Three Ways to Make Pushups More Challenging

By Parabolic Team
Mar 27, 2017

When it comes to bang for your buck exercises, it’s difficult to beat the pushup.  Nearly every client who walks through the doors of Parabolic will, at some point during his or her time with us, learn to execute the pushup with a high level of technical proficiency, and an understanding that it is as valuable a tool as there is in the quest for a bigger, stronger, healthier and more resilient upper body.

The benefits of a well-executed pushup are numerous.  They include strength, hypertrophy, and muscular endurance throughout the entire upper body, as well as the ability to control and stabilize the thorax, which sets the foundation for scapular stability, mobility, and optimal shoulder function.  Additionally, the pushup engages serratus anterior and the entire anterior core, which allows us to inhibit the lats, paraspinals, and other posterior chain muscles that are often overused for respiration and movement and pull people into a sagittal plane extension dominance.

While the conversation may go on in some circles as to the best ways to “strengthen” the rotator cuff and develop shoulder stability, the ability to move the posterior aspect of the ribcage back to the scapula so that the scapula can slide and glide through a full range of motion on a curved, congruent surface is critical to shoulder health.  The pushup is a fundamental horizontal reaching exercise that both teaches and challenges the individual’s ability to properly position the scapula on the thorax, then protract and retract the scapula in a movement that requires both strength and reflexive stability.  When it comes to building healthy shoulders, don’t overlook the importance of mastering the pushup, as it is the base upon which all other upper body pressing exercises and patterns are built.

In addition to being a high return on investment exercise, the pushup requires no equipment. It is perfect for busy individuals who are short on time, have to travel frequently, or lack equipment/access to a gym.

Learn The Intricacies of The Pushup Here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1ajqMFfWT78

Admittedly, there comes a time where the basic pushup alone is no longer a significant challenge to many of our clients.  Despite the fact that many people come to us and have to essentially relearn the pushup with proper mechanics, most active, healthy clients can perform pushups to our standard within a short time after learning the position and control we emphasize.

Once an individual is proficient in the skill of the basic pushup without excessive compensation — and once we have challenged their ability by adding volume — we need to find ways to challenge the pattern further to drive the person to continue to adapt.

Some might add weight in the form of a vest or chains.  Some might add a power component and perform plyometric or explosive pushups.  Others might even discard the pushup altogether, and move permanently to some sort of externally loaded pressing or reaching exercise like a floor press or bench press.

While these are all viable options, there is another route—keep the pushup in the program, but challenge the individual’s stability and control.  This requires no extra equipment, and in most cases involves very simple alterations to the basic pushup that make it exponentially more challenging.

The goal of these pushup variations is to maintain respiration, a neutral alignment of the pelvis and ribcage, and full protraction of the scapula on a flexed ribcage in more complex and unstable positions — as well as under conditions of fatigue.

When many people think of increasing the difficulty of an exercise, they consider only variables like weight, volume, velocity, etc.  Adding complexity once a basic pattern has been mastered is just as valuable a way to increase the difficulty of an exercise while continuing to develop the basic ability to control and sense position of one’s own body in space.

These variations are a great way to challenge core and shoulder stability, and can be added to any workout where pushups would be performed.  However, my favorite place to use them is as accessory work after heavy lifting to get in some additional upper body volume with a focus on movement quality.

Push-Up + Breathing

The pushup + breathing is often the first exercise I’ll go to after a client has shown the ability to execute the fundamental pushup for relatively high volumes without a breakdown in technique.  It involves performing a normal pushup, but instead of flowing continuously from one rep to the next, the top position is held for a full breath cycle.

This accomplishes two things:  First, it increases the time the individual is under tension by a large margin. Spending longer at the top of each rep while holding an isometric reach will make it much more fatiguing than a regular pushup.

Second, it forces the individual to own the top position of his or her pushup and find an optimal position in which to breathe.  It just so happens that to get good breath – breath that expands the ribcage 360 degrees — we need to align the pelvis and ribcage and inhale from a position of full exhalation.  The top of a pushup is a phenomenal place to do that.

By holding the top position of each rep, we are creating an environment where the individual has to focus on protracting the scapula, a full exhale to draw the ribs down, in, and back, and then an inhale with active abdominals to try to expand the upper back.

This is a deceptively hard exercise, and challenges shoulder and anterior core stability to a far greater degree than a typical pushup.  In order to focus on achieving a quality breath on each rep — and because time under tension is greatly increased — we usually start people with 3-4 sets of 5-8 reps performed as a secondary or accessory exercise for the day.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m5msYqdGC1c

Push-Up To Single Arm Support

This is a personal favorite of mine.  The pushup to single arm support is a great way to add a unilateral component to the pushup, challenge reflexive shoulder stability, and train triplanar gait of the thorax.

Perform a pushup as usual finishing with an exhale and a full reach.  Then, holding the reach throughout, lift one arm off the ground and reach across the body and touch the opposite ribcage.  Imagine the shoulders are headlights and keep both headlights facing directly towards the floor.  More importantly, keep the pants’ zipper line facing directly towards the floor.  Pause in this position and resist the tendency to want to rotate away from the down arm for 2-3 seconds, then place the hand back on the ground, perform another pushup, and then repeat with the other arm.

By removing one hand from the floor we can greatly increase the challenge to the individual’s ability to reflexively stabilize the shoulder of the arm that remains in contact with the ground, as well as the ability to control the pelvis and the ribcage in all three planes of motion.

