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You don’t have to be a bodybuilder or enlisted in the army to be able to perform hundreds of push-ups in one go. Bruce Lee, the master martial artist, could do hundreds on his fingers alone, but that was thanks to his years of Kung fu training.

The push-up has become a test of overall fitness: most military training drills around the world use it as a measure of a cadet’s suitability. Propping your body up from the ground with the help of just your hands may be perceived to be a great upper body workout, but in truth, it engages a whole lot more.

The ease with which one can perform this exercise, without the help of any additional equipment - not even a yoga mat - gives it a universal appeal, perhaps second only to running. In fact, a study conducted in 2019 found that a middle-aged man’s cardiovascular health could easily be assessed by looking at the number of push-ups he could perform.

There are many benefits of push-ups, also known as press-ups in some countries. They make for a superb warm-up. They are a great strength-building exercise. Combined with other movements, they are an excellent workout in themselves. They are also incredibly versatile, with simpler versions like wall push-ups and kneeling push-ups for beginners and one-arm push-up and Spiderman push-ups for more advanced practitioners.

Read on to know the right way to do push-ups as well as some variations to try, depending on your skill and comfort level.

  1. Types of push-ups
  2. Benefits of push-ups
  3. Push-up variations
  4. Risk factors of push-ups
  5. Takeaway for push-ups

Even the basic movement of pushing yourself up and down on the floor has several different styles you can employ to make the most of this exercise. With just a simple adjustment to the hands on the floor, the exercise can become easier or tougher, depending on your level of fitness. Here are five ways you can perform the standard push-up:

Basic push-up: While most people are familiar with it, the conventional movement of the push-up is the first anyone should master before beginning to experiment with its multiple variations. Here are the steps:

  • Lie down on your stomach on the floor.
  • Place your hands directly under your shoulders, palms open.
  • Push your hands down into the ground to lift your body up. Your neck, back and legs should be in a straight line once your arms are fully stretched.
  • Lower yourself back down to the resting position. This is one rep.

Wide push-up: While your body remains in a similarly neutral position, your hands will assume a wider-than-shoulder-width stance.

Narrow push-up: In this stance, you place your hands inwards of your shoulders and prop yourself up.

Forward push-up: The forward in this type implies placing the hands slightly above shoulder level.

Backward push-up: Making the movement just that much more complex, placing your hands under the level of the shoulders gives the exercise another interesting twist.

If you’re a beginner and find it difficult to lift your body up, you can always try the movement against the wall (wall push-ups) or with your knees on the ground (kneeling push-ups) until you gain the strength and form to perform the basic movement with ease.

Muscles worked

The majority of push-up types are great to work the pectoral muscles (in the chest), shoulders, back as well as the arms.

Push-ups are one of the four main bodyweight exercises one can perform for a full-body workout. The other three are squats, pull-ups and dips. Following are the benefits of push-ups:

  • Do it anywhere: You don't need any equipment for push-ups. This makes them the go-to exercise for anyone, anywhere and any time of the day.
  • Strengthens bones and joints: Push-ups also help in building strength in the bones in the arms, especially in the shoulder joints that contain various tissues and ligaments.
  • Core workout: In addition to working out the upper body muscles, push-ups are also an excellent core exercise as you use your abdominal muscles to keep the body straight and stable.
  • Compound exercise: The multiple muscle groups targeted in the push-up makes it an efficient exercise for the full body.
  • Great warm-up exercise: Coaches at most gyms or fitness centres you visit for strength training will advise you to begin your routine by doing push-ups, as it works as a great warm-up exercise before doing workouts focused on the chest, back or even the arms.
  • Multiple variations: Besides the different types listed above, the push-up has evolved into several different variations, all of which can be performed according to a person’s fitness level.
  • Beats ageing: Push-ups are great for overall heart health and stamina - both of which help to delay some signs of ageing. The movement of your hands in front of your chest also improves your muscle memory and can prepare you to handle yourself better in case of a fall.

