Maximize Your Knuckle Pushups with The Foam Roller

Perform Knuckle Pushups on The Foam Roller to Maximize Your Pressing Technique

Dr. Joel Seedman, Ph.D.

Before, you freak out and start calling this a dangerous circus act, allow me to explain why performing knuckle pushups on a foam roller is so effective. 

As an added bonus I’m going to explain why they're also one of the most effective pushup variations for cleaning up pushup technique as it’s literally impossible to perform these with anything but textbook mechanics.  Let’s start by first examining traditional knuckle pushups on a stable surface.

Generally speaking, knuckle pushups tend to be very favorable pushup variations for centrating, packing, and stabilizing the shoulder joint for several reasons. 

First they automatically place the hands in a neutral grip position thereby promoting improved external rotation of the shoulders.  This allows the lifter to more easily tuck and depress the scapula, which produces more favorable shoulder mechanics. 

Second, knuckle pushups provide immediate feedback about positioning and mechanics via pain and pressure receptors.  That’s because you're placing significant stress across the knuckles, therefore it’s critical all force vectors are perfectly vertical into the ground.  Doing so helps to avoid hand discomfort and knuckle pain associated with wasted horizontal or lateral forces.  This can only happen if mechanics, body positioning, osteokinematics, and joint stacking are spot on. In other words if you do them correctly, discomfort to the knuckles will be minimal.

Lastly, knuckle pushups tend to clean up form and mechanics simply by eliminating the excessive momentum individuals typically use when performing pushups.  Because of the strain across the knuckles and having your weight on a more sensitive and delicate location of the hands, this automatically forces the lifter to use smoother form and mechanics.  In essence, excessive momentum, shifting, wiggling, jerking, or asymmetrical pressing will feel unusually stressful on the hands and knuckles.  In fact most knuckle pushups you’ll ever see performed even when mechanics aren’t spot on tend to be relatively smooth and crisp in comparison to traditional pushups.  This also produces a greater hypertrophy stimulus due to the corresponding heightened levels of intramuscular tension and metabolic stress to the targeted muscles.

Unstable Loading and Oscillating Kinetic Energy

As many of you know I’m a huge fan of unstable movements that involve various forms of oscillating kinetic energy and heightened instability.  This includes the hanging band technique (HBT Training), bottoms up movements, reverse bottoms up movements, draping chain technique, Olympic rings, suspension straps, offset training, single leg training, eyes closed movements, partner perturbation work, stability ball movements, and even the occasional BOSU ball exercise. 

The reason I’m such as huge fan of these types of movements is that they literally force the lifter to use sound technique by dialing in their body mechanics.  Sloppy movement, lack of motor control, and dysfunctional patterns are quickly punished.  This acts as an immediate form of feedback by providing enhanced sensory information and cuing (both internal and external) to the lifter.  As a result they’re forced to quickly adapt and make the necessary adjustments in order to avoid loss of balance and uncontrollable instability.

So What???

Although knuckle pushups do tend to have a moderate impact on body mechanics (due to the reasons previously mentioned) the benefits typically end there as it’s difficult to progress knuckle pushups and make them more unstable.  Fortunately by performing knuckle pushups on a foam roller not only does this allow us to take advantage of the typical benefits associated with knuckle pushups (i.e. creating perfectly vertical force vectors into the knuckles to avoid pain and discomfort), but now we can derive all of the benefits we would typically gain from unstable and oscillating movements as well.  In other words we get the best of both worlds. 

As a result the improvements in upper body pressing mechanics, shoulder stability, joint centration, postural alignment, and pushup technique the lifter will gain from foam roller pushups are greater than nearly any pushup variation you’ll ever attempt.  However, the difficulty is through the roof so be prepared to dial in your mechanics like never before.  

The “Cheating Grip Phenomena”

Periodically I’ll run into a scenario where a lifter has such incredible levels of grip and hand strength that they’re able to lock in unstable loads even with improper form and aberrant mechanics.  I call this the “cheating grip phenomenon”.  For instance bottoms-up movements typically require very precise and locked in mechanics with packed shoulders and rigid spinal alignment.  However, lifters with unusually strong grip strength can work around their lousy body positioning by simply gripping the kettlebells/weights with extreme intensity. 

Although the faulty mechanics they’re using would typically be punished with a failed attempt and loss of stability, they use their grip strength to essentially out-grip the instability of the movement thereby negating the various benefits the exercise is intended to produce (i.e. enhanced body mechanics).  Unfortunately, this scenario is more subtle yet very commonly witnessed in most lifters to varying degrees.  Rather than adapting to the unstable stimulus by correcting their body mechanics, the most common response and first line of defense that most lifters inevitably default to is to simply intensify their grip and hand activation to stabilize the load.  While enhanced grip activation isn’t necessarily a negative response (as it ultimately leads to a more stable shoulder joint), it’s not the primary outcome we’re interested in as improved body mechanics and motor control are infinitely more desirable.  Intensified grip strength is meant to be a secondary benefit and adaptation response, not the primary one.

