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Maximize Your Push-Ups with These Simple Tips

Story at-a-glance -

  • An improperly performed push-up is a waste of your precious workout time, but by perfecting the technique, you can actually tweak the exercise to target different muscle groups
  • The standard push-up exercise will start to lose effectiveness over time if you don’t add in new challenges; by changing your hand positions and your incline, and adding in an exercise ball, you can increase the challenge and boost your results
  • If you can do 12, 15, or 18 repetitions of standard push-ups for two or three sets, it’s time to move on to the next level, using the simple techniques described

By Dr. Mercola

Many people learn to loathe push-ups thanks to high-school gym class, but they are in fact one of the most effective and simplest exercises to build a strong upper body and midsection.

That is, provided you do them correctly.

An improperly performed push-up is a waste of your precious workout time, but by perfecting the technique, you can actually tweak the exercise to target different muscle groups, including not only your chest muscles but also your abs.

What's the Proper Push-Up Form?

Common mistakes most people make when performing a push-up include going too fast and using only partial range of motion. In the video above, Darin Steen demonstrates the perfect push-up. First, slow it down and use a three-second contraction. Try to really feel the muscle groups you're targeting, and do a full range of motion -- starting all the way down at the floor and pushing all the way up.

Pay particular attention to the alignment of your elbows. The ideal angle from your sides is about 45 degrees. This allows you to effectively work your chest muscles and prevent injuries from overextension. I recommend watching Darin's demonstration of the proper form, but here's a summary of key points to remember:

  • Keep your body stiff and straight as a plank
  • Elbows at a 45-degree angle from your sides
  • Breathe in on the way down
  • Lower your body all the way down, allowing your sternum to gently touch the floor
  • Breathe out on the way up

How to Get More Out of Your Push-Ups

You're probably familiar with the advice to avoid doing the same exercises all the time. You need to "confuse" the muscle to keep building it. So doing the standard push-up exercise with your legs straight or knees bent on the floor, while certainly beneficial, will start to lose effectiveness over time if you don't add in new challenges. To get more out of your push-ups, try mixing up your routine with these simple tweaks:

Put your hands on an exercise ball. As the ball shifts, it will force your core muscles to work to keep you in balance, while providing a greater challenge to your upper body. A similar option is to use two medicine balls, place the palms of your hands on top of the balls and perform the push-up from there.

Alter your hand positions. The placement of your hands will dictate which muscle groups are targeted. Instead of the traditional hand placement (slightly wider than shoulder-width apart), try widening their stance to work your chest and shoulders. If you bring your hands together below your chest, you'll work your triceps. You can also elevate one arm (place your hand on a yoga block, or lift it into the air, for instance), which will challenge your upper body even more.

Lift a leg. As you extend your leg behind you, your upper body gets a challenge while your core and glutes get toned.

Elevate your feet. In the traditional push-up position, put your feet on a step, chair, or gym ball, so your feet are higher than your hands. This puts more weight on your upper body, giving your arms, chest and upper back a workout.

Do push-ups off your fingertips. This is a more advanced technique that will improve the strength and grip of your hands.

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Special Tips for Using Push-Ups to Strengthen Your Abs

Your transverse abdominis (TVA) is like an inner sheath that holds your gut in place. On top of that are your internal and external obliques, and on top of that, beneath your skin, is your six-pack rectus abdominis. You also have lower pelvic muscles that are responsible for sexual function and elimination of urine at the bottom of the abdominal wall. On top, you have the diaphragm. The technique Darin demonstrates allows you to focus on and really feel these abdominal muscles at work while you're doing the push-up.

Here are three key points:

1. While in plank position, pull in your bellybutton. Your bellybutton is attached to your transverse abdominis, that inner sheath that holds your gut inside and gives your spine and vertebrae a nice, weight belt-tightening type of support. So by pulling it in, you begin to contract that deep inner transverse abdominis muscle.

2. Next, do a Kegel squeeze. More women than men might be familiar with this term. A Kegel squeeze is performed by drawing your lower pelvic muscles up and holding them up high and tight. For men who aren't familiar with that term, it's similar to trying to stop urinating in the middle of the flow. This squeeze will allow you to feel and focus on your abdominal muscles.

3. Try a push-up dumbbell row. Start at a dumbbell weight suitable to your current level of strength and fitness and progress into higher weights as you go along. Place the dumbbells at a 45-degree angle; pull in your bellybutton; draw up your lower pelvic muscles (Kegel squeeze), and breathe in as you lower your upper body to the floor. Breathe out on the way up, and once your arms are in the fully extended position, perform a row—pulling the right dumbbell up toward your chest.

On the next push-up, pull up with your left. This advanced technique will work your abs from side to side, and target those deep core muscles as well.

If you want to work your six-pack rectus abdominis muscle, drive your chin down toward your toes while you're focused on squeezing your bellybutton in. These techniques are very effective, and will build the deep inner core muscles that lay the groundwork for that six-pack look. Keep in mind, however, that in order to really get "six-pack" abs, you have to shed fat. Men need to get their body fat down to about six percent, and women around nine percent in order to achieve that classic six-pack.

When is it Time to Take Your Push-Up Workout Up a Notch?

Push-ups take a certain amount of strength to perform properly, so if you're just starting out you may want to begin by keeping your knees on the floor. Bring your heels up toward your buttocks, and keep your body straight. Go slow and use full range of motion, allowing your chest to gently touch the floor. By pulling your elbows closer to your sides, you can place more focus on your chest muscles.

Once you can comfortably perform about a dozen push-ups this way, advance to the regular push-up technique, keeping your legs straight and balancing on your toes. Then, when you can do 12, 15, or 18 repetitions for two or three sets, move on to the next level or technique, as described above.

You Can Use Push-Ups as Part of Your Peak Fitness Workout, Too

As many of you are aware, the most recent research shows that relatively short bursts of intense exercise—even if done only a total of a few minutes each week—can deliver many of the health- and fitness benefits you get from doing hours of conventional exercise.

By doing just three minutes of High Intensity Training (HIT) like Peak Fitness a week for four weeks, you could see significant changes in important health indices.

You don't need a gym to perform high intensity interval exercise. It can be performed with virtually any type of exercise, with or without equipment. You can just as easily perform interval training by walking or running outdoors as you can using a recumbent bike or an elliptical machine. I typically do Peak Fitness on an elliptical once a week but currently, twice a week, I am doing a fairly intense strength-training workout. You can add in push-ups to your high-intensity routine, specifically:

  • Plyometric push-ups: Once your sternum touches the floor, hold your position and breathe for about three seconds, then perform an explosive push upward.
  • Three minutes of push-ups: It's quite simply, how many push-ups can you do in three minutes? You need to have good technique, good form, and a strategy. If you go all out you'll lose your energy and likely won't last for three minutes. So go at a pace of about 80 percent of your total ability, and when you can't go any further, rest for 20-30 seconds; stretch, and then resume.
  • The handstand push-up (highly advanced): Facing a wall, place your hands at a 45-degree angle about one to two hand-lengths from the wall. Kick your legs up. You can use the wall to stabilize you as you perform the push-up. Breathe in as you lower yourself to the floor, and breathe out as you push yourself up.

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