Fix Your Pushups, Planks, and Renegade Rows With The Foam Roller
Dr. Joel Seedman, Ph.D.
Foot positioning during planks and pushups is oftentimes an overlooked technique issue. However it’s one of the most important facets that truly determines whether or not your technique on planks and pushups is correct.
When performing these movements, the individual needs to be as tall on their toes as possible. This helps to produce the “hollowed core position” that’s absolutely critical for completing a correct plank or pushup position. Sitting back towards the heels with a more passive and collapsed foot position promotes overextension of the hips, lack of anterior core recruitment, and lethargic activation of the hip flexors. One cue that’s very helpful for this is to focus on getting tall as you can while keeping your body on top and over your hands/elbows rather than behind them.
In addition, the ankle and toes should be stacked vertically, perpendicular to each other (approximately). This perpendicular positioning is critical. If the toes are positioned too far in front of the heels this tends to facilitate a “sagging hips” position where the body is collapsed behind the upper extremities. This also leads to faulty shoulder mechanics as the scapula cannot fully depress as they should. In contrast, having the toes positioned too far behind the heels typically indicates that the hands are too far in front of the torso (leading to an overly tight and crowded position), which can promote excessive protraction, elevation, and outward rotation of the scapula away from the spine. Simply put we want the toes and heels to be stacked as much as possible on top of each other when performing planks and pushups.
One trick that I’ve found particularly useful for ingraining these mechanics and cues is performing planks, pushups, and renegade rows, on the foam roller. Here are several of my awesome clients including Matt Jordan, Drew Dinsmore, Ben Lai, Elizabeth Yates, and Leslie Petch showing how it’s done.
There are several reasons why performing pushup and plank variations with the feet on the foam roller is so effective.
1. Teaches tall foot positioning. As previously mentioned a very common mistake during planks and pushups is allowing the feet, particularly the heels, to sag towards the ground. This disrupts nearly every aspect of optimal body alignment from head to toe. To dial in your mechanics you’ll need to stay as tall on your toes as possible as this is what allows the lifter to stay over their hands and forearms rather than behind them. Fortunately, having the feet on the foam roller immediately remedies this as anything but tall foot positioning results in the feet rolling backward.
2. Teaches tall hips and activation of the hip flexors, not the hip extensors. This is something I’ve been preaching for years. Forcefully contracting the glutes when performing pushups, planks, or any other anti-extension movement is plain wrong as your body is resisting hip extension (read more about proper pushup form and hip positioning here). To resist hip extension and lumbar extension (aka sagging hips syndrome so commonly witnessed in many lifters) you’ll want to fire the hip flexors and lumbar flexors (abs and core) aggressively. Overly activating the hip extensors will keep the hip flexors and core from firing to the extent that the need to. It’s basic physics and anatomy, nothing fancy.
Performing planks and pushups with the feet on the foam roller helps to drive this ideology home as it promotes proper hip flexor and anterior core activation with tall hips. If you squeeze your glutes forcefully your feet and hips will immediately roll out backwards. In order to resist sliding you’ll be forced to fire your hip flexors and core (the core and hip flexors work together just like a leg raise or pike-up) as the anti-rolling effect produced from the foam roller magnifies the various force vectors your body must resist during pushups.
3. Teaches Motor Control and Body Awareness. Lack of proper body awareness, proprioception, sensory feedback, and kinesthetic awareness are all common issues that many lifters struggle with. Whether it’s lack of effort or sheer mental laziness, these problems are just as prevalent on pushups and planks as any other lifts. Performing these movements with the feet on the foam roller requires the lifter to be more in-tune with their body positioning not only in relation to itself but in relation to the ground, foam roller, and other surroundings. If you’re looking for a way to immediately clean up your planks, improve mental engagement, as well as eliminate excessive momentum and cheating on pushups, simply place your feet on the foam roller.
4. Teaches Proper Renegade Rows. Renegade rows are a commonly butchered movement as many individuals not only lose optimal body positioning but take an overly wide stance. The foam roller limits how wide the individual can go and also requires very strict and rigid mechanics throughout. In addition most lifters use aberrant foot mechanics on renegade rows due to weak and faulty ankle mechanics. Performing renegade rows with the feet on the foam roller is not only one of the most challenging renegade row variations you’ll ever attempt but it will light up your abs and core more so than any “ab” exercise you’ve ever tried. That’s predominately because it forces the lifter to perform the movement correctly for a change rather than relying on compensation patterns.
Yes, if you want to attempt one of the most difficult pushup variations you’ve ever performed, try the double foam roller pushup on knuckles as demonstrated by my awesome client Leslie Petch. Yes there is a bit of risk involved with this movement so use common sense and progress gradually into these (read more about knuckle pushups on the foam roller here). Once you’re able to perform these with smooth mechanics it’s safe to say you’ve mastered your body mechanics not only on pushups and planks but on nearly every other movement pattern as well.