Q. My question involves the basic pushup. How do you do it? Where should the hands and elbows be? Should you touch the chin or the chest? Feet apart or together? Is it better to clap the hands in between? Are they bad for your back? Look straight ahead or down at the floor? I've heard too many experts give their opinions. Can you please set the record straight?
A. The pushup is an exercise primarily designed to develop the pectorals (chest), deltoids (shoulders) and triceps (back of the upper arm). While performing pushups, most people perform what I call "throwups" and "falldowns." In other words, they're more concerned with how many they do rather than how they execute the pushups. You should focus on quality, not quantity. Here's how:
1. Place your feet at a comfortable width (together or apart). If balance is a problem, spread your feet farther apart.
2. Your hands should be placed just wider than the shoulders to provide the maximum range of motion. Don't worry too much about the position of your elbows. You'll find a position that is most comfortable and usually most efficient. More often than not your elbows will be closer to your sides.
3. Elevate the hands off the floor -- say, by using a couple of books -- to provide maximum stretching of the muscles involved. Full range of movement cannot be achieved if any part of the chest touches the floor. Some people sacrifice range of motion by touching their nose or chin on the floor.
Why do people sacrifice range of motion? It's easier! You can perform more pushups by cheating. The lower you go, the more difficult the exercise becomes. You won't strengthen your muscles through their full range of motion if you don't elevate your hands off the floor and lower your chest as far as it will go (without touching the floor) each and every repetition. Forget about clapping your hands. That's okay for the circus but I wouldn't recommend it.
4. Emphasize the lowering phase of the pushup. The same muscles are used during the lowering phase as are used during the raising phase. The lowering phase is half the exercise. Unfortunately, most people have been programmed to concentrate on the raising phase, and so gain nothing from the lowering phase.
Once they've extended their arms, most people allow the body to free-fall toward the floor while performing little or no work. Because of gravity the intensity of exercise in the lowering phase is extremely low when compared to the raising phase in which gravity works against you. To increase the benefits gained from the lowering phase, you must increase the time allowed and/or increase the amount of resistance to be lowered.
I'd recommend that you allow approximately three to four seconds to lower your body to the full stretched position. If your bodyweight is not enough weight, have a training partner apply resistance manually to your upper back during the raising and lowering phase of the pushup.
I encourage people to look down at the floor instead of straight ahead. This allows you to relax the neck and concentrate on lowering the body to the stretched position, and it helps prevent low-back arching.
5. Eliminate the use of any momentum while raising the weight. Raise your body evenly and smoothly. Too often, the lifter free-falls to the floor and then allows the chest to bounce up in an attempt to use some momentum to raise the body. Why? Because this makes it easier. You can do more pushups this way.
Point: Any time you make an exercise easier to perform, it becomes less productive.
6. To stimulate maximum gains, you must continue exercising until you cannot properly execute another pushup. At this point a training partner can assist you during the raising phase. You can also drop to the hands and knees positon. This will take some of the weight of the hips and legs off the working muscles, making the exercise easier to continue if you wish.
There's no need to exercise to the point of exhaustion. You can stimulate significant gains by stopping short of exhaustion. Maximum gains cannot be had, however, without exercising to the point of momentary muscular failure.
Pushups, by the way, should not aggravate the back unless you already have a chronic low-back problem. Weak abdominal muscles are the reason some people assume that sway- backed position (stomach closer to the floor than the chest). Concentrate on keeping the body in line throughout the entire exercise.
And the next time you visit the gym don't be tempted to join Mr. Macho doing those throwups and fall downs. Realize he's been indoctrinated to be more concerned with how many pushups he can do rather than doing them properly. You can do better than that.