Fortunately, variations such as knuckle pushups on a foam roller eliminate grip strength and force the lifter to dial in their mechanics by cleaning up their technique.  In essence the ability to outgrip the instability and rely on the “cheating grip phenomenon” is altogether removed.  Instead the lifter is forced to rely on proper joint positioning and osteokinematics rather than brute force and hand strength as a means to lock in the unstable load.

Variation 1: Single Foam Roller Knuckle Pushups

 This is what I would consider the standard variation (if there is such a thing) as you’re simply using one foam roller with your knuckles placed across the width of the roller.  These are particularly useful for teaching the lifter to depress the shoulders and scapula by eliminating shoulder elevation.  If you attempt to perform these without depressing the scapula, the foam roller will literally slip out in front or in back of your hands. 

Variation 2: Double Foam Roller Knuckle Pushups

The double foam roller variation is more difficult as you now have two implements you’ll need to stabilize.  However these also provide unique benefits that are slightly different than the first variation.  These tend to eliminate excessive elbow flare as even the slightest deviation with the elbows and shoulders in the lateral direction will result in loss of balance and the rollers slipping out to the sides.  These also tend to promote improved shoulder retraction and medial rotation of the scapula as anything less will produce dysfunctional scapulohumeral rhythm resulting in the rollers slipping out laterally.

General Recommendations

To make these more difficult try closing your eyes, elevating your feet, or performing them weighted.  I also highly recommend performing these in an eccentric isometric fashion as this will provide the lifter the best chance of performing them successfully.  Using excessive momentum and failing to pause will almost undoubtedly result in a fall.  On a related note, if you do lose your balance, the fall is relatively short so risk of injury is minimal. 

However, from a safety standpoint, it’s important to point out that these are very advanced pushups and require significant levels of strength and movement competency before attempting.  Use common sense and sound judgment.  However, if you are able to perform these I can just about guarantee you that they’ll be the final piece of the puzzle to dial in your pushup mechanics as you’ll be forced to use nothing short of perfect execution and precise technique.

Because of the very slow and deliberate tempo you’ll be required to incorporate as well as the exceptionally high levels of tension produced from each rep, I suggest lower rep ranges of 3-6 reps per set as anything more may produce excessive fatigue and loss of control.  Finally, softer or textured foam rollers are more ideal in terms of comfort, unless you have hands of steal and don’t mind the pain to your knuckles.

Is the Risk Reward Ratio Worth It??

The risk vs benefit ration depends 100% on the individual performing the movement.  As mentioned, this is an advanced variation designed for individuals who are already relatively strong and competent but still need external cuing and internal feedback about proper body mechanics.  For these individuals it’s perfect.  For example right now I’m working with many collegiate football players preparing them for the NFL combine.  Most of them are quite strong and relatively competent lifters however they literally need variations that force them to use proper mechanics otherwise they will gravitate back to dysfunctional positions and compensation patterns.  Also because I have limited time with them (usually 2 months) I’m always looking for quick fixes that will clean up form almost immediately with little coaching on my part.  

This foam roller knuckle pushup represents one of the best immediate fixes for the pushup and for horizontal pressing mechanics in general as most other variations including ring pushups you can still get away with various forms of cheating.  This one immediately punishes the lifter with any cheating or faulty mechanics.  In contrast this exercise would not be ideal for an intermediate or beginner lifter as the risk reward ratio would not be worth it.  For these lifters ring pushups and more common unstable pushups and presses would be ideal.  Generally speaking it comes down to common sense.  If it feels like there is a significant chance of falling due to lack of strength or skill then this should not be used.  If you feel like this will simply force you to dial in your mechanics to another level and with intensified activation and mental concentration the risk of falling will be minimal, then this is ideal.  Lastly, even if you do fall, we’re talking a 4-5 inch drop onto the torso.  Unless you’re a frail or elderly individual the only thing this should hurt is your pride. Hope that helps.  

Lastly if performing this movement feels like a high risk exercise for any particular individual that’s a pretty strong indicator that he or she has aberrant muscle function and faulty movement mechanics not to mention general weakness that needs to be addressed with more basic variations first.  Once you address these issues, you should be able to return to the foam roller knuckle pushup and perform it successfully.  In addition the "fear of failure" factor will be markedly if not altogether removed as the body will have no reason to shut the nervous system down since it’s perfectly capable of performing the exercise without threat.