Along with the different styles of performing the standard movement, push-ups have evolved into various different variations that make it more complex, allowing practitioners to choose the variation of their liking:

  • Incline push-ups: Performing the same movement with the hands placed on an elevated platform like the step of a staircase, using push-up bars, a box, a pile of books or even the edge of your bed.
  • Decline push-ups: Making the movement a bit more complex, the legs of the person are placed on a raised platform, reversing the effects of the incline push-ups, putting more weight on the upper body instead.
  • Diamond push-ups: Placing your hands together directly under your chest to form a diamond shape with your index fingers and thumbs makes for an intense variation that engages the tricep muscles even more.
  • Weighted push-ups: Wearing a weighted vest or placing a weighted plate on your upper back increases the intensity of the push-up.
  • Hindu push-up: The version made famous by the famous kushti champions of India, this an extremely complex movement that requires a fast transition from the downward facing dog pose (adho mukha svanasana) to the cobra pose (bhujangasana), both of which are borrowed from yoga. Instead of continuing to do this transitional move, the practitioner is required to get back up after every “dand”, which makes it a spiritual predecessor to burpees.
  • Slide push-ups: Another offshoot of the Hindu push-up that has been adapted into most western workout regimes, slide push-ups work the same way as the Hindu push-up version, without standing up after every repetition.
  • Chaturanga dandasana: Another yoga movement, Chaturanga danadasana is called the four-limbed staff pose in English. This movement requires the practitioner to assume a low plank position.
  • Plyometric push-ups: Once you have gained enough strength to perform most of the above movements with ease, a series of plyometric variations can be added to your arsenal. Plyometrics involve jumping movements with push-ups - this translates to pushing yourself up with such force that both your hands leave the floor. You can add claps to the movement - just remember to get back to the original pose or it may be painful for your face.
  • One-arm push-up: If you have gained enough strength in your arms, you can try performing the push-up with just one hand on the ground, while the other one is behind your back.
  • Spiderman push-up: This movement involves taking one leg off the floor and bringing the knee up to your elbow on the way down, simultaneously.

A majority of these movements are performed after you have gained enough control and strength in your arms to be able to propel yourself up. While it also adds an element of fun to the exercise routine, they must be performed in a safe environment where you are confident to not suffer any sudden injuries.

While it is considered to be one of the safer exercises to perform over a long period of time, push-ups must also be performed according to one’s strength and fitness levels, without pushing yourself too much, as it can lead to various workout injuries.

  • If performing push-ups is causing you wrist pain, elbow pain or shoulder pain, it is wise to not do the exercise until you get it checked by a doctor. Performing push-ups with a poor posture can also cause lower back pain, as the exercise is only supposed to activate the muscles in the upper back.
  • Another challenge faced by people who do push-ups every day is that the exercise can get monotonous to perform - trying to go through the repetitions quickly to beat the boredom can lead to poor posture. Here, adding variations based on your strength levels can reinvigorate your workout.

The push-up is a simple, natural and efficient exercise that targets multiple muscle groups and can be performed by people of any age group, practically anywhere. It has tremendous benefits towards building strength, toning muscles and through its multiple variations, it can always make the exercise easy or difficult depending on an individual’s skill level.

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References

  1. Health Harvard Publishing: Harvard Medical School [Internet]. Harvard University, Cambridge. Massachusetts. USA; Why push-ups help beat aging.
  2. Yang, J et al. Association Between Push-up Exercise Capacity and Future Cardiovascular Events Among Active Adult Men. JAMA Netw Open. 2019 Feb;2(2):e188341.
  3. Marcolin, G et al. Selective Activation of Shoulder, Trunk, and Arm Muscles: A Comparative Analysis of Different Push-Up Variants. Journal of Athletic Training. 2015 Nov; 50(11): 1126–1132. PMID: 26488636.
  4. Kim, YS et al. Effect of the push-up exercise at different palmar width on muscle activities. Journal of Physical Therapy Science. 2016 Feb; 28(2): 446–449. PMID: 27064571.
  5. Lobelo, F et al. Routine Assessment and Promotion of Physical Activity in Healthcare Settings: A Scientific Statement From the American Heart Association. AHA Journals. 2018 Apr; 137(18):495–522.
  6. Nance EM et al. Dorsal Wrist Pain in the Extended Wrist-Loading Position: An MRI Study. Journal of Wrist Surgery. 2017 Nov;6(4):276-279. PMID: 29085728.
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