By Dave Thomas
CPT – NSCA, USAW, RKC
I get it. The board has hang cleans, some box jumps, maybe a short distance run and some planks. So all you is the opportunity to set a 5R hang clean PR. Or, maybe it has barbell rows, DB presses and some light, body weight squats. It’s easy to pay almost no attention to the movements that have no weights involved. After all, your coaches are focused mainly on the complexities of the barbell movements during your walkthrough, those are the movements we recommend tracking and since it’s just body weight you don’t have much risk of injury. So, they are kind of an afterthought, right? I mean, there’s no max pushups record on the board, right? So they must just thrown in there for some extra complimentary work?
Call us crazy. But we think your 400# deadlift should also come with a 50″ box jump. That your 275# split jerk is insignificant if you can’t also perform 20 strict pull-ups. You don’t see 300# squatters performing crappy body weight squats in the heat of a workout, either. They slow down and do ’em proper.
Perfection in one leads to proficiency in the other, and vice versa.
Aside from the fact there are no throw-ins at P360, owning and mastering your body weight work is critical for a handful of reasons.
- It creates proper movement patterns and habits. This is absolutely critical in order to be successful at weightlifting. You cannot get strong at back squatting until you learn how to repeat a deep body weight squat a thousand times.
- It builds volume. You can’t exactly perform 100 push press in a day without feeling beat up afterwards. You can, however perform 100 pushups and be no worse for the wear the next day.
- It helps builds strength in ways that barbells and weighted movements cannot. See: volume.
- It improves your balance and kinetic awareness in ways barbells cannot. Simply put, you learn to feel and react to your body’s movement which helps you from an athletic perspective.
- It helps prevent injury.
- It helps build muscle through hypertrophy.
In today’s fitness landscape, Olympic and power lifting have become commonplace, making it easy for us to forget about just how amazing the basics can be when we do them right. Bodyweight movements build volume, prevent injury and allow us to build unflappable movement patterns. Above all, the person that has the most control and strength over their body weight movements will likely be among the alpha male and females in the room. Bank it.
Not only will proper attention to your body weight work provide great dividends, but shouldn’t you just give a damn? Don’t you just plain want to be able to know you can knock out good push-ups and pull-ups?
If that answer is yes, then follow us along this four part journey. In it we will look at four beneficial body weight movements, a comprehensive guide to doing them right and getting more in return.
- The Pushup
- The Plank
- The Pull-Up
- The Body Weight Squat
The pushup is body weight offender numero uno. Put twenty people in an assembly line, ask them to do 20 pushups and you’re likely to see one person posses the strength and the focus to do all 20 without flaw. Do you still perform modified pushups even though you’ve been at the gym for over a year? Are you a male who has trouble fighting through fatigue on the way to eight sets of ten pushups? It’s likely a complete lack of patience, focus or willingness to slow down and do them properly in order to develop the requisite strength required to actually get better at them.
First, why care?
Did you know?
That in an electromyopgraphy (EMG) test that pitted the band-resisted pushup against the bench press to see which movement experienced the higher intensity of muscle contraction, that the pushup and the bench press came out as dead even over the course of six reps?(1) Even though the bench press piles up all of the weight on the barbell, the oft overlooked pushup hits the same muscles in a very similar manner, without all of the stress on the shoulder. Ever wondered why we don’t bench as often as the other barbell lifts? Because the push-up is not just some weak ass attempt at upper body strength. The study concludes, “It’s on par with category leaders if performed correctly.
As cited by Charles Poliquin, a proper pushup will require you to move approximately 64% of your bodyweight (49% if it’s performed on your knees) (2). That’s a quasi challenging load spread out typically over a high amount of volume, providing ample opportunity to get bigger and stronger over the course of a 30 minute pushup-containing workout.
Consider this for a hot second.
A deadlift at 200% bodyweight for a 175 pound male is 350 pounds. One might perform 25 reps of that in a given deadlift workout, resulting in 8,750 pounds moved during that time frame.
Take that same 175# male who performs 100 flawless pushups in a workout. At 64% of his bodyweight, that’s 11,200 pounds moved.
You move 22% more volume in the pushup workout than the heavy deadlift workout.
Now, this is not to say to start prioritizing pushups over deadlifts. Don’t be foolish. They are also completely different forms of strength training and we all know deadlifts are like Fergie and Jesus singing, and blah, blah, blah. So back off.
It’s simply meant to illustrate a point that pushups matter in a real way, so let’s dissect this thing down to it’s skeleton, shall we?
Your Set Up
This is where most people are just all wrong from the get go, and without the proper positioning of your hands, arms, hips and even neck, you will perform crappy rep after crappy rep.
Create Tension – For starters, pull your feet and knees together so you can maintain tension. Part of the pushup benefit is in the work on the trunk/core musculature, and even the quadriceps which are working isometrically. Without tension, the work on these muscles becomes lost. Tension starts in your feet and moves its way up the chain, so bring your toes together, lock your knees, squeeze your glutes together and keep everything tight and tense until that set is finished.
Kiss the Ground to Maintain Tension – Believe it or not, where you position your head has everything to do with how your hips will behave in a pushup. The very top part of your spine is the cervical area (C-Spine) and is very sensitive to hyperextension (looking up when you shouldn’t). When you are in the pushup position, it is impossible to look up without your hips sagging downward. When your hips sag, you break that important tension and basically remove any work on your trunk/core. You also immediately shorten your range of motion and look like one of those people having bad sex with the floor versus performing a pushup. Instead, focus on kissing the floor. Not literally, but look down and at end range of motion your face should be centimeters off the floor with eyes looking straight down at it the whole time.
Stack the Joints – Elbows are usually flailing all over the place on bad push-ups and the result can be very detrimental. Number one, it can be bad for the shoulder. Number two, when your elbows flare out at 90 degrees you greatly reduce the involvement and targeting of the shoulders and chest and basically just make it a semi-dangerous tricep exercise. Your working joints (wrist, elbow, shoulder) should essentially all just be stacked on top of one another throughout all parts of the rep. This means that your elbows should stay at about 20 – 40 degrees off your body the entire time, and your starting position from your hands should be thumbs directly underneath your shoulders. Flaring elbows are the probably the biggest culprit in sabotaging the productivity of the pushup.
Everything Arrives at Once. In any body weight movement, correct positioning will have everything arrive at the same time. In the pushup, your head, chest, hips and legs should all be reaching the floor together and then returning to the starting position at the exact same time, essentially just making this exercise a “moving plank” (as you have likely heard your coaches reiterate in class). The flip side of this would be sagging hips that hit first do to looking up the whole time. Pretend your body is connected by a string from your ankles to your ears and that you must keep that string linear throughout the entire set.
Essentially, the pushup is all about creating and maintaining tension and proper joint angles throughout the course of the rep and the set. Here is a compilation we took spur of the moment on some of the P360 members performing their pushups during Monday’s 50/100 rep training. These are very good examples to strive for and it’s no coincidence these folks are all strong and proficient in many areas and movements.
Worry not if you perform pushups on your knees as these principles still apply, just from the knee upward.
It may seem like we just took a basic movement far too seriously, but in reality, shouldn’t we do that with every movement we do in the gym? After all, what’s the point if you’re not looking to be rewarded to the fullest for your efforts?
Part II later this week: The plank.
Dave Thomas is co-owner and coach at Performance360 in San Diego, CA.