The push-up is quite possibly one of the best exercises athletes can do. Most athletes and coaches only associate push-ups with the chest and triceps, but they’re a great exercise for upper back strength and shoulder proprioception as well as for ingraining proper torso stability patterns.

Reaping the benefits of the push-up means focusing on correct technique first and foremost. I believe throwing athletes should have push-ups in every phase of their program. At TCU, our baseball athletes and quarterbacks incorporate some form of the push-up year round in their training. At various times, we even eliminate all forms of pressing in lieu of the push-up and its many variations.

So why is the push-up so good?



The scapula is allowed to go through its full range of motion during the push-up. This isn’t possible for the scapulae in the bench press or dumbbell bench press variations. The scaps should in fact be retracted and depressed to create a stabile platform during pressing variations. This isn’t exactly a perfect environment for creating scapular health.

Serratus anterior

One of the best parts of a correct push-up is the activation of the serratus anterior at the top of the movement. What’s important about the serratus you ask?

The serratus anterior is a commonly inactive muscle that is extremely important for any overhead athletes, throwing and non-throwing. The serratus is quick to shut down at the first sign of shoulder trouble. Dysfunction in the serratus can cause the scapula to wing, creating instability in an area where we want stability at all times. Possibly the most important function of the serratus is the assistance it provides with upward rotation. The serratus works in a force couple along with the upper and lower trapezius to complete this motion. We want upward rotation in order to create room in the subacromial space and avoid impingement when we raise our arm. Obviously, this is pretty important for overhead athletes including pitchers and quarterbacks.

Where the benefit lies for serratus activation is trying to push as far away from the floor as possible at the top of the push-up. The scapulae won’t fully protract, kick-starting the serratus until the elbows are locked out. Many athletes fail to get this benefit by not completely finishing the rep. Some may even lock out the arms. However, by letting the upper back sag in instead of fully extending it, the serratus doesn’t get the full benefit either. Also, don’t let the lower back and/or torso sag to the ground. Doing so not only hurts your efforts to fire the serratus but isn’t doing your low back any favors. When this happens, the scapulae go into anterior tilt and the serratus is shut down once again.

Performing push-ups correctly with full extension, and protraction will activate the serratus. Many coaches have heard of the push-up plus exercise where athletes do a push-up to extension and then push their shoulders out a bit more. This is how a standard push-up should be done. We shouldn’t need to make up an exercise to take care of this very important portion. Once they can properly perform push-ups, elevate their feet on to a 12-inch box. Activation in the serratus is highest in the feet elevated push-up.


Torso stability
Another huge benefit in the push-up is torso stability. The low back is an area that we want as much stability as we can get. According to McGill, low back flexibility and low back pain have a negative correlation. The more movement we have in the lumbar spine, the more susceptible our lower back is to pain and injury.

According to a study done by Jeffrey McBride, the push-up has higher muscular activation in the obliques than an isometric side bridge. Not only is the push-up great for the chest, shoulders, and upper back, but it’s just as good as any movement for torso stability and activation within the core musculature. Many of my athletes ask me why we don’t do more “core training.” But what we try to convey to them is that all the push-up movements we implement into our training are as effective and much safer for low back health and athletic performance than any sit-up ever could be.



The push-up is a great closed chain exercise that helps to develop stabilization as well as proprioception with the shoulder girdle. Adding in an unstable surface creates an increase in stabilizer activation as in a medicine ball push-up or blast strap push-ups. I’m not saying that you should go train with your feet on a stability ball stacked on top of a wobble board while your hands are on one of those rolling balance boards. Always remember that when you add an unstable surface, the stabilizer activation increases but prime mover activation usually decreases. Make sure your exercise selection matches your goals.



Making sure your athletes are performing the push-up correctly is half the battle. Not only is it more effective, but it’s ingraining proper motor patterns, especially one of stability with a neutral pelvis. I tell our kids that we want a straight line from the ankles to the shoulders. The line should run directly through the hips.

Hand position should be around shoulder width and close to the chest with the elbows back at around a 45-degree angle. Too many athletes try to use a hands wide, elbows flared push-up putting undue stress on the shoulder. Not only is this not exactly healthy for the shoulder, but it’s a much weaker position in the end. Watch most beginners set up and do push-ups, and you’ll find that they almost all set up with a hands wide, elbows straight out position. They may be stronger in that position for now, but once they learn and reinforce a more proper position, they will become even stronger.

