In order to properly analyze a pushup it’s important to understand that it is not a linear movement but instead is a rotational movement. The reason why pushups falls into the category of rotational rather than linear movement is that there’s an axis of rotation or single pivot point, which your body rotates around, which in this case is the feet. As a result, the body should move as one unit through a small yet apparent semi-circular fashion rather than a perfectly linear straight up-and-down motion.
Eccentric Isometric Knuckle Pushups are a great pushup variation for improving shoulder stability, scapular positioning, and overall pushup mechanics. Keep the elbows tucked throughout with your core tight
Stability ball pushups are a somewhat underrated exercise in terms of their effectiveness for targeting the core, chest, and triceps. The instability provided from the swiss ball forces the lifter to stay tight and contract all of their prime movers as well as stabilizers.
Weighted knuckle pushups with your feet on a stability ball are one of the hardest combination core and upper body strength movements you can do. Any lack of tightness or faulty positioning can result in dumping the load and rolling off the ball.
Dr. Seedman coaches and assists NFL wide receiver Larry Pinkard through this great upper body power exercise that teaches acceleration and deceleration. This also wakes up all of the available fibers of the upper body as the level of recruitment needed to decelerate your body and absorb the high levels of force are significant.
Ring pushups are already an incredibly challenging movement for the chest, triceps, shoulders, core, and lats. By elevating the feet, not only does it make the movement more difficult but it also places more emphasis on the upper chest similar to an incline press.
Band resisted pushups are a great pushup variation for crushing the chest, shoulders, triceps, lats, and core. I recommend placing the band across the middle lower back rather than the upper back as the force vectors help to promote a more tucked elbow position. The key is having a strong tight core throughout.
Bottoms-up pushups represent a pushup variation that requires incredibly strict form, smooth muscular contractions, intense core activation, and efficient horizontal pressing technique. Any shifting, cheating, or deterioration in pushup mechanics can end in a sudden face plant. Because they can be a bit dangerous you should only perform these once you feel as though your mechanics are spot on. These can be performed on kettlebells, iron grip style plates, and bumper plates. However, 45-pound iron-grip style plates as shown in this video represent the most difficult variation as they’re the tallest and thinnest making them incredibly challenging to stabilize with no room for error.
Although pushups provide many benefits, one drawback is their inability to gauge symmetrical loading. For example, dumbbell chest presses requires the lifter to press each load individually while barbell pressing quickly informs the lifter if there is significant asymmetrical pressing as the bar will begin to tilt. Pushups on the other hand don’t provide either of these as even a large degree of asymmetrical loading is difficult to notice. Although pushups with the hands on rings or a stability ball can expose significant unilateral favoritism, slight asymmetries can still go undetected. This variation immediately exposes the imbalance and forces the lifter to perform pushups with a high level of symmetrical loading is the seesaw or anti-seesaw pushup. Simply place a barbell on a bench and perform pushups on the bar. Favoring one arm or pressing more from one side of your body will produce an immediate tilt providing useful feedback to the lifter that can be useful for correcting this neuromuscular imbalance.
This variation will absolutely crush your chest particularly the inner and middle portions of your pectorals. If you have trouble feeling your pectoral muscles contract when preforming pushups, chances are your mechanics are in need of some work as proper technique will help maximize activation to the targeted musculature. However, there are scenarios where an individual may simply lack the appropriate muscle-mind connection when performing pushups and may simply need a variation to help wake up the appropriate neural connections to the pectorals. The medicine ball chest-squeezing pushup provides the perfect solution. Rather than having your hands placed directly on top of the ball, try positioning them on the sides of the ball closer to the base. This requires incredible levels of pectoral activation throughout as the individually is essentially holding a maximal tension isometric fly while performing pushups. Although this can be performed on a Swiss ball the smaller medicine ball helps to ensure that the elbows don’t excessively flare out. It’s also nearly impossible to lock out on this making it useful for eliminating excessive scapular protraction at the top of the movement.
