Constantine, the Emperor of Rome, is credited with inventing the modern push up. It is fitting, that the humble push up is really a king amongst your repertoire of exercises.
What is more, you only need the floor, some intention towards action and a little grit to get a great workout.
Unfortunately, Men seem to either not bother to do Push Ups, or revel in popping out hundreds upon hundreds of them a day. This is either a crying shame, or a journey towards shoulder injury.
The Push Up is a useful tool to use in developing your upper body. There are literally hundreds of variations, some more useful than others. As with everything, you need to figure out what you want to achieve in order to select a suitable variant.
Personally, I want maximum results, in minimal time.
That’s why when the need arises, I like to utilise what I term, the Maximum Tension Push Up.
Before we outline the MTP, let us delve into why Push Ups in general are so useful.
Firstly, unlike a bench press, where the shoulder blades are supported by a bench, a push up forces the muscles that stabilise the shoulder blades to work harder because they are not supported. Amongst other muscles, this stimulates your Serratus Anterior better than usual pressing movements. This is a muscle that you will see really well defined in boxers torso’s. It originates along the underneath of the shoulder blade and attaches into the ribs. As well as holding the shoulder blade firmly to the chest, it pulls the shoulder blade out around the chest. Hence it is usually well developed in boxers because of the punching action they repetitively use.
Why is shoulder blade stability important anyway? Well, think about the anatomy of the upper limb. The only place the whole upper limb and shoulder girdle is attached to the rest of the body by way of a bony connection is via the small sternoclavicular joint. Essentially your collar bone.
Because the shoulder blade provides the ‘socket’ to the ‘ball’ that is on the end of your humerus or upper arm bone, and because the scapula depends a lot on the muscles supporting it to give it stability, it doesn’t matter how strong your big prime movement muscle like your pecs and triceps are. Without stability at the scapula, your brain won’t let them contract as powerfully as they could do.
A great visual example of the importance of the Serratus Anterior is to observe someone who has a Long Thoracic Nerve Injury. This nerve innervates the Serratus, and when it is not working, due to injury or dysfunction, this is what happens to Scapula movements:
Think of the shoulder like a Crane. If the base of the crane is stable it can lift huge loads. If the base of the crane is not locked down, the operator (or in this case your brain) will sense that something will break if it tries to work hard, and lower the power output to safe level.
Don’t lose the visual image of that boxers punch. The Push Up also engages the core muscles and co-ordinates it with the upper body. All upper body, functional dynamic movements start with a ground reaction force, translate through the core and detonate in the upper body. That co-ordination of core and upper body is essential.
I could go on, but let us finish with the statement that Push Ups really do work the pectorals. Just don’t be fooled into widening your hand placement so that you can ‘hit’ the pecs more. If you think about the attachment of the pec muscle, its tendon inserts into the upper humerus or upper arm. To maximise the stretch, range and contraction of the pec major, move your hands closer together. Around shoulder width is ideal. The more the upper arm goes back into extension behind the body, the more of a stretch you get on the pecs. Place your hands wide apart and all you do is reduce the range of movement the pecs have to work through and place more stress on the front shoulders.
Now for the Maximum Tension Push Up.
1. Assume a push up position. ‘Tuck in’ your pelvis so that you feel tension in the abs and your glutes are active. No sagging in the middle, you’re not about to make sweet love to the floor. No sticking your arse in the air, you’re not about to do an Instagram booty photo shoot. You should feel tension through your core and your legs should be tight.
2. Hands around shoulder width apart. Screw your hands outwards into the floor. This activates the external rotators and shoulder blade muscles. Keep this tension.
3. Then pull your hands down towards feet. This sets your lats and depresses the shoulder girdle. Keep this tension.
4. Lastly, squeeze your arms together hard. This activates your pecs hard. Keep this tension.
5. Now slowly lower to the floor as you breathe in. About 5 seconds is perfect. Then push up as you exhale. Keep your tension!
6. At the top of the push up, give some extra effort to the squeeze on your pecs for five seconds and repeat the push movement. For the discerning amongst you, about a 5 second eccentric or lowering is about right. the tempo would look something like this. 5-1-1-5
7. Of note, as you lower, make sure your shoulder blades squeeze together, and as you push up, ensure your shoulder blades are pushed apart. This ensures your serratus gets worked hard.
These Maximum Tension Push Ups feel exponentially more difficult than popping out high reps of standard push ups, and you should feel a deep burn in the pecs after a few reps. I occasionally use them to finish a pressing session after benching. Also, they are ideal if you are travelling and need a decent work out, but have no access to equipment.
Here is a brief video running through the main points. (Note, I don't stick to the tempo!)
If you have been debating starting some exercise, hit the floor and get some reps done today!
Men, keep grinding!