arms, chest, core, glutes, and many stabilising muscles, and they can be tailored to any fitness level. They are one of the most efficient body weight exercises that you can do.
So many pole dancers ask about strength training and are seeking advice to nail their nemesis moves. If you are looking to invert for the first time, do a one handed spin like Emily Laura, or smash out a handspring on demand, I highly recommend adding push ups to your cross training program. Even just a few a day, when performed with proper technique, will support your progress in achieving your goals.
Below I outline a few push up variations and explain how they target different muscles in your upper body. I tried to gather information from as many sources as possible – personal trainers, physios, yogis, body builders, crossfitters, you name it! If you are trying out these at home, please film yourself or watch your form in a mirror to ensure that you are completing the exercise correctly. Just like any other exercise, doing push ups the wrong way may put your body at risk of injury.
Standard Push Up Guidelines
The aim of a push up is to lower and raise you body as an entire unit. If you cannot hold a plank position and maintain stability through your core and lower back, it is highly recommended that you perform push ups with your knees on the floor. You can also start with push ups standing against a wall (facing the wall and pushing out), or with your upper body raised on a table to allow you to begin to train without your entire body weight involved in the exercise.
When performing a standard push up, on your knees or planking on your toes, the position of your wrists under your shoulders should not change. By stacking the joints you increase stability. As you lower down, your elbows should track close to you body. Think about this like entering Chaturanga in yoga, don’t let your elbows wing out to the sides. Alignment is key and learning to do a push up properly will ensure you don’t injure yourself later on.
If you experience pain, aching, twinging, or otherwise, during a standard push up, you may like to read Eric Cressey’s article about changing the position of the feet to alleviate stress on the shoulders.
It needs to be remembered that a push up is a whole body exercise. Yes it will strengthen you arms and chest, but a successful push up requires you to think about your entire body. Squeeze your glutes and keep your back flat by hollowing your abs, keep your eyes focused ahead of your hands, not looking down. You are aiming to form a straight line from your head, through your neck, along your back and to your feet.
If you are on your knees, your abs and legs are working less hard, but it is still no excuse to let them sag! Your entire body from your knees to your head should move as an entire unit, with no dipping, curling, or sinking through the back.
Lastly, remember to breathe. Standard practice says to inhale on the way down and exhale as you push the floor away from you and rise up. Going down is often easier than coming back up, but working with your breath will help you engage your muscles and find strength to straighten your arms. The quality of the push up is way more important than how many you can do. Start small and with proper technique and you will be able to do more reps in no time!
Push Up Variations
– Wide Arm Push Ups
When done correctly these types of push ups will target your pecs and chest, rather than allowing your triceps to the bulk of the work. Place your hands wider than your shoulders and lower down until your elbows reach a 90 degree angle. Be wary of your elbows reaching over your wrists which will place unnecessary pressure on the joints. I like to put my focus on my chest, and think about my whole torso lowering and rising up within a box made my elbows. You can perform these on your knees as well, with the same emphasis on keeping a flat back and neutral neck as outlined above.
– Single Leg Push ups
Taking one leg off the ground, even just a few cm, will greatly increase the load on your abs and stabilising muscles. The temptation with these types of push ups is to rush. Take it slow and pause between changing legs so your form does not diminish in the transition. A good tip is to place your feet a little wider than you would normally to help with balance.
– Single-arm Medicine Ball Push Ups
You can use any prop like a yoga block or kettle bell to do these too. The change in angle will allow you to target you arms, pecs, and shoulders and may offer insight into how one side of your body is stronger than the other. Try not to allow the torso to rotate or twist during the exercise, remaining stable in the core and lower back.
– Elevated Push Ups
If you are looking to increase the challenge, try placing your feet on the edge of a couch or a bench. Your body will be angled down towards your hands, increasing the amount of your body weight involved in the exercise.
– Spiderman Push Ups
Start with a normal push up set up. Lower down keeping your elbows tracking close to your body. As you rise up raise one knee towards your elbow on the same side. Place it back. Lower down again, and on the next rise, lift the other knee. You will find that this exercise engages the core in a new way and will also work the legs as you balance through each knee lift.
– Dolphin Push Ups
From a downward dog position, bend your elbows to lower to your forearms to the floor. The aim is to lower and raise both arms at the same time. Focus and breathe, it’s harder than it looks! If you find this too intense on your legs, feel free to bend your knees but try to maintain a long line from your hips through to your neck.
– Diamond Push Ups
Place your hands close together directly underneath your chest, making a diamond shape with your thumbs and forefingers. Watch your form and make sure that you are not leaning back which will make the exercise easier. Keep your elbows tucked and lower slowly until your chest touches your hands. This exercise will target your deltoid muscles (pictured in the diagram) and also engage your core as you balance over a smaller base. When performed with correct technique, this variation is also said to have best results for training your triceps.
– Superman Push Ups
From a standard push up position, lower down keeping your elbows tracking close to your body. As you rise to the top of the movement, lift your right arm off the ground at the same time as lifting your left leg. Aim to raise them straight out, front and back, at the same level. Pause at the top and maintain stability through the core. Replace the hands and feet to reach a plank position and then repeat a push up and superman on the other side. Be wary of your hips and torso wanting to rotate at the top of the movement and focus on keeping your hips stable.
– Tiger Push Ups
Think about the two positions, downward dog and upward dog. If you are familiar with yoga you may already flow from upward dog to downward dog during a Sun Salutation. A tiger push up is doing this in reverse.
Start in a downward dog pose. While bending your elbows and dropping your upper body towards the floor, push forward with the chest and rise up to an upward dog position. You may or may not need to roll over the toes also. In the upward dog position, imagine a string pulling from your tail bone to bring your torso back through your arms and then up to starting pose. Try not to let the elbows flare, maintaining stability for your shoulders, elbows and wrists.
If you feel like each of these variations are easy, you can move on to handstand push ups, one arm push ups, and dynamic variations like clapping in between reps! There should be more than enough to keep you moving and motivated each day.
The great thing with push ups is that you will improve and see results very quickly. One week you might only be able to do 3 or 5, but very quickly you will find yourself doing 8 or 10, creating moments for feelings of success and motivation! Try one of the variation above and then return to your standard push up in the next training session and see the results for yourself!