This is a subtle modification however it’s incredibly effective at improving pushup mechanics mainly because the lifter does not have to concern themselves with knocking their face into the ground while using the standard hand-to-floor placement. Although the upper torso and face should stop millimeters above the surface at the bottom of a standard pushup, you’ll often see individuals either pull the head up, sink their hips, or shorten their range of motion as a means of subconsciously avoiding any harm to their face. The ledge pushup eliminates that fear altogether allowing the individual to comfortably hone in on the ideal pushup mechanics without the concern of spoiling their good looks.
Knuckle pushups are an excellent diagnostic tool for self-assessing your pushup mechanics. Because your placing significant stress across the knuckles, it’s critical all force vectors are perfectly vertical into the ground to avoid hand discomfort associated with wasted horizontal or lateral forces. This can only happen if mechanics, body positioning, and joint stacking are spot on. For example, if the lifter’s hands are either too far in or in back of the body or if the elbows tend to drift outward this places undue stress on 1 or 2 particular knuckles and finger joints making the movement feel highly uncomfortable and almost damaging. However if all components of technique are perfectly dialed then equal stress is placed across all knuckles causing little of any discomfort. In fact with proper mechanics you should be able to perform these weighted on fairly hard surfaces with little if any discomfort as there is equal and balanced tension distributed throughout the entire hand and surface area. As an added bonus this can be invaluable for teaching proper punching mechanics as it reinforces the idea of landing a perfectly directed punch with the force-impact spread equally across all knuckles.
Stability ball pushups are a solid movement for strengthening the pressing muscles, upper body stabilizers, and core musculature. It’s also an excellent variation for instilling proper pushup mechanics, as the heightened instability from the Swiss ball tends to clean up various forms of dysfunction and cheating.
If you’re looking to get the most benefit, try elevating your legs so that the hands and feet are in the same parallel plane. This significantly amps up the difficulty while providing a larger range of motion than if the feet were kept on the floor. There’s literally no room for error on these as any deviation in form including sagging hips, excessive protraction, elevated shoulders, flared elbows, or lack of core stability will result in a sudden crash. With this in mind grab a spotter the first few times through to make sure it doesn’t end in disaster.
Besides being a highly challenging core and pushup variation, the anti-rolling barbell pushup with horizontal band resistance provides several unique benefits. First it eliminates the sagging hip syndrome as it reinforces a tall hip and hollowed core position. In essence the amount of anti-extension is exponentially magnified due to your body continuously resisting anti-extension forces created from the band pulling on the barbell. Second the pulling force is directly acting on the scapula and shoulder stabilizers. If you don’t fully depress and retract your shoulder blades the bar will literally pull out and away from you leaving you plastered to the floor. Finally, this pushup variation teaches the lifter to screw the elbows down and back while simultaneously using a pronated grip (a commonly problematic issue for many lifters). This does wonders not only for your pushup technique but also for bench press form as this movement has direct carryover due to the same gripping mechanics. In fact, to stay locked in you may involuntarily feel like your pulling the bar apart - a common coaching cue used by elite level powerlifters to dial in their bench press form.
This is a unique combination exercises that involves upper body power and strength along with incredible levels of full body stability, motor control, rotary stability, anti-rotation, contralateral hip and shoulder activation, core stability, reactive stabilization, and rate of stabilization development. It's one thing to have strong levels of rotary stability but many athletes have to be able to produce this type of stability rapidly in order to avoid injury particularly when aggressive contact is involved. This hand clap pushup into a single arm plank addresses that very issue as it works two unique yet often overlooked biomotor capabilities namely reactive stabilization and rate of stabilization development. The key is maintaining proper spinal alignment throughout and not loosing postural positioning. It's also important to to avoid hyperextending the elbow joint when landing.
Here's a one of my bodybuilders Ben performing explosive pushups on a bench in a very powerful fashion. This is a great exercise for improving power output and explosive capabilities in the upper body as it focuses on both acceleration and deceleration.