Pushup Research

Today an article that I co-wrote with my friend Elsbeth Vaino appeared on TNation. Here’s a link to the article, it’s called, The Best Damn Pushups Article, Period!

Read the Article to Find Out Why this Form is Not Ideal

The TNation editors always do a great job of sprucing up my articles and discarding what’s not necessary. I always make my articles too sciency, but for those interested in a slightly more comprehensive lit review on pushups than what was found in the article, here you go:

Pushup Literature Review

An et al. (1990) found that how you set up for the pushup affected the relative joint loading during the exercise’s movement. The three main factors that influenced the intersegmental joint loads during pushups were the location of the palms relative to the shoulder joint, the plane of the arm movement, and the relative foot positions. Furthermore, the researchers found that the speed of pushup movement affected the inertial load.

An et al. (1992) found that peak axial forces on the elbow joint during pushups averaged around 45% of bodyweight. This increases to 75% in the case of narrow base pushups. This means that narrow base pushups (with your hands closer together) increases stress on the elbow joint.

Beach et al. (2008) showed that suspended pushups activated more core musculature than regular pushups. Based on this finding you can use blast straps or a TRX to increase the efficacy of the pushup exercise.

Cogley et al. (2005) found that narrow base pushups led to higher EMG values in the triceps brachii and pectoralis major than wide base pushups. Popular belief indicates that wide base pushups activate more pec fibers, but this study showed otherwise.

Donkers et al. (1993) showed that peak elbow joint force during pushups decreased if the hands were positioned either apart (wide base) of superior (high placement) from normal position. Normal hand position produced 56% of maximum isometric torque at the elbow joint, compared to 29% with hands apart and 71% with hands together. When the hands were placed superior in a high placement, the elbow ligaments significantly opposed more torque. When ligaments oppose torque, the ligaments are stressed but muscle force requirements diminish since the ligaments are “picking up some of the slack” so to speak.

Freeman et al. (2006) studied the EMG responses in nine muscles (rectus abdominis, external oblique, internal oblique, latissimus dorsi, erector spinae, pectoralis major, triceps brachii, biceps brachii, and anterior deltoid) in ten advanced individuals during twelve pushup variations (standard, fast concentric, slow eccentric, single arm left, single arm right, uneven hands left, uneven hands right, clapping, one hand on ball left, one hand on ball right, no legs, alternating hands on ball, both hands on ball, and two hands on ball). The most challenging exercises for the various muscle groups follow: rectus abdominis – alternating hands on ball followed by two arms on two balls, external obliques – alternating followed by clapping, internal obliques – alternating followed by one arm, latissimus dorsi – one arm followed by clapping, erector spinae – one arm followed by alternating, pectoralis major – clapping followed by alternating, anterior deltoid – one arm followed by clapping, triceps brachii – clapping followed by alternating, biceps brachii – clapping followed by alternating. When performing uneven pushups, the opposite side rectus abdominis and external obliques elicited more activity than the same side of the hand placed forward.

Gouvali et al. (2005) measured the pectoralis major and tricep activity on eight advanced subjects in six pushup variants; normal position, shoulders abducted (wide base), shoulders adducted (narrow base), shoulders positioned anterior to hands (shifted forward), shoulders positioned posterior to hands (shifted backward), and from the knees. The load relative to bodyweight for a standard pushup was found to be 66.4%, while the initial load relative to bodyweight for a knee-pushup was found to be 52.9%. Wide base pushups diminished pectoralis major and tricep activity from standard form, whereas narrow base pushups increased pectoralis major and tricep activity. Shifting the torso forward relative to the hands (low placement) resulted in increased pec activity and decreased tricep activity. Shifting the torso rearward relative to the hands (high placement) resulted in slightly increased pec and tricep activity. Performing pushups from the knees decreased pec and tricep activity. The most challenging pushup variation for the pecs was the shifted-forward position (low placement) followed by the narrow base position, whereas the most challenging pushup variation for the triceps was the narrow base position followed by the shifted-rearward (high placement) position.

