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Previously we covered the three major muscle actions that are common for improving muscular endurance during a push-up. They are Concentric (overcoming a load or raising the body from the down position), Eccentric (slowing down a load or lowering the body slowly to the down position) and Isometric (holding the load at a desired position).
When the concentric and eccentric muscle actions are combined they are called Dynamic (isotonic) movements. Dynamic movements are muscles actions that involve movement of a joint.
In an analysis of these muscle actions, the eccentric only muscle action, when performed at a higher intensity, has been proven to be superior for developing overall total strength.
Given the nature of the eccentric muscle action, it is generally recommended for use when individuals want to increase or maximize their strength gains while performing dynamic and/or Isometric resistance training (series of resistance exercises).
In other words, eccentric exercises should not be the main muscle action of resistance training but instead to supplement other forms of resistance exercises (single exercise). For example dynamic push-ups and isometric push-ups.
Dynamic movements are the most common method of resistance training because they use the whole range of motion. This causes the whole length of the muscle to be stimulated and allow for adaptations throughout the entire muscle and not just part of it.
Now that we understand the role that dynamic movements and eccentric only muscle action play. Let’s focus on the role that static (isometric) muscle action or more specifically static push-ups may play for improving your push-up performance.
While isometric exercises are useful to perform when the individual wants to strengthen the muscle at a particular angle, we also know that based on the law of specificity, dynamic movements and eccentric only muscle action do not provide this advantage.
With regards to the push-up exercise, there are points throughout the range of motion where the weight supported by the shoulders and arms fluctuate. For example, when the individual is positioned in the “up” push-up position for the traditional push-up, s/he is supporting approximately 69% of his/her bodyweight.
In the “down” position, the individual is supporting approximately 75% of his/her body weight. During the modified push-up “up” position, the individual is supporting approximately 54% of his/her bodyweight and in the modified push-up “down” position the individual is supporting approximately 62% of his/her bodyweight.
From these percentages we know that the “down” position is where the individual will feel most of the resistance of both traditional and modified push-up exercise variations. It has also been evidenced that the axial forces placed on the elbow are greatest when the individual is about to ascend from the “down” push-up position.
Given this information, individuals who want to increase their push-up performance should strengthen their muscles at the angle where the bodyweight and elbow forces are at their greatest.
The “down” push-up position is also the sticking point, for many people. It is the point where the individual who is performing the pushup exercise begins to experience muscle fatigue. Strengthening the muscles via Isometric training or functional isometrics at this angle may decrease the rate of muscle fatigue.
Concerns with Isometric Training
Although Isometric exercises are beneficial for strengthening your muscles, it is necessary for you to be aware that isometric exercises can also increase blood pressure.
This should be a concern to individuals who have been diagnosed with hypertension. It is necessary to continuously breathe throughout your mouth during the performance of isometric exercises.
Additionally, because this exercise provides strength gains specific to the angle of the muscles, (up to 20% to nearby joint angles), this exercise limits your ability to strengthen your muscle at other angles, unless isometrics are performed at other angles. While this may be beneficial, it may also be time consuming. Fortunately, for the purpose of improving your push-up performance, we are able to identify the area where the muscle in under the greatest tension so that we can strengthen the muscles at that angle (i.e. right before raising your body from the “down” push-up position.
Fortunately, for the purpose of improving your push-up performance, we are able to identify the area where the muscle in under the greatest tension so that we can strengthen the muscles at that angle (i.e. right before raising your body from the “down” push-up position.
Isometric Training Modes
Before recommendations are made for training, let’s discuss briefly the two types of isometric modes that can be used to help you strengthen your upper extremity muscles.
The first mode is submaximal. This mode is easier to execute because it doesn’t require assistance. The submaximal mode requires you to lower the upper body to the down push-up position and just before ascending, hold the Static muscle action for an extended period of 10 to 30 seconds. Note that as you continue to perform this mode of exercise, muscular endurance will develop and you will be able to hold your Static position longer.
The second mode is maximal. This mode is more challenging than the submaximal and requires the assistance of a partner. For this mode, the participant would lower his/her body to the down position. At that point the participant’s partner would apply resistance with his/her hands to the participant’s upper back while the participants attempts to raise his/her upper body back to the up position. The resistance needs to be greater than the individual’s ability to raise his/her body from the down position.
Given the increase in resistance, the Static hold for the maximal push-up should be up to 6-10 seconds. As with the submaximal mode, as the participant develops muscular endurance, s/he will be able to hold the maximal mode longer.
Push-up Training Recommendations
The isometric training method may be used to improve muscular strength, endurance, and core stability. The submaximal mode is suitable for beginners who are not able to perform a single push-up to experts who can perform many push-ups.
Beginners may want to begin this exercise by holding the isometric muscle action in the “up” push-up position while individuals who may have had push-up training experience may begin with the “down” position using submaximal or maximal modes.
So, are static (isometric) push-ups effective for improving your push-up performance? Absolutely!
Isometric Submaximal Push-up Training Program
Before you attempt this push-up training recommendation, please seek medical clearance from your physician or health care provider. Again, persons with hypertension should be cautions when performing isometric exercises.
Note this training recommendation is not to replace your current push-up training program. It is only designed to supplement it. In other words, add these sets to your current push-up routine.
Day 1 – Monday
Set 1 – hold isometric muscle action for 10 to 30 seconds while breathing throughout your mouth continuously Rest 1 to 2 minutes
Set 2 – hold isometric muscle action for 10 to 30 seconds while breathing throughout your mouth continuously Rest 1 to 2 minutes
Set 3 – hold isometric muscle action for 10 to 30 seconds while breathing throughout your mouth continuously (Optional) Rest 1 to 2 minutes
Set 4 – hold isometric muscle action for 10 to 30 seconds while breathing throughout your mouth continuously (Optional) Rest 1 to 2 minutes
Day 2 – Wednesday
Repeat Day 1
Day 3 – Friday
Repeat Day 1
Continue this resistance exercise for 4 to 6 weeks
Static (Isometric) Push-up Variations
This demonstration (video coming soon – Sign-up to be notified) consists of three variations for the traditional position Static push-up. Up position is recommended for beginners (69% of body weight), up/down position is the next progression (69% and 75%) and down is the third progression (75% of body weight).
Please make sure that you breathe throughout the entire exercise. You may also time yourself while performing this exercise to judge your progress. In the video demonstration (coming soon – Sign-up to be notified), I have elected to use the Static cadence that counts to 16. What this does for me is identify my progress by the number of counts I can hold the static action. This is ideal to use so that you will not have to count or watch a clock for the number of seconds.
Donkers MJ, An KN, Chao EY, Morrey BF. Hand position affects elbow joint load during push-up exercise. Journal of Biomechanics;26: 625-32, 1993.
Roig, M., O’Brien, K., Kirk, G., Murray, R., McKinnon, P., Shadgan, B., Reid, W.D., 2009, “The effects of eccentric versus concentric resistance training on muscle strength and mass in healthy adults: a systematic review with meta-analysis“, British Journal of Sports Medicine, Volume 43, pp. 556-568.
Suprak, DN, Dawes, J, Stepheson, M.D., 2010 “The effect of position on the percentage of body mass supported during traditional and modified push-up variants. Journal of Strength conditioning and Research 25(2): 497-503, 2011.
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Patrick is the inventor of the PEAMS® Push-up Mat, organizing member of YOUTRAINFITNESS® , an ACSM Certified Exercise Physiologist, and a former K-12 physical and special educator of 10 years who loves to help people improve their PRODUCTIVITY and WELLNESS!