Scaling the Push up
by Coach Sara Carr
If you are the average CrossFitter, you took your very first class thinking you were awesome at push ups (or at least able to do them). Halfway through your very first WOD, you probably realized that you have been doing them wrong your entire life and hit muscular failure after a few short minutes. Many of our “benchmark” WODs have a high volume of pushups (100+) and you may still be struggling to complete them as rx’d. Even if you are doing the full volume, chances are your last 30-50 reps aren’t very good.
Before we talk about how to scale the push up, let’s establish what a “good” push up is…
In your starting position:
-Hands should be right outside of the shoulders (shoulder width apart).
-Most importantly, you need to maintain a solid “plank” or “hollow position”. In the plank: squeeze your butt, lock out your knees, tighten up your thighs, brace your abs, and keep your feet together.
-Maintain this position as you lower yourself to the floor. A nice tight body position during the entire movement is a must!
-In the bottom of the pushup, chest should be touching the ground. Some people’s thighs will touch the ground, but what’s most important is that the hip stays flat and the plank position is maintained throughout the movement.
-The elbow should stay over the wrist, not drift back or out to the side. The shoulders will move forward over the hands in the descent of the push up.
-The push up is complete when you have returned to the starting position with locked out elbow while maintaining a plank position throughout.
Most push up errors occur when there is a loss of mid-line stability.
The following are examples of incorrect push ups:
Chest and thighs touch the ground at separate times and/or leave the ground at separate times.
Hips and shoulders do not move together in unison. Rotation occurs around the
hips so only the torso moves down to the ground.
3. Touching stomach instead of chest to the Floor.
Hips and shoulders move in unison, but the hips start too low with a severely arched back so the stomach touches instead of the chest. You’ll also notice in this video I do not fully lockout my elbows at the top of the push up.
Hips shoot up off of the ground first before the chest.
If you cannot properly complete a full ROM pushup while staying in a plank position, you need to use one of the following progressions:
1. Barbell in Rack Push ups
Place a barbell in a rack at a height that you can complete a pushup maintaining a straight line from shoulders to feet and touch the chest to the barbell. This is the preferred option as it allows for the greatest degree of scaling. As pushups get easier, lower the bar by small increments.
2. Box Push ups
Perform exactly the same as with the barbell in the rack. This is a perfectly fine scaling option, it just doesn’t allow for the smaller increments of lowering or raising the degree of difficulty.
3. Knee Push ups
These are not a great scaling option, but may be used if you don’t have access to a box or barbell in a rack. These do not allow you to learn and develop proper midline stability. They tend to be an easy movement to cheat which is why we prefer you do an elevated push up in a plank position instead.
4. Slow Negatives (Accessory Work)
These are a great option as accessory work or in small volume (30 reps or less). Start in a plank position, lower yourself to your chest as slowly as possible maintaining a straight line, and worm it back up to the plank position. These will help build a full range of motion push up, but should generally not be used as a scaling option in work outs.
How to Scale Push ups in your WODs
If you read my article on scaling the pull up, the concept for push ups is exactly the same. Here are some of my best tips on how to improve your push ups:
1. You should almost always scale the volume down and do a difficult version of the push up. Instead of doing 100 push ups to a 24-inch box, do 50 push ups to an 18-inch box. Always do the most difficult range of motion you can with best technique for as long as possible during a workout, then scale (again, mid workout) as needed.
2. Break up your reps into very small sets. One of the biggest mistakes I see in high volume push up workouts is trying to do too many pushups in a row. This leads to muscular failure very quickly (i.e. “Cindy” 20 minute AMRAP of: 5 pull ups, 10 push ups, 15 squats or “Tabata Push ups” 20 seconds push ups, 10 seconds rest for 8 interals)
3. To find out how small your sets should be for a high volume workout: First, determine how many push ups you can do “unbroken” (without coming out of a plank position). Divide this number by 3 and keep your sets to that number or less. For example, if a person can do 20 unbroken push ups, I would advise them to never do more than 7 reps at a time. Doing small sets with short breaks will keep you away from failing for a much longer period of time.
How to Increase Your Push ups
Slow negatives (as mentioned above) are a great place to start if you cannot do a push up. Once you can complete a full range of motion pushup, you can start to increase the volume by performing accessory work.
1. You’ll want to work on push ups frequently.
Practice them at least once or twice a week outside of class. (If you don’t have a push up, this accessory work is also useful, just scale to your current progression.) Frequency of perfect push up practice is going to trump just doing tons of less perfect push ups in a single workout once per week.
2. Perform “Tabata” intervals.
If you have a few, a very useful method for increasing how many push ups you can do is the Tabata interval. This is defined as 20 seconds of work, 10 seconds of rest for 8 rounds. However, only the lowest score counts.
For example, if you complete 10 reps in the first two intervals but only 7 reps in the third interval, the highest score you can get is 7. My recommendation is to do Tabata push ups twice a week as accessory work. Start with a low number (1-3 reps) and try to add one rep every week. Every week your total volume of work completed within 4 minutes will increase by 8 reps.
3. Determine what is your main “weakness” with your push up and improve that…
Do you have weak triceps? Maybe some additional strength work is in order. Can’t hold a proper plank for longer than 3 seconds? You will need to spend some time working on planks. If you are not sure what the issue is, speak with your coach and they can advise you on what to work on. Generally, most people just need to practice more often with the intention of getting better at the skill, rather than only performing them in timed settings where form can deteriorate quickly.
4. Do push ups!
All the accessory work in the world will not help if you do not work on the actual push up. The more you practice push ups the better you will become at performing them. It’s not rocket science, but it takes some commitment on your part. Always start with the toughest progression possible for push ups during a warm up or workout, then scale the progression as needed to maintain the right body position and movement.