Hogwarth (2008) found that in order to keep the core stable during pushups, on average the abdominal muscles contributed 64%, 87%, and 4% to vertebral joint rotation stiffness (VJRS) about the flexion/extension, lateral bend, and axial twist axes, respectively (VJRS is a measure of joint stability). The rectus abdominis contributed around 43% to VJRS about the flexion/extension axis at each lumbar joint, and external oblique and internal oblique contributed around 53% and 62% to VJRS about the lateral bend and axial twist axes, respectively, at all lumbar joints with the exception of L5-S1. Due to changes in moment arm length, the external oblique and internal oblique contributed 56% and 50% to VJRS about the axial twist and lateral bend axes, respectively, at L5-S1. Transversus abdominis, multifidus, and the spine extensors contributed minimally to VJRS during the push-up exercise. This means that the rectus abdominis prevents your hips from sagging and your lumbar spine from hyperextending, whereas the obliques prevent you from shifting to one side or twisting while you perform pushups.

Janssen et al. (2000) examined muscle mass and distribution patterns in 468 men and women aged 18-88 years old. While seemingly unrelated to pushups, this study is in fact important. It showed that men have more absolute muscle mass than women (33 kg vs. 21 kg) and more relative muscle mass (38.4% vs. 30.6%). Go figure, right? But the weight distribution varied from men to women. Men have 40% more upper body muscle mass and only 33% more lower body muscle mass than women. Put another way, men have a lower body to upper body muscle mass ratio of 1.28, compared to 1.45 for women, or a 17% higher percentage of lower body muscle mass divided by upper body muscle mass. This might make the pushup exercise more challenging for the core and less challenging for the shoulders for women, and more challenging for the shoulders and less challenging for the core for men.

Juker et al. (1998) found that when standardized to a percentage of MVC, the pushup elicited 24% mean psoas, 29% mean external oblique, 10% mean internal oblique, 9% mean transverse abdominis, 29% mean rectus abdominis, 10% mean rectus femoris, and 3% mean erector spinae activity. Pushups from the knees reduced the percentages to 14, 10, 19, 7, 8, 19, 5, and 3, respectively.

Lehman et al. (2006) found that the pushups with the hands placed on a Swiss ball significantly increased tricep activation. Swiss ball pushups also increased pectoralis major, rectus abdominis, and external oblique activation compared to pushups on a bench from the same angle, whereas pushups with the feet placed on a Swiss ball did not affect muscle activity compared to pushups with the feet on a bench from the same angle. Based on these findings it appears that as long as you kept the torso angle constant, it would be more effective to perform exercises such as Swiss ball and Bosu pushups in comparison to bodyweight pushups as long as you place the hands on the unstable piece of equipment rather than the feet.

Lehman et al. (2008) found that elevating the feet above the hands had a greater influence on scapulothoracic stabilizing musculature than placing the hands on a Swiss ball. This means that it is more challenging for the shoulder girdle stabilizers to do pushups with your feet elevated onto a bench with your hands on the ground than to perform pushups with your hands on a Swiss ball and your feet on the ground.

Lou et al. (2001) showed that internal rotation of the hand position or full pronation of the forearm during pushups led to greater posterior and varus forces on the elbow joints which could produce injurious shear forces. Based on this finding, it is recommended that internally rotated hand positions should be avoided for optimal elbow health.

Sandhu et al. (2008) found that pushups with the hands placed on a Swiss ball significantly increased tricep and pectoralis major activity compared to normal pushups, but only during the eccentric phase. The researchers also found that serratus anterior and upper trapezius activity did not change from standard pushups to Swiss ball pushups.

Suprak (2011) found that subjects supported 69% of their bodyweight in the top position of a pushup and 75% in the bottom position of a pushup, compared to 54% and 62% for the knee pushup, respectively. This means that a pushup is harder at the bottom position than the top position.

