We’re all advanced these days. We need the latest specialist exercises, the newest clever equipment to target our development. We’ve outgrown the traditional moves, mastered them and moved on. Yeah, right.
Done your press-ups lately? Could be just about the best exercise you are missing. If you think they are beneath you, try them with one arm, and feet together. You might perhaps discover there’s still a challenge waiting there. Press-ups can be scaled to match any level of difficulty, so there really is no excuse for not doing them. You can even buy ‘press-up bars’ to perform them on, but as ‘Coach’ Paul Wade (author of the essential bodyweight classic “Convict Conditioning” and inspiration for much of this post) says, “You’ve got the floor right there!” How many gadgets do you need?
Start with the form. Keep the shoulders down (maximising ear-to-shoulder distance), and your elbows tucked in to your sides. Let your triceps brush your lats as you press, and you will really test your arm pressing power. Keep the feet together, avoid bouncing by pausing for a second at the bottom, and milk the negative by taking a couple of seconds over it. Make sure you lower yourself fully, so that your chest is a fist width from the floor – put a tennis ball or book there to keep you honest, but don’t rest on it. You might find the exercise has just become a lot, lot harder. Try breathing in through your nose as you go down, and keep your abs tight as you push.
The precursor to the press-up is the simple plank. Don’t let the hips & belly drop (this applies equally to the press-up), and if necessary increase difficulty by alternately raising the legs. If you can’t do this for at least a minute, work it first until you can. It has been said that most exercises are just a form of moving plank, so master this position.
The easiest version is the wall press-up, done from a vertical stance. Ideal for shoulder rehab and building the necessary joint strength, this can be made harder by lowering the angle – try pressing from a bench or table. From there you can go to the floor, first by pressing from the knees. “Girls’ press-ups”, as they are sometimes called, can be made pretty taxing for anyone by keeping the form strict – can you manage 30 at a slow pace?
On the more difficult side of the scale, try drawing the hands closer together until the tips of the first fingers touch. This will really test the triceps, and prepare you for the one-arm challenge. Further difficulties required? Raise the feet on a box, or put one hand on a basketball (alternate sets for each arm) to bullet-proof the stabilising rotator cuff muscles. When the exercise becomes tough, keep the reps low and stop when your form deteriorates. If pure strength is your goal, follow Pavel’s classic formula: pick a variant you can do for 3-5 reps, and do 3-5 sets, with 3-5 minutes between sets, and 3-5 days between sessions. And ladies – have no fear about ‘bulking up’, please!
When you have built a base of strength, you can introduce some plyometric variations – the clapping press-up is the classic example. Explode upwards from the bottom position and clap – once, twice or three times – while up in the air.
Finally, remember that when you are building pressing strength, you should be balancing the work with some pulling exercises, so don’t neglect your pull-ups and/or rows.
More power to your elbows!