Another common problem is a forward head posture. Make sure they keep the head in line with the back. The chest should always be the first thing to touch the floor. Don’t let your athletes peck at the ground with their heads. They’re only compensating for weakness in the bottom position.

Working our way down, we come to the torso. Keep the pelvis in a neutral position with the back flat throughout the movement. We don’t want a giant anterior pelvic tilt during the push-up. We shouldn’t be able to hold a small pool of water in the small of the back. Make sure they’re flattened out with no sagging or tilt. Like I mentioned earlier, push-ups are one of the best exercises for training torso stability. Athletes must ingrain that motor pattern over and over.



Many coaches complain that when it comes to the push-up, there aren’t easy ways to increase the load. The most effective tool I’ve found for loading up the push-up is bands. We utilize mini bands and light (purple) bands often for creating resistance for our athletes. Other methods that can be used include weight vests and chains. Most of us have probably seen Joe DeFranco’s athletes doing countless numbers of push-ups with chains crisscrossed on their backs. This is an easy yet effective method for increasing the load in the push-up. Many of our variations include dumbbells as well as body movements. So while we don’t increase the loading in the actual push-up, we increase the loading on the torso, scapulae, and shoulder stabilizers. Again, we aren’t always doing the push-up to increase the loading on the chest. Increasing the loading in other areas can be just as effective for our training goals.


Push-up variations
Walkover push-ups
: With walkover push-ups, we generally stack two Olympic plates. Starting with one hand on the plate and one on the floor, we perform a push-up and then walk across the plates to the other side where we perform another push-up. When done correctly, this movement is great for single arm scapular protraction. We want to make sure we extend ourselves all the way at the top and not try to walk across beforehand. Usually our beginning athletes will perform five push-ups per side while our more advanced athletes will work up to ten or more reps on each side.


Push-up with rotation: Once we gain the ability to perform push-ups correctly, we advance to a push-up with rotation. This is excellent for the glenohumeral stabilizers as well as overall proprioception. We perform this movement with our feet spread about a foot apart. After the push-up, we rotate with a straight arm over to one side, making sure to lock our ribs to our hips and rotate everything together. We want the feet to rotate all the way over to the sides. Our advanced progression includes stacking the feet when rotating. Start with five reps per side and add on as your skill increases.


Green band push-ups: By looping a band around a bar set in a rack, we can assist our athletes who are unable to do correct push-ups. This is a great step for those who struggle either using correct form with their push-up or just aren’t strong enough to get the job done. We use these for sets of 15 and 20 with our female athletes.


High rep green band push-ups: Two more uses for the green band push-up are restoration and volume work. Our quarterbacks will perform high rep band push-ups after game day to get blood flow to the shoulders and upper extremities. The push-ups aren’t that intense, so they serve as a means of recovery at that time. We use these in high rep brackets from 30–50 reps.

Explosive push-up jumps: An advanced movement that we use is our band push-up jumps. It’s an upper body dynamic movement that we have put in the place of speed bench. Usually we do this for time or a low number of reps. These hit the serratus like nothing I’ve ever felt. The day after we perform these, it feels like you have broken ribs. I’ve found virtually nothing else that induces soreness in the serratus, but these bad boys do, especially if you’re doing repeat jumps for high reps.


Lateral band push-up walks: These are by far my favorite push-up movement and easily the hardest one we use. Place a light ankle band around the wrists to perform the movement. Take three steps laterally and perform a push-up. Then take three steps back and perform another push-up. Always start the movement by stepping with the away hand first. We start with five push-ups on each side for a total of ten. Believe me—these aren’t as easy as they sound. Our athletes always complain about these being the hardest variation we have. Because you must continually spread the band, these push-ups are impressive for the mid-back and shoulder musculature more than anything else.


Medicine ball scap push-up: Starting with one hand on a medicine ball, we perform a push-up. The variation here comes at the top of the rep. When we get to the top, we completely extend the arm and protract the scap on the medicine ball side coming off the ground on the other side.


So where can you implement theses movements? Add them in after upper body pressing days in the form of a few high rep sets. Joe DeFranco uses push-ups in his skinny bastard’s template after max effort work to blow his guys up. These variations can also be added to your training when you’re feeling a little beat up from your regular program or during a deload. Our pitchers at TCU always use at least one push-up variation in their weekly training. We not only use them for our upper body mobility work, but any time we work with a dumbbell bench press, we warm up with push-up variations.

I believe push-ups are one of the most underrated exercises for the upper body. Many don’t know how far the benefits of this exercise extend. With so many variations available, push-ups can be a staple in an athlete’s program without ever causing boredom or staleness.