Greetings from Heaven!
As it turns out, Heaven is actually located off the coast of New Zealand. Who knew? The island of Waiheke, my home for the past few days, is definitely one of the most beautiful places on Earth; I was initially scheduled to just spend an afternoon here, but that has quickly turned into three days because I can’t get enough of this place. Now, this article would have been up yesterday, but I ran into some technical difficulties with internet connections (which can happen when you’re on an island paradise), so you’re getting it today instead.
Fortunately, today’s post has nothing to do with Valentine’s Day; hopefully you can forgive me for not talking about how St. Valentine drove the snakes out of Ireland because he saw his shadow after finding a tooth under his pillow. We’ll save that for next year.
Instead, let’s talk about push ups!
Push ups are one of the best exercises ever invented (thanks random caveman, whoever you were) – they require zero equipment, build strength in all of the right places, have hundreds of variations to keep things fresh, and are easily quantifiable so keeping track of progression is a breeze. Push ups are a HUGE part of the Nerd Fitness Academy.
If you couldn’t already tell…push ups are kind of a big deal.
I realized that I had never done a proper post on proper push ups (say that three times fast…or don’t – your call), so today is the day you’re going to make sure you’re doing things right. All pictures in today’s post were taken on the island of Waiheke.
Ever since I’ve started traveling and haven’t had regular access to a gym, push ups have become my go-to exercise.
Today, they’re going to become yours too.
How to set up for a proper push up
When it comes to push ups, your form is crucial. Each push up needs to be done perfectly so that your total reps measured from workout to workout are on equal footing. If you did thirty perfect push ups two days ago, and then today you did sixty push ups by only going down halfway, sticking your ass up in the air, etc., it’s absolutely impossible to tell if you got any stronger.
Here’s how to get set up to do a push up:
- When down on the ground, set your hands at a distance that is slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Depending on your strength and experience, your hands should be angled in a way that feels comfortable to you. For me, my hands are set up so that my middle finger points straight up and away from me. You can also turn your hands inwards slightly if it’s less stressful on your wrists, or you can do your push ups on your knuckles (as long as you’re on a semi-soft surface like grass or carpet.
- Your feet should be set up in a way that feels right and comfortable to you. For some, that might be shoulder width apart. For others, it might be that the feet are touching. Generally speaking, the wider apart your feet, the more stable you’ll be for your push ups.
- Think of your body as one giant straight line – from the top of your head down through your heels. Your butt shouldn’t be sticking way up in the air or sagging.
- If you have a problem getting the proper form with your body, try this (yes I’m serious): clench your butt, and then tighten your abs. Your core will be engaged, and your body should be in that straight line. If you’ve been doing push ups incorrectly, this might be a big change for you.
- Your head should be looking slightly ahead of you, not straight down (yeah I know I’m looking straight down in my top picture, I hadn’t started yet!). I read somewhere that said “if you’re doing them right, your chin should be the first part of your head to touch the floor, not your nose.” Looking up helps you keep your body in line, but feel free to look down if that helps you concentrate more.
- At the top of your push up, your arms should be straight and supporting your weight. You’re now ready to do a push up.
How to complete a push up
Alright, now that you’re actually all set up and eager to begin, let’s get you through one repetition. Remember that good form is crucial, so keep your focus through each movement and start to set good habits.
Here’s how to complete one repetition of a push up:
- With your arms straight, butt clenched, and abs braced, steadily lower yourself until your elbows are at a 90 degree angle or smaller. Depending on your level of experience, age, and flexibility, 90 degrees might be the lowest you’re able to go. Personally, I like to go down until my chest (not my face), hits the floor. That way, I know I’m going the same distance each and every time.
- Try not to let your elbows go flying way out with each repetition. Keep them relatively close to your body, and keep note of when they start to fly out when you get tired.
- Once your chest touches the floor (or your arms go down to a 90 degree angle), pause slightly and then explode back up until you’re back in the same position.
- Congratulations, you just did a proper push up. Do as many as you can until you start to feel your form slip (even slightly); you are done for that set. Ten good push ups and 5 crappy ones are tough to quantify against eleven good push ups. If you can only do ten of something, write down your results and aim for 11 next time. Perfect form allows you to keep track of your improvements week over week.
“But I can’t do a push up!”
That’s okay, here’s a plan that will help you get there. You need to start with an easier push movement, and work up to progressively more difficult types of moves that will eventually result in you doing true push ups.
Start with Wall Push Ups:
Just like with a regular push up, clench your butt, brace your abs, and set your hands on a wall at a width that’s wider than shoulder-width apart. Walk backwards with your feet until your arms are fully extended and supporting your weight (generally one decent sized step back with both feet will suffice). Keeping the rest of your body in a straight line, steadily lower yourself towards the wall until your nose almost touches the wall, and then explode back up to the starting position.
