First we had the ice bucket challenge. This time round social media has revived the ancient bodyweight exercise of the push up.
It is, of course, all in the name of a good cause — military veterans’ mental health — and celebrities from Guy Ritchie to David Beckham have been piling in to show their support.
The challenge, which may have been flooding your Facebook feed, involves performing 22 push ups for 22 consecutive days and posting a video of yourself doing them each day. You are then required to nominate someone else to carry on the trend.
The aim is to raise awareness of the number of military service personnel who commit suicide because of post-traumatic stress disorder (an average of 22 a day).
Instead of leaving people soaking wet, the challenge has the advantage of getting people off the sofa and encouraging a bit of exercise.
Even though push ups have been around longer than most of our grandparents, people still have trouble doing them. So here’s how to avoid the pitfalls and perform the exercise in the best possible way.
How to make the most of your push up
Push ups exercise the pectoral muscles, triceps, and anterior deltoids, with added benefits to the rest of the shoulders and other areas of the torso. The midsection as a whole, in fact, gets a great workout.
The most common problems people tend to have are:
— Shoulder pain
— Lack of upper body strength
— Lower back pain
— Lack of understanding to how they should be performed
Some of this is down to problems with posture. Rounded shoulders, hunched upper backs, neck pain and stiffness are all too common and make it more difficult to perform a push up efficiently.
These issues also affect upper body strength. With rounded shoulders we are inhibiting the ability of our pectoral muscles to perform effectively.
To compensate for a lack of upper body strength we tend to let the lower body sink to the floor. This is a large reason for people’s lower back pain when performing the exercise. If the lower body sinks from an optimal plank-like stance, then added pressure is transferred to the lower back area rather than distributed evenly across the upper body and torso.
This brings me to my most important point. Good posture may help, but understanding the set-up will give you a much greater chance of performing the exercise effectively. Here are my four top tips…
Keep a tight core. Do this to avoid the sinking of the lower back. Try bringing your belly button in towards your spine while squeezing your bum muscles along with your thigh muscles. This connection of abdominal, bum and leg muscles allows you to stay plank-like and provides your upper body the opportunity to do its work against the floor.
Pack your elbow in. A common error is the flaring of the elbows. This is an attempt to compensate for a lack of force, which is often because the set-up is incorrect rather than because you are not strong enough. Have your index fingers in line with the knobbly bone on top of your shoulder (the acromion process), then move your torso into a position that allows your forearms to be perpendicular to the ceiling. The box-like shape allows you to generate greater force.
We all have different arm lengths and torso sizes, so we have to find our own optimal position. If this is achieved, then shoulder pain tends to be significantly reduced. It will also improve your long-term shoulder health and allow the supporting triceps and latissimus dorsi muscles to perform better. Having joints in line gives the shoulders and chest a greater range of motion.
Push the ground away. A lot of us imagine lifting our bodies off the floor when performing the push up. Instead, push the ground away — you’ll find you lift more effectively. It will give you better tension throughout and create more of a full-body exercise.
Breathe out on the push. Try taking a deep breath in on your descending phase and a big exhale on your way up. This can add to the effect of your push up and help you transfer more force when looking to complete the movement. It can also help you to stay composed, keep your blood pressure low and stop dizziness. (Typically exercises where we face the floor have a greater likelihood of making us dizzy.)