Pushup: the most popular bodyweight calisthenics

Perry Gil S. Mallari

Perry Gil S. Mallari

The pushup is among the best overall exercises you can do to achieve general fitness. Why? Because the pushup treats the body as a unit and not as separate parts. While the most visible actions are seen in the arms, performance of this exercise requires contraction of almost all the muscles in the body. The pushup also strengthens the link between the upper body and the lower body. If that link is weak, a person would not be able to perform the standard pushup—it’s either the butt would protrude or the hips would drop. The unbent position of the spine during pushup allows maximal transmission of nerve signals from the brain to the muscles. Anything that improves the brain-muscle connection will improve performance. The pushup encourages deep breathing hence it also improves cardiovascular capability. And yes, it also works the abdominal muscles.

Proper form
You need to learn the proper form of the standard pushup to maximize its benefits. You need to constantly check your form in the beginning though the need for this would diminish as you enter the stage of unconscious competence (meaning you’re already in autopilot). Always begin on all fours (on hands and knees) when performing the standard pushup. First check if your hands are shoulder-width apart (thumbs pointing at each other). When pressing yourself away from the floor, it is the base of the palm not the fingers that should be absorbing the force. Don’t hyper-extend the elbows at the end of the pressing movement. You can look forward but the neck should not be stiff. That accomplished, you can now straighten your legs but keep your feet together as this will make the exercise more challenging. The upper body and the lower body must form a straight line. The butt must not protrude and the hips must not drop. Breathe in while going down and breathe out while going up. The ideal rhythm should be two counts going down, one count at the bottom and two counts going up (2-1-2). This cadence assures maximal contraction of the muscles involved. The proper standard pushup depth is one-fist length between your sternum and the floor. Unless you’re doing plyometric pushups (ex. clapping pushup), avoid bounce and momentum. Employing bounce and momentum would allow you to perform more reps but they will diminish the amount of muscular contraction, which is the goal if you want to become stronger.

You can increase the difficulty of the regular pushup by elevating the legs. When you perform the standard pushup, the weight distribution to the legs and arms is 50-50. When you elevate the legs, around 70-80 percent of the weight was transferred to the arms. This is the reason why the handstand pushup is among the most difficult forms of pushup because in that exercise you are pressing almost 100 percent of your bodyweight. Another way to make the regular pushup more challenging is by lifting either one of your legs thus reducing the number of foundations supporting your bodyweight.

Pushup and muscle growth
The human body is designed by nature to adapt to challenges. This adaptive capability is what is being exploited when we perform muscle-building exer-cises like the standard pushup. Hypertropy is the scientific term for muscular growth. When we exercise, we’re basically hitting the muscles with a load. The brain then interprets this as a stressor and sends signals to the muscles to increase in size and strength to be able to cope with the demand. The muscles are basically “torn down” during exercise and rebuilt bigger and stronger during rest.

Pushup and muscular strength
In a nutshell, increasing your muscles’ capability to generate tension is the essence of strength training. “Because tension is the mechanism by which your muscles generate force . . . The skill of tension-generation is the most important variable in getting stronger—it is much more important than the building of muscle mass,” says Russian strength training expert Pavel Tsatsouline.

The more you train your muscles to contract maximally the stronger you become.

This ability to generate maximum muscular tension is the foundation of powerful hitting in combat sports and martial arts. This is demonstrated when you’re delivering a blow whether with a weapon or with your limbs – you tensed up maximally at the point of impact. Your ability to inflict damage on your opponent and escape injury is dependent on how skilled you are in generating muscular tension.


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