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Pushups’ health benefits and the right way to do them


Few exercises pack the punch that pushups do.

They provide a great workout, can be done anytime and anywhere and deliver real results if done properly and consistently.

“Resistance training with pushups is great because many adaptations can be implemented for beginners to allow for gradual progression over time,” says DJ McDonough, a cardiovascular disease researcher at the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health.

They offer health benefits for the heart and a targeted approach to increasing strength and endurance.

One study found that people who were able to do a set number of pushups within a short period of time were at much lower risk of heart disease or heart attack. 

“Pushups are a multi-joint exercise, requiring movement at more than one joint at a time,” McDonough says. “This means they require contraction of various large and small muscle groups together — advantageous because you get more bang for your buck by targeting more muscles in less time.” 

The weight-bearing exercise strengthens not just muscles but also bones.

“The primary muscle that provides the most movement during a pushup is the pectoralis major — the largest of the chest muscles,” says Dr. Michael Fredericson, director of Stanford University’s physical medicine and rehabilitation division.

Fredericson says other muscles that benefit include the front of the shoulder and the triceps, the abdominals, quadriceps and hip flexors “as well as lots of smaller stabilizing muscles around your shoulders and upper back.”

Dr. Loren Fishman, a professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Columbia University who is medical director of Manhattan Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, says some of those smaller muscle groups strengthened by pushups are some of the most important. These include rhomboid muscles, which keep the shoulder blades together, the pectoralis muscle, which holds the arms parallel, and the serratus anterior muscle, which retains the shoulder blades close to the back ribs.

Like any method of resistance training, form is critical. To do a proper pushup:

  • Get down on the floor with feet and hands touching the floor and hands slightly farther apart than shoulder width.
  • Straighten your legs and arms, and lower your body until your chest nearly touches the floor.
  • In this position, your arms should be close to or at a 90-degree angle. Hold that position momentarily, then push yourself back up and repeat. 

Some techniques to keep in mind include making sure you keep your head looking forward and not down, keeping your body straight without pushing your butt up and “keeping your chest pushed out,” Fredericson says.

“This puts your scapulae” — the shoulder blades — “in the correct position to do their job during the pushup,” he says.

Fredericson says you’ll know your posture is correct because, when you go into the lower portion of the pushup, your shoulder blades will come together. And when push yourself back up, your shoulder blades will come apart. 

Pushups require moving your bodyweight, so, “if someone is new to lifting and or is carrying extra bodyweight, regular pushups may be hard to perform,” McDonough says.

In that case, he suggests doing pushups on your knees instead of the tips of your toes.

“This takes away the need to stabilize the spine and also lessens the load from one’s bodyweight,” he says. 

The number of repetitions you do will determine how much muscle is maintained, developed or toned. Muscles grow only after being broken down enough to rebuild. So, for some people, that will mean doing several sets of pushups at a time. For others, only a few each day might be a good place to begin. 

It’s important to be mindful of any injuries that could be worsened by the movement and to allow rest days between strenuous workouts since sleep and recovery time are essential for muscle enhancement and growth. 

The amount of muscle tone and mass built will come down to the number of reps you’re willing to do and how consistently you do the exercise.

“Power is raising the capacity of a given muscle mass above its current ability,” Fishman says. “Repeated demanding exercise generates greater power.” 

Read more at USA Today.


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