Instructor Anna Wallen continues this popular subject with Part 2 of Project Press-up. Now that you know what “embonpoint” means (see Part 1 if unsure) Anna will explain the impact of weight distribution on press-up technique and power. Whilst both men and women can be equally strong and proficient at press-ups women face particular challenges based on their physiology. Knowing why is not enough, so Anna will also explore what to do about it.
Building up to full press-ups
“I can’t count the number of web videos with buff young hunks helpfully telling me to practise knee press-ups so I can build up to full ones.
I’m a research engineer. I did a quick calculation (it’s what engineers do): knee press-ups require my arms to lift 40% of my bodyweight (not counting the helpful seesaw counterweight of my lower legs, which reduces the work by my arms further). Full press-ups lift 55%. Ten kilos is quite a load to add to my arms in one go, and that’s not counting how much more my core suddenly has to work when I go straight.
Is it harder for women?
On the principle that I prefer knowing what I’m up against, the research went a bit further: aside from the fact that in general most women have less muscle to start with (especially in the upper body), more weight around the bendy bit in the middle, and build muscle more slowly, there is no reason why we should take any longer than men to become good at press-ups.
The key muscles doing most of the work heaving your body up and down are the pectorals, dorsal muscles, triceps and biceps while your abdominals and glutes are also straining to prevent any sag around the middle.
For a man and woman of equal height (1.56m) and weight (65kg), the man takes more weight on his arms.
To even this up we could add 2kg on the woman’s shoulders.
However this alone misses out the other challenge of press-ups: stopping the sag. In general women carry more weight around the midriff and thighs. So in order to even up the demands on the core muscles we need to add 3kg to the man’s waist.
This may seem unfair as the man is now carrying 3 extra kilos to the woman’s 2, but since his arms will only have to push approximately half that weight, I feel an Instructor’s level of sympathy.
Technique, and building the correct muscles
We had a think about cross-training – bench pressing looks like press-ups on your back so, can bench presses help to build arm strength as a shortcut to press-ups?
A research paper, by Kikuchi & Nakazato explains that while kneeling push-ups and bench presses lifting the same load induce similar overall strength gain, muscle growth is greater in the biceps for the bench presses (2.1mm vs 0mm), and the triceps for kneeling push-ups (2.7mm vs 1.5mm), while there was no difference in the growth of the pectoralis major (3.8mm). This indicates that slightly different arm muscles are being used, so bench presses may not be the best exercise to build the arm muscles for press-ups.
The experiment lasted for 8 weeks and the average strength gain was 5kg for the bench press group and 3.1kg for the press-up group, although the press-up group started from a higher maximum lift. As all the experimentees were young men between 19 and 22, this can be depressing reading for women, as we tend to start with less upper body strength and grow muscle more slowly anyway. The reasons for the latter, and how to work despite them, are given below.
The impact of hormones…
in the female reproductive cycle, women’s hormones fluctuate throughout the month, with a variety of consequences. I learned as a distance runner to be more careful during menses because the hormone relaxin (yes, it’s really called that) makes the joints looser and more prone to injury. Hormones are also key for muscle building.
Testosterone and Human Growth Hormone
The two main hormones for muscle growth are testosterone and human growth hormone (HGH). Women have on average one-tenth of the testosterone that men have, although this varies greatly between women. Testosterone levels released post-training (for muscle repair/ enlargement) do not change significantly throughout a woman’s cycle so there is little change in our muscle-building ability across a month due to testosterone. However, HGH release after exercise peaks during the two weeks leading up to menses. This will help women build muscle.
However, another effect during the same two weeks is an 8% drop in plasma volume. Plasma is primarily what allows us to sweat. Body temperature therefore rises more than normal during training. Lower plasma also means thicker blood, which results in slower flow between muscles and consequently slower recovery time, including muscle recovery/ development.
In order to counteract the effect of the drop in plasma volume and so allow the increase of post-training Human Growth Hormone to develop the necessary muscles, a female athlete should try to drink a sodium-based drink, while she concentrates her muscle-building exercises during this half of the month.
Artificial Hormone Levels
Many women have hormone cycles that are impacted by taking either contraceptive pills or Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT). I will come back to this issue separately, as the research findings are not conclusive – some researchers insist it makes no difference, and others finding that it does!
Muscle Building: start from your own level
If kneeling press-ups don’t seem to build you to a point where full press-ups are achievable, there are alternatives available.
Cantilever press-ups, on one knee with a single leg lifted, both increase the amount of body weight your arms are moving (42%) and engage more of your core.
Incline press-ups allow you to work your way up more gradually training both arms and core.
By finding progressively lower surfaces to press-up against: walls, kitchen sink, tables, stairs, sofa etc., you can build up the amount of your weight your arms (and core) are working to lift and hold. Instructor Sharon did some experiments with common household surfaces and body-proportioned distancing to give a rough idea of how to find your own ideal starting weight (incline) without having to get out a protractor.
Do Try This At Home
At arms’ length plus one foot length distance from the wall, the arms carry ~17% of body weight at the base of the press-up, or 11kg for a 65kg female.
Moving up to arms’ length plus two foot lengths away, this increases to 23% or 15kg. However, it can become difficult if the press-up cannot be completed because the forehead reaches the wall.
It is also necessary to be careful the feet don’t slip. To give ourselves more headroom and more of an incline, we moved onto the kitchen sink, then the dining table, and finally a low chair.
The relative % body weight lifted for press-ups on progressively lower objects are given below.
As you can see, using household surfaces can be a handy way to build up muscle strength, both arm and core, for press-ups. However, there is still quite a leap between body weight lifted from a low chair and the floor, and for this reason I estimated the body weight lifted if using a single 17cm step. However, steps actually vary from 15 to 22 cm in height in the UK, and there may not be room either for the body length, or to complete a full press-up without banging the forehead. Wrist pain may also begin to manifest as the incline and load on them increases.
Wrist or Shoulder Pain
Whilst wrist pain tends to be due to lack of flexibility, shoulder pain is more often due to poor form (unless there is a prior injury). If you do not engage your core fully during press-ups, or flare out your elbows, then your shoulders take more of your weight. If they begin to hurt (more than the rest of you) then this can be a sign that they are doing more than their fair share of the work. Work on your plank and press-ups at a higher incline.
Palms vs Knuckles vs Press-up Bars
On a sturdy surface, knuckle press-ups rotated 90 degrees (fingers, if open, would be pointing towards each other) can allow relief from wrist pain, as can using press-up bars. For incline press-ups it may be possible to turn the wrists by 90 degrees to grasp a chair but this is impossible on a stair or most other objects mentioned. Moreover, press-up bars elevate the hands, and could be placed on a sturdy box to both ease wrist pain and enable a more gradual increase in load on the arms. However, it is also important to work on wrist mobility by easing in some half press-ups with the fingers in line with the side of the body, extending the range of motion to the point of discomfort.
Reps vs weight
The latest research shows that for building strength there is no significant difference between many reps at lower weight and fewer reps at higher weight. So you can either find the maximum angle where you can only just strain through a set of press-ups, or find an easier angle and do more, to the same effect. Once you have perfected your technique then switch it up between the two, alternating fast-twitch with power.
Next Up: Part 3 – Have you tried these variations
101 press-ups you can’t live without!