Tucker et al. (2008) showed that pushups activate 27% MVC for the mid trapezius fibers, 36% MVC for the lower trapezius fibers, and 75% MVC for the serratus anterior muscles.

Youdas et al (2010) found that depending on the hand position, the push up activated between 73-109% MVC of the triceps brachii, 95-105% MVC of the pectoralis major, 67-87% MVC of the serratus anterior, and 11-21% MVC of the posterior deltoid musculature. The researchers also found that the narrow base position was the most effective position for increasing tricep contribution, and that the Perfect Push up™ device did not enhance muscular recruitment.

29 thoughts on “Pushup Research

  1. Vlad Padina

    “[...]the speed of pushup movement affected the inertial load[...]”
    “a push-up is harder at the bottom[...]”
    REALLY? I would’ve never, ever thought of this…Maybe the studies should’ve been signed by captain Obvious? (saying this in a joking, not an offensive manner)
    Nice article. But -I- would’ve found it so much more interesting had it spoke more about the one-arm push-up and handstand push-up. Since, e.g. the 1A Pu seems to activate the external rotators a lot, and places a pretty large load on the obliques… Also would’ve been interesting to know how much of MVA for tris, pecs, shoulders the 1AP and HSPU activate…
    Also, the effect on the rotator cuff (p/rehab) push-ups have, or the activation of the RCuff with PUs/1APUs/HSPUs vs. bench press/DB BP/Military press…
    By this, I’m just saying that the classic push-up is still not that useful for anyone advanced (or if it is, why?), and you didn’t quite speak about the advanced variations.

    Reply
    1. Bret Post author

      Haha! I wouldn’t think that many trainers would intuitively know that…

      I did want to speak about the one-arm pushup and thought I included a video from Nick Tumminello where he discussed proper form. I’m curious about all the things you mentioned too.

      Reply
  2. Neal W.

    Bret,

    Don’t the studies above that looked at instability devices contradict the notion that stability=increased force? It seems to be the case that force is decreased when you introduce instability for the lower body but increased for the upper body. What do you think

    Reply
    1. Bret Post author

      Force doesn’t increase, but EMG for certain muscle groups does. And I agree, I have studies showing that instability decreases force production on squats, another showing that it decreases force production during deadlifts, some showing that bench is around the same (with other studies conflicting with it). During unstable training, you can get higher EMG (correlated with muscle force) with simultaneous decreases in external force due to the instability.

      Reply
      1. Neal W.

        Ah, gotcha. So, if the EMG is increasing/decreasing does that mean muscle tension is increasing/decreasing?

        Reply
  3. James

    What is the word on performing them on your fingertips?. Greater core activity?. I think Bruce Lee was onto something doing them this way, especially doing the entire set with your core musculature highly compressed i.e exhaling all the air from out your lungs & maintaining the compression.

    Good link for press-up variations: http://artofmanliness.com/2009/07/21/push-ups-exercises/

    Reply
  4. Vlad Padina

    They seem self-evident to me…
    On the other hand, I’m a Civil Engineer and have an interest in anatomy and bomechanics… and for some unknown reason tend to presume people actually have an idea of anatomy, trigonometry, and Newton’s second law… He he.
    (if you ever find the time to check shoulder external rotator activity during 1A PUs…though… you’re the greatest!)

    Reply
  5. Vlad Padina

    Oh, and the “Inside the muscles series” was GREAT. Showing that nothing beats the (weighted) chin-up in terms of biceps and ab recruitment…priceless.

    Reply
  6. Echo

    …and by ‘too sciency’ you must mean not dumbed down enough for the average Jane like myself? T-Nation might decide it’s an easier read but please don’t stop the research, explanation or discussion of all these great topics just because some of us have to read them with a medical dictionary in hand. I only wish I was kidding. Your articles, and the ensuing comments, provide great insight and I am more muscle-smart every time I finish a Bret Contreras piece. Plus, now I know a sexy pair of Dr. Seuss socks will make me irresistable!

