Push-ups are probably the most commonly used bodyweight strength callisthenic whether you are working with kids, adults, or pro athletes. They can be done anywhere and are highly effective for building upper body strength and endurance. However, in my work with kids, I am finding that fewer and fewer boys and girls are able to do push-ups or any other bodyweight exercises. With the rapid decline in youth activity, we as coaches need to realize two things when doing calisthenics with kids:
1. Our youths’ strength-to-weight ratios are on the decline. They move less and eat more. They have more mass than their muscle can deal with.
2. Many exercises that used to be considered “par for the course”, like push-ups and pull-ups, must now be modified and regressed in order to “teach” kids how to do them.
Bodyweight calisthenics like push-ups are important for a variety of reasons in regards to strength development. Push-ups not only aid in strengthening the chest, shoulders, and triceps, they facilitate other important postural aspects of strength as well. Merely holding a proper push-up position is important for the deep core muscles as well as the hips, and shoulder girdle. This is one of the reasons I don’t believe in “girl push-ups” unless the woman (or man) has a lumbar stability problem. Yes, men are stronger than women in the upper body, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be “allowed” to do push-ups. As a coach, it just means you may have to spend a little more time on progression before you check off “push-ups” on your team “to do” list. As a coach you are developing physical intelligence. Just as in academics certain predispositions should be addressed through effective teaching pedagogies, not avoidance.
At Fitness Quest 10, our coaches have been successful in teaching youngsters of all levels how to do push-ups and other bodyweight calisthenics correctly and effectively. This helps lay a strong foundation of strength and stability for the rest of their athletic career. If you find yourself challenged with trying to get your youngster, or team of youngsters to do proper push-ups, below is an effective progression that will lead them to success. Think of how this regression-progression model could work for all the exercises and drills you coach. Remember, coach is a verb. See below for a video demonstration of these exercises.
1. Bear crawls: For individuals with extremely poor anterior chain strength who can’t even hold a push-up position, bear crawls are a great starting point. The child moves with their hands and feet on the ground. There is very little focus on technique here. The focus is to get the body to start distributing strength throughout the anterior chain (shoulders, chest, trunk, hip, etc). Try to go for extended periods of 30 seconds to a minute.
2. Standing plank: Once an individual is able to perform bear crawls for extended periods of time (60 seconds+), they can usually move onto a standing plank. This is the set-up for a push-up. Back flat, pelvis neutral, legs straight, glutes tight, shoulders over hands, hands engaged with the ground, head in front of fingers, scapula neutral. You can put their feet against a wall to help line up their body. Attempt to have participants hold this position for 40-60 seconds.
3. Lizard crawl: The lizard crawl is similar to the bear crawl, only more technique- intensive. The hands and feet are in contact with the ground, but the individual starts in a standing plank position. They then crawl moving the opposite hand and leg at the same time. The hips stay parallel with the ground the entire time. Try to go for periods of time between 30 and 60 seconds.
4. Eccentric push-ups to stand -up: Progressions up to now have been focused on general anterior chain strength. Once this has reached a level of proficiency, the actual “push-up” skill can be taught. The individual gets into a perfect push-up position and slowly lowers themselves until their chest touches the ground, maintaining proper technique and posture the entire time. Once they reach the ground, they scramble up to their feet. The eccentric movement is do-able and aids in building the strength and stability needed to perform a proper push-up. Scrambling up to their feet helps build a concentric upper body push pattern.
5. Assisted push-ups: Have the individual go into a proper push-up position. Loop a resistance band or cord under their chest. Stand over the individual and hold the handles of the cord. Have them perform push-ups with assistance from the band. Progress by using a lighter band, or not facilitating as much assistance.
Try using the progression above with your youngsters to get them all doing proper, effective push-ups. These drills are also great for general upper body strength. Remember that there is always an opportunity to coach and teach. As a coach you are developing physical intelligence. 5+5 does not equal 15 anymore than poorly executed exercises contribute to performance. Motivate, educate, and inspire the next generation to become happy, healthy, pain free adults!
Brett Klika C.S.C.S., Director of Athletics at Fitness Quest 10, is a human performance specialist, motivator and educator. A graduate from Oregon State University, Brett has directed sport camps all over the nation. While in college, amidst playing club soccer and lacrosse, Brett worked with the strength and conditioning department for 3 years. A year long resident sports performance internship at the Olympic Training Center brought Brett to San Diego. Brett’s work with the Olympic athletes, as well as local high school athletes nurtured a passion for creating excellence in individuals.