On a flight back from training in Egypt last September Instructors Anna Wallen and Sharon Ngo were seated together. “What are your press-ups like?” “Could be better – even after years of trying – blame it on my embonpoint*. You’re an engineer – what can we do about it?” “Pencils and papers to the ready – ” So after numerous stick figures, excuses, experiments, and research, here is Anna’s Project Press-Up report, Part One.
“Done properly, press-ups are one of the simplest and most beneficial exercises there are to improve your Kung Fu and general fitness. However, as in all training, it can be difficult to get the movement exactly right. Many of us can find developing the correct muscles for press-ups problematic. This article focuses on what a press-up entails, what the common problems are and how best to correct them and build up your physique.
What’s in a Press-Up?
The two main aspects to work on for press-ups are correct posture and muscle strength. They work together: correct posture is impossible without muscle strength, and the correct muscles are not developed unless posture is maintained.
Helpfully, the best technique for this exercise also benefits your Kung Fu, the key points being:
- Back curvature and pelvic alignment
- Elbow and hand position
- Range of Motion
Back Curvature and Pelvic alignment
Throughout a press-up the body should be straight as a plank from shoulder to heel. This requires work by your abdominal muscles, glutes and quadriceps, and the amount of load varies with the amount of weight carried around the waist and thighs (see weight distribution in Part 2). Arching the back can be a useful stretching exercise but is of little use when training the arms muscles and no use at all for the core.
Anterior Pelvic Tilt
Doing press-ups is also a good time to work against anterior pelvic tilt (APT).
APT affects most people who spend a lot of time sitting. Over time, the hip-flexor tendons can shorten, the pelvis rotate and the spine arch beyond neutral; eventually, standing up no longer corrects the tilt. It is normal to have a certain amount of anterior pelvic tilt; 5% for men, 7-10% for women. However, above 13% can present with back, hip and knee pain.
For strong stance, we spend a lot of time working to reduce APT: tucking the hips under gradually lengthens the hip-flexors and flattens the lumbar arch, and doing press-ups is no time to miss out this pelvic realignment. Tighten the gluteus maximus and tilt the base of your pelvis forward slightly. This will also encourage you to maintain a straight spine from shoulders to heels.
Elbow Alignment and Hand Positioning
The inside of your arms should brush the side of your body as you complete a press-up, just as they should when punching; this will train your triceps and chest muscles together with your shoulders.
Allowing the elbows to splay transfers more load directly to the shoulders and can miss out the smaller muscle groups.
The optimal hand position varies from person to person, depending on weight distribution. Each person should try different hand positions between shoulder height and lower ribs to see where best to balance and lift their upper body weight. This can vary significantly for men and women.
Press-ups training can also be a time to work on knuckle conditioning. Concentrating the weight through the part of the fist used for impact during a punch strengthens the fist
Use your breath to power the movement so breathe in on the down, out pushing up. Once this becomes automatic, breathe slowly in, going down, then repeat three swift press-ups using a portion of that breath on each up, snapping back down without breathing in between.
Range of Movement
Full range press-ups use all of your muscles, from head to toe, to move or stabilise your weight. OK, strictly speaking facial muscles aren’t needed, but occasionally they decide to join in and share the pain.
The full range means moving from chest touching (not resting on) the floor, to push up until your arms are straight, supporting your (naturally) straight back.
As a variant you can continue until the spine is as high as possible between the shoulder blades, in order to fully work the rhomboid and trapezius muscles between spine and shoulder blade.
The Four Pillars of Perfect Press-ups
So there you have it, the four pillars of the true press-up: straight spine, elbows tucked in, controlled breathing and full range of motion. Now we just have to build the muscles to do them correctly.”
Part 2 Coming soon – why do some people struggle with press-ups more than others? And what can I do about it?
Important Footnote regarding embonpoint
“Let me make this easy for you so you don’t have to ask me about it in class” – Instructor Sharon Ngo
the plump or fleshy part of a person’s body, in particular a woman’s bosom.“the lady of a certain age and uncertain embonpoint wore strapless black lace kept up by sheer determination”