There's this thing.
This thing, an intuitive recognition which has always fluttered around the periphery of my mind over the years I've frequented the magical place. The magical place? For me it's the Dojang.
Coming on 17 years of martial arts shenanigans for me now. Whilst it's nothing on some of our Pioneers, Grand Masters and Masters alike - It ain't no stuffed shirt.
This thing however, is something of a paradox if you ask me.
Why is it that press ups are one of the most prescribed exercises/punishments alongside crunches and burpees, yet the vast majority of people never improve them. It stands to reason, the more of something you do over the years, the more you tend to get better, right?
The students kicks, flexibility, core strength, confidence, power and speed all seem to improve reasonably well. But their press ups still look like they did on the same day you told them we train bare foot.
Here's my theory.
The way we can spot the technical aspects of a correct kick, thus improving said technique over time - is the same method I'll employ on the press up. - You're doing them all wrong.
The Three Main Ingredients -
All Over Body Tension - Especially the Back & Core
If the hint via bold/italic typeface didn't give it away, guess which nuggets I'm going to be zoning in on? Mainly because they're two things people don't even realise matter or contribute to a successful, badass press up.
The first is the default press up position 99% of trainees assume. The second is what we need to work towards. There is a good reason why we assume the first example. (Besides instructors not really knowing how to coach it)* It's all to do with mechanical advantages.
* It's not to hate on any instructors. It's just that, the press up is an advanced exercise regularly posed as a beginners exercise. It's really not. I rarely see even strong international competitors get the press up technically right. I'm not even going to get into Lumbo-Pelvic stability here. As with any exercise, you need to tailor (regress) the exercise to fit the individual, not fit the individual to the exercise. Especially if progress is at the top of your vocabulary in the dojang.
Mechanical Advantages - Moment Arms
A moment arm is simply a length between the joint axis (shoulder) and the line of force acting on that joint.
NB: Hopefully I passed off my excellent picture editing skills without you even batting an eyelid or noticing anything out of place.
One moment arm is typically easier than overcoming two.
Two moment arms = shit gets harder. It also means that doing the exercise correctly is harder than doing it incorrectly. If this concept surprises anyone, then you haven't been paying attention. As that's a pretty standard outcome.
Incoming job role alert: Coach, coach, coach!
Then there's another issue with incorrect press up technique. Depending on how your shoulder is built and how you recruit your scapula, you can actually impinge tissue in this position. Bone structure can either give rise to lots of space to play with, or not so much space to play with. Type 3 is not your best friend for overhead stuff.
Raise that upper arm to horizontal and wham, you've got as recipe for angry shoulders as time goes by. Before you ask. Yes, it can take a while before things start to get iffy.
Besides, even if this is not an issue for you, there's still the matter of this incorrect position making it much harder to generate that muscular tension in your back required for a sweet press up. One you can actually progress and develop strength with.
Nail The Press Up For Progression.
We don't really think about our back strength with a press up do we? It's actually extremely important. When your arms are trying to support your body weight, the shoulder blades will want to effectively peel off the back of the rib cage.
So you need back strength & stability to prevent this from happening. Thus getting your shoulder blades into better positions, thus getting arms into better positions, thus being able to apply greater forces through the working muscles.
Viola. Except, you do need the requisite strength before you can actually pull all of this into place. Below are my go to technical cues which I use with my own clients to build that context. Plus some simple regressions to enable trainees to 'bridge the gap'.
Bend the bar and screw the jam jars.
Starting from the incorrect set up, imagine you've got a bar in your hands. From here, imagine bending that bar down and around, whilst also screwing open some hard jam jars with your hands.
This is what is going to generate the tension in your back, keep those shoulders in healthy positions, plus enable you to generate greater mechanical tension in the main working muscles. Thus allowing you to develop your strength over time.
It's really that simple. Not easy mind you, but simple.
Regressing the exercise.
Without sacrificing your hand placement set up and upper back stiffness, all you need to do is raise yourself off the floor. Using a wall is not going to provide an ample stimulus even for the most beginner of all beginners, so don't even bother. Using chairs, plyometric boxes or steps is the best way forward for elevating yourself from the floor.
You need to raise yourself high enough that you can own the right positions, but not so high it's just going to tickle. Obviously, not every Dojo/Dojang happens to have chairs, steps or plyo boxes lying around. If this is the case, maybe you need to rethink your training prescription in the interim.
There's a final tidbit to employ, get a a strong back. Pick up the barbells, dumbbells or cables and get rowing.
There's a study I recall from about 2 years ago, I wish I could find it and just plop it right here, except I'm not having much luck with that. Though the basic premise is this. Take two groups of 6 experienced, trained individuals who are looking to improve their 1RM bench press.
For 12 weeks one group focused on bench pressing and all accessory movements, the other group left bench pressing alone and focused only on rowing variations and building the muscles around the scaps.
Guess which group came back with a greater enhancement of their 1RM bench press? The guys who made their backs stronger. Why did this work? Ultimately, your arms want to push from a stable base. Think of your back/scapula as a table. The stronger that table, the more force can be applied into the press without energy leaks.
Viola. Get in the gym, you need a strong back. Last time I checked, Dojos and Dojangs aren't typically equipped with rowing equipment.
You can't tackle everything with pure martial arts.
You can't Karate yourself to better scapula positioning and control. You can't Taekwon-Do yourself to better hip hinge mechanics. You can't Muay Thai yourself towards optimal core rotational stability either. Sometimes, you gotta get in the gym and work on your weak points with the right equipment, technique and progressive overload.
Otherwise, you'll always have that stupid, annoying thorn in your side on whatever weak point you have.