This is not your father's push-up. Or your coach's. Or your drill sergeant's. The push-up has been reborn as a muscle builder, a back saver, and an athletic supporter. But don't take our word. Take Dave Tate's. Tate, owner of Elite Fitness Systems, can bench-press 600 pounds. And he often does push-ups in his training programs as many as he can knock out in 10 minutes, for example.
"The push-up is good for increasing general physical preparedness. It helps build a stronger foundation," says Tate.
So please drop and join us on the floor as we take a fresh look at the once and future king of exercises.
How Push-Ups Build More Muscle
Logic says the push-up won't build strength unless you're kind of weak to begin with. Its benefits lie elsewhere. "If you do push-ups correctly, you develop your scapular muscles and your rotator-cuff muscles to stabilize your shoulders. If you do bench presses instead of push-ups, you don't have to use those muscles as much," says Michael Clark, C.S.C.S., a physical therapist and president of the National Academy of Sports Medicine. In other words, push-ups not only build up the facade in front of your physique, but also develop the support system behind those muscles, too.
Here's why that's important: In every physical action, some muscles act as the engine and some act as the brakes. If the brakes aren't strong and durable enough to counterbalance the engine, you've got an injury waiting to happen. When a guy comes up with a chronically sore shoulder from bench pressing, for example, the problem is usually that the chest and shoulder muscles are too strong relative to the muscles behind them.
So it makes sense that push-ups help improve muscular balance, which is important for developing serious strength. And with strength comes muscle size.
How Push-Ups Save Your Back
Perfect form in the push-up is the same as perfect upright posture, says Jolie Bookspan, M.D., an orthopedist in Philadelphia who has helped the U.S. military develop back-friendly exercise programs. And bad push-up form too much arch in your lower back resembles bad everyday posture. If you learn how to do push-ups correctly and hold that posture in and out of the gym you reduce your chances of experiencing back pain.
The key to posture rests in your pelvis more specifically, in learning to "tuck" your hips. At the start of a crunch, when your abs contract, your back flattens. Hold it right there. Notice that your lower back is flat and your midsection is pulled in. This is the best and safest position for your back.
Get Hip: Hit the floor and try this posture-perfect workout progression.
Weeks 1 to 3: Before your regular workouts, do the plank. Start with 10 5-second holds the first week, then do four 15-second holds the second week, and one 30-second hold the third week.
Weeks 4 to 6: Hold for 30 seconds in the push-up position in week 4, then hold for 30 seconds in a knuckle-push-up position in week 5. Finally, in week 6, do slow-motion push-ups, maintaining perfect posture. Take 2 seconds to descend, hold 2 seconds, and push yourself up for 2 seconds. Work up to 10 at this speed.
And anytime you feel your back start to sway when you aren't exercising, do the pelvic tuck and flatten your back.
The more you focus on flattening your back, the less chance you'll spend significant time flat on your back.
How Push-Ups Can Win You the Heisman
Running back Herschel Walker claimed push-ups were his only muscle-building exercise, and he won a Heisman Trophy and gained more than 13,000 yards in two professional football leagues. Outfielder Ted Williams did 50 to 100 fingertip push-ups a day, and he was the Barry Bonds of his era. The great boxers Marciano, Ali, Foreman did push-ups by the hundreds.
Today's athletes don't do push-ups in the same quantities, but they make up for it in quality, not to mention variety. "We use push-ups in a wide variety of movements," says Buddy Morris, head strength and conditioning coach for the Cleveland Browns.
Experiment with a few. Try chain push-ups, three sets of eight to 10 once a week; plyometric push-ups, three to five sets of four to six once a week, on a different day; and rotational push-ups, one or two sets of four to six to each side. And then tell your dad about your new favorite exercise.
Because Regular Exercise Isn't Hard Enough
Three ways to increase the intensity of push-ups:
1.) Wear a backpack loaded with something heavy. Make sure the weight rests near your shoulders rather than on your lower back.
2.) Have a training partner place a weight plate on the middle of your back.
3.) Get a weighted vest. We've never been fans, but recently we tried the 10-pound Ironwear Uni-Vest and really liked it. The 1-pound weights are soft and flexible, so you don't feel as if you've just robbed Fort Knox when you wear it. And it looks cool, like you're on some kind of Special Workouts and Tactics squad. $70, performbetter.com.