Do 4 sets of wall push ups with a 2-minute rest between sets, every other day. Keep track of how many repetitions you can do WITH PROPER FORM for each set in a notebook for easy comparison to previous workouts. Once you can do 4 sets of 20 repetitions of wall push ups, you can progress to elevated (or incline) push ups.
Elevated Push Ups
Elevated push ups are just what they sound like – your hands are on an elevated surface, whether it’s something as tall as a kitchen table or as low as a few blocks that are inches off the ground. This will depend on your level of strength and experience.
If you’ve just progressed from wall push ups, pick something that is at a level that’s right for you – I generally find the back of a park bench or the side of a picnic table to be a perfect height for doing incline push ups.
Do 4 sets of elevated push ups with a 2-minute rest between sets, every other day. Again, keep track of all of your stats for how many proper form repetitions you can do in each set. Once you can do 4 sets of 20 repetitions, it’s time to either move to regular push ups, knee push ups, or a lower height for your hands to be supported.
To work on progression, try to doing your elevated push ups on the stairs in your house. As you get stronger, you can move your hands to lower and lower steps until your hands are on the ground.
Now, once you’re cranking out four sets of proper form elevated push ups you need to progress to either regular push ups, a lower incline push up, or push ups with your knees on the ground. In my opinion, if you can do 4 sets of 20 repetitions of incline push ups, it might be time to switch to regular push ups.
How to get better at push ups
So you’ve learned how to do a push up, you can do a few of them, but you want to get better. Here are some tips to help you along the way:
- Get healthy! As you lose weight, you will have to move less weight around than before, which will make your push ups easier to manage.
- Don’t cheat on the last few – when you’re tired, it’s easy to skip out on good form for your last few reps. As soon as you do one bad form push up, you’re done. Finish up your four sets, write down your numbers, and try to beat those numbers next time.
- Don’t do push ups two days in a row. You need to give your muscles time to rebuild and recover – take off at least 48 hours in between your push up adventure.
- Get protein into your system after finishing up your workout – protein helps rebuild the muscles you just broke down doing push ups, and it helps them rebuild those same muscles stronger than before.
- If you can do 4 sets of 20-25 perfect form push ups no sweat, then it’s time to start looking into push up variations to keep things interesting.
- Build up your core with planks - this will help keep your core strong so that it’s not the weakest link in your proper form push ups.
Push Up Variations
Basic push ups can get boring - fortunately there are dozens upon dozens of variations to make things more difficult for you. Although I think the Hundred Push Ups program is a solid program for folks to follow, I’m a bigger fan of making the push ups tougher once you’re able to do more than four sets of 20+ push ups.
Why? Because muscle and strength get built when you’re lifting a heavy enough weight that somewhere between 6-12 repetitions per set is a challenge (and even up to 15-20 reps to an extent…but beyond that it becomes less about strength and muscle building and more about muscular endurance).
Once you’re cranking out perfect form push ups like it’s your job, try some of these variations on for size. Click on each for a video demonstration (done by yours truly):
- One foot push ups – the easiest variation, your body needs to stay in balance throughout the whole movement.
- Walking push ups – adds a degree of difficulty by forcing you to move your arms around in between reps
- Decline push ups – these work your shoulders and triceps more so than normal push ups.
- Tricep push ups – keep your arms tight at your side, rotate your hands outward, and keep your elbows tight as you lower your body. Works your triceps like crazy.
- Dive-bomber push ups – funky, difficult, but oh so fun. I’d explain it, but just watch the video
- Plyometric Push ups – these are brutal and will wear you out just after a few repetitions. Just don’t hurt yourself!
And that’s just a few examples. This great post over on the Art of Manliness highlights over 35+ push up variations, including the brutally difficult handstand push up. I think I have a ways to go until I get there.
My strength building plan
Over the next few months while traveling, I’ll be working on building muscle by only doing body weight exercises and following the body weight routines – I’m going to do my best to stay healthy, build muscle, and come back in better shape than before I left. I’ll be keeping track of all of my workouts to show what happens to a guy who travels for months and has nothing but his own body weight to use for his workouts.
[update: I managed to get in the best shape of my life while traveling: here's how I did it]
That’s all for today: go home, set up an camera or grab a friend and have them film you, and check your form on your push ups. I hope you’ll find that your form is as good as you expected, but it’s okay if it’s not, it’ll give you something to work on.
Now, go do some push ups!
Today’s Rebel Hero: My buddy Zach Daniels, banjo player extraordinaire. Zach has shared the stage with guys like Lyle Lovett, Shawn Mullins, Zac Brown Band, the Barenaked Ladies, and pretty much every other big league artist out there.
If you didn’t think it was possible to shred on a banjo, you are sorely mistaken, my friend.
Because it is. And Zach does in fact shred on a banjo.
Last week Zach hopped on board a music festival cruise with the Barenaked Ladies, and he decided to represent with a kick-ass Nerd Fitness t-shirt!