Standard pushups can be performed without equipment or accessories and require only a little floor space. Pushups can be easily modified to make the exercise performance more or less challenging, depending on your present level of fitness.

Believe it or not, the pushup, when performed properly, is an amazing exercise that conditions several important muscle groups.


Standard pushups can be performed without equipment or accessories and require only a little floor space. Pushups can be easily modified to make the exercise performance more or less challenging, depending on your present level of fitness.


While most people think of pushups as a chest exercise, it is actually much more comprehensive in scope and addresses the following joint movements and muscle groups: (1) horizontal shoulder flexion accomplished by the chest (pectoralis major) muscles and the front shoulder (anterior deltoid) muscles; (2) elbow extension accomplished by the rear arm (triceps) muscles; (3) trunk neutral position maintenance accomplished by the abdominal (rectus abdominis) muscles; (4) head neutral position maintenance accomplished by the rear neck (upper trapezius) muscles; and (5) knee extension position accomplished by the front thigh (quadriceps) muscles.


Maintaining a straight-body posture throughout the pushup exercise requires considerable effort from major midsection, neck, arm and leg muscle groups. The pushup movement is attained by powerful contractions of the upper body pushing muscles, namely the chest, shoulders and arms. There are not many exercises that involve as much body musculature as pushups performed with correct technique.


Perfect form


Correct technique for pushup performance begins with a straight body that does not bend at the waist, knees or neck. Your head, shoulders, hips, knees and ankles should stay in a straight line throughout every repetition. This is typically referred to as the plank position, which requires considerable contractile force from the abdominal muscles.


To place relatively equal emphasis on the chest, shoulder and arm muscles, I recommend placing your hands about 6 inches outside each shoulder. In the up position, your upper arms should be almost vertical with elbows straight. In the down position, your upper arms should be about horizontal with elbows bent approximately 90 degrees. Your elbows should be away from your body, and your upper arms should be in a straight line so that a broomstick could rest on your upper arms and upper back.


Beginning in the arms extended position, slowly lower your body by flexing your elbows until your chest lightly touches the floor. Pause momentarily, then press your body up to the starting position. Be sure to inhale during each downward movement and exhale during each upward movement.


Ideally, each pushup should take about three seconds (two seconds down and one second up); so that 10 pushups would require about 30 seconds and 20 pushups would be completed in about 60 seconds.


Modifications


If you are unable to perform standard pushups, you may modify the body position to work the same muscle groups against less resistance. To significantly reduce the applied bodyweight resistance while maintaining a straight-body posture, place your hands on a table or desk to perform your pushups. As you become stronger, move to a less vertical body position by placing your hands on a bench.


When you can complete more than 20 bench pushups, you are ready to perform standard floor pushups in the prescribed manner. If standard pushups become too easy, you may increase the stress on your chest, shoulder and arm muscles by placing your feet on a bench.


Although pushups use bodyweight resistance, this can be an effective exercise for increasing both muscular strength and muscular endurance. Don’t be tempted to perform pushups too frequently. Treat this bodyweight exercise just as you would treat barbell or dumbbell bench presses. Rest at least 48 hours between pushup workouts. Whenever you train hard enough to stimulate strength development, you’ll need sufficient recovery time for the muscle building process to be completed prior to your next workout.


Some people prefer to do one set of pushups to the point of muscle fatigue, while others opt for multiple sets of specified repetitions. For example, one set of 30 pushups resulting in muscle failure should provide an excellent training stimulus. However, three sets of 20 pushups each may provide an equally effective workout with twice as many repetitions.


My recommendation is one to three sets of pushups each training session, with the final repetition requiring a relatively high exercise effort.


Wayne L. Westcott, Ph.D., teaches exercise science at Quincy College and consults for the South Shore YMCA in Massachusetts. He has authored 24 books on physical fitness and strength training.