    Reply
  7. Mark

    I kinda have a special interest in this , my oldest son had a fall from the front porch when he was 4 years old and it actually broke him arm ,bent it steven seagal style when I lifted him I about crapped. Now ,he’s 6-3 and 180 lbs ,not really into weight training but we do sparring ect. He has trouble with pushups and basical cant bench because the tendon running over or across the elbow kinda flips and causes a clicking sound and eventually pain. We tried the wider version after reading the article and he said still slight pain but not as bad as closer style grip that I tend to use. Im not sure wwhat the answer is for him ,the orthopedic basically didnt know. For me , I always knew faster coming up = harder contraction . I also am not really sure why but my lats get very sore from pushups. I guess I use them at the bottom to rebound if I get my hands somewhat nuetral ,not wide and not close but kinde mid range. Nice Post !

    Reply
  8. Dale

    Bret -

    I kept waiting for you to chime in on the Livespill of your pushups aricle. My question was whether you knew anything about Stuart McGill’s findings on one-armed pushups. Saw where he reported that OAP’s create ENORMOUS spinal compression.

    Reply
    1. Bret Post author

      Sorry Dale, I was so busy that day. I wouldn’t doubt that OAP’s create enormous spinal compression. What’s the worry? So would deadlifts, Pallof presses, etc.

      Reply
      1. Dale

        Well, the worry is that Dr. Spine thinks it’s bad. I’m not sure I want to run afoul of Dr. Spine. Of course he doesn’t want me sitting either. The Grinch.

        Reply
        1. Bret Post author

          Dr. Spine looks at individuals with low back pain. I’m sure that if all of a sudden he were put in charge of an American football team as a Strength & Conditioning coach and his ability to feed his family depended on him winning, then he would employ many exercises that induced large compressive forces on the spine. In other words, I think that much of McGill’s advice is tailored toward physical therapists and athletic trainers, and that the coaches should learn as much about the spine especially for rehab purposes and even prehab purposes, but at the end of the day we are the ones working with healthy athletes and preparing them for battle, and we are the ones who determine their programs. I’m a big fan of McGill’s work, but we work with different populations who have different goals and needs. I don’t care much for the one arm pushup, I just want to say that the compressive loading argument is way overused in our profession and most coaches don’t understand spinal loading. -Bret

          Reply
          1. Dale

            I do appreciate the counter-perspective. And not to impute to you thoughts that you’ve not ventured, I’ve even begun to wonder about the hyper-cautionary stance towards flexion. Myself, I suppose I hedge my bets, but the question has been supposed as to why, if we were not meant to spend time in flexion,even flexion under load, why the lumbar region was not fixed to begin with.

          2. Vlad Padina

            What Dale said. Why on Earth can the lumbar spine flex, if flexion is so bad, and why did some docs have INCREDIBLE results in patients with spinal degeneration, sciatica etc. by using loaded spine flexion-extension exercises? (exrx.net, low back tidbits and low back debate)
            Also, coach Nick T has a number of articles on the topic, and the point was that the discs and the spine are actually GREAT at resisting compression -that’s just what they were made for…

  9. Pingback: Karsten Jensen’s Blog -Get Healthy. Get Fit. Get Strong. “Yes You Can!” » Blog Archive » Why Fighters Do Push Ups

  10. Vlad Padina

    Bret, will you ever do an experiment on EMG activity of tris/shoulders/pecs/EXTERNAL ROTATORS/obliques during 1A Push-ups and weighted 1A Push-ups? (wink, wink)

    Reply
  11. Poul Hansen

    Hi Brett, thank you for your supplement to the great article on t-nation.
    A little request: could you share the articles in a different format? PMID or similar?
    If you are using a citation manager of some sort any type of output file would be great and would make hunting down the original full articles much easier. VERY interesting stuff in there!

    Reply
  12. Annika

    Hi,
    Just interested in reading more into differences regarding gender with push ups. Any change you could post me the details to your reference from Janssen et al. (2000) about muscle mass and distribution patterns in males and females please?
    Much appreciated!

    Reply

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