Q: I have a question inspired by your upright row comment. I think I read once that if you can’t do body weight push-ups you shouldn’t be loading weight on bars when you do chest work. What are your thoughts on that?

A: If there is one thing that I have learned as a strength coach it is that if you want to build a big chest and strong upper body, you can only do so with heavy weights.  Push ups only allow you to press with your body weight  which you can do a hundred times if you only go halfway.  With the barbell, even if you can’t bring the bar to your chest, you can press almost double your bodyweight.


If you don’t get the Big Bang Theory reference, it means I made a joke and  I’m completely bullshitting.  Kind of like the guy at the gym who asks you to spot him with 315 on the bar then barely flexes his elbows and then locks out before he says take it.  Bazinga.

In all seriousness, I feel that those who are unable to perform a proper push-up have enough to work on such as posture, core strength, and shoulder stability.  Needless to say, they  shouldn’t be trying to build strength and master an advanced exercise without laying a proper foundation.

I’m not saying it takes a lot of skill to press a bar off your chest

Statistically, 95% of men want to build a bigger chest and do so without the presence of shoulder pain.  Oddly enough, that same percentage of men are unable to perform a single pushup, a comparably difficult exercise to it’s bastard 2nd cousin, the barbell benchpress.

What’s more is pushups are much more efficient when it comes to building core strength which is another area most people need to work on.  The fact that you can hold a plank for 5 minutes yet fail to do pushups that don’t look like you are rippin’ and tearin’ speaks volumes of your core strength.

Sorry for the visual but sometimes this is what it looks like to me when some people do push ups.  In order to prevent this from happening to you, here are a few progressions that will have you doing push ups better than the other 95% of people in the gym.  That includes the bros with the big chest muscles.

Here are a few simple steps to help you fix your push-ups or just do them for that matter.

Step 1: Get in a good starting position.

As simple as it sounds many trainees drop the ball on this one.  I see saggy hips, head flopped over, belly sticking out, and no scapular retraction.  I also see a wide variety of hand placements which are either too wide, too narrow or too far ahead of the body.

Push-up Start Checklist:

  • Neutral Spine
  • Lats Tight
  • Hands Perpendicular to Shoulders
  • Knees Locked
  • Glutes Squeezed
  • Neck Packed (head back, chin down)

To make sense of all that, you should be able to place a dowel between your shoulder blades which should be in contact with the back of your head, your back and your glutes.  Until you can maintain this position, don’t do a pushup.

Step 2: Stay tight on the way down.

This would be the negative or eccentric movement of the exercise.  Since you have taken initiative and learned the starting position, now it’s time to move and it’s much easier to go down than up.

Just like in the checklist, your hips and shoulders should remain engaged to build stability as you move.  Focus on keeping your glutes tight to prevent your hips from rotating which will invariably cause you to arch your back.

If you have your lats and shoulder engaged (tight in the socket), it shouldn’t be hard to keep your elbows tucked in against your body or at the most 45°.  Coincidentally, this is where they should be.  NOT jutting out 90° to the body which will create a lot of undue stress on the joint, possibly impingement.  Big no-no.

Step 3: Descend, pushup and repeat.  Done.

At the bottom of the push-up, your body should resemble the starting position.  You know you have fudged up somewhere along the line if a) you don’t reach the floor b) you faceplant into the floor c) your hips hit the floor like you are rippin and tearin.  Here are a few variations of the push-ups I see when I look around the gym:

If your pushups resemble any of the above and/or your dance moves resemble mine, you’ve got some work to do.  Your spine should remain in neutral alignment from head to arse through the whole movement.

If it is too hard to maintain good posture during either phase, you should begin your quest on an inclined surface such as a bench, table, or Smith Machine.  Since were on the subject, this is all that the Smith Machine should be used for besides a coat rack.  Thank you.

Another great way to practice pushup posture is to place a dowel between your butt cheeks and maintain contact with your butt, back and neck. Start from the ground up and only focus on good technique, not how many reps you can get done for the WOD.

P.S.  I really can dance.


Written by Steve