The goal of the exercise should be to keep the pelvis as neutral as possible, minimizing rotation.  This can be accomplished by trying to imagine keeping the belt buckle facing straight towards the floor.  While the pelvis remains neutral, by reaching through a single arm and exhaling, we are creating rotation through the thorax.

This is created primarily by the serratus anterior on the side of the arm we are reaching through, which abducts the thorax to the opposite side in the frontal plane and creates rib internal rotation on that side with rib external rotation on the other.  To use a concrete example: reaching with the right arm abducts the thorax to the left, creates left rib internal rotation, and right rib external rotation.

Here is where the ability to keep the pelvis neutral and not let it rotate along with the thorax becomes critical.

Many sports, especially rotational sports, require the ability to disassociate movement of the thorax from movement of the pelvis in all three planes of motion in order to optimize biomechanical efficiency.  By keeping the pelvis neutral and driving rotation through the thorax via a unilateral reach, we are training this disassociation with active abdominals and control of both of these structures in three planes of motion.  This is the real function of the so-called “core” and makes this pushup variation an all-star for any athlete whose sport demands rotation.

If, however, we allow the pelvis to rotate along with the trunk, we are no longer rotating the trunk. We are just rotating the entire body.  The inability to disassociate movement of these two key structures is at the root of many movement dysfunctions and mechanical inefficiencies in sport.

To truly be a beast, try to hold the reach with a neutral pelvis and take a full breath cycle.  By inhaling with rib internal rotation opposite the side of the reaching arm, we create trunk rotation to the same side as the reaching arm.  In essence, we are training the mechanics of the torso during normal human walking.  Again, to employ a concrete example: after reaching and exhaling with the right arm, inhaling with the left ribs internally rotated will drive trunk rotation to the right.

While this all sounds very complex, this exercise is great because it allows an individual to feel exactly what he’s doing improperly.  Most people will try it the first time and find themselves rotating away from the down arm uncontrollably while also shifting their center of mass too far towards that same arm.  The individual will then have to find a way to stabilize in order to avoid losing control of the position.  My advice — continue to exhale until the tank is empty and reach further.

Performing this variation demands and develops triplanar core control, reflexive shoulder stability, and the ability to inhibit posterior chain muscles like lats and paraspinals, all while building muscle mass and localized endurance.  In my experience, it’s one of the most effective and time-efficient upper body accessory exercises we have at our disposal.

Begin with 3-4 sets of 4-6 reps each side.  This may seem conservative, but if the movement is performed properly with a focus on quality over quantity, this will be more than enough.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nZqBGIlXXKQ

Push-Up With Mountain Climber Breathing

There is one commonality that all field and court sports share—locomotion, often in the form of sprinting.  Even on ice in the game of hockey, the mechanics of skating fast are not as different from sprinting on land as many people think.  In all of these cases, locomotion involves the ability to “split the hips” or rapidly move one hip into extension to put force into the ground while the other hip moves into flexion.

While this action occurs at the hips, the abs work to help control the pelvis and ribcage in three planes of motion. The ability to achieve proper sprint mechanics for optimal efficiency and speed demands that athletes not just be able to produce a great deal of force into the ground and do it quickly, but that they are able to get into and maintain an alignment that affords them the ability to express full ranges of motion at distal joints like the hips and shoulders and produce force in the right direction to propel themselves forward.

This is why physical preparation practitioners like Ty Tyrrell and Mike Robertson of IFAST preach the importance of training core stability in positions of hip extension and where the pelvis is “split.”  The ability to control the trunk and pelvis in a position where one hip is extended and one is flexed is essential to executing proper acceleration mechanics, which has application to every team-based sport imaginable.  If we hope to teach athletes proper sprint mechanics, we need to give them context and stability in positions associated with sprinting.

Enter the pushup with mountain climber breathing.  This is an advanced pushup variation that involves moving one hip into flexion while the other stays in extension as the individual presses himself up from the floor.  As the knee is driven forward into a position of hip flexion, exhale and reach through the floor, blowing out as much air as possible and drawing the ribs down, in, and back.  Hold the position and inhale, maintaining active abdominals so that the air fills and expands the upper back.  Fully exhale once again, then bring the flexed hip back into extension and repeat the process on the other side.

Not only does this variation involve a ton of time under tension and is, therefore, brutal on the upper body, it also trains the anterior core in a position that is similar to the posture seen in the acceleration phase of sprinting.

By flexing one hip, we increase abdominal activity, which, coupled with a full reach and exhale on each rep, will allow us to inhale and drive air into the posterior ribcage, which sets the foundation for scapular and shoulder stability.

While it is very beneficial for athletes to learn to control their bodies while holding a position that resembles the lower body mechanics of gait, this is also just a great way to train core stability for anyone who has mastered the basic pushup and is looking for a very challenging variation.

Once again, quality is more important than quantity, and we usually start with 3-4 sets of 4-6 reps each.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p9Z4kIfDFd0

Too often, we cast aside the basics, believing that once we’ve reached a certain level they can no longer offer us benefit.  This is the furthest thing from the truth, as mastery of fundamental movement can benefit us at any level.

Even if the pushup alone is no longer a challenge, simple additions that require no equipment at all can continue to develop quality mechanics while building strength, hypertrophy, and muscular endurance, making the pushup a highly adaptable and valuable tool in any athlete or fitness enthusiast’s arsenal.  These three variations enhance the effectiveness of the pushup and create an awesome full-body training effect that also fosters movement quality for those who are ready for the next step.

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