Pushups are one of the most popular exercises you will see performed in a fitness center or a group class or a bootcamp. Think about it, we’ve been tested on our pushups since we were 9 years old. That was probably one of the first feats of strength you performed in your lifetime.
Ironically, pushups are also one of the most butchered exercises you will see performed. For instance, I’ve worked out with college football players who can bench press 400lbs, but do pushups like a walrus (you know the kind, butt waaay up in the air).
So how can someone have such a strong bench press yet not be able to perform a quality pushup to save their life? Because a pushup requires more than just absolute strength.
The apparent irony of bench pressing 400lbs and not being able to perform a correct pushup can baffle so many people. I mean really, it would make sense that you should be able to push your weight off of the ground even if you weighted 350lbs. That is less than 400lbs after all.
But this thought of absolute strength being transferred to functional strength is where our minds have trouble making the connection. Absolute strength is the ability for you to simply push or pull or squat or pick up a weight at your maximum effort. Have a max bench press of 400lbs, for instance, is absolute strength.
Functional strength, on the other, is something entirely different. Functional strength requires more than simply the ability to press a weight off of your chest. Functional strength requires that you be able to stabilize your body or maintain a posture in certain positions either with external weight or without. A pushup, for instance, is a great example of functional strength. How many times have you had to get on the ground to look for something under the couch or bed and had to push yourself back up off the floor? The ability to do that without too much effort and without getting hurt is functional strength.
So, like I said, what functional strength requires that absolute strength (typically) doesn’t is stability and posture. When you bench press, it’s easy enough to lie on your back and press the bar back up over your head (yes, there is much more to the movement than that if you’re doing it correctly, but that’s another story). A push up, on the other hand, requires stability through your mid-section. It requires you to maintain a straight line from your head to your toes. If you know what a plan is (which I’m assuming most do), when you do a pushup you are simply a moving plank.
This lack of stability is the reason why someone who can bench press 400lbs can’t perform a correct pushup. They lack the ability to maintain that straight line from head to toe. And this is what you should work on if you’re struggling with your pushups.
I’ve talked before about the importance of slowing exercises down to work on form. This is called eccentric emphasis (for a recap, to out THIS ARTICLE). And eccentric pushups are a great way to build up your strength while staying focused on maintaining stability through your core.
Eccentric pushups can be exhausting (ask our Pack members, they LOVE them!!). Don’t try to utilize them every day. Shoot for 2-3 times a week. Start with sets of 5 repetitions. Then add one repetition each week until you get to 10. This will allow you to build strength simply by adding volume.
Always remember to work on your absolute strength and your functional strength. They are not mutually exclusive. Functional strength isn’t as sexy as absolute strength is, which is why everyone does bench press but no one does Turkish Getups. Without functional strength, though, you may be setting yourself up for injury down the road.