Beginner’s Push-up: From the Knees or With Hands Elevated?
By Gene Coleman and Xavier Saldana
In an attempt to better serve the coaches, players and parents involved in youth baseball, the PBSCCS periodically publishes information on factors that can affect conditioning and performance at this level. Topics are selected from questions submitted by participants, coaches and parents involved in youth sports.
I was recently contacted by parents of a player on a 12U travel baseball team who said that their son could not perform a single push-up. His coach suggested that if he did push-ups from his knees, he would, in time, be able to do a “regular” push-up. After three months of doing push-ups from his knees, he still can’t do a push-up. The parents wanted to know what their son could do to improve his ability to do a push-up. The following response was prepared after consulting with NSCA certified strength and conditioning coaches at the university and professional level.
The push-up is a basic, closed kinetic chain, total body exercise used by most athletes to improve pillar strength in the muscles of the hips, core and shoulders. Unfortunately, many young athletes lack the strength in one or more links in the kinetic chain to perform enough consecutive push-ups to achieve a training effect. The “traditional” solution has been to have them drop down and perform the exercise from the knees to shorten the lever arm and make it easier to complete more reps of the exercise.
While this method has been used for decades with both boys and girls, it is not the safest or most effective way to improve functional, upper body and core strength. They not only set you up to make little or no progress in upper-body strength, they can increase the risk of pain and injury in the lower back and shoulders.
Bending the knees and putting the knees in contact with the ground instead of the feet creates a few biomechanical problems. First, the kneeling push-up alters the tension and connection of the full-body kinetic chain by reducing the involvement of the glutes and increasing stress on the lower back, pelvis and anterior shoulders. The end result is an increased risk of pain and injury. Bending the knees negatively alters the position of the body, and reduces the ability to produce enough tension to stabilize the body throughout the kinetic chain, i.e., from the toes, to the hips, through the core, to the shoulders. Second, practical experience indicates that the kneeling push-up is not the correct regression off the push-up, i.e., simply faking a push-up does not usually enable most athletes to be able to perform enough proper push-ups to produce a training effect. Modified push-ups are also not good for your spinal alignment. Continuing to place the body in a harmful position for the sake of increasing reps is not an acceptable way to progress strength and functionality.
What’s the answer? The hand-elevated push-up. Starting with the hands elevated provides a quick and easy way to make measurable progress in total body strength and joint stability throughout the kinetic chain. Once an athlete finds the proper starting height and is able to perform the exercise with perfect technique, he/she can make fairly rapid progress by progressively lowering the height of the hands. This type of progression will yield results without promoting the aches, pains and poor body positions associated with the kneeling push-up.
By simply placing his/her hands on an elevated surface such as a bench, box or step, most athletes can learn how to properly brace their entire pillar (shoulders, core and hips) and improve horizontal pushing strength at the same time. Over time, lowering the height of the box, bench or step will create a safe, effective progression to the movement.
When an athlete can properly maintain adequate muscular tension and spinal alignment in every rep in every set, he/she will eventually be able to put the hands back on the ground and perform enough perfect push-ups to build a solid foundation of functional total body strength.
How to do it. First, find the proper height for your hands. Finding the proper starting hand height involves some trial and error. Start by raising the level of the hands by placing them on a bench, box, table, chair or step and try to perform 2-3 reps with perfect form. If you can’t complete 2-3 reps with perfect form, use a higher bench, box, table, chair or step. If you can complete 2-3 reps with perfect form, use a lower bench, box or step. The higher the angle (bench, box or step), the easier the move. Some “true” beginners might have to start with the hands against a wall and the body inclined to the wall at a 450 angle.
Regardless of whether you are trying to find the proper hand height or training, make sure that you use proper technique on every rep. To ensure that your technique is proper, use the following guidelines:
- Start in a high plank position
- Place your handson a box, bench or step with your arms straight and your hands slightly wider than shoulder width and wrists under your shoulders
- Your body should form a straight line from your head to your heels
- Brace your core and squeeze your glutes and keep them tight for the duration of the exercise
- Slowly lower your body until your chest nearly touches the box, bench or step and don’t let your hips sag at any point from start to finish
- Pause at the bottom, and then push yourself back to the stating position as quickly as possible – that is one rep
- Keep the elbows relatively close to the body at all times; don’t let them form a straight line out to the sides of each shoulder
- Start with 2 sets of 5 reps and gradually increase to 2 sets of 10 reps
- When you can do 2 sets of 10 reps with perfect form, use a lower incline and do 2 sets of 5 reps, gradually building to 2 sets of 10 reps
- Repeat step 8 until you can do 2 sets of 5 reps with both hands on the ground and then gradually build to 4-5 sets of 10 reps with perfect form
Coaching point. Regardless of whether they are performing standard or hands-elevated push-ups, the most common flaw observed when young athletes are doing push-ups is that their elbows form a “T” with their trunk instead of a “V”, i.e., the elbows are straight out from the shoulders instead of being angled down and back. When you look down at someone doing push-ups, the junctions of the elbows with trunk should form a V-shape, and not a T-shape. Why? During the lowering portion of a push-up, the shoulder blades adduct (move together). If the elbows are straight out from shoulders and form a T, the shoulder blades come together before the athlete can properly reach the bottom of the push-up and have nowhere left to move.
Because young athletes tend to have very mobile joints, some rely on their excessive mobility to reach the bottom of the push-up. This can be problematic because it increases stress on the shoulder joints. While many young athletes won’t feel the stress on their shoulders because of the relatively low load placed on the joints, it can increase the risk of injury in the future as they gain weight.
Having athletes focus on making a” V” with their elbows can help reduce the risk of shoulder injury. Bringing the elbows into the body at an angle of approximately 35-55°, gives the shoulder blades more room to move as they track down and back. Switching from a “T”- to “V”- position might feel awkward at first, but stressing proper technique as a coaching point will not only help young athletes avoid injury in the long term, but will also allow them to perform more push-ups in the short term.
Take away. Elevating the hands makes the movement easier. At higher elevations, athletes can increase the number of push-ups performed until they have the new technique mastered and are ready to go to the floor. Once they are able to move back to the floor, they should progress slowly. Learning the “V”- position can take up to four to six weeks, but once mastered, it will last a lifetime.
Gene Coleman was the Head S&C Coach for the Houston Astros from 1978-2012 and is currently a S&C consultant for the Texas Rangers and Professor Emeritus in the Exercise and Health Sciences Program at the University of Houston – Clear Lake and Website Education Manager baseballstrength.org. Xavier Saldana, CSCS is a minor league strength and conditioning coach for the Texas Rangers. Xavier Saldana, CSCS is a minor league strength and conditioning coach for the Texas Rangers.