The True Health Benefits Of Push-Ups

The year is 1972.  Shortly after graduation from high school, I was inducted into the Army.  It was a lazy summer afternoon when I left home headed for Fort Polk, Louisiana.  Late that same evening, I arrived in Shreveport, Louisiana along with approximately 250 additional new Soldiers.  Our world, as we knew it, changed dramatically and life would never be the same.  Over the next few days, we processed into the Army, received uniforms, got to know each other and received our first introduction to the push-up as a form of mass punishment.  In quick fashion, we became quite familiar with this basic and effective exercise.  Throughout the remainder of this article, I will focus on the benefits of and pitfalls to doing the basic push-up.

The push-up is a basic exercise, incorporated into many group and individual exercise programs.  In the Army, the push-up is used to test individual strength and fitness.  In the gym, I sense the push-up has been or is being replaced with the bench press.  If the push-up is not a regular part of your workout routine, I hope you will reconsider your decision after reading the remainder of this article.  Its benefits are underestimated and routinely overlooked.  Let me explain why.

The standard (physical education) style push-up activates nearly every muscle in the body.  In its purest form, the push-up is a family of movements designed to move the body, as a single unit.  This exercise will engage the muscles in your arms, chest, back, core and every muscle in between.  An “honest” push-up is a slow movement from a full extension to a point of “maximum” depth without reaching the ground or disturbing the body’s taut, rigid, straight line posture.  Once maximum depth is achieved, while maintaining the same rigid posture, return to a full extension. Sounds simple, right?

Photo Source: Men’s Health – Photographer: Beth Bischoff
Photo Source: Men’s Health – Photographer: Beth Bischoff

 

Personally, even today, I find that the push up “sounds easy,” however; the execution is always more challenging.  So, by now you must be asking, why is this Dude so hyped about the push-up?  Over the course of 31 years, I have found both the intended and unintended benefits of doing this basic exercise.

So what are the benefits of incorporating the push-up into your workout routine?

Simply stated, the benefits are:

1. Increase your functional strength through full body activation.  As the body is lowered to the floor and you begin feeling the burn, I am confident that you are not thinking about the number of muscles you are engaging.  The major muscle groups activated as a result of the push-up includes the biceps, core muscles, triceps, anterior deltoids and the lower body muscles used to support the body while stabilizing the movement.

2. Muscle stretching for health and vitality.  Once again, as the body is lowered to the floor, the back muscles are fully engaged achieving and effective and efficient stretch.  As the body returns to the starting position, the biceps also obtain a full stretch.  Both movements contribute to improving flexibility.

3. Enhances cardiovascular system.  The push-up is considered a complex exercise. It is complex because of the multiple muscle groups engaged at one time.  When multiple “large” muscle groups are engaged, at one time, the heart works harder to deliver oxygen enriched blood to the muscle tissue.  Since the heart is also a muscle, having it work harder helps to strengthen the cardiovascular system.

4. Increases whole body muscle definition – Human Growth Hormone (HGH). The more muscle mass engaged during a workout routine, the greater the production/release of hormones.  Specifically the hormone HGH.  This specialized hormone supports the natural growth of the entire body.  As HGH is produced and released, it contributes to the body’s natural muscle growth.  Incorporating the push-up into your workout routine will maximize the benefits of the push-up.

5. Protect your shoulders from injury.  Researchers have found that the standard push-up has been found to be among one of the most effective ways to safeguard the shoulder joints from injury, especially in older athletes.  Because the shoulder engages the stabilizing muscles surrounding the rotator cuff joint, this area of the body is strengthened and conditioned as a result of this dynamic movement.

6. Improves your posture.  When push-ups are properly executed, the muscles responsible for supporting your posture are strengthened and fine-tuned.  As you regularly engage in the push-up, your body will naturally lean toward proper posture. This is one of the best, passive benefits of the push-up.

7. Prevents lower back injuries.  As mentioned earlier, the push-up totally engages the entire torso to stabilize its movement.  By developing strength, in the back, you cultivate muscles responsible for reducing lower back pressure, which is imperative to preventing lower back injuries.

8. Save time while cultivating a strong body.  In today’s busy environment, there are occasions when we simply “run out of time,” get “too busy,” are “too tired,” or simply “don’t want to hit the gym.”  This is where the push-up can be your best friend. Although you may not have time for a traditional strength training or cardiovascular workout, I’ll bet you can find five minutes to invest in yourself.  You don’t need a fancy gym, or loads of equipment to do the push-up.  As a full body exercise, five or ten minutes will contribute to your strength and development training.  Feel free to play with hand and foot placement to target your muscles from different angles.

9. No cost for a full body workout.  You do not require an expensive gym membership to obtain an effective and thorough full body workout.  Engaging in the push-up exercises, you will effectively achieve fatigue of both your major and minor muscle groups thereby achieving the same benefits as a traditional full body exercise routine performed in a gym.

10. Increase testosterone and reduce osteoporosis development.  Several studies suggest the simple movements within a standard push-up promotes testosterone production, which is essential for a healthy body in both men and women.

Photo Source: Yuri Arcurs, Shutterstock
Photo Source: Yuri Arcurs, Shutterstock
As I have discussed, the push-up is a slow and controlled movement where the body moves as a complete unit.  To achieve the best results, form is essential.  Here are some pitfalls that can compromise your form.  If you avoid these pitfalls, you are nearly guaranteed an “honest” push-up.  Here are pitfalls to avoid:
  1. Sagging:  This is dropping the belly in an attempt to hit, or reach the bottom early.
  2. Piking:  This is when the athlete sticks his/her butt in the air.  This usually done to achieve some sort of rest position.
  3. Resting:  Coming to a complete stop.  This is usually done at the top of the exercise and is often combined with piking.  May result in a collapse at the bottom of the push-up.
  4. Bouncing:  This cheat is exactly what the name implies – bounding off the floor to rise to the top without effort.
  5. Yogaing:  With this cheat, the head and neck lead up followed by the chest then the belly.  It is a dynamic variant of sagging.  In the Army, this routine is referred to as snaking.
  6. Reaching:  Reaching in its most common form is accomplished engaging (stretching) the head and the neck.  Some “cheaters” can extend their head and neck an extra six inches in an attempt to find bottom early and avoid the pain of the push-up.
  7. Speeding:  As discussed, the push-up is a slow “one-two” up and “one-two” down unless doing a timed effort like a “Tabata” interval where reps are being timed.  Otherwise, the reps have to be a slow “one-two” count.
  8. Shorting:  This is the worst and most common error where the athlete does not go all the way down.  Not rising to the top is less common by still cheating.
So far I have discussed how to do an “honest” push-up, the benefits of including the push-up in your workout routine, and some of the common pitfalls.  Here are some ideas and milestones on how to incorporate the “honest” push-up into your workout routine.  Here is a progression routine that I have used with great success:
  1. 50 honest basic push-ups
  2. 10 handstand push-ups.  (Handstand push-ups can be assisted or unassisted.  It took me quite a while to master the assisted handstand.  (Don’t despair, you will get there.)
  3. 100 honest basic push-ups
  4. 15 handstand push-ups
  5. Tabata interval basic push-ups with 20 reps in each 8 intervals.  (Tabata is a timed routine.  The athlete performs 8 rounds of push-ups in 30 second intervals – 20 seconds of push-ups and 10 seconds of rest.  The clock does not stop until the completion of round 8.)

This will get you started.  Once you are comfortable with the push-up and you have mastered the basic form – you will be constrained only by your own imagination.

Tip and Trick for Mastering the Basic Push-Up Form.  Early in my military career, a young Medic saw that I was having difficulty moving my body as a complete unit.  He suggested the following.

Once you are in the push-up position, cross one leg over the other.  (In my case right over left).  As you begin lowering your body to the floor, you will immediately notice the body is “forced” to move as a complete unit while engaging your core muscles.

If you would like to learn more about the push-up you can check out these on like site:

  1. http://www.recordholders.org/en/list/pushups.html
  2. Charles Linster is considered the Godfather of Push-Ups.  You can learn more about his journey by using the following link:  http://www.recordholders.org/en/list/pushups-linster.html
By GJ PUHL, Free Lance Photojournalist and Creative